Dink and Pootie’s Politics
By Bill Kohlhaase
Class war is a top-down affair with the poor taking almost all the casualties. That’s why it’s strange that the term is used—as a pejorative—mostly by those at the top. Challenge the accumulation of wealth or call for a more progressive tax system and accusations of class warfare fly. Politicians and pundits complain that it’s un-American to blame the successful even if success comes at the expense of others. America is a classless society, so the myth goes, and we should blind ourselves to any view that says differently.
Class warfare isn’t quite a war and certainly isn’t fair. And in what other battle are the plundered so willing to side with the enemy? Why the low-income wounded are so anxious to embrace the conservative politics that keep them down is the subject of Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War. The book is both a celebration of redneck culture and a condemnation of liberals who fail to understand it.
Bageant, born of redneck roots, left his working class home of Winchester, Virginia back in the 1960s to pursue a career in journalism. The move served him well and he’s now part of the middle class, a status which is rapidly becoming the no-man’s land of the class wars. He moved back to his hometown as an admitted educated liberal in 1999. The story of what he found there proves you can go home again, though not easily.
Many of Bageant’s themes were addressed in Thomas Frank’s 2005 book What’s The Matter With Kansas? which explores the reasons Democrats have lost standing in America’s heartland. While Frank’s book surveys the thoughts of columnists and political scientists, Bageant plunges into backwater lives of his neighbors to see why the right can do no wrong with them. His story-telling, much of it crude and hee-haw funny, is dressed with lots of statistics and lefty opinions.
In the local bar, we meet characters named Dink, Dottie and Pootie, who wears a t-shirt declaring “One Million Battered Women In This Country and I’ve Been Eating Mine Plain”. From the beginning, we’re left to wonder if we should laugh or feel sorry for them. They’re prime examples of what Bageant calls “unwashed working-class America . . . churchgoing, hunting and fishing, Bud-Light-drinking, provincial America.” Their problems with mortgages, healthcare and employment at the local Rubbermaid plant propel Bageant’s argument that much of downtrodden, white America is too busy with their lives and too poorly educated to know what’s good for them. They’re the people that liberals will never understand.
Bageant understands them, and he’s frustrated by them. He ponders a certain redneck pride that judges education as elitist and political correctness as just plain dumb. They’re Republicans by default, believing that union workers are “greedy assholes” who make it that much harder for the average worker. Their misconceptions come from “folk wisdom, cliché, talk radio and Christian radio rabble.” He knows he can never win certain arguments with them, the truth be damned.
The working class, like the rest of us, may not understand how economic policy affects them but they have bedrock opinions on such things as God, guns and gays. When they vote, social and moral issues beat out economics every time, even if the economic policy is morally corrupt. They don’t care that jobs are shipped overseas if they’re already out of one. Just don’t try to take away their squirrel rifles.
The gun issue gives Bageant his best ammunition against liberal thinking. There are some things we educated urban dwellers have to understand and one of them is the tradition, even necessity (think meat hunting) of firearm use. Bageant’s understanding runs out when the subject of religion comes up. His brother is a Baptist minister who loves his sibling even as he casts out demons. Bageant finds fundamentalist attitudes downright scary. He charges that behind the halleluiahs is a lust for blood and a not-so-secret movement to impose a Christian theocracy in America. He says there is only one thing to admire about the Christian right—they’re better organized than the left.
Bageant’s most controversial chapter discusses Lynddie England, the infamous “leash girl” of Abu Ghraib, making her a symbol of violent, white-trash culture and finding reason for it in her ethnicity. To pin America’s aggression and contempt for liberal thinking on a single demographic—the immigrant Scots-Irish or Ulster Scots—seems a bit of a stretch. But Bageant claims to know—after all, he’s one of them.
By the time he addresses one of Winchester’s rare economic successes—realtor and functional liberate Bobby Fulk—you don’t know if Bageant is laughing with or at his hometown cronies. But you definitely know he’s on their side.
Deer Hunting With Jesus by Joe Bageant; Crown Publishers, 273 pages hardback, $25.