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Today the World is Poorer – Joe Bageant 1946-2011

March 29, 2011

On Saturday, 26th March, Joe Bageant died after a four month battle with cancer.

Who was Joe? Why does this matter, when there’s been so much tragedy and horror in the world recently? What is one more death?

All I can say is that, to me, Joe Bageant was far more than a single man. To me he represented understanding, human dignity, and hope. And I can only pray that his legacy will continue on, reach into the future and bear some influence.

Joe grew up in Winchester, Virginia, the heartland of working class America, in the heart of a working class family. Through dint of his own intelligence, curiosity, direct experience and wide reading he became what he called a “Redneck Socialist”. A foot in each camp, he identified strongly with the white working class of America, their struggles through many abuses meted upon them, and their strong (to the point of self-destruction) independent spirit. But he also lived in the intellectual world, held socialist political views and was searingly critical of much of American society, capitalism and the Republican party.

Never one to don rose-coloured glasses, however, Joe also turned his piercing critical gaze on the overly-intellectualised Left that has disassociated from its working-class roots, and the working-class themselves who continue to be manipulated, even as they’re abused, by the political Right.

I can’t begin to do Joe’s ideas justice, all I can really say is that they have changed the way I see the world. Through reading Joe’s books I came to understand a world that had previously been utterly baffling to me. The history and basis of the pro-gun lobby, for example, is detailed in Deer Hunting With Jesus. This is not a movement I would or could ever support, but I think it’s incredibly valuable to be given this insight into, or humanisation of, an alternative viewpoint. That way lies understanding, reason and respect.

It is so much easier and simpler to live in an “us and them” world. To rapidly identify (often through race, class, political persuasion, education level etc etc) those with whom we do not agree, and to throw out their ideas and concerns without a moment’s consideration. It is far harder to continually work to see all others as human, and to give their viewpoints, and the basis of their viewpoints due consideration. But without this effort we are doomed to ever-deepening insularity and violent division.

I believe this “foot in each world”,  a deep and humane understanding for both, and a wonderful skill for communication all set Joe apart as an invaluable asset in our world. In him I saw a tiny little string spanning the yawning chasm that is currently tearing America and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the Western world apart.

I can only (strongly!) encourage you to read Joe’s books (Deer Hunting With Jesus and Rainbow Pie), and his many online essays, as I really believe that buried in his colourful language lie the seeds of understanding, and of a better world. “Rest in Peace” doesn’t really seem fitting, somehow. I like to think that, wherever he’s gone, Joe’s still raising hell, playing bluegrass and drinking whiskey with the best of them.

I can think of no better way to end this than with Joe’s own words. The last lines of my favourite essay of his, Live From Planet Norte (subtitled: America’s totalitarian democracy and the politics of plunder, or, life is a titty tuck and a Dodge truck)

So stay strong. Transcend. Find reasons to love.

Nobody ever gets out of this world alive, anyway.

One Comment leave one →
  1. john gilbert permalink
    April 13, 2011 10:19 pm

    Well written Helen, having been raised and lived in America for 35 years mostly in the Northeast in a liberal/republican environment, coming to more socialist views later in life, I found Joe Bageant a wonderful bright light into a world I did not know about or understand. In a divisive and ‘you’re with us or against us’ mentality over the past ten or so years, Joe was a breath of fresh air. He especially rang a cord with me as my little brother has lived in WV and now Winchester VA for the past several years, so what he talks about has become more relevant to my New England roots, yet very different. I will miss him and his voice heaps. I was sad to miss him in Melbourne last year by a day at the Melbourne Writers Festival, I would have LOVED to have a conversation with the man. Sadly it was not or ever will be so.

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