Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War

Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War

by Joe Bageant


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Years before Hillbilly Elegy and White Trash, a raucous, truth-telling look at the white working poor -- and why they have learned to hate liberalism. What it adds up to, he asserts, is an unacknowledged class war. 

By turns tender, incendiary, and seriously funny, this book is a call to arms for fellow progressives with little real understanding of "the great beery, NASCAR-loving, church-going, gun-owning America that has never set foot in a Starbucks."

Deer Hunting with Jesus is Joe Bageant’s report on what he learned when he moved back to his hometown of Winchester, Virginia. Like countless American small towns, it is fast becoming the bedrock of a permanent underclass. Two in five of the people in his old neighborhood do not have high school diplomas or health care. Alcohol, overeating, and Jesus are the preferred avenues of escape. 

He writes of:

• His childhood friends who work at factory jobs that are constantly on the verge of being outsourced
• The mortgage and credit card rackets that saddle the working poor with debt
• The ubiquitous gun culture—and why the left doesn’ t get it
• Scots Irish culture and how it played out in the young life of Lynddie England

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307339379
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 06/24/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 239,166
Product dimensions: 7.92(w) x 5.14(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

Joe Bageant wrote an online column that made him a cult hero among gonzo-journalism junkies and progressives. He has been interviewed on Air America and comments on America’s long history of religious fundamentalism in the BBC/Owl documentary The Vision: Americans on America. He worked as a senior editor for the Primedia History Magazine Group before moving to Belize, where he wrote and sponsored a small development project with the Black Carib families of Hopkins Village. Bageant's other books include: Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir and Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball: The Best of Joe Bageant, a collection of essays published posthumously.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter 1

American Serfs

Inside the white ghetto of the working poor

"73 virgins in arab heaven and not a dam one in this bar!"

—Men's room wall, Burt's Tavern

Faced with working-class life in towns such as Winchester, see only one solution: beer. So I sit here at Burt's Tavern watching fat Pootie in a T-shirt that reads: one million battered women in this country and i've been eating mine plain! That this is not considered especially offensive says all you need to know about cultural and gender sensitivity around here. And the fact that Pootie votes, owns guns, and is allowed to purchase hard liquor is something we should all probably be afraid to contemplate. Thankfully, even cheap American beer is a palliative for anxious thought tonight.

Then too, beer is educational and stimulates contemplation. I call it my "learning through drinking" program. Here are some things I have learned at Burt's Tavern:

1. Never shack up with a divorced woman who is two house payments behind and swears you are the best sex she ever had.

2. Never eat cocktail weenies out of the urinal, no matter how big the bet gets.

As you can see, learning through drinking is never dull. But when karaoke came to American bars, my hopsy approach to social studies got downright entertaining, especially here where some participants get gussied up for their three weekly minutes of stardom.

Take Dink Lamp over there in the corner, presently dressed like a stubble-faced Waylon Jennings. At age fifty-six, Dink's undying claim to fame in this town is not his Waylon imitation, however, which sucks (as do his Keith Whitley and his Travis Tritt). It is that he beat up the boxing chimpanzee at the carnival in 1963. This is a damned hard thing to do because chimpanzees are several times stronger than humans and capable of enough rage that the pugilistic primate wore a steel muzzle. Every good old boy in this place swears Dink pounded that chimpanzee so hard it climbed up the cage bars and refused to come back down and that Dink won a hundred dollars. I don't know. I wasn't there to see it because my good Christian family did not approve of attending such spectacles. One thing is for sure, though: Dink is tough enough to have done it. (To readers who wonder whether people really have names such as Dink and Pootie: Hell, yes! Not only do we have a Dink and a Pootie in Winchester, the town that stars in this book, we also have folks named Gator, Fido, Snooky, and Tumbug--whom we simply call Bug.)

