Jim Webb, Joe Bageant, Harper Lee, and the rest of us

Yeah, I really wish Jim Webb hadn’t dropped out of the race so fast.

I am living next door to the heart of Appalachia, 12 miles from where Jim Webb’s grandparents are buried.

So when Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (Joe Bageant, Three Rivers Press, 2007) showed up in our local bookstore, I bought a copy.

You should too. It will explain a lot about why Donald Trump is shattering the GOP; why we have unfettered mass shootings nationwide; why our schools are failing, race is still an issue, and people are living in deteriorating double-wides.

Jim Webb understands all of that. So does Joe Bageant. It’s about class warfare and Calvinism. And so – oh, yeah – it also explains Ted Cruz and a bunch of other stuff. Read the book. Please.

Webb and Bageant both grew up on the edge of America. The poor white edge. Both transcended the world they were born to. Both understand that even that world, with its fingernail grip on the phantom of the American Dream, no longer exists.

And in a nutshell, folks, that’s our problem. That’s why our fellow citizens are flocking to Trump.

America is broken. And until we fix it, we are all screwed, as surely as the disenfranchised lower LOWER middle class men and women who used to work the night shift at Rubbermaid in Winchester, VA, like Joe Bageant’s family.

I don’t have a solution, and neither does Bageant – but at least he can give you a complete understanding of the problem. And if Jim Webb could have gained any traction, I thought he might have been able to help us solve it.

Here’s the thing: Up through the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s, the poorest whites in America were kept in check by the belief that they were better than African Americans, and that if they just sucked it up long enough, they – the poor white class – would be allowed to rise into the middle class. And sometimes that happened. They knew that the implicit, complicit, immoral but handy race divide insured that THEY would never be at the bottom of the heap. So they had hope.

This is something that Harper Lee understood very well. In the wake of her death, her bifurcated take on Atticus Finch has been in the news again. His daughter Scout’s Uncle Jack, in Go Tell a Watchman, sums it up this way: “Up popped Tobacco Road … For years and years, all that man thought he had that made him any better than his black brothers was the color of his skin … he sits nursing his hangover of hatred … Look at the rest of the country. It’s long since gone by the South in its thinking. America’s a brave new Atomic world and the South’s just beginning the Industrial Revolution.”

That’s Ms. Lee’s take on the South of the 1960s. But what Bageant explains – and Jim Webb very well understands – is how in the wake of globalization, even that hope is gone. As it should be, all things considered – because it was ALWAYS a class war. It was always a class war. It was just disguised as a race war.

The real kicker, as Bageant explains, is that the poorest white class who were concentrated in one place and had been here the longest – in the American South and every place it has now reached to — are of Calvinist descent. THAT means that they believe – again, in a nutshell – that if they are not succeeding, it is because they have sinned.

Conversely, if they see someone succeeding – someone like Jerry Falwell or Donald Trump – they KNOW that he is living in God’s grace.

The irony, of course, is that it brings them to follow, vote for, and believe in the very class that is exploiting them. They believe what they hear from those who’ve succeeded at their expense. The class war that might have led them to unionize, or at least protest – and to get to know people of other races who are fighting the same injustices – that war has virtually been lost.

By now it is all probably completely unconscious and subliminal. But it is THERE. And it explains a lot: Fox News. Donald Trump. Even mass shootings. The despair and anger that have no viable outlet.

Bageant explains how, in his hometown, the local people of means manipulate exhausted Rubbermaid workers by their superior knowledge of who and what you should be voting for – and also by covert intimidation. Those few exhausted workers who still DO have jobs are getting less pay and fewer benefits than of old. And their jobs could go abroad most any time.

The rest of the populace is working two or three jobs without any benefits or job security, and they are way too exhausted to think through what their “betters” are telling them.

It doesn’t fool Bageant. Or Webb. And it will continue to haunt us until someone actually figures out a viable, practical way to make America whole again. Clinton? Sanders? It’s a tall order.

Where is that FDR guy when you need him?

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3 thoughts on “Jim Webb, Joe Bageant, Harper Lee, and the rest of us”

  1. Dear One — Your essay tracks so closely to my own views on Class Warfare. If rich, self-exculpatory, multi-national corporatists and their lackeys decry Class Warfare, why did they start it? Methinks that America’s basis in Constitutional Slavery never went away, even after we added the gingerbread of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Originalist document. Even today, something like twenty percent of South Carolina Republican primary voters professed that they would prefer to undo the Emancipation Proclamation. These are likely the people for whom the only thing good that they have going for them is their white skin — albeit battered, tattooed and shot-up with amphetamine tracks. With young people in the tens of thousands flocking to Bernie Sanders rallies — Bernie Sanders! — wouldn’t you think that a new, young John Lewis or Jim Webb would emerge? When the populist impulse convulses America, why do we always seem to get the Hughie Long “Kingfish” version and not the Robert Lafollette one? Beats me, too!

    Like

  2. Brilliant as usual. I recently read Webb’s autobiography. He is a man of substance. Prepare to vote for a man who may not be subject to control or a woman who is blatantly dishonest.

    Like

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