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Book Review: Rainbow Pie, by Joe Bageant

The sub-title of this book, published in 2010, is A Redneck Memoir. Having read Bageant’s earlier book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War (2007) (reviewed here) I thought this one might offer some pointers to current state of American conservative politics and the rise of Donald Trump. I was right, though the memoir also challenges the assumptions of many liberals like me concerning the people he writes about.

Bageant was born into a family that had for many generations worked their own small farm in West Virginia, essentially as a subsistence unit with strong community links. But his grandfather and grandmother were the last generation to be able to do so, as the post-World War II cash economy and large scale agri-business, hand in hand with rampant consumerism, reduced them, and others like them, to being part of a white underclass with no choice but to sell their labour where they could for poverty-level wages.  The subsistence farming community was marked by hard work, thrift and independence; there was no place for government, big business or unions. And even when the tie to the land was broken by economic necessity, the value of independence remained. Bageant traces the swelling of the ranks of a white underclass through the decline of his own extended family, noting that despite continuing hard work, they were caught in a downward spiral. The one thing that might have saved them, a decent education, was for the most part denied them by niggardly local elites who controlled their schools, and who encouraged early leaving for dead-end jobs or military service in America’s overseas wars.

As in his previous book, Bageant explains how gun culture and fundamentalist religion are integral to the values of the white underclass. Hunting has always been a feature of life in West Virginia; guns were an integral part of the subsistence economy. They are no less valued because that economy no longer operates. Any suggestion of gun control is anathema, the more so as these people are traditionally suspicious of almost any government activity. Fundamentalist religion offers a sense of community previously provided by being part of a genuinely close knit, land-based, economy. He isn’t blind to the black/white world view of Christian fundamentalism, nor to the ignorance and superstition often involved, but he tries to explain why this world view has such a hold on people like his family. Central to his analysis is the refusal to accept the reality of class in America: ‘Illiterate? In poor health? Underpaid, disposable, superstitious, and exploited? Big deal. That would describe much of the planet. The difference is American class denial’.

Bageant clearly respects the old ways of independent subsistence farming. I think he may be sentimentalising these old ways, which were almost by definition narrow and restrictive of the individual, especially women. He sees the processes that destroyed that way of life almost as a conspiracy between government – Republican and Democrat alike – and big business. Agri-business didn’t happen, he argues, by chance; it was rather the product of regulation, subsidy, financial instruments and government sponsored propaganda, supplementing the economic power of a few big corporations. I’m not entirely comfortable with his view, but neither can I really fault it. It’s an uncomfortable sort of book.

Equally clearly Bageant hates the circumstances in which the white underclass now finds itself – both from what has been done to it by way of poor health, education and wages, and by what it accepts for itself, particularly the ‘collective amnesia’ which inhibits people’s ability to question their situation. Bageant uses his mother’s diary to inform his account of his parents’ life, so he has primary evidence of the poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence that prevailed. However when he askes her about those days, she looks back on them with nostalgia. ‘For all the anxiety, grief and hardship, she … was remembering those times as the days of rainbow pie.’ Hence the ironic title. However this denial, he argues, is not just the blindness of the underclass; it is promoted by the rich and shared by the liberal intelligentsia who do not make the effort to understand this underclass and who may even, indeed, deny its existence. Hence the sub-title, taking to himself and his family the label ‘redneck’.

Bageant did not live to see the emergence of Donald Trump as the leading aspirant for the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential election. But much in this memoir foreshadows the acceptance of just such a candidate. On the issue of the white underclass’s hostility to healthcare reform, for example, he writes that the ‘sad truth is that the pent up anger has little to do with feelings about healthcare, but a hellluva lot to do with all the shitty breaks, insults, and degradations that come with being an underclass citizen of the Empire.’ This anger has been successfully exploited by people who benefit from America’s class war. The calls for exclusion of Mexicans, and increased protection for American manufacturing – however unrealistic – resonate with the overwhelmingly white male supporters of Donald Trump many of whom are themselves excluded from the prosperity and comfort of what they routinely see on TV as the American dream.  Bageant might well be saying ‘I warned you’ from his grave.

Bageant doesn’t say in this memoir how he escaped his background to become a journalist, but you can find out more about him in this quite detailed account of his life. If, like me, you don’t know what rainbow pie is, here is a recipe.

