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Posted April 18, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Coming home: Author returns to Winchester to revisit past, observe culture
By Natalie Austin -- email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- Wearing a faded Budweiser hat and leaning against an equally faded red pickup, the latter of which he purchased for a dollar, Joe Bageant looks so much like everyone else, it's easy to miss him.
He laughs at the huge, out-of-scale, faux Colonial front, complete with columns, added to his house by a previous owner. He could easily turn it into one of his metaphors, the fancy front put on by countless Americans only a paycheck away from financial Armageddon.
A closer look at Bageant, 62, and you notice the correspondent's vest, the only real uniform of a journalist, as he heads back inside to man his laptop. He's a six-figure-earning redneck, who came up dirt poor and dropped out of Handley High School in the 11th grade.
A U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran, he joined the hippie counterculture after getting out of the service, lived on an Indian reservation and traveled to Third World Central America. All fruitful environments for a writer, who likes to live the story to tell it.
Until recently he worked as a magazine editor for the international Weider History Group in Eugene, Ore.
It was his popular Web site and its essays -- his writing conjures images of gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, whom he hung out with out West -- that caught the attention of book publishers. He writes like he talks, delivering the sad truth through humor and letting the two collide to make his point. He is unaffected, swears a lot and doesn't seem to care a whole lot what people think of him.
He moved back to his hometown of Winchester in 2000, he says, to walk the old streets, see the ghosts of his past. He had seen the world from so many eyes, so many angles, he almost needed some time on a familiar barstool to sort it all out. What he would find was that was just the view he needed to revisit.
He unashamedly says, however, it was the "six-figure advance" from Random House/Harper Collins that motivated him to write his book, "Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War."
His hometown was the template, but it could have been any other small town. He wanted to look at class anger, his own childhood, dig the cobwebs off parts of his own life he never dared to uncover.
"It is America and the tens of thousands of communities that are Winchester," he says, in his comfortable living room, filled with the objects collected from his travels.
Like the late Thompson, Bageant immersed himself into small town life and into the swelling working class that most suits in Washington would say were somewhere in the "middle." Through the voices and colorful hometown characters, a book was written that is so dead-on some upper-class residents no longer speak to him, he says.
"The rich hate me, but I get free beer wherever I go," he says, laughing.
The success has been a whirlwind of university speaking engagements, BBC appearances, interviews that might swell anyone else's head. He has spoken to the Labor Party at 10 Downing Street in London. An A-list Hollywood star's production company has bought the rights to the book, which will be a series on a major cable network.
Bageant chimes in that he once worked on a hog farm.
"I don't take any of that stuff seriously," he says. "When success comes in, there's a big temptation. You have to be centered."
He will have to buy a TV to watch the series. He spends half the year in Belize, where he sponsors a development project for poor families.
When he returns to the states, TV is much like it was when he left it, he says.
"I come home and it's Britney Spears' baby-sitting out of a child seat and what Mrs. Obama is wearing."
He says he can't bear to watch what the corporate media dishes out to people, who lack the language to participate in the process. He refers to it in his book as "the American hologram," the televised, digitized, corporatized virtual reality that distracts most Americans from the truth about the state of their country.
"Obama is there because television put him there," says Bageant, adding he worked on his campaign due to lack of a better choice.
He says Obama will have a couple of good years due to the bailout money, which will buy him -- and the country -- a false plateau and some time. "If he does that, he's the best president since Lincoln," Bageant adds, considering the mess the country is in.
Firing car executives and snatching back corporate bonuses are all tokenisms that something is being done, but not much more than that, he adds. It plays well in the media and the masses seize the sound bite without asking many questions about what it really means in a country where the debt is in the trillions.
In the first chapter of his book, he refers to the white ghetto of the working poor, introducing readers to many of the colorful characters whose voices humanize the world's troubles. They are real people -- he changed some of the names to protect privacy -- with real problems, illnesses, no health care, low-paying jobs -- no way out. He meets them at a local watering hole.
After a nearly 30-year absence from his hometown, the areas where he grew up and played as a child were much the same. If anything, these working class folks were having a harder time of it in the richest nation on earth, he says. Poor whites are getting poorer and growing in number.
If defined as simply not having a college degree, then three-quarters of Americans are working class. In terms of their power on the job, 65 percent make this classification. Truck drivers, cashiers, medical technicians, all conditioned to not think of themselves that way. Conservative to the core, they vote Republican because of guns and Jesus.
"Some truck drivers make more than college professors but it's not about money, it's about power," says Bageant.
There are few blue collar workers headed out the door with lunch pails, says Bageant, to clock in at factories to actually make something. They are wearing smocks and working at home improvement stores or aprons and hefting trays.
"It is our failure to invest in human beings, free health care, child care," he says. And outsourcing of American jobs sends a chill down the spine of what factory workers are left. Some factories will close completely. Obama, says Bageant, has said 10 million people will lose their jobs this year.
And, many their homes.
The mortgage meltdown is also among the pages.
Easy money pushed by corporate and commercial forces was too much temptation for most, he says.
"We can't beat people up because they bought a home they couldn't pay for," he says.
Debt is not wealth but culturally it can give the appearance of success. It was capitalism gone crazy with no financial regulation. Some of these working poor ended up in gated communities, says Bageant, when the money and the living were easy.
Now, Americans are scared.
Health care is a sore point for Bageant, who met so many who most needed it but lacked the money for it. All this hidden by the bricks of historic residences and upper-class suburbs.
Universal health care should be guaranteed, although Bageant says he doesn't believe it will happen with President Obama and Hillary Clinton insisting the insurance companies participate in the discussion. He refers to it as "the industrial complex that is built around health care."
When he is in Central America, Bageant says a trip to the "gringo clinic" is $2.
"In the U.S., doctors are in the testing business. They won't do anything without $600 worth of tests."
Fundamentalist Christian churches pushing for a theocratic state, Civil War re-enactors talking about the heritage of guns in America, Bageant made his rounds to obtain views, some funny, others poignant, as well. By letting them tell their stories, he made America seem smaller somehow.
He says he considers himself a universal humanist.
"I think we either learn we are our brother's keeper or we don't.
"Feel around in the fog. Don't just let life happen to you," he says. "Go out and feel around and see what it's going to mean."
For more information visit the Web site www.joe bageant.com.
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