Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War by Joe Bageant (Crown, 2007)
It is good for me occasionally to read something written by someone I disagree with. After all, I frequently find wisdom in unexpected places, and have been trying for five years to put my aphorism, "the wise man recognizes truth in the words of his enemies," into common usage. (With spectacular lack of success, I might add. A Google search nets seven results, all from my own blog.) This book was difficult, and I haven't yet been wise enough to discern much useful truth, though by the end I was able to understand the author a bit better, I think—and to feel sorry for him. He's ashamed of his background, he's afraid of the future, he's angry at the injustice he sees, and he thinks he knows where to assign the blame.
It was not my Christmas present. I was only the courier, and if I don't like it, well, that's what I get for reading someone else's gift merely because it passed through my hands in the delivery.
Joe Bageant grew up in a small town in Virginia, not all that far from my own West Virginia/Western Pennsylvania ancestors. Unlike most of his neighbors, he went off to college and, as my strongly right-leaning friend would say, became thoroughly drunk on the "Liberal Kool-Aid." He became a hippie and a journalist and a hardline socialist.
Writing about his roots, he occasionally comes across as sympathetic to the sorrows of those who share his hometown, but mostly with a condescension that is difficult to stomach: Surely the only reason they don't see the world the way he does is that they have been ground down by their corporate, industrialist, Republican masters who conspire to keep the serfs stupid, ignorant, poor, and sick!
By the end of the book I was convinced that his conflicted response to his own people—alternate sympathy and loathing—is due to his own self-hatred. Sorry to go all pop-psychology on you, but he clearly has never forgiven himself for being white, and Scots-Irish at that. To hear him tell it, all the troubles of the world are the fault of people who are white, of Scots-Irish descent, and/or Christian. He himself is guilty of the first two, and if he managed to shed the last, to his embarrassment his own brother is a pastor—even one who admits to having cast out half a dozen demons in his time. In an attempt to atone for these sins, Bageant indulges in what would clearly be branded "hate speech" and earn him the harshest opprobrium were the objects of his screed black, of Hispanic descent, and/or Buddhist.
The best chapter, oddly enough, is the one on guns, hunting, and the Second Amendment. I say "oddly" because I dislike both guns and hunting, but appreciate Bageant's demolition of the standard Liberal gun-control reasoning. Here he seems at last to understand his own people, even though he no longer has use for guns himself. I suspect the recipient of this book will like this chapter a lot.
Although there are many places where I nearly threw the book across the room because of what I see as Bageant's ignorance and irrationality, he occasionally has some impressive insights: as, for example, when he accurately predicted the subprime mortgage crisis well before it became obvious to the world. On the other hand, Porter predicted that, too. It's a lot easier to see that something is a house of cards than it is to do something constructive about it.
I'm also struck, again, by how much the far Left and the far Right have in common. It's the Right that usually gets mocked for stockpiling food and water and otherwise preparing for the coming Doomsday, but Bageant is just as pessimistic. He may see different causes for the impending disaster, but he's sure it's coming. It's those of us in the middle who just keep on keeping on with life, expecting neither heaven nor hell anytime soon.
Here are a few quotes—then I have to go wrap the book. :)
"Class" ... is defined not in terms of income or degrees but in terms of power. Especially regarding labor. If you define "working class" in terms of power—bosses who have it and workers who don't—at least 60 percent of America is working class, and the true middle class—the journalists, professionals and semiprofessionals, people in the management class, etc.—are not more than one-third at best. Leaving aside all numbers, "working class" might best be defined like this: You do not have power over your work. You do not control when you work, how much you get paid, how fast you work, or whether you will be cut loose from your job at the first shiver on Wall Street. "Working class" has not a thing to do with the color of your collar and not nearly as much to do with income as most people think. ... There are no clear lines, which is one reason why the delusion of a middle-class majority persists. [p. 11]
His definition makes a certain amount of sense, though I would argue that he's stretched the term "working class" to near meaninglessness. His definition covers computer professionals, teachers, and even many doctors. Who's left?
