It’s been almost three years since Joe Bageant, one of America’s most unique, populist political voices, passed away rather suddenly from cancer. During his life he kept company with American folk heroes such as Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary, and Alan Ginsberg, bartended on the same Indian reservation that author Sherman Alexie grew up on, and in his spare time became one of the preeminent gonzo journalists of his generation. Pretty impressive for a guy who grew up dirt-poor in Winchester, West Virginia, dropped out of High School at sixteen to join the Navy, and never earned higher than a GED.
I did not know Joe personally, but through engaging with his writing felt like I did. I’m sure many admirers of his work feel the same way. I did however have the honor of having a thirty-minute phone conversation with him in August of 2010, approximately six months before he passed. He had forwarded me, a person he barely knew, his phone number after only a brief email exchange. He was spending some time in his Mexican bungalow at the time, and our conversation ranged from the evils of the mortgage industry to his terminally ill family dog. He even extended an invitation to spend some time with him down in Mexico after the New Year. Unfortunately that was not meant to be, but I still consider our conversation as one of the greatest gifts of my life. Not everyone has the opportunity to dialogue with their personal hero.
Beyond being endowed with a capacity for feeling and an emotional intelligence that were both off the charts, Joe possessed one of the sharpest analytical minds around and an unparalleled wit to match; qualities he regularly showcased through his elegant yet straightforward prose. He often referred to America as “The Hologram”: a self-referential corporatist theatre state in which the consciousness of its denizens had been mutated by an endless parade of consumer spectacle. Could any thinking person really argue with such a clear and concise characterization of America’s modus operandi?
The recent Duck Dynasty “controversy” is a case in point. Why should anyone care what Phil Robertson, a multi-millionaire pseudo-everyman “reality” star who peddles crap merchandise through Wal-Mart, thinks about anything let alone homosexuals? Did any of the people who piled criticism on Robertson and A&E really imagine they were making some kind of meaningful stand against bigotry? Were the 1.5 million others who rose to his defense on Facebook and elsewhere really deluded enough to think they were defending free speech? The sad and likely answer to both questions is a resounding “yes”. Lacking the ability to recognize let alone focus on what’s actually important, we have become addicted to the celebrity-driven media circus, and are desperate to be a part of it (whether consciously or subconsciously) if it means even a brief respite from our disempowered, anxiety driven lives. Working-class American citizens have been made to feel so small that we now seek vicarious experience and pseudo-empowerment wherever we can manage to drudge them up.
In between being overworked, having their collective willpower sucked dry, and suffering endless pop-culture distraction Americans are also mercilessly subjected to the endless diatribes of the American “Information Class”. This group of corporatist shills has been entrusted with being the disseminators of “fair and balanced” information, and is presently constituted by a number of “hard-hitting” professionals such as “atheist” Christian apologist S.E. Cupp, as well as that sincere-looking, silver-fox stalwart Anderson Cooper. Similar to their reality show counterparts, these poser journalists have proven quite successful at painting an exceedingly warped picture of the world, and keeping the working-class divided on trivial wedge issues at the same time. Joe once lovingly characterized them all as “[A] gaggle of meat puppets and journalism hacks who have been cultivated and bred to be clueless by the university industry and others serving our corporate empire.”
All the while the republic burns as austerity measures continue unabated, unemployment accelerates, and the NSA continues to stick its bloated corrupt nose where it doesn’t belong. Abroad we invite inevitable blowback as we continue to dump depleted uranium into the Middle-East and fund “freedom fighters” through illicit back-channels in an effort to topple regimes that are no longer convenient for the “American self-interest”. And the American consumer-class, some brow-beaten while others simply bored into a state of submissiveness, sit idly by as it all happens; more contented to debate the finer points of Duck Dynasty or stare vacantly at S.E. Cupp’s T&A than engage in meaningful dialogue. None of this would really surprise Joe Bageant, who had become fully aware of the stupefying and imbibing effects that sixty plus years of economic warfare augmented by plug-in drugs could have on a population; most notably Joe’s people, the white underclass. Those “gun-owning, uninsured, underemployed white tribes inhabiting America’s urban and suburban heartland” who always seem to vote against their own self-interest.
Better than anyone else Joe made it crystal clear that the greatest mass delusion hanging over the United States is the widespread belief that we are a “classless” nation where people are supposedly “created equal”. Despite our unusual talent for collective self-denial, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to uphold such a ridiculous myth when 1% of the population is holding 45% of the nation’s wealth hostage. To quote from the seven commandments of Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. Many of us who have suffered one indignity or another at the hands of snow-job America have come to recognize that the emperor wears no clothes, but most remain oblivious, willfully ignorant, or apathetic in the face of it. If we can’t recognize, acknowledge, or organize for the class war staring us dead in the eye, what hope do we have of winning it?
So what can we do to help a nation full of misled and damaged consumers? Perhaps America as we know it is beyond saving. But I like to think we can still salvage something meaningful from the wreckage, and I believe Joe felt this way as well. And is “America as we know it” really worth saving anyway? We need to evolve America, not preserve its current state of arrested development. In an interview held before the 2008 election Joe pointed out that “Ignorance is the worst kind of prison. It’s the one you can barely escape from…because you don’t know why these things are affecting you. But your angst, your confusion, your darkness is somebody’s tool. And that is the business of politics.” Joe constantly touted the potentially revolutionary implications of free, universal education that actually teaches people critical thinking and facts about class dynamics. While it seems unlikely that the capitalist gulag-state will provide such an altruistic service to its captives anytime soon, it doesn’t mean we can’t still work toward that goal on a smaller scale.
We need to think and act locally. We need to dialogue with our neighbors, even those we might subconsciously perceive as “untouchable”. We need to become conscious in how we utilize language, and how we can make better use of it to break through cultural barriers that only appear insurmountable. In response to being asked what his picture of the American Dream was Joe said, “Fairness, justice, the thing that’s right…If you can go to the most fundamental level of what is just, there’s no man so [beaten down] by labor that he will not recognize that, if you keep it fundamental and right enough. And I think for liberals…and that working man alike…that’s the thing that’s the same…the struggle is for the consciousness of the planet.”
I miss Joe, and I’m sure if you knew him or were familiar with his work, you do too. Although success is far from guaranteed, let’s honor his memory by at least attempting to be our brother’s keeper. Let each of us make a personal effort to enrich the community we live in, and in the process maybe reclaim something that was lost to the undertow of our hyper-monetized “society”. First things first, start up a dialogue with that person wearing the asinine “Duck Commander” tee-shirt and see where it takes you.