Book: Deer Hunting With Jesus

I read a provocative book recently, Deer Hunting With Jesus, by a guy named Joe Bageant. Joe is one who was born in the hills of the Virginia-West Virginia border area, “escaped” to become a sociologist, and returned. This book, subtitled “Dispatches from America’s Class War,” was published in 2007.

Read this book if you want some insight (through vignettes of Joe’s old friends, neighbors, and acquaintances) into why it can be so hard for the classic “liberals” to enlist people such as those from the Va/WVa border into progressive causes. (Largely, they are just too busy surviving!)

Joe goes into the myriad ways that the established class structure is maintained, quite obvious in these towns and countryside; but also prototypical for the rest of the nation. He also points the finger at the media, complicit in bread and circuses (mostly the later!), and the myths of America (“American Hologram”) that enlist people in a false patriotism.

The blame is not just on the exploiting class, but also on the well-meaning liberals who don’t understand how to communicate with these Scots-Irish descendants and their type.

I almost had to quite reading when I got to the chapter about the American Health System. It described painfully how people, after being milked of their productive energies and exploited by financial rackets, are left to die in sub-standard care facilitities. Ironically, some of these urine-reeking nursing homes were the eagerly received community hospitals in better days, where babies were born and people mended. That was before the profitable “not-for-profit” health care and insurance industries figured out how to squeeze more out of them for their executives and shareholders.

The title comes from the conflation of “down home religion” with gun culture. Joe explains how some of this is related to the frontier experience and the cultural origins of the people who settled here. He mercilessly describes how the rest of us were asleep at the switch while the right wing figured out what buttons to press to enlist these folks into their electoral army.

There’s a heck of a lot more here. One thing I came away with, though, is the importance of education. In many of these places there is a covert conspiracy to keep people dumb so they stay in their “place.” (After all, if the privileged children of the upper class had to compete on a level field with the children otherwise encumbered by poverty and despair, the outcomes might be surprising! Joe includes some stories of potential wasted, as he describes people’s change from friends in his youth to broken down or embittered old age.) People who are functionally illiterate, or not much better, will have trouble exercising their full rights and responsibilities as citizens, instead of merely being consumers and a labor pool.

Joe is a bit pessimistic though most of the stories. He’s only a few years older than I am. I think that good teachers, a little more economic security, and a re-invigorated union movement could work wonders — at least with the next generation!