[The people who are too poor for decent housing and who can't avoid getting ripped off by predatory mortgage brokers and real estate agents] are ordinary working Americans, some of them making fair bucks. Take Karen and Marty. She is a physical therapist and Marty is a supervisor at the GE light bulb plant. They earn $42,000 and $40,000 respectively. According to the mortgage officer's calculations, they could comfortably afford a house costing $182,000. Nevertheless ... they come to him having chosen a house costing $320,000. ... "The industry allows them to borrow to the absolute edge of their ability to repay," [the broker] says. "What we never see when we drive by those big developments are the people inside surviving on tuna fish sandwhiches and living on the cusp of affordability. If gas and heating oil go up, they will lose their home." [Eventually] they will walk away from that house and all the stuff they bought on credit to furnish it. [pp. 109-110]
Good analysis, and I'll certainly give the industry plenty of blame for making possible, even encouraging, foolish loans. But Bageant misses the boat by absolving the borrowers of personal responsibility for making poor financial decisions. If you're making $82,000/year, even if it is on two incomes, I don't see how you can be considered "poor"—except, perhaps, in judgement.
Measured by pure ownership of "stuff," working people have never been better off. Tom Henderson is cruising the boat shops for a new bass boat, and even Nance is considering a vacation in Cancún. None of them has any grasp of the staggering changes taking place in the world, least of all that they are going to be steamed when the bottom falls out of the mortgage and construction games, when the cheap oil fiesta is over and even the Wal-Mart parking lot is empty. [p, 110]
Bageant and I see the same problems, but where he sees hapless folks deceived and ground down by greedy corporate bastards, I want to ask how the public schools can justify taking the better part of 13 years of these people's lives and graduating them with no grasp of basic budgeting and financial common sense. [A staunch advocate of public schools, Bageant seems to think that the only reason for the existence of private and home schools is so whites can avoid sitting in class with "brown people." Where that leaves non-white homeschoolers in his mind, he doesn't say.]
Fundamentalist Christians look around at AIDS, warfare across the globe, crime, the rise of narco-states, and ecological collapse, and they see confirmation of God's plan. Rev. Rich Lang of Trinity United Methodist Church in Seattle says, "This theology of despair is very seductive and it is shaping the spirituality of millions of Christians today." [p. 166]
I won't even try to get into how badly he misuses and especially mis-applies the term "Fundamentalist Christian," and misunderstands the theology he attempts to explain. It is certainly one of the points on which I wonder if Bageant and I are even on the same planet. I include this quote because he apparently misses the irony in his derision of those who hold this view: Bageant has his own "theology of despair" about the future, every bit as depressing and seductive as this, but without any hope that good can work through even the worst disaster.
Constitutional scholars and historians who have actually bothered to study the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, among them Joyce Lee Malcolm, author of To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right, conclude that they were created to protect the citizen's right to arms. The three-volume Gun Control and the Constitution, edited by Robert J. Cottrol, assembles historical documents that are hard for gun control advocates to challenge. So they avoid them.
From the beginning there has been a racial aspect to the nation's gun laws, often masked by pieties about gun safety. Much has been written about this, but the subject has been avoided by liberals, siezed on by Libertarians, and misused by the crazier right-wing gun advocates. ... The fact is that the right of every citizen to own a gun was taken for granted in this country until periodic race and immigration issues brought it into question. After the Civil War southern whites denied blacks the right to own guns. Consequently, race and gun ownership were factors in the ratifying of the Fourteenth Amendment. ... Supporters of Negro rights understood that an armed citizen "suffered significantly less likelihood of oppression"—shorthand for being lynched. [pp. 142-143]
When reading these quotes from Bageant's gun chapter, it is important to remember how left-wing he is in the rest of the book. I always take note when I hear the same message from widely divergent sources, as happened when an evangelical Protestant theologian living in Switzerland (Francis Schaeffer in The God Who Is There) and a self-described lapsed Catholic schoolteacher from Pittsburgh (John Taylor Gatto in The Underground History of American Education), writing on issues that apparently differed markedly, made the same historical and philosophical point. Ditto here. If Bageant takes on the gun-control lobbyists, with whom he probably agrees on most other points, he may or may not be right—but it's a pretty good sign I should at least pay attention.