 


8 comments

  1. flohri1754

    Ah, yes, the late lamented Joe Bageant. It may be remembered by some in Australia that he came down for various writers’ festivals here for several years in the 2007 to 2009 (approximately) period and was interviewed multiple times on the ABC. An interesting writer, with (I believe) a most valuable perspective on an often under-observed side of American society. As one who was born in the mid-South and spent the majority of my life there until the age of twenty-five, in both Bageant’s books I saw the truth of what he had to say regarding his observations regarding the rather feudalistic aspects of the society in which both of us grew up in.

    A more strictly scholarly affirmation and elaboration of Bageant’s views I found is contained in the book BOUND AWAY: Virginia and the Westward Movement by David Hackett Fishcher and James C. Kelly. Really provides insight as to the historical movements and social tides that illuminates just what led to the current major divides between the various ingrained viewpoints of society in the United States today.

    And, a very recent online essay, which touches up many of the points that Joe Bageant makes in both his memoirs and updates it to the present day …. almost as if Joe was still with us …. is to be found here:
    http://www.stirjournal.com/2016/04/01/i-know-why-poor-whites-chant-trump-trump-trump/

    By the way, good review … makes me want to reread both DEER HUNTING and AMERICAN PIE.

  2. flohri1754

    Added note: I believe the Bageant interviews are still available on the ABC website. In particular I recall he was on Philip Adams’ LNL ……

  3. amarkone

    I just had to follow the link to the rainbow pie recipe……looks yum……he says with a chortle.

    When you sit back and look at America, you realize that American corporations are ‘too big for their britches’ and are happy to use vast swathes of the American under educated population as fodder (much the same way Trump has done in the past, read his story) for their greed. Businesses are happy to take hand outs and incentives from governments so they can make money but they get very cranky when governments help those who have been thrown on the scrap heap by these same companies. In America these ‘used up’ people then find themselves living in trailer parks with some what of a smile strangely enough but with the lack of a REAL broad education they find themselves latching onto people like Donald Trump much the same way that people latched onto Tony Abbott here. There are definite parallels between America and Australia.

    Other than the gob smacking candidates like Trump and Abbott there is Unfortunately the wolf in sheep’s clothing……. Malcolm Turnbull, he just wants to be PM, he doesn’t have a clue what to do except have a pleasant demeanor so non thinkers will undoubtedly vote for him. Lets hope logic prevails both here and in America.

  4. flohri1754

    @amarkone ….. hear, hear!

  5. Barbara Farrelly

    Snap, Virginia, on understanding the rise of Trump. I recently re-read Deer Hunting with Jesus to get a fix on people who vote against their own self interest.

    “Whatever you think of the leash girl of Abu Ghraib, Joe Bageant wrote, “Lynddie England never had a chance. Abu Ghraib or even something worse (an RPG up her shorts, for instance) was always her destiny”.

    America’s cannon fodder.

    We in Australia can choose to follow America and discard our citizens who will return on a tide of anger and bitterness to sweep away anything resembling the political class they hate. For they are right to hate government. It was government policies that caused their misery, as you outline, pointing the finger at agribusiness.

    I encourage Australia to steer a course instead for the Northern Lights where Scandanavian societies that are rated as among the world’s happiest, put a safety net under all their people.

    No one saw this coming, the commentariat are now saying of Trump’s success.

    No wonder the white underclass feels unheard when their cries don’t register on the media radar until too late.

    I hope Joe Bageant finds a wider readership.

  6. flohri1754

    @Barbara Farrelly …. yep, agree completely on it would be wiser for Australia to look to Scandinavia rather than the US as a region/country to emulate. Also wish that Joe Bageant’s work would get a wider readership.

  7. Douglas Evans

    Good review. Really important but under-read book. The United States veers ever more towards government for the rich by the rich. I weep for the loss of the American ideal and the plight of its burgeoning underclass. As someone who lived in Denmark during the 1970s and saw first hand the benefits of the consistent application of social democratic principles rationally applied I agree with Barbara Farrelly. However, a word of caution. Scandinavia is not now what it was then. The rise of the New Right has been fueled by the influx of foreign workers (prompted by membership of the EU), and refugees (courtesy conditions in the Middle East). Political parties with racist foreign policies and conservative economic attitudes are doing very well.

  8. Ray Saunders

    After Joe passed away in 2011, his friend & webmaster Ken Smith kept Joe’s website alive. Ken passed away in 2016 and the long-term survival of that site is questionable. At the request of Joe’s family I have built what we intended to be a permanent online home for Joe’s writing – JoeBageant.org

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