Long time and or dedicated readers and visitors to this rest stop on the superannuated blue highway of information will recognize my affection for that marvelous little magazine,The Baffler. Given the thrice yearly publishing schedule (a lifetime in the life of modern ideas and an endlessly churning news cycle) I find the publication of each issue a welcome event in an otherwise sparse journalistic landscape. Which is a longwinded way of saying the newest iteration,Issue # 27 is gloriously available.
As you should know The Baffler is one of a now diminishing population of outposts for an important and meaningful mode of expression —— the long form essay.This particular issue is especially pleasing (to me) as it contains a fine profile of the late and lamented journalist Joe Bageant ,Toxically Pure: Joe Bageant drops out by John Lingan. Bageant was one of few commentators who spoke to and for the biggest oppressed and marginalized group in this exceptional country—the poor white underclass. And so it is understandable, to a point, that you have remained unaware of the finest and most articulately angry social critics of the post WWII generation.The venues that wrote for were (of course, all before the Internet)hardly on anyone’s radar: Military History magazine The Rocky Mountain Musical Express.Winchester (VA) Star The Idahonian. and the seminal industry trade publication, Crop Production Magazine (profitable crops through better management).
In addition, Joe published three books, Deer Hunting with Jesus, Rainbow Pie: A Red Neck Memoir and Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball (two of which ,ridiculously, are not available in this country. But his true legacy, his website which is the repository of his sharp-eyed and stinging essays— contains nearly ninety( by my count), reaching back to March 20014 beginning Howling in the Belly of the Confederacy
How can the region of America that gave us lynching, Jim Crow, Harry Byrd, George Wallace, Taliban Christianity, David Duke, the KKK, Bible hair, Tammy Fay Bakker, congregational snake handling, the poll tax, inbreeding, and chitterlings possibly take another step back down the stairs of human evolution? Beats the hell out of me. But somehow here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia we have managed it.
In addition, Joe published three books, Deer Hunting with Jesus, Rainbow Pie: A Red Neck Memoir and Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball (two of which ,ridiculously, are not available in this country. But his true legacy his website which is the repository of his sharp-eyed and stinging essays—nearly ninety by my count I particularly enjoyed A Mean and Unholy Ditch The Sleep of Reason Amid Wild Dogs and Gin published in January 2005 and remarkable for its continued resonance and clear eyed vision of a despair riddled culture:
The hardest thing for garden variety American liberals to grasp is what a truly politicized and hateful place much of America has become — one long mean ditch ruled by feral dogs where the standards of civility no longer apply. The second hardest thing for liberals is to admit that they are comfortably insulated in the middle class and are not going to take any risks in the battle for America’s soul . . . not as long as they are still living on a good street, sending their kids to Montessori and getting their slice of the American quiche. Call it the politics of the comfort zone.
Ugly as this hateful half or more of Americans are, it’s not entirely their fault. Their beliefs are at least partly the result of a sophisticated propaganda system perfected over decades by a consolidated corporate state media. Saturation has never been stronger. As we speak some 72% of Americans still believe there were WMDs in Iraq, and 75% believe that Saddam was supporting bin Laden. They did not each and independently arrive at such stupid conclusions on their own (if such mindless acceptance can even be called conclusions). Indoctrinated by state propaganda, they then acted and continue to act accordingly — which is to say grotesquely in the eyes of the world.
The world is not a particularly noble place and never was, but it has become truly difficult to underestimate American crassness in these times. Especially our ability to unblinkingly suck up hate like it was free beer, and call it moral values. As I said, I have seen the face of hate in my day, and this is it. Let me close with this:
Byron de la Beckwith, the guy who shot Medgar Evers, had a “downstairs tenant” who was arrested by the FBI a while back. When the FBI busted in on him he was dressed in full Nazi regalia, shiny brimmed cap, those black boots that come up to the knees and a little Hitler moustache, everything spit-shined and shimmering, without a wrinkle or crease. He was just “lounging around watching Wheel of Fortune” dressed that way when the FBI came for him. Next thing you know he is on the Jerry Springer Show, spastic or something (face tremors), declaring himself the DICTATOR OF THE WORLD. Yes, he actually said that. And Hitler’s mother was in the Springer audience, so Jerry goes out amid the jeers and obscenities to ask her what she thought of her son, to which she replied sincerely and in syrup: “I’M JUST SO PROUD HE HAS DEDICATED HIS LIFE TO HELPING OTHER PEOPLE!”
And so it goes. A nation watches with slack jawed attention the spectacle of a Nazi fruitcake and his adoring mom. Matrons in Iowa avert their eyes to our murder of dark-eyed Iraqi children as they stir their tea. And Shuggy the Republican leaves the wine-and-porn shop not with wine, but a video that promises MORE HOT BLACK BOOTY GETTING JIGGY!…
John Lingan writes:
There was a time, Joe contended, when “Americans were concerned with actualizing individual potential,” and that time was the 1960s. He cited the desegregation of schools and colleges, the commitment to social change, and of course the cultural-pharma- ceutical innovations.
‘There was such vigorous electricity in the air, so many possibilities in ourselves and in America, that this working-class boy grabbed his wife one day and said: “Let’s grab the baby and head west, and grow our brains and hearts, read Rilke and Chief Joseph and Rim- baud and Lao-Tzu and burn meat on open fires with cowboys! Maybe even meet Allen Ginsberg!” And we did it too.’
What do we learn from John Lingan’s finely etched portrait of this talented, troubled artist as he yo yo ed back and forth across the continent, finally returning his white blue collar red neck roots, towards the end of hIs life— a life cut short by cancer in March 2011? Joe’s was,as such will always be an endless quest. No less satisfying a quest because the game was fixed, the deck stacked, the system rigged. He could bear it —the millenial decline, the dehumanizing machinery and the seeming epic triumph of a rotting social order—because he held hope as he still encountered glimmers of humanity.
It is the final irony of Joe’s life that he found his largest audience by writing about the dissolution of his community. Raised on the eastern frontier, reborn in the acid-drenched West, and lost all over again in the corporate hinterlands, Joe Bageant returned to Winchester to bury the shame of childhood poverty at last. Instead, he found a battlefield on which he could finally use the full force of his drop-out beliefs on behalf of the people who had taught him to love the land in the first place. These people, of course, didn’t read his book; they barely read anything.
Often at my speaking engagements or readings, I see one or more of them [ the people who had taught him to love the land] in the audience,long gray hair, loose-fitting, sensible, well-worn cloth- ing, soft eyes, and perhaps an herbal amulet around the neck or in the hair….Immediately after the reading or talk or whatever, I seek them out if at all possible (press agents some- times screw this up). Always there is the big smile and the hug And we are again brothers and sisters, as we used to sincerely address each other on the street. And again I have been granted the gift, that brief spark of unquestioned mutual love and goodwill in a darkening time.”