Joe Bageant: Defender of the White Working Class

First posted at Campus Progress.


You probably missed the news that Joe Bageant, the progressive writer and blogger, died of cancer on Sunday at the age of 64. That’s understandable, since most young people have probably never heard of him.

I hadn’t either until a few months ago. I stumbled upon Bageant’s work not by catching a high-profile media appearance or through blogosphere buzz. Instead, I stumbled upon Bageant’s words the old-fashioned way: I was digging through a musty old used book store in Chicago last year. As I scanned the shelves, my eyes zoomed in on Bageant’s 2008 book, Deer Hunting With Jesus. Though I had never heard of Bageant, I bought the book with the provocative title, and I’m glad I did.

It served as an introduction to a fiercely hilarious and insightful writer who screamed painful truths to the progressive movement in this country few others are willing to acknowledge. Bageant’s writings argued that the yawning gulf between much of the progressive movement and the white working class has to end if the movement is ever going to maintain relevance—and that gulf largely comes from the movement’s elitism.

As progressive Millennials figure out how to engage in smart, principled activism, they would do well to consult the biting words of Bageant. The writer was pained by how his own “redneck” people from his hometown of Winchester, Va., were looked down upon by progressives who claimed to be fighting for them. In his mind, those so-called “rednecks” had been duped into thinking that right-wing politicians represented their real interests. I have yet to find a writer who argued this point more forcefully and with as much humor.

Deer Hunting With Jesus is a valiant defense of these people; he is not apologetic nor sentimental for what he describes as the sad, strange ways of folks from Winchester or towns like it. At one point early in the book, after referring to a few of his fellow Virginians and much of the culture in the region as a whole as “dumber than owl shit,” he writes about the need for progressives to meet these people on their own terms. Otherwise the progressive movement is doomed to be viewed by large swaths of America as elitist and out-of-touch.

Looking around the Royal Lunch diner in his hometown at the people whose lives have been decimated by decades of federally gutted social programs, dwindling numbers of manufacturing jobs, and mantras of pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, Bageant had insight. “[N]o real liberal voice, the kind that speaks the rock-bottom, undeniable truth, ever enters their lives,” he wrote in Deer Hunting with Jesus.

Young people should pay attention to the concerns of Bageant’s fellow citizens seriously. I have too often found myself in social situations surrounded by young people, who consider themselves enlightened and would—rightly—attack working-class whites for statements with the slightest whiff of sexism, racism, or homophobia, but they also unapologetically mock white working class people and white working class culture. Such an unabashed condescension and snobbery is evident. It seems one of the few demographics in this country that many progressives see no problem in denigrating are Bageant’s people.

One of Bageant’s life crusades—indeed, his entire reason for writing Deer Hunting With Jesus and many of his essays—was to spread this message. He had a desperate desire to see folks in his hometown realize that they were being used by conservative politicians who claimed to represent them. Young people, who are better educated, more diverse, and less sexist and racist than previous generations, would do well do spend some time with the messages of Bageant

You can read Bageant’s essays at his website and a key piece of his on Alternet, “How Unions Gave My Redneck Family a Chance at the American Dream.”

Micah Uetricht is a staff writer with Campus Progress.


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