Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir
Joe Bageant, Scribe, $35
Joe Bageant is a compassionate and acerbic observer of American, social, political and economic life. His perspective is of one reared among the gun-owning, uninsured, underemployed white tribes inhabiting America’s urban and suburban heartland, having left and returned a middle-class intellectual — a kind he generally despises.
He intends his memoir to be illustrative of millions of once-rural Americans and their offspring who “poured their sweat onto this country’s soil and their blood into its wars”.
Tender recollections of his childhood and extended family serve as jumping off points for ferocious, indignant and amusing rants about how his country has lost its way.
He describes the swift destruction of America’s agrarian culture and the migration of millions of American families during the post-war era — “part of a necessary economic trend” — away from the farms, villages and small towns.
The malling of the countryside and the application of every American’s labour to the manufacture and distribution of commodities was, he says sarcastically, in the “highest purpose use of labour”.
“Now we are reduced to the service industries, fast food, finance and debt collection.”
What has been overlooked, he says, is that every human system begins somewhere in the earth’s soil or under it and is either proven sustainable or not. “We chose to abandon a proven one for a high risk one — getting apples from China and hamburger steak from Argentina, feeding our crops petrochemicals and frying the dirt for more profitable yields.”
Bageant says a proven system, with millennia of trial and error learning, let small, sustainable communities thrive up and down the ladder. The system, that was still working in first half of the 20th century, “offered the assurance that, if you chose to, you could still live, love and die in your community. You could live out an entire lifetime within the connective tissue of family and community.”
But the soil-city-chain of small farms, villages and towns linked to the great city markets was destroyed as corporations increasingly dominated the national needs hierarchy. A nation of consumers of synthetics (and corporate corn) was cultivated instead.
His own family is a microcosm of wider society: the connective tissue of shared work for shared sustenance had disintegrated in the face of the monetary-wealth-based economy.
He says, “Our parents’ lives were displaced, our own have been anxious and uncertain, and our children’s are sure to be less certain than ours.”
Bageant asks, “Is it at all possible to regain a meaningful, positive and satisfying expression of character while working in such a monolithic, non-human scale of ‘production’?”
The actual memoir component of Bageant’s book is illuminating and frequently touching. The polemics are sometimes bitterly resentful and always strident. He’s funny and has a wonderful turn of phrase. And, through it all, Bageant just wants us to think. To remember. To lift the veil of collective amnesia. To see.