The Other McCain

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The Epistemic Closure of Joe Bageant

Posted on | March 28, 2011 | 56 Comments

Via Memeorandum this morning I learned that author/blogger Joe Bageant has died and is the object of several obituary tributes on the Left.

Susie Madrak calls Bageant a “fire-breathing class warrior” — she means this as praise — and writes: “Did I mention that Joe was, in fact, an actual socialist?” This she also intends as praise, describing Bageant’s indignation toward “the tyranny of owning things.”

Madrak writes that Bageant was “embarrassed” by the “financial success” of a 2007 book he wrote, and “tried to give away as much of the money as he could, as fast as he made it.” But if Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from the Class War was a hugely lucrative blockbuster, this is news to me. It was favorably reviewed on the Left — by Mother Jones, among others — as a sort of redneck version of What’s the Matter With Kansas? amid much praise for Bageant’s sarcastic humor.

What none of the hagiographic remembrances include is a meaningful chronological account of Bageant’s journalism career. It would seem this is not an accident, as Bageant evidently reveled in being one of those “characters” who is permitted to offer colorful anecdotes as his résumé. From the “about” page of his blog:

Born 1946 in Winchester VA, USA. US Navy Vietnam era veteran.
After stint in Navy became anti-war hippie, ran off to the West Coast … lived in communes, hippie school buses… started writing about holy men, countercultural figures, rock stars and the American scene in 1971 … lived in Boulder Colorado until mid 1980s … 14 years in all … became a Marxist and a half-assed Buddhist … Traveled to Central America to write about third World issues…
Moved to the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation in Idaho, built a cabin, lived without electricity, farmed with horses for seven years … tended reservation bar (The Bald Eagle Bar), wrote for regional newspapers… generally festered on life in America … Moved to Moscow, Idaho, worked on third rate newspaper there … Then moved to Eugene Oregon, worked for an international magazine corporation pushing insecticides and pesticides to farmers worldwide.

What we can glean from this, then, is that he “started writing … in 1971,” although he neglects to mention where these writings were published. So from his mid-20s until about age 40, if we credit his own account, Bageant was some sort of journalist living in Colorado. He was a self-described Marxist who did some reporting on what his revolutionary comrades were up to in Latin America during the Reagan era. He spent his 40s and 50s working first for various Idaho newspapers and then an Oregon-based magazine company. From other sources — which is to say, his drinking buddy Fred Reed — we learn Bageant once worked as an editor at Military History magazine, where he was “miserable.”

In all the obituary praise for Bageant, then, among all the publications that ever employed him, Military History is the only one whose title we know, and we only know that because of Fred Reed. From Bageant’s own telling, we get nothing but contempt for “third rate” employers he never bothers to name.

Such are the ways of the Self-Invented Legend who, in the sixth year of the George W. Bush era, emerged at age 60 as a “Popular Progressive Author,” as the obituary headline at AlterNet describes him.

What manner of “progressive” was Joe Bageant, then?

He gained his popularity by articulating the politics of populist resentment, based in a tendentious historical myth and an economics that blended willful ignorance with nostalgia for The Good Old Days, a bygone era of working-class solidarity.

Many people with Bageant’s worldview can be located among the “America First” protectionists who voted for Pat Buchanan in 2000 and also, strange as it may seem, among the soi-dissant “libertarian” supporters of Ron Paul. Bageant’s status as a “Popular Progressive Author,” however, rests on his relentless mockery of the white working class as being stupidly incapable of recognizing their own economic interests.

This is the same kind of “false consciousness” argument that Thomas Frank popularized in What’s the Matter With Kansas? and Bageant applied it to his own hometown of Winchester, Virginia.

Pause for a moment to think about this.

Despite the alleged backwardness of his “redneck” upbringing, without any powerful connections or even a college education, Joe Bageant spent something like three decades as a working journalist. He then chose early retirement and became a popular author while living the expatriate life in southern Mexico.

