In Defense of Joe Bageant
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Feb 10, 2007 at 12:36:35 AM EST
Some of the most important disagreements we can have, are among those with whom we mostly agree. They are important, not because they are bigger than those we have with the religious right, but they can seem bigger, or at least take on an exaggerated importance.  It is in such instances where we learn how to disagree appropriately; with some a sense of proportion; and hopefully, agreeably. Sometimes we need to agree to disagree. Its different than when we disagree with Doug Phillips, or Phill Kline, or Tim LaHaye, (although how we disagree there is important too.)

I had originally wondered whether Joe Bageant's guest post, What the 'Left Behind' Series Really Means, was right for Talk to Action. It's different, and the language a lot saltier than how we usually do our reporting, analysis and discussion on this site. But I eventually realized that what Joe is giving us is literature. It is not the stuff of a sober political strategy meeting, an academic gathering or a business meeting -- in other words, the kind of style and tone we try to promote to make ourselves understandable in the face of controversial and sometimes disturbing material that can be hard to otherwise discuss.  So the Bageant Exception came to pass. Like any good literary essay, it causes us to think, and think in fresh ways. It also can generate fresh discussion.

That's why I am pleased to report that a blogger whose work I greatly respect has taken thoughtful exception to Bageant's post in a way that surprised me; made me think; and eventually decide that I disagree.  But not with Bageant.

Fred Clark, (nope not me; and no relation as far as I know), writes the Slacktivist blog. He has written extensively and critically about the Left Behind books, and I have been remiss in not pointing Talk to Action readers to this important resource. Writing in response to Bageant, he finds much to agree with, and something to disagree with.
Much of Bageant's essay is fun, an entertainingly and appropriately horrified reaction to a series of books that fails on every level (except sales). I've pointed out a few of those books' shortcomings myself, and for the most part I agree with this aspect of Bageant's jeremiad. He's right to point out that these books are more than just shoddy entertainments, that they are dangerous and damaging propaganda. And he's particularly on the money in discussing Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' unseemly delight in the fictional suffering and death of those who disagree with them, as well as their bizarre belief that this fictional vindication provides some real-world validation for their perspective.

But there is an aspect that troubles Slacktivist:
Bageant himself is a recovering fundamentalist. He grew up steeped in End Times-mania and "prophecy" obsession. So his own personal history ought to suggest to him that change is possible, that these "tens of millions of American fundamentalists" trapped in a warped and circumscribed worldview can be liberated from it.

But he's not interested in liberating them. He writes them off. It turns out his use of the word "caste" above was not merely an unfortunately careless accident. He means it. To Bageant, the readers of Left Behind are the Untouchables, inferiors who should be left to their own sad fate.

Here is just a sampling of the scorn heaped upon those readers, what he calls "the great unwashed tribes of the faithful":

We are talking about a group of Americans 20% of whose children graduate from high school identifying H2O as a cable channel. Children who, like their parents and grandparents, come from that roughly half of all Americans who can approximately read, but are dysfunctionally literate to the extent they cannot grasp any textual abstraction or overall thematic content. ...

Allow me to get down to the nub of this and say what urban liberals cannot allow themselves to say out loud: "Christian majority or not, the readers of such apocalyptic books as the Left Behind series are some pretty damned dumb motherfuckers caught up in their own black, vindictive fantasy."

Bageant begins his essay by quoting a 15-year-old fan of the series, who said, "The best thing about the Left Behind books is the way the non-Christians get their guts pulled out by God."

That makes Bageant angry, and he's right to be angry. But he's wrong to direct that anger at the 15-year-old kid or the millions of readers like him.

On first reading this, I thought, 'gee, he's got a point. I don't think that is what Bageant intended but'... and then I realized that 'no indeed, that is not what Joe intended, and that Slacktivist is misreading him.' Its an understandable misreading I think; but a misreading nevertheless.

First, I do not think that Joe wishes to write anyone off. His compassion runs too deep for that. I think he would probably say that a lot are unreachable, but I don't know that for a fact. I do know he has personally been involved in recent years in helping tenants of slum lords get organized to fight for their rights. He is also not angry at the 15 year old kid. The quote is simply offered as evidence of the mindset of someone indoctrinated young by the Left Behind books. It is concerning on many levels, as he explains. But I see no attitude expressed towards the unnamed 15 year old at all. It is just a quote.

Second, I agree that Joe's use of the word "caste" is deliberate, (how could it not be?). But Joe is not a determinist, and does not distance himself from those he is writing about.  Rather he, embraces them, and seeks to open our eyes to the determinism all around us and how as a society we are creating an economic and social caste system with the people he is writing about at or near the bottom.  In an essay titled Roy's People last fall, he explains in detail what I am sure he meant by his use of the word caste in his Left Behind essay. In "Roy's People", he talks about the people he meets at the Shenandoah bar; people singer Roy Orbison might have sung about.