Anyway, with this older crowd of karaoksters from America's busted-up laboring lumpen, you can count on at least one version of "Good-Hearted Woman" or a rendition of "Coal Miner's Daughter," performed with little skill but a lot of beery heart and feeling. And when it comes to heart and feeling, the best in town is a woman named Dottie. Dot is fifty-nine years old, weighs almost three hundred pounds, and sings Patsy Cline nearly as well as Patsy sang Patsy. Dot can sing "Crazy" and any other Patsy song ever recorded and a few that went unrecorded. She knows Patsy's unrecorded songs because she knew Patsy personally, as did many other people still living here in Winchester, where Patsy Cline grew up. We know things such as the way she was treated by the town's establishment, was called a drunken whore and worse, was snubbed and reviled during her life at every opportunity, and is still sniffed at by the town's business and political classes. But Patsy, who took shit from no one and knew cuss words that would make a Comanche blush and, well, she was one of us. Tough and profane. (Cussing is a form of punctuation to us.) Patsy grew up on our side of the tracks and suffered all the insults life still inflicts on working people here. Hers was a hard life.

Dot's life has been every bit as hard as Patsy's. Harder really, because Dot has lived twice as long as Patsy Cline managed to, and she looks it. By the time my people hit sixty we look like a bunch of hypertensive red-faced toads in a phlegm-coughing contest. Fact is, we are even unhealthier than we look. Doctors tell us that we have blood in our cholesterol, and the cops tell us there is alcohol in that blood. True to our class, Dottie is disabled by heart trouble, diabetes, and several other diseases. Her blood pressure is so high the doctor thought the pressure device was broken. And she is slowly going blind to boot.

Trouble is, insurance costs her as much as rent. Her old man makes $8 an hour washing cars at a dealership, and if everything goes just right they have about $55 a week left for groceries, gas, and everything else. But if an extra expense as small as $30 comes in, they compensate by not filling one of Dot's prescriptions--or two or three of them--in which case she gets sicker and sicker until they can afford the co-pay to refill the prescriptions again. At fifty-nine, these repeated lapses into vessel-popping high blood pressure and diabetic surges pretty much guarantee that she won't collect Social Security for long after she reaches sixty-three, if she reaches sixty-three. One of these days it will truly be over when the fat lady sings.

Dot started working at thirteen. Married at fifteen. Which is no big deal. Throw in "learned to pick a guitar at age six" and you would be describing half the southerners in my generation and social class. She has cleaned houses and waited tables and paid into Social Security all her life. But for the last three years Dottie has been unable to work because of her health. Dot's congestive heart problems are such that she will barely get through two songs tonight before nearly passing out.

Yet the local Social Security administrators, cold Calvinist hard-asses who treat federal dollars as if they were entirely their own in the name of being responsible with the taxpayers' money, have said repeatedly that Dot is capable of full-time work. To which Dot once replied, "Work? Lady, I cain't walk nor half see. I cain't even get enough breath to sing a song. What the hell kinda work you think I can do? Be a tire stop in a parkin' lot?" Not one to be moved by mere human misery, the administrator had Dot bawling her eyes out before she left that office. In fact, Dottie cries all the time now. Even so, she will sing one, maybe two songs tonight. Then she will get down off the stage with the aid of her cane, be helped into a car, and be driven home.

Although it might seem that my people use the voting booth as an instrument of self-flagellation, the truth is that Dottie would vote for any candidate--black, white, crippled, blind, or crazy--who she thought would actually help her. I know because I have asked her if she would vote for a candidate who wanted a national health care program. "Vote for him? I'd go down on him!" Voter approval does not get much stronger than that.

But no candidate, Republican or Democrat, is going to offer national health care, not the genuine article, although I suspect the Democrats will bandy some phony version next election. If Dot is lucky, a pollster might call her, take her political temperature over the phone to be fed into some computer. But that is about as much contact as our system is willing to have with a three-hundred-pound diabetic woman with a small bird and a husband too depressed to get out of his TV chair other than to piss or stumble off to his car-washing job.

