Monday, October 22, 2007

First Crack at a Book Review

My review of Deer Hunting With Jesus...enjoy!

The American South is the most romanticized, most vilified, and perhaps most misunderstood region of the country. Home to both Faulkner and Falbus, known for its hospitality and also its resistance to change, the south has been a source of fascination and frustration to those who have observed its ways from afar but have never walked the long and dusty miles down its many roads. This is especially true of liberals, if the prevailing stereotypes (that of coastal dwelling, academic elites) of them are to be believed. Ever since George W. Bush twice captured the White House with unfailing support in the southeast states, liberals have been racking their brains trying to understand just who the "typical" southern voter is and what motivates him. Some Democratic activists argue, like the political scientist Thomas Schaller does in his book, Whistling Past Dixie, that Democrats need to write off the South as lost to the Republican party for the immediate future, and focus their attention on building a new governing coalition out of the Mid- and Southwest. Race and religion, Schaller argues, make the south uniquely hostile to the message Democrats would bring to the table and so they should forgo wasting time and resources in a region that they have no chance of realistically winning anytime soon.

But is it wise, even with high bars to clear to become competitive, for Democrats to completely cede the South to the Republicans?

Progressive author Joe Bageant, a native son of Winchester, Virginia, who lived in California for thirty years before returning to his hometown to take stock of how much the landscape changed, attempts to address that question by demystifying "the South" (which, contrary to popular belief, is not monolithic) in Deer Hunting With Jesus. Part populist polemic, part social and cultural history, Deer Hunting With Jesus serves as a profane, yet tender and timely guided tour of this seemingly inscrutable region. The book, which is more a collection of essays rather than a singular overarching narrative, provides some much needed, plain-spoken insight into the motivations of a voting block that might be more in play than the conventional wisdom acknowledges.

If there are easy stereotypes used to identify liberals, there are equally facile ways to pigeonhole conservatives and Bageant's writing is concerned with the iconography of rednecks, "red state" God and gun loving men (and women) who pass their time when not sitting in the pews by watching NASCAR races and drinking Budweiser on their couches in twice mortgaged double wide trailers. In Bageant's world, however, these are not stereotypes at all, but rather "his people", real live folks who go by names like Dot, Dink and Pootie. They spend their evenings on the bar stools at Winchester's Royal Lunch after they've pulled twelve hour shifts at the local Rubbermaid plant. Their concerns mirror those of a lot Americans in these perilous times: figuring out how to pay for prohibitively expensive health care, dealing with evaporating job security and rising inequality in an increasingly globalized economy and harboring fears about America's role in this rapidly changing world.

But Bageant feels like these sincere and pious (yet pliant) people have been sold a bill of goods by the conservative movement and its effective message machine. He surveys the scene and determines that things don't have to be this way. Sounding very much like a righteous man of the people, Bageant declares that these average Joe's, "are purposefully held in bondage by a local network of moneyed families, bankers, developers, lawyers and businesspeople in whose interests it is to have a cheap, unquestioning, and compliant labor force paying high rents and big medical bills." The populism in his sentiment is unmistakable and it echoes similar remarks from Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards and Jim Webb, the freshman Democratic senator from Virginia.

From Bageant's perspective, his family and friends are conservatives not because of any conscious decision to be so, but rather because the challenges of their daily lives cause them to be ignorant of the outside world and the larger forces at play. To combat the complacency he sees, he pleads for liberals to make their case on the back of a push for education (while noting the difficulty of the challenge):

"It's going to be a tough fight for progressives. We are going to have to pick up this piece of roadkill with our bare hands. We are going to have to explain everything about progressivism to the people at the Royal Lunch because their working-poor lives have always been successfully contained in cultural ghettos such as Winchester by a combination of God rhetoric, money, cronyism, and the corporate state. It will take a huge effort, because they understand being approximately poor and definitely uneducated and in many respects accept it as their lot. Right down to being sneered at by the Social Security lady. Malcolm X has it straight when he said the first step in revolution is massive education of the people. Without education nothing can change."

But merely pushing for education won’t change the situation entirely and Bageant knows this. Liberals have to be able to enact economic policies that will ease the burdens many of these blue collar families face as well as win the image battle with Republicans and make a real effort to meet the denizens of small town, working class America on their own terms where they live. It's a tall order for certain, but it is one that has to be filled to keep the promise of the American dream a reality.

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