Empathy is scarce stuff in America in these times of "culture war." And all these folks, Pauline, Wilf, and even Denny to a certain extent, despite the political stereotyping his sexuality invites, are supposedly the "other side," in the culture war. Which is actually a class war by another name. We call it a culture war because educated influencers write books for similarly educated people who have been indoctrinated to interpret reality in such terms. Not a person here has ever heard of the culture wars. No one here cares about politics because politics is no longer cares about them, or the increasing struggle of hard working people. This makes them the traditional natural base for the Democratic Party, though the party refuses to claim them, and seems to have forgotten (or simply refuses to acknowledge) that the pyramid of American society is far broader toward the bottom than the top. In any case, they have become numb to America.

Still, in this place you can feel America's people. Just like Roy felt them. It's not an inspiring America. It's not even a passable America. But it's an America where, contrary to the national lie, people do manage to accept one another. Poorly educated, beaten-down working folks, essentially Christian people, accept the queer, the biker, the Mexican and the Iranian swish, laughing and joking and singing until that last sad hour when their ten or twenty bucks is spent. Then they go back to lives that cannot ever achieve what middle class people would call modest success. But they know as truth what I can only allege in brittle, lifeless text. They know that all of us are in this together. They understand because in life they are exposed to the truth about what our country has become, and perhaps always was. There is no escape for them into insulated suburbs or high rise apartments or condos. They must live it every day of their lives to survive at all. Consequently, in this redneck beer joint is human respect and open laughter, drunken crying, friendship between people whom we are told are bigots, and whom we are told do not associate and do not like one another. We are told this by people in whose best interests it is to see the working class divided. Still, it would be beyond naïve to say the mutual acceptance of these people offers hope for social unity among Americans. Not in a country where every living citizen has breathed in the air of Darwinian capitalism from birth. It merely offers small respite from animal struggle.

A little farther down, he notes:
That does not change the fact that about a third of Americans are moreover, fundamentalist Christian people with very real problems no one is addressing. For them, the church is the only functioning institution left that reaches out to help, offering working families support of a kind no political party offers these days. Offer these people something they can see and feel happen to them, and you'd be pleasantly shocked at how many would have a change of heart. A sense of community and real support in the practical world brings far more folks to the church pews than the apocalyptic ranting of their preacher. And this can be done face to face. Go save a fundie. Or a Wilf or a Pauline or some of their families. Beer joints and fundamentalist churches, along with places such as temp labor offices, are among the roughest seams of American society, places were we can see not only how our society is rent, but also what it takes to be fixed.

He goes on:
Does American liberalism/progressivism have a moral core? A heart? A kingdom within? Time will tell. But the time is past for sympathy toward those who sleep with the Democratic party in that two-bed brothel called American party politics, then claim there were no other options but the party of least betrayal. Personally, I feel betrayed by the only party we ever had that reached out (even when it had to be dragged kicking and screaming by blacks and unions) to the kind of folks in the Shenandoah, the kind who raised me the best way they knew how -- those poor beaten down, ill-educated, preyed upon Americans who find little community but that of churches and beer joints, and have resigned themselves to little or no justice on this earth, save that promised by God.

Indeed, the entire essay is about reaching out to the marginal, the dispossessed, the hopeless, and indeed, the fundamentalist.

Bageant's compassion and concern for ordinary people is more than clear. He is also rightfully concerned about the rising tide of anger if such help does not come to those whose anger is real and sometimes misplaced. And he is rightfully concerned about the appeal and resilience of the fundamentalist mindset; and the difficult personal and political implications for all of us. (In "Roy's People," he offers some ideas about what to do too and calls on liberals and Democrats to do it.) He has lived it, and sees what it means in a community he cares about. The kind of ideological assumptions he is addressing in literary fashion, are addressed, in a different way by Chip Berlet in his Talk to Action serieson the Christian right and social Darwinism.

Chip concludes:

Fundamentalist Calvinists and Free Market ideologues may seem like strange bedfellows, but under the sheets they share some basic body parts, and both end up screwing the poor.

everyone named in this post anyway -- Bageant, Slacktivist and Berlet -- that this has opened up a different window on the nature of the culture wars. Its one that needs to stay open.

by Frederick Clarkson on Sat Feb 10, 2007 at 12:44:43 AM EST
While Joe's style (lyrical?) may result in rather brutal assessents at times, it does so only in the service of honesty, and in that takes it's place in the great tradition of American Satire and social criticism alongside the likes of HL Mencken.  

We are not served by sugar-coating reality - some truths are brutal and wrapping them in warm and fuzzy language does not serve us.  We cannot begin to address these issues until we have a clear and honest understanding of their true nature.  We like to pretend that our egalitarian ideal is the norm, and indeed, unless we believe it so and act accordingly, it never will come to fruition, but for now, we're not there yet.  The 'caste' or class fault lines are as sharp as ever in our country, and a great many social phenomena break along these same fault lines.

I appreciate seeing Joe's post here, and the pointer to slacktivist.

by montpellier on Mon Feb 12, 2007 at 08:29:26 AM EST

...the original essay (which I found to be profound, important and indeed inflammatory) or the thoughtful, careful and -- yes-- loving way in which some people are discussing it.  Impressive...or am I just too numb from the usual online rants?


by Pauljaxon on Sat Feb 10, 2007 at 07:17:56 AM EST

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