Americans are supposed to be so disgustingly healthy, educated, rich, and happy. But I have seen half-naked Indians in Latin America eating grubs and scrubbing their codpieces on river rocks who were a whole lot happier, and in some cases more cared for by their governments. Once, in Sonora, Mexico, I got very sick among the Sari Indians and needed a doctor. Every Sari Indian had national health care, but the American crapping his guts out behind their shacks, a man who made fifty times their annual income, could not even afford health insurance in his own country because I was a young freelance writer without the protections of a salaried staff position with a newspaper or magazine. Anyway, I wish I could say the Saris also had a native cure for dysentery, but they did not.

Actually, I can think of one politician who stands up for people like Dot and programs like national health care. But he is busy right now being president of Venezuela. Show me a political party willing to train and put real working-class people on these streets door-to-door, which is what it will take to mobilize the votes of the working screwed, and I will show you one that can begin to kick a hole in that wall between Capitol Hill and the people it is supposed to be serving. But we all know that is not about to happen. Parties do not lead revolutions. They follow them. And then only when forced to. The Democrats began to support the civil rights movement only after the bombings and lynchings and fire hoses and marchers caused enough public outrage to indicate there were probably some votes to be wrung out of the whole sorry spectacle playing out on American TV screens. That was back when a good old-fashioned Watts-type city burn-down could still get Washington's attention. I suspect nowadays it would be one of those national emergencies that Homeland Security would handle.

But Dink and Pootie and Dot are the least likely Americans to ever rise up in revolt. Dissent does not seep deeply enough into America to reach places like Winchester, Virginia. Never has. Yet, unlikely candidates that they are for revolution, they have nonetheless helped fuel a right-wing revolution with their votes--the same right-wing revolution said to be rooted in the culture wars of which neither of them has ever heard.

In the old days class warfare was between the rich and the poor, and that's the kind of class war I can sink my teeth into. These days it is clearly between the educated and the uneducated, which of course does make it a culture war, if that's the way you choose to describe it. But the truth is that nobody is going to reach Dink and Dot or anyone else on this side of town with some elitist jabber about culture wars. It is hard enough reaching them with the plain old fact that the Republicans are the party of the dumb and callous rich. As far as they are concerned, dumb people in our social class have been known to become very rich. Take Bobby Fulk, the realtor we all grew up with. He's dumber than owl shit but now worth several millions. And he still drinks Bud Light and comes into Burt's once in a while. Besides, any one of us here could very well hit the Powerball lottery and become rich like Bobby Fulk.

It's going to be a tough fight for progressives. We are going to have to pick up this piece of roadkill with our bare hands. We are going to have to explain everything about progressivism to the people at Burt's because their working-poor lives have always been successfully contained in cultural ghettos such as Winchester by a combination of God rhetoric, money, cronyism, and the corporate state. It will take a huge effort, because they understand being approximately poor and definitely uneducated and in many respects accept it as their lot. Right down to being sneered at by the Social Security lady. Malcolm X had it straight when he said the first step in revolution is massive education of the people. Without education nothing can change. What my people really need is for someone to say out loud: "Now lookee here, dammit! We are dumber than a sack of hair and should'a got an education so we would have half a notion of what's going on in the world." Someone once told me that and, along with the advice never to mix Mad Dog 20/20 with whiskey, it is the best advice I ever received. But no one in America is about to say such a thing out loud because it sounds elitist. It sounds un-American and undemocratic. It also might get your nose broken in certain venues. In an ersatz democracy maintaining the popular national fiction that everyone is equal, it is impermissible to say that, although we may all have equal constitutional rights, we are not actually equal. It takes genuine education and at least some effort toward self-improvement just to get to the starting line of socioeconomic equality.

Why are my people so impervious to information? Despite how it appears, our mamas did not drop us on our heads. Hell, thanks to our kids, most of us even have the Internet. Still, my faith in the Internet's information democracy wilted when I once suggested to a friend facing eviction that we Google "renter's rights" to learn his options, and watched him type in "rinters kicked out." (Then too, when we bumped into the banner on a site reading jennifer licks the huge man's sword, we both got sidetracked.) Yet two weeks later he had found the neoconservative website and learned how to bookmark it. Sometimes I think the GOP emits a special pheromone that attracts fools and money.

