|Portobello Books Ltd|
the guardian Fri 05 September 2008
The subtitle for the US edition of this book was Dispatches From America's Class War. You might think it would be the Americans, not the British, who would run a mile from publishing a book with the phrase "class war" in its title. Class is not even meant to exist there, whereas everyone here knows that it does.
Joe Bageant argues that class is very much alive in the US: an "American hologram" in which every citizen props up an iniquitous structure in order to protect a redundant dream of wealth and self-actualisation. The class war is fought cold - with words, reproaches, snubs and deliberate mishearings - between mostly urban liberals and largely rural conservatives, who snipe at each other from class-segregated homes, bars and schools.
Almost by definition - as Bageant illustrates with painful statistics on Americans' illiteracy (apparently nearly half can't read or write fluently) - any book about class must take the form of explaining working-class life to middle-class people. "It is as if your people were some sort of exotic, as if you were from Yemen or something," an editor from New York once told him.
He can oblige with great insight and validity because he is of working-class Appalachian stock: his mother worked in a textile mill, while his dad ran a gas station on behalf of its owner. He grew up in and in later life returned to the poor North End of Winchester, Virginia, after many years spent in various shades of countercultural penury, first as an anti-war activist (he served in Vietnam), then as a teacher and writer.
His hippy adventures brought about in him a kind of wild-eyed lucidity when regarding the spectre of American capitalism, while his background gives him licence to be plain rude. Bageant believes, without question, that a majority of white working-class and poor Americans voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 because they are stupid.
More precisely, they are "downright stupid", "dumber than owl shit". Even worse, Christian fundamentalist schools, "those American madrassas", are "a sure way to make the masses even more stupid if there was one".
One imagines he'll have to stand a lifetime's worth of rounds to keep his table at the Royal Lunch, a real-life Moe's Tavern whose regulars provide Bageant with enough saloon-bar philosophy to begin their own school. His old schoolfriend, Tom, trots out the clichés as though he doesn't even believe them himself, which may well be the case.
"Life is tough," he offers. "Stick with what you know." He really does believe, however, that George W Bush "cuts bush on his ranch" while John Kerry, the losing Democrat in 2004, goes "windsurfing at Martha's Vineyard. Who the hell goes windsurfing?" Lots of people do, of course; just no one who drinks at the Royal Lunch.
With that logic - a rough one at best, argues Bageant, comprising "things that sound as if they might be true" - a president dedicated to cutting taxes for the rich while allowing your meagre income to stall will beat the principled posho every time.
What makes this book especially valuable is that every word is motivated by rage, rather than righteous indignation. Richard Sennett's famous "hidden injuries of class" aren't so much exposed as paraded like war wounds. Bageant wouldn't be able to stifle his anger if he tried, but he is able to control and direct it into mostly graceful - and when not graceful, funny - prose.
His defence of gun ownership, which requires a chapter's worth of iteration, can be summed up as "It's in my blood", but evokes movingly the psychological value of heirlooms and apprenticeship. He connects the "slow life" with dignity and mastery, qualities he sees falling away from the lives around him. That he is sometimes faced with a split-second mental image of shooting another human dead appears to be the cost.
The chapters on religious fundamentalism and healthcare are more shocking, given that gun ownership, from this side of the water, seems such a uniquely American signal of class division. A third of working Americans earn less than $9 an hour - the same workers who fund Christian colleges they are unlikely ever to attend, who buy $39,000 cars on credit, and who have no health insurance.
Ignorance, Bageant concludes, is the greatest enemy of working-class Americans: not terrorism, or drugs, or illegals, but sheer daftness. It works both ways, with powerful leaders refusing to fund public schools properly and condescending to voters least likely to revolt, and rednecks making a creed out of mistrust and closed-mindedness. Class enslaves the mind. It's not the first time it's been said, but it may be the first time anyone has said it so well, and in the land of the free.
· Lynsey Hanley's Estates: An Intimate History is published by Granta