Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball

Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball

Ken Smith (ed.), Scribe

The New York Times recently reported researchers saying mortality data show that life spans for some of the least educated Americans were contracting.

Possible explanations included a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, rising obesity and a steady increase in the number of the least-educated Americans who lack health insurance.

Joe Bageant, an escapee of rural poverty and latterly a commentator on the politics of class in America, was very familiar with this issue, along with other social and economic factors affecting those swept beneath Uncle Sam’s carpets.

Bageant died in March 2011, having published 89 essays online.

The 25 essays presented in Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball were selected by Ken Smith, who managed Bageant’s website and disseminated his work to the wider media and to Bageant’s dedicated fans and followers, among whom I number.

From March 2004 to December 2010, the essays contain material similar to that in his two books, Deer Hunting with Jesus and Rainbow Pie, with reference to America’s Scots-Irish heritage, why urban liberals need to understand and care about fundamentalist conservatives, and so on.

They do not include “Redneck Liberation Theology: Why are leftists so damn afraid of God?”, which is still available on his website.

Bageant describes himself as an Appalachian native who grew up dirt-eating poor. “Yet I have managed to live a couple of decades in the middle class as a news reporter, magazine editor, and publishing executive. I know the liberal middle class is condescending to working-class redneck culture — which is insulting, but not a crime. The real crime is the way corporate conservatives lie to my people, screw us blind, kill us in wars, and keep us in economic serfdom.”

In the article from which the title of the book was taken, from July 2010, he says capitalism has now eaten its own seed corn, the show just about over with the nastiest scenes yet to play out around water, carbon energy (or anything that expends energy), soil and oxygen.

Meanwhile, if the public staggers to its feet again and manages to carry more debt, and buy more poker chips on credit to play again, it’s called a recovery.

“Dealer, hit me with two more cards. I feel lucky.”

No-one will demand change. “We haven’t the slightest idea of any other options.”

Bageant writes with empathy, care and compassion and also out of dyspeptic frustration.

In “Madmen and Sedatives” he writes of the erosion of moral principles, where principles are treated as mere opinion — “diversity tolerance-overshoot”. Global warming? Unjust wars? Social inequity? Wasteful lifestyles? All a matter of opinion.

“Nobody needs answers to meaningful questions that are never asked, or dare not be asked.”

He mocks his own cheap online polemics and bad dinner party behaviour but “hell, there is only the world at stake.”

He says, “It’s too bad our news media quit hunting with live ammo decades ago, leaving us with no-one to track the activities and progress of what sure-as-hell seem to be global elites, judging from the financial spoor we find along every pathway of modern life.”

He accuses the media caste of being put off by the way rednecks, even progressive rednecks, look and sound, and by their unpredictable opinions. It’s only happy to deal with the rural red-state working class as long as it remains “out there”, somewhere in the “heartland”, a place to be polled and surveyed by Gallup to fuel self-absorbed political punditry.

Meanwhile, working class people are kept in the political dark. “Every daily newspaper has a business section but none has a labour section. My European friends, this is no accident. No accident at all.”

Bageant writes about the cultural glue of tolerance, big pharmacy, of getting out of the “gilded gulag” and seeking refuge in Belize, wedge politics and birth-to-death indoctrination.

He says most Americans, even those untouched by foreclosures, bankruptcy and unemployment, are kept comfortable, like cows, to be milked for profit.

He snipes at liberal sacred cows: “Gun control and sexual privacy are just two of the dozens of political wedges that liberals drive in on behalf of the same elite class that has sent yet another generation off to die in the name of the country.”

But then, “Republican capitalists feel threatened that liberal humanism might empower workers, which it would if anybody bothered to practise it … A gay marriage licence hanging in your cubicle in the global labour gulag doesn’t mean much.”

The language required for Americans to talk about the moral, philosophical and spiritual vacuum has been successfully purged by newspeak, popular culture, a human regimentation process masquerading as a national educational system, and the ruthlessness of everyday competition, which leaves no time to contemplate anything.

Triumphing over the monolith or finding the personal strength to endure will take inner, spiritual and intellectual liberation, he says.

Bageant even has a few paragraphs on the world-shaking WikiLeaks “revelations” of Washington’s petty misery and drivel, which he says are just more extensive details about what we already knew; Julian Assange was forced to do what the world press was supposed to be doing in the first place.

He talks about US culture going down like a thrashing mastodon giving itself up to some Pleistocene tar pit; possibly explained by the effect of 40 years of deep-fried chicken pulp and 44-ounce Big Gulp soft drinks. Another explanation might be pop culture, “which is not culture at all, of course, but marketing”.

Or we could blame it on digital autism: “Ever watched commuter monkeys on the subway poking at digital devices, stroking their touch screens for hours on end, their wrinkled Neolithic brows jutting out above their squinting red eyes?”

But a more reasonable explanation is that “(a) we don’t even know we are doing it, and (b) we cling to institutions dedicated to making sure we never find out.”

In an essay written around the time of the last US Presidential campaign, he says the world is mystified at how Americans in the digital information age could be so uninformed and so rabidly defend the right of health institutions, insurance companies, hospital chains and physicians lobbies to gouge them.

Cultural stupidity might not be so bad, he says, were it not self-reproducing and viral and prone to placing stupid people in charge. “All of us have, at some point, looked at a boss and asked ourselves how such a numb-nuts could end up in charge of the joint.”

Seek this book out as you ponder the coverage and outcome of this year’s US presidential elections.

Stephen Webb

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