Yet Bageant and his hagiographers would have us believe that the capitalist system which made all this possible is, nevertheless, brutally oppressing the rednecks of Winchester, Va., and other working-class whites all over America. And while all this capitalist exploitation is blindingly apparent to Good Ol’ Redneck Joe, his trailer-park-dwelling kindred are so stupid they don’t even know what’s good for them.

Am I the only one who sees the blatant self-contradictions inherent in Bageant’s “Oppressed Redneck” narrative?

And could none of Bageant’s progressive hagiographers be bothered to check the Census Bureau, which could have informed them that in 2008 Frederick County, Va. (of which Winchester is the county seat) had a median household income of $61,295?

Far from being a blighted backwater inhabited by the downtrodden offscourings of benighted humanity, as Bageant would have his progressive readers believe, Winchester is in fact a thriving community where the population has more than doubled in the past three decades.

So if residents of Frederick County, Va., voted Republican by a 2-to-1 margin in 2004 (Bush 68%, Kerry 31%) why shouldn’t they? The pro-growth economic policies of the GOP have been very good for their community. If you want to seek out a “false consciousness” in need of explanation, you’d be much more obligated to look at ultra-affluent D.C. suburbs like Alexandria and Arlington, which in 2004 went for John Kerry by 2-to-1 margins.

But progressives are never required to defend their class-warfare theories against evidence that a whole lot of rich people vote Democrat. No, it is only working-class votes for the GOP which agitate the Left into declaring that the proletariat is somehow being hoodwinked and bamboozled. And this was the task to which Joe Bageant applied himself:

Economic, political, and social culture in America is staggering under the sheer weight of its white underclass, which now numbers some sixty million. Generally unable to read at a functional level, they are easily manipulated by corporate-political interests to vote against advances in health and education, and even more easily mustered in support of any proposed military conflict, aggressive or otherwise. One-third of their children are born out of wedlock, and are unemployable by any contemporary industrialized-world standard. Even if we were to bring back their jobs from China and elsewhere — a damned unlikely scenario — they would be competing at a wage scale that would not meet even their basic needs. Low skilled, and with little understanding of the world beyond either what is presented to them by kitschy and simplistic television, movie, and other media entertainments, or their experience as armed grunts in foreign combat, the future of the white underclass not only looks grim, but permanent.
Meanwhile, the underclass, ‘America’s flexible labor force’ (one must be pretty flexible to get screwed in some of the positions we are asked to), or whatever you choose to call the unwashed throngs mucking around down here at the bottom of the national labor tier, are , nevertheless politically potent, if sufficiently taunted and fed enough bullshit. Just look at the way we showed up in force during the [2010] elections, hyped up on inchoate anger and ready to be deployed as liberal-ripping pit bulls by America’s ultra-conservative political machinery.

That analysis is quoted by another of Bageant’s progressive hagiographers. But wait: A “white underclass” of “60 million”?

Quick math based on Census figures indicates that there are almost exactly 200 million non-Hispanic white people in the United States. So, according to Bageant, fully 30% of whites fit his description of “underclass” — their jobs shipped to China, their bastard offspring doomed to poverty or “unemployable by any contemporary industrialized-world standard,” while they sit around grinning vacuously at tractor pulls and pro wrestling on cable TV.

OK, fine: Just for the sake of argument, let’s stipulate the existence of 60 million people who exactly match Bageant’s description of the “white underclass.”

Q. Do we have any actual evidence — as opposed to mere assertion — that these bastard-breeding ignoramuses are routinely “deployed” as Republican voters?
A. No, we don’t.

If you actually bother to do any research, you’ll discover that low-income whites with a high school diploma or less break slightly toward the Democrats in most elections, and outright trailer-trash don’t vote at all. Republicans do best among voters with (a) at least “some college” education, and (b) middle- or upper-middle-class incomes.

