By Joe Bageant
267 pages. Three Rivers Press. 2007
Redneck Nation has never been as well portrayed as by Joe Bageant. The reason: Bageant is an offspring of that nation.
Joey, as he is called by the “natives,” was born and raised in Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia.
It’s as redneck as any area in America. The epitome of boobus Americanus. White trash. Crackers. “Mutt people.” The unwashed. Trailer-parks folks. Born-again Christians. Funda-mentalists. “Jaaaayzus” lovers.
Poor working class. All white. Joe Six-packs. NASCAR devotees. Constant listeners to right-wing hate radio. Racists. Railing about “towelheads,” South American or Indian doctors.
The red-neckers are brain-dead. Their education ends at high school — if not sooner. They are woefully uninformed and misinformed and yet proud of it. Their reality is TV which they spend an inordinate amount of time watching.
The culture gap yawns. They despise books, music, art and ideas. Rednecks are violently anti-intellectual.
Bageant has long since left that country intellectually and spiritually. (He returned for a visit after a 30-year absence.) He is a liberal with brain power. A writer.
Winchester people are reactionary, constantly voting against their own economic and class interests. They have no reason to vote Republican but they do so en masse despite what Bageant calls “the party of the dumb and callous rich.”
They are pro-war and pro-death penalty. They are anti-abortion and anti-union. Barren intellectually, some are even functional illiterates.
Nevertheless, Bageant is sympathetic to the denizens of Redneck Nation. He knows they struggle to make ends meet, “scramble to make a nickel more an hour.” They pay high rent and have big medical bills.
People in Winchester like Joey because he is one of them. But they call him a communist and — even worse — an atheist.
• They proclaim: “We might be poor but but we ain’t colored.”
• They are: “overweight, with bad teeth and cheap clothing … with an assortment of money, health and legal problems.”
• They are: “truck drivers, cashiers, electricians, medical technicians and all sorts of people conditioned by our system not to think of themselves as working class.”
• They have been “downright stupid to be misled by the likes of Karl Rove, Pat Robertson and the phony piety of George W. Bush.”
• They are smug Rotarians and Kiwanians.
• They want “a republic free from married queers and trigger locks on guns.”
• They are ruled by emotion rather than thought. They pronounce the word liberal with contempt. Democrats? They are beneath contempt.
Yet the redneckers toil in “air-poisoned factories.” They are overworked and underpaid. Poverty stains Winchester.
“Three-quarters of the town earns less than three-quarters of the national average and a large portion lives entirely on Social Security,” Bageant writes.
Yet the redneckers in the town of 27,000 denounce Social Security as inefficent, seeking to privatize it even though its administrative costs are less than private companies would be. Like the Tea Partyers, the rednecks want “less government” and more “personal responsibility.”
Their business leaders oppose increasing the minimum wage. They howl about the faintest suggestion of a tax increase.
“The word of God supersedes any and all government authority,” Bageant writes. “The teachings of Darwin can be replaced by the fables of Adam and Eve.”
He adds: “The most obvious class indicator in America is religious belief and that religious zeal is concentrated in lower-class and and working-class whites.”
Bageant punctuates that point with the acid observation: “down here where satan’s red-eyed demons howl like dogs and hover above us, suspended by mysterious aerial powers of the devil himself.”
The hunting culture is deeply rooted in Redneck Nation. “The first question asked after the death of a father is: who gets daddy’s guns?”
Their mantra is “support our troops.” These primitives proclaim America as the greatest country on earth, “whipping the bad guys and extending democracy worldwide.” They are patriots personified, backing “our fighting eagles in Iraq.”
Bageant notes that the redneckers “are part of the nation’s de facto draft: economic conscription. Thirteen hundred a month, a signing bonus and free room and board sure beat the hell out of yanking guts through a chicken’s ass.”
Rednecks do not rule America. Corporations do. But rednecks of America are the reason reactionary presidents like Reagan and G.W. Bush get elected.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada Reno.