Staunch antigun journalist and author Robert Sherrill ... did not shrink from writing:
The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns but to control blacks, and inasmuch as a majority of Congress did not want to do the former but were ashamed to show that their goal was the latter, the result was they did neither. Indeed, this law, the first gun control law passed by Congress in thirty years, was one of the grand jokes of our time. First of all, bear in mind that it was not passed in one piece but was a combination of two laws. The original 1968 Act was passed to control handguns after the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated with a rifle. Then it was repealed and repassed to include the control of rifles and shotguns after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy with a handgun. [pp. 144-145]
For a decade criminological studies have demolished the cartoonishly over-simplified notion that people are more likely to kill a family member [with guns in the house] than they are an intruder. To the contrary, the literature shows that self-protection weapons really do protect their owners. Among the many studies proving what no antigun lobbyist wants to hear are those of Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck, whose research indicates that about two and a half million Americans successfully protect themselves with guns every year. ... More than two million people are spared becoming crime victims because they own guns. Almost never do these cases involve firing the weapon. Displaying it and saying "Get the &^%$# out of here" seems to do the trick. If that doesn't work, a shot in the air does. Also disproved were the claims that every domestic fight and minor argument would turn into bloody shoot-outs. I just didn't happen. More than a million Americans are licensed to carry personal firearms, yet researchers find that misuse by this group has been statistically negligible.
Now that most states have passed laws allowing honest citizens to carry concealed weapons, gun advocates are being proven more right than they ever hoped to be. Joy of joys, it is women—in fact, poor urban women—and the poor in general who benefit most from concealed-carry laws. It doesn't get any better than that when it comes to serving up cold crow to Democratic gun controllers. Large declines in rapes and attacks on women have occurred whenever the laws have been enacted. A study by John R. Lott Jr., author of More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws, found that the urban poor and minorities lived more safely with guns in their pockets or purses: "Not only do urban areas tend to gain in their fight against crime, but reductions in crime rates are greatest precisely in those urban areas that have the highest crime rates, largest and most dense populations and greatest concentrations of minorities." Even though Lott is a bit too far right for my tastes, More Guns, Less Crime is a good book. Neither camp in the debate is made up primarily of liars, and both sides would do well to listen to one another once in a while.
Most liberal antigun advocates do not get off the city bus after working in the second shift. Nor do they duck and dodge from street light to street light at 1 a.m. while dragging their laundry to the Doozy Duds, where they sit, usually alone, for an hour or so, fluorescently lit up behind the big plate-glass window like so much fresh meat on display, garnished with a promising purse or wallet, before they make the corner-to-corner run for home with their now-fragrant laundered waitress or fast-food uniforms. Barack Obama never did it. Hillary Clinton never did it. Most of white middle-class America doesn't do it either. The on-the-ground value of the Second Amendment completely escapes them. [pp. 146-147]
According to studies by press organizations, three-quarters of U.S. newspapers have advocated severely limiting gun ownership....
When it comes to gun control, even credible sources such as the Government Accouting Office cannot get media coverage. What never makes the news are facts [supporting the value of private guns in preventing crime] ... from the National Institute of Justice (the research arm of the Department of Justice) and GAO reports on firearms. [p. 148]
Approximately 200,000 women defend themselves against sexual abuse each year. The Carter Justice Department found that nationwide 32 percent of more than 32,000 attempted rapes were committed, but only 3 percent of the attempted rapes were successful when a woman was armed with a gun or a knife. [p. 149]
Newspapers, radio, and television give the impression that school shootings and gun accidents among young children are increasingly common. The truth is they are both very rare and declining. More guns supposedly equals more violence, but over the past four decades, as the stock of civilian firearms rose by 22 percent, fatal gun accidents dropped by nearly 70 percent. People believe what they want to believe, even people who pride themselves on being more educated, rational, and objective.... [p. 149]
Did you catch the most important line in the book, a few paragraphs ago? Here it is again:
Neither camp in the debate is made up primarily of liars, and both sides would do well to listen to one another once in a while.
Repeat ad infinitum, over all issues.