Take away America’s Wal-Mart junk and cheap electronics and what
you have left is a mindless primitive tribe and a gaggle of bullshit artists
pretending to lead them. --James “Mad Dog” Howard
When I was a boy on my grandparents’ farm in the 1950s the neighbors
always banded together to make lard and apple butter, put up feed corn, bale
hay, thresh wheat, pick apples, plow snow off roads . . . One neighbor cut hair,
another mended shoes and welded.
With so little money available in those days in rural America, there was no
way to get by without neighbors. And besides, all the money in the world would
not get the lard cooked down and the peaches put up for the winter. You needed
neighbors and they needed you. From birth to the grave. I was very lucky to
have seen that culture which showed me that a real community of shared labor
is possible -- or at least was at one time in this country.
And if I ever doubt it, I can go up to those hill farms and look into the clouded
old eyes and wrinkled visages of the people who once babysat me as a child and
with whom I shot my first rabbit and quail. They are passing quickly now and
I drive by more than a few of their graves in the old Greenwood Cemetery when
I visit that place where there are still old men who know how to plow with horses
and the women who can chop a live copperhead snake in half with a hoe then go
right on weeding the garden. “Yew kids stay ‘way from that damned
dead snake, ya hear me?”
Fifty years later nobody cans peaches any more, or depends upon a neighbor
to cut their hair or get in the hay crop. And 50 years later I found myself
in the middle class and softening like an overripe cheese. Given my background,
I never guessed I’d see the day when I would be bitching because I could
not get Hendricks gin or fresh salmon delivered to my door. (But when you’re
too drunk to drive or even walk to the supermarket . . . ) Such is the level
of self-insufficiency to which some of us weaker souls devolved.
Whatever the case, we no longer depend upon community and other people
around us. When live in our houses, idiotically sited vinyl "Tudor-esque"
fuck-boxes with brick facades (sorry Neddie, I just had to steal that lick),
which grow bigger each year in order to accommodate our massive asses, egos
and collection of goods, and we “order out.” Or go shopping for
it at the mall.
Beyond the need to get laid, there is little real reason to be together
with other thinking, feeling adults. We do not need each other to do anything
important in our lives, because all those things are performed by strangers,
often as not thousands of miles away. Including the sex, if your are an Internet
porn fan. Which leaves us strangers to the natural human community. After all,
what can we really do together? Consume. Drink. Consume. Talk. Consume
tickets to entertainment. Consume. There is little else to do with other human
beings in America than consume. So most of our primary life activity is solitary.
We drive, do housework, pay bills, watch television . . . When we do “get
together with friends,” there is little to talk about, other than one
form or another of consumption, consuming music, or movies or whatever. We cannot
tell each other anything new because we all get the same news and information
from the same monolithic sources. At the same time we try to fill the loneliness
for a real human community that we have never experienced by calling any group
of people who come together in any way a “community.” Online community.
Planned community . . . As writer Charles Eisenstein, says in The Ascent
“ . . . It is a mistake to think that we live ultra-specialized lives
and somehow add another ingredient called 'community' on top of it all. What
is there really to share? Not much that matters, to the extent that we are
independent of neighbors and dependent on faceless institutions and distant
strangers. Real communities are interdependent.” Never in all history
has there been such a lonely, inauthentic civilization.
This leaves those few fleetingly concerned Americans alone to momentarily stew
over the condition of the world, fester upon national moral issues like squishing
brown desert people under tanks . . . or building offshore gulags, so the sight
of naked prisoners being tortured in wire cages will not dampen the consumer
confidence index. But ultimately somewhere between the seven o’clock showing
of “Law & Order” and the third cocktail, or perhaps after that
bracing evening trot around the block in your Lands' End shorts with the dogs,
the mind settles down to the more relevant issues such as “Do I need a
Blackberry, and if so, should I wait for the next generation of technology?”
Still, what about those cages in Gitmo? Or global warming? You and I may presently
be yammering our asses off in cyberspace (talk about inauthentic!) about such
topics, but most Americans, if they dialogue about those things at all, conduct
the dialogue with that voice inside our heads, the one that says: Things
cannot be as bad as the alarmists say. They cannot be as bad as I often suspect
they are. If there really were such a thing as global warming they would be
starting to do something about it. And besides, even if it were true, science
will find a way to fix it. If there really were genocide going on in so many
places far more people would be concerned. At the same time, every commercial
and piece of sports hoopla, every celebrity news item leaves us with the impression
that, if we have time and money for such things, then matters cannot be all
that bad, can they? If the earth were heating up we would surely notice
it. If our soldiers and government agencies were torturing people around the
world it would make the news. If millions were being exterminated, it would
be more obvious, would it not? Look around. Nobody seems worried. Look how normal
everything is every day. Look at your wife and your own family. No one is worried.
Things cannot be that bad.