To return to the 2004 election: According to exit polls, Virginia voters with a household income of $50,000 or less (39% of respondents) went for Kerry by a 52%-48% margin, while votes earning more than $50,000 (61% of respondents) went for Bush by a 57%-43% margin. The CNN Web site doesn’t break it down by matching the income figures to race and level of education, but there is no reason to think that the votes of Bageant’s “white underclass” played any signficant role in helping Bush beat Kerry in Virginia.

The Class-Warfare Catechism of St. Joe Bageant, in other words, is drastically at odds with the facts — and he became a “Popular Progressive Author” for the very reason that his too-good-to-check explanations were so flattering to the sensibilities of those who are now penning encomiums to the dearly departed. One of the mourners offers this recent sample of Good Ol’ Joe-ism:

If you hang out much with thinking people, conversation eventually turns to the serious political and cultural questions of our times. Such as: How can the Americans remain so consistently brain-fucked? Much of the world, including plenty of Americans, asks that question as they watch U.S. culture go down like a thrashing mastodon giving itself up to some Pleistocene tar pit.
One explanation might be the effect of 40 years of deep fried industrial chicken pulp, and 44 ounce Big Gulp soft drinks. Another might be pop culture, which is not culture at all of course, but marketing. . . .
Cultural ignorance of one sort or another is sustained and nurtured in all societies to some degree, because the majority gains material benefit from maintaining it. Americans, for example, reap huge on-the-ground benefits from cultural ignorance — especially the middle class Babbitry — from cultural ignorance generated by American hyper-capitalism in the form of junk affluence.
Purposeful ignorance allows us to enjoy cheaper commodities produced through slave labor, both foreign, and increasingly, domestic, and yet “thank god for his bounty” in the nation’s churches without a trace of guilt or irony. It allows strong arm theft of weaker nations’ resources and goods, to say nothing of the destructiveness of late stage capitalism — using up exhausting every planetary resource that sustains human life. . . .

Feel free to go read the whole thing, a prime specimen of that weird species of progressive “populism” which expresses itself as a thoroughgoing contempt for actual people.

In Bageant’s mind (and the mind of his readers), every time a Republican wins an election it is because of the imaginary other-ized Them: The stereotypical Big Gulp guzzlers and fried-chicken gobblers and pop-culture consumers whom he viciously describes. Bageant offers the enlightened progressive reader an engraved invitation to invidiously compare himself to these manifestly inferior people — Them! — who function as a hate-proxy for tens of millions of unseen Republican voters that the progressive reader has never actually met.

Much like Adorno’s “Authoritarian Personality” or Hofstadter’s “Paranoid Style,” Bageantism is a faux-analysis, a make-believe political sociology that gives an illusion of explaining voter opposition to liberalism in cultural or demographic terms.

Given the degree to which “Popular Progressive Author” Joe Bageant is trafficking in “the politics of ressentiment,” I wonder if Julian Sanchez might be bothered to examine all these eulogies for Bageant in the context of “epistemic closure.”

Of course, he won’t. Criticizing progressives is beneath Sanchez’s Koch-subsizided pay-grade. I’d demand an explanation for how it is that Sanchez became part of “America’s ultra-conservative political machinery,” but there’s only one man who could possibly explain it and Mistah Bageant, he dead.

UPDATE: Linked by Joe Marier at Going Noble and by The Lonely Conservative — thanks!

Probably worth pointing out in this context: I used to be a Democrat, having been raised up on the same weird political stew of an old-fashioned Protestant work ethic and class-warfare resentment of “The Rich” that seems to have congealed into Bageant’s progressive populism.

Such a worldview, based on the once-ubiquitous idea of Democrats as the party of the “little guy,” evaporates on first contact with actual facts about (a) how the market economy really works, and (b) what Democratic policies really do to the “little guy.”

UPDATE II: Welcome, Instapundit readers!

UPDATE III: Linked by Charlie Martin at PJ Tatler — thanks! On Twitter, meanwhile, investigative journalist Matthew Vadum said, “Dude, your post is 2,200 words long!” To which I replied: “No, my post is 2,200 words AWESOME.”


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