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“Redneck socialist” Joe Bageant , D.E.P.

29 March 2011

As an Anglo European white guy from a very long line of white guys, I want to thank all the brown, black, yellow and red people for a marvelous three-century joy ride. During the past 300 years of the industrial age, as Europeans, and later as Americans, we have managed to consume infinitely more than we ever produced, thanks to colonialism, crooked deals with despotic potentates and good old gunboats and grapeshot. Yes, we have lived, and still live, extravagant lifestyles far above the rest of you. And so, my sincere thanks to all of you folks around the world working in sweatshops, or living on two bucks a day, even though you sit on vast oil deposits. And to those outside my window here in Mexico this morning, the two guys pruning the retired gringo’s hedges with what look like pocket knives, I say, keep up the good work. It’s the world’s cheap labor guys like you — the black, brown and yellow folks who take it up the shorts — who make capitalism look like it actually works. So keep on humping. Remember: We’ve got predator drones.

Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball

Recently having been in San Miguel and Ajijic on business, I was amused by my Guadalajara printer’s pithy over-view of the two gringo ghettos:  “In San Miguel, every foreigner claims to be an artist.  In Ajijic they claim to be writers.”  Joe Bageant, lately of Ajijic, made no claims.  He didn’t need to, being more than a writer.  As his friend, neighbor and felllow-contrarian Fred Reed describes him, Bageant

Joe Bageant (1946-2011)

… had no patience for smug commentators in Washington who talked at half a million bucks a year of how America was a land of opportunity if only you worked hard. It isn’t. He knew it. So did I, having grown up in rural King George Country, Virginia, where the same people lived. He was exactly right.

… there was certainly a rural flavor to the man. Seeing a young woman with piercings in her nose and ears and God knows whereall, he commented that she seemed to have fallen face-first into a tackle box. His politics may have confused the chattering classes. Joe was the least racist guy who ever lived, but he wrote about the white poor, whose very existence runs against hallowed doctrine. He was also explicitly in favor of the Second Amendment, noting that ninety pounds of dressed venison matters a whole lot to many families.

Joe described himself as a redneck socialist, and was. He was profoundly concerned with the fate of the people he wrote about, those who worked hard all their lives and ended up with nothing. Funny:  I’ve never met a socialist who didn’t care about others, or a capitalist who did. The truth is that a great many decent people are on the wrong side of the intelligence curve, don’t come from families that send their young to university,and can’t protect themselves from the corporate lawyers and bought legislatures.

It wasn’t a pose…

Bageant, though sheer talent — and some dumb luck — was one of those few who worked hard and ended up with… something.  Having worked as an editor for a military history magazine and as a corporate flack, he turned to blogging about his people, and the then-taboo subject of class bias in the United States.  His blogging caught the attention of a New York agent who convinced Bageant to turn out a book… which he did.   Susie Madrack (“Crooks and Liars”) wrote yesterday:

The financial success of Joe’s first book, Deer Hunting with Jesus, shocked and, I think, embarrassed him. He tried to give away as much of the money as he could, as fast as he made it, but felt compelled to hang onto at least some of it because he figured sooner or later, his drinking and smoking would catch up with him and he’d be at the mercy of the American healthcare system.

He was right.

I don’t think I ever felt so comfortable, so fast with anyone like I did with Joe. We were fans of each other’s work, and corresponded back and forth for years. I still remember our first phone call, which lasted a couple of hours and covered everything from class stratification to the consciousness-raising wonders of LSD. I always intended to visit him, either in Winchester, Virgina where he was first born and returned decades later, or in Belize and then Ajijic, Mexico, where he’d been spending a lot of time and was trying to lure his many friends down to form a community of like-minded ex-pats.

I’ve always found it ironic that Bageant, the redneck socialist, chose Ajijic for his escape pod.  I live in a gringo ghetto myself.  I am keenly aware that by virtue of my passport alone, I’m not one with the masses, and never will be.    There is something disturbing about the idea of anti-elitist like Bageant, seeking to build a community of — what shall I call them? — the “elect”.  Still, there are good reasons Bageant lived in Ajijic, beyond  proximity to English language bookstores, internet access, not-quite-legal pharmaceuticals and congenial company:

Near midnight and I am making tortillas on an iron skillet over a gas flame. Some three thousand miles to the north, my wife and dog nestle in sleep in the wake of a 34-inch snowstorm, while the dogs of Ajijic are barking at the witching hour and roosters crow all too early for the dawn. While my good Mexican neighbors along Zaragoza Street sleep.

Yet here I am awake and patting out tortillas, haunted by the empire that I have called home most of my life.

I like to think that, for the most part, I no longer live up there in the U.S., but southward of its ticking social, political and economic bombs. Because the US debt bomb has not yet gone off, Social Security still exists, and the occasional royalty check or book advance still comes in, allowing me to remain here. And so long as America’s perverse commodities economy keeps stumbling along and making lifelike noises, so long as the American people accept permanent debt subjugation — I can drink, think and burn tortillas. Believe me, I take no smugness in this irony.

Bageant needed Mexico to understand the United States, and the United States needed Bageant in Mexico to understand itself.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mary O'Grady permalink
    30 March 2011 2:42 am

    Joe Bageant had a phenomenally big heart to go with his exceptional insight into US politics and society. Damnit, I am so sorry that he is gone. At least he did not suffer long in his final illness.

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