Joe Bageant’s little inner voice is like everyone else’s. Whenever
I shudder at the condition of the republic, whenever I feel its utter absence
of community, it scolds me and tells me I am crazy: Nothing is wrong. This
is merely the way things are. It has always been this way. You cannot change
that. You expect too much. Look at your wife. She’s not upset. She wonders
why you cannot just go ahead and be happy. What you see around you is normalcy.
Take care of your own family. Relax. Buy something. And I do too. Which
is why I own nine guitars, though I can only play one at a time, and even then
not very well. The voice made me do it. I was bored.
Bored plus anxious. Hell, I could lose my job. I could lose everything. And
if I lost my job I would indeed lose everything. Social status, family, the
accumulated net worth of a lifetime. Which, believe me, ain’t much after
two divorces and a run-in with cocaine.
Adding to the anxiety is the lack of evidence that the world needs
you or me at all. In this totally commoditized life we are dispensable. Everything
is standardized. It really doesn’t matter who grows our food or makes
our clothing. If we don’t make it, it someone else will. If we don’t
buy it, someone else will. Some other faceless person will step forward
to fill in our place. The same goes for the engineers who created this computer
and the same goes for your own job. The machine rolls on. With us or without
us. Naturally, we have our loved ones and our friends. But increasingly even
these relationships are monetized for all classes. Family and leisure activity
has become intensely commoditized. Never has there been such a lonely and inauthentic
civilization as the American middle class.
Now it took me one helluva long time to claw my redneck self into the middle
class and it took me even longer to figure all this out about its inauthenticity.
Always one to fuck up right in front of the whole damned world, I loudly declared
American middle class life to be a crock of shit and vowed to kiss it off. Go
someplace simpler. Run nekkid in the surf in Saint Kitts or smoke pot in Belize.
Catch my own damned salmon on the Galician Coast. But whoaaa hoss! This bad
news just in: Not only do you have to buy your way into the American middle
class through forceful consumption of the lifestyle, but you have to buy your
way out of it. I’m serious. Buy your right to live in poverty. Let’s
say you’ve managed to get your kids through college one way or another,
usually via a second mortgage and loans, and you decide like I did to say: Fuck
this. I’ve done right by my family. Now I’ve got high blood pressure,
a bad back, and a million other stress ailments. I’m overweight and have
terrible lungs. Now I want to escape the ever rising cost and stress of playing
the game, the grinding chase after enough net worth to feel safe about such
things as health care and a safe place to shit. Spend a few years in some warm
place blinking at blue, unpolluted sky before I go tits up. To my mind, these
are completely understandable sentiments for any reasonable person. But, alas
dear hearts, the American middle class is a lockdown facility. One that takes
a lot of cash bribes and blackmail payoffs to break out of.
Now making complicated plans just to croak has always seemed rather excessive
to me. Millions manage to do it without much planning or the need for highly
paid experts. I don’t care about financial planners or plans for elder
care and such crap in my old age. I’m willing to die wretchedly and maybe
even unnecessarily, if doing it the right way means blowing a couple hundred
thousand dollars I do not have to buy few extra months drooling and talking
out of one side of my mouth following that stroke I so richly deserve, given
my debauched life. To hell with health care as we know it in America, which
is to say as a tool used to blackmail every working person in this country.
Better to work less, own less and escape the plague of blackmailers.
You would think owning jack shit and expecting nothing would allow a guy slightly
more freedom from toil, would you not? Yet, even though I never wish to own
a car again, or ever own another house, don’t care about clothes, could
easily live on grains, fruits and vegetables, and am willing to work maybe 20
hours a week at some mindless occupation so long as it does not contribute to
the world’s misery and doesn’t require heavy lifting or good memory,
and willing to live in the tiniest of rooms, it’s still impossible to
do so inside this nation, once you’ve signed the middle class blood oath.
Even if I managed to talk my wife into such a life, this is the one thing I
am not free to do in the good old land of the free. In this country, buster,
you keep paying the going rate, even if you don’t care about going. Like
the Cajuns say, you will know when you are dead because the bills will quit
And so about a year or so ago I swore in print and on the net that I was going
to buy a cottage in some warm and simpler place abroad. Someplace VERY cheap
that I can go and write and make music with these hands and this tired but willing
voice. And I am getting closer to that goal, despite the blackmailers. For starters,
I have gotten over the American fetish of ownership -- I can rent a place from
some deserving poor native family who needs the income. Maybe build an addition
onto their house for them for free. Maybe we can go into business together,
a small bodega on a dusty street, mango stand, take in laundry or whatever.
I will be the old white guy who lives in the back room, plays banjo and guitar
and writes. This is the one promise to myself I intended to keep. I still do.
But I never in my life imagined it would be so hard to escape the various American
forms of institutionalized extortion and blackmail. Becoming debt free was the
least of it. And having everyone you know and love believe your have slipped
your moorings is just the beginning. Meanwhile, you become a Kafkaesque character
wondering if you’ve gone nuts, as you simmer in the ambient wrongness
pervading American society and watch the futility of our vast life-consuming
program of intense management and control of everything, the money, the bombs,
the roads, the retirement fund, the communications, the propaganda, the entire
buzzing tower of bullshit so massive as to make Babel look like a chicken coop.