The lives and intellectual cultures of these, the hardest-working people, are not just stunted by the smallness of the society into which they were born. They are purposefully held in bondage by a local network of moneyed families, bankers, developers, lawyers, and businesspeople in whose interests it is to have a cheap, unquestioning, and compliant labor force paying high rents and big medical bills. They invest in developing such a labor force by not investing (how's that for making money out of thin air!) in the education and quality of life for anyone but their own. Places such as Winchester are, as they say, "investment paradise." That means low taxes, few or no local regulations, no unions, and a chamber of commerce tricked out like a gaggle of hookers, welcoming the new nonunion, air-poisoning factory. "To hell with pollution! We gonna sell some propity, we gonna move some real 'state today, fellas!" Big contractors, realtors, lawyers, everybody gets a slice, except the poorly educated nonunion mooks who will be employed at the local plant at discount rates.

At the same time, and more important, this business cartel controls most elected offices and municipal boards. It also dominates local development and the direction future employment will take.

Table of Contents

Introduction     1
American Serfs: Inside the White Ghetto of the Working Poor     19
Republicans by Default: Redneck Pride and Fear in an Age of Outsourcing     51
The Deep-Fried, Double-Wide Lifestyle: Whatever It Takes, the Mortgage Racket Will Put You Under Your Own Roof     97
Valley of the Gun: Black Powder and Buckskin in Heartland America     117
The Covert Kingdom: They Plead Upon the Blood of Jesus for A Theocratic State     159
The Ballad of Lynddie England: One Foot in Ulster, The Other in Iraq     195
An Authorized Place to Die: The American Health Care System on Life Support     221
American Hologram: The Apocalypse Will Be Televised     247
Acknowledgments     269

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Deer Hunting with Jesus 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Panamared More than 1 year ago
Reviewing the Reviewers I find the two negative reviews regarding this book interesting in that they betray so much of who and what and where the reviewers are. Arrogant landholding upscale Winchester Virginia snobs who are either blinded by their economic distance from the subjects of this book or, more likely, who have set out to sink it. Their reviews speak volumes, if not about the book, then about themselves. No problem, jackasses; as you no doubt know, Joe dropped his mortal coil several months back. You will need to dissemble no more. For the rest of you, let me say that this book and Joe Bageant told it like it was at the time, and most likely like it will be for a long time to come. If you like Studs Terkel, you'll love this book. Panama Red
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
and Republican voters (the manipulated). It also emphasizes the impotency of democratic stategists to decouple conservative social issues from the bogus reagonomics of the right.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a Scots-Irish liberal who wandered off the reservation many years ago, Joe Bageant has an extraordinary empathy for these Middle American conservative Western Virginia folk who have never been given a fair shake. They have let us know in recent years that we have ignored them at our peril. Joe Bageant laughs with them, not at them. Highly recommended to every high faltin' college graduate liberal who has no understanding of middle America. I too am a Scots-Irish liberal who wandered off the reservation many years ago and he describes my roots to a T.
Anonymous 3 months ago
fyi715 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bageant tends to ramble and not have a very cohesive theme. Biggest drawback of the book is for Bageant to label himself a liberal when convenient, but declare himself one of the rednecks in the next chapter -- not that its ever suppose to be easy, but his labeling tends to have no rhyme or reason. The stories of local characters are interesting.
karinnekarinne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I expected something different from Deer Hunting with Jesus, but I'm not sure why. Ultimately I enjoyed it, but parts of it bugged me.
crazy4novels on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Joe Bageant focuses an uncompromising lens on "his people," the white working poor of Winchester, Virginia, and ends up producing a book that is both a scathing send-up and a loving tribute to his family, friends and neighbors in that neck of the woods.Bageant doesn't pull any punches: "Here, nearly everyone over fifty has serious health problems, credit ratings rarely top 500, and alcohol, Jesus, and overeating are the three preferred avenues of escape." He calls it as he sees it, even at the risk of straining family ties. Joe's brother is a Baptist pastor who claims to cast out demons, but that doesn't stop Joe from writing that "The 2008 elections, regardless of the outcome, will not change the fact that millions of Americans are under the spell of an extraordinarily dangerous mass psychosis [religion]." None of these people ever had a fighting chance to achieve the American Dream, and yet they are its most enthusiastic, bellicose, flag-waving proponents. Bageant warns that neocon operatives "understand that the four cornerstones of the American political psyche are (1) emotion substituted for thought, (2) fear, (3) ignorance, and (4) propaganda." Grossly substandard public schools, shameful health "care," parochial resistance to progressive ideas and independent thinking, unconscionable lending practices, and the "Jesus palliative" all contribute to squandered lives that the rest of us ignore at our own risk. Bageant's political views and conceptions of reality couldn't diverge more from those of his Winchester neighbors, but the depth of his compassion and empathy for the plight of these "invisible victims" as he relates their personal stories will make you want to cry. Anyone who has ever flinched at the thought of NASCAR racing, tent revivals, or the NRA should read this book. How can you contemplate the experience of a man who performs forty years of back-breaking menial work without complaint, cherishes a "dream" of someday owning a prefabricated modular home in an abandoned industrial park, and goes home each night to a wife on oxygen support (asbestos lung), and then proceed to mock him for going out and popping a few raccoons in the butt over the weekend for a momentary distraction? I'm telling you, this book will change your perceptions, and you'll be the better for it.
kishields on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Better in some spots than others. I kind of feel as though Joe Bageant wants it both ways¿I'm a redneck, but I know better and I'm a liberal. He tries to write as both an insider and an outsider and sometimes it's persuasive, sometimes not. He claims respect for his roots and "his" people, but has clearly left both behind in most ways and in his deepest beliefs. I felt the section on gun control was wrong-headed, but very much enjoyed the sections on the rise of the religious right and the health care system. Written before Obama was elected and before the economic crash, his book does seem prophetic. The section on mortgages on mobile homes is so disheartening.
LynnB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Joe Bageant is a liberal from a red-neck background. After spending many years away, he moves back to the small town he was born in. This book looks, with affection and respect, at the people from his town and provides their stories and beliefs in a poignant, often funny, way.At another level, the book also examines why working class Americans seem to vote against their own best interests in so many cases. Why have the Democrats, who argue for more social spending, failed to win the hearts and minds of these voters? Mr. Bageant provides some answers, his main point being that liberals and Democrats need to understand more and judge less.This book was easy to read and packed a powerful message both in the ideas of the author and the portrayals of his neighbours.
jahn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The author comes off as a nice guy, but he people he writes about I¿d like to avoid; US rednecks of Scottish-Irish ¿borderer¿ stock, said to be fundamentalist Christians, jingoistic, militaristic, racist and completely ignorant of almost everything but guns, NASCAR, and what Rush Limbaugh tells them. A nasty crowd to all but their own selves I¿d suspect.Generally he pours it on with reason to despair for backwater America, the US and the world, but he halts every now and then to call for a bit more socialized medicine, some more socialized schooling, and a plea for the town-lefties to lay off the alienating anti gun campaign. The writing has not the rhythm or humour of Algren or Céline, despair-authors I find it natural to compare him with, but he is indeed readable. I read the book through in one day, and don¿t regret it.The author thanks the internet for the possibility of becoming an author, claiming that his stuff is not publishable in existing periodicals, and the book ends with a long list of websites I suppose he endorses.
agirlandherbooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Although I generally enjoyed this book, Bageant is too quick to exempt his subjects from personal responsibility, preferring to blame government and powerful individuals for the woes of the underclass. Most of his observations are keen and he makes many good arguments, but a little less bitterness would go a long way in balancing his outlook.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Bageant returns to the town of his childhood and youth after years in the big city, a cosmopolitan life, to find little has changed. The town¿s people are mostly high school educated, conservative, church-going, and working at high stress and low paying jobs. Bageant is both tough and gentle with his people, showing the up side of the hunting lifestyle while lambasting the propensity of the townspeople to pass on information without verifying its veracity. It¿s easy to see Bageant loves these people despite their flaws, despite the occasional anger with which they treat him, a hometowner to be sure, but also a heathen liberal.
xenchu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Joe Bageant is an angry man, angry with Conservatives and Liberals. He sees American culture as a hologram, an illusion created by Corporations. He writes about the redneck southern working class he grew up in which he feels is deluded and manipulated by Corporate America and the Republican party. It breaks his heart because he loves them.
jmatson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
American class warfare explained. Funny, sadly true in some cases and well written.I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any longer.
gmmoney on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The only way I could make it through this book was by reminding myself that since the time it was written, Obama had been elected and we had health care reform on the senate burner. Written in 2007, it's at once a sad story of the way the republicans work to fatten their wallets at the expense of working class Americans and a scathing indictment of the democrats who can't or won't work to counteract them. I had always viewed our two political parties as representing two poles of the American people and thought that vitriol aimed at one party or another was counteractive. After all, as a result of their fighting we had moderate policies that benefited the bulk of the American people. This book really shook this notion and made me take a long, hard look at the republicans and their organized efforts to undermine the working class who blindly support them.I look forward to reading more Bageant, and I thank Evan for recommending this book.
jamreid on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was exactly the book I needed. It took a while to finish thanks to some distractions over the holiday season, but under better circumstances, I would have been able to zip through it. Written before our current economic downturn, the author gives us an insider's view of a sizable segment of our population. It was helpful for me to have this information as I'm sorting out why we are where we are at this very moment. Why are so many people apoplectic and calling for a "throw the bums out!" moment? How did the Tea Party become such a dramatic element in the recent elections? And are there bigger issues involved that are not even on the radar. I may have to take the time to review some of the elements that caused the most internal struggle with me. Most notably, the impact of the deep seeded religious beliefs mixed with a Scots-Irish genetic makeup and a wholesale acceptance of capitalism without asking the difficult question - Is this in my best interests?I try to keep an open mind on political, religious and economic issues. It's important to do one's homework and see the issues from different sides to come up with a conclusion. I think what may be happening, on both sides, is an inability to step in the shoes of another and see why an individual makes the decisions or has the world view that they do. It is frustrating for people when someone can't see something the same way they do. However, Deer Hunting with Jesus was another piece of the puzzle in my understanding of our world.**On a side note, I recently heard the author, Joe Bageant, is battling cancer and is unable to write. I wish him the best with his recovery.
NativeRoses on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An easy, though still serious, read that is laugh-out-loud hilarious every couple of pages. It asks and answers why a large group of Americans votes against their own self-interest. As Deer Hunting careens from double-wide mortgage scams, to manufacturing jobs, to right-wing religiosity, the voices of Mark Twain, Hunter S. Thompson, and J.G. Ballard are alive and well. Sobering, straight-talk from the trailer park in a brilliantly funny going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket kinda way.
worldsedge on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Depressing, poignant, funny, disgusting and above all honest, this book rips through the sociology of "red state" poor like I've never seen it done before. I normally have very little use for out and out socialists like Bageant, but he is unfortunately and painfully dead on about the way the white working class has been lied to, ripped off and has almost willingnly contributed to their own demise. I hesitate to call a book like this "life-changing" but it may be time for me to reconsider things like national health insurance, social security reform of a certain sort...though I have very little in common with the folks discussed in these pages I certainly feel a lot of pity for them.
dawsong on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Remember, not long ago, the horror some of us felt over the result of the last election? Red vs. Blue? How could the very people most brutalized by the current economic system not take a chance on even just the possibilty of relief from these conditions by their vote? The answer is frightening. Bageant understands and even loves these people and his compassion and concern comes through. This is a problem and reality that none of us can afford to remain ignorant about, for it can, and will, engulf us all. I truly feel that there isn't anyone that wouldn't benefit from the insights Deer Hunting With Jesus provides, including the people being discussed.
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