And you ask every passing stranger in the shopping mall, “Is all this
fucking necessary?” Only to discover that you are in an isolation chamber,
a vacuum, a void in which no one can hear your voice at all. They are sleepwalking.
They are shopping. Shhhh . . .
The loss of our human kinship identities has left us to define ourselves
by what we own, where we live or what sports teams we support. But even more
insidiously, our lost stories of community and kinship are replaced by the work
of unseen professionals over the distant horizon. TV and movie producers, the
news media and educational establishment . . . They provide the answer to the
most important spiritual kinship and identity question we will ever ask ourselves:
Who are my people? Some of the worst people on the planet are ready to answer
that question for us in a way that serves their own ends. They stand ready to
answer other questions too, such as, where did we come from? Why are we here?
They are the cadre of empire’s paid professionals who write the history
and the news stories that fill the deep need for a “story of the people.”
The most horrific events of history have nearly always been set in motion by
manipulation of this national story.
After a while, it does not matter that the story was manipulated. Deep
need for a national story drives most to come to love and accept the story over
time. It is the only one they have. And if the story is sufficiently intolerant
and mean, we don’t care about Iraqi deaths. And we come to love empire
and capitalism. Beyond that, many would have become bullies anyway, without
any help from the national storyline. They don’t value democracy, or ecology
or liberty, but they do believe in authority and discipline. Aw common! It ain’t
just Dick Cheney and his pet president, Sparky, doing all this. At least half
the country is loving the queer bashing and the bombing and the god rhetoric.
We should quit pretending that a very large portion of Americans are not degraded
human beings. They are. Skeptics are welcome to visit me here in the armed and
inbred environs of Winchester, Virginia. It no longer matters what or who degraded
them. Much time has passed and this is how many Americans have become. Fundamentalist
cults abound, both religious and economic. Millions upon millions of Christians
live in hermetic worlds of their own, with their own booksstores, schools, media.
. . . Millions of middle class Americans both conservative and liberal live
in suburbs and condos and brownstone row houses completely surrounded by their
own kind, all of them worshippers in the American value cult, commodity fetishists.
They are differentiated mainly in their own minds and the narratives they have
made up for themselves. And of course in their consumption.
After 35 years of inattention to these not-so-nice Americans among us (in another
time they would have been called fascists, but now they are considered merely
a political “base,” which is in itself a strange sort of national
acceptance of cruelty as part of the national character), we are now watching
them consolidate power. For the time being they control the Presidency, the
Congress, the Media, the Supreme Court, the Federal Courts, most Governorships,
and most State Legislatures. And if their manipulation of congressional districts
stays put, they could feasibly stay in power indefinitely.
Do these people, this half of our population which cheers on unprovoked wars
abroad, spying on the citizenry and demonizing of the poor truly hate democracy?
Fuck if I know. But after generations of brainwashing and psychological molding
and exploitation of their fears, I suspect they never really knew what democracy
If anyone is going to turn the ship of the republic around, put us on a course
more in the direction of liberty and openness, it will require the navigational
help of those among us who can still remember what it was like before totalistic
capitalism took such grip. People who can remember that genuine good will and
intent was once alive in the hearts of most people even if it never has been
in the halls of Congress. Remember when at least some human and social progress
was evident around us, thereby giving reason to hope.
And these sorts of people are indeed still with us, though quiet, perhaps out
of insecurity. Only last Saturday I saw them at the Jiffy Lube. Sitting in the
waiting room with our little Jiffy Lube paper coffee cups, waiting for our cars
to be finished, we were watching on CNN the placement of the casket of Coretta
Scott King in the rotunda of the Georgia State Capitol. To my right there was
the huge black lady with corn rows and two bright eyed children hanging on her
ankles. There was the thin young 30-something half-black dude who had just got
off his cell to his wife (Yeah honey, it’s on CNN. Bye.) There was the
very straight suburban blonde yuppie woman with her sculpted pony tail sticking
through the back of her aubergine Eddie Bauer ball cap. And as those Georgia
state troopers on CNN, looking so much like the very same kind who once struck
fear into the Martins and the Medgars of the South, were climbing those marble
stairs under the gray February Georgia sky, one step at a time, then a pause,
then one more step . . . there was not a dry eye a dry eye in that Jiffy Lube
waiting room. It was not just the cheap emotionalism of televised pandering.
Everyone there remembered, by God! Remembered, or found reason to believe in,
an America that at one moment in history, at least, rose from its stupor to
struggle forward toward something higher. Something better. And yes, noble even.
And when I was finished blubbering inside, I thought to myself, “Well,
that small room in St. Kitts, or the tarpon fishing in Belize, they can probably
wait one more year.
Joe Bageant is the author of a forthcoming book from Random
House Crown tentatively titled: DRINK, PRAY, FIGHT, FUCK: Dispatches from America’s
Class War, due out next year. A complete archive of his online work may be found
He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.