Defending Bageant's Essence
Posted: 27 January 2005 02:04 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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Though he doesn't really need my help, below I respond in defense of Joe Bageant's recent article  "A Mean and Unholy Ditch."   My good friend Jeff took me to task about Bageant's incendiary comments and I respond below. 

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Your chief gripe with Bageant is a weak anti-essentialist rant:  I agree, he does essentialize.  Let’s look:

“The hardest thing for garden variety American liberals to grasp is… The second hardest thing for liberals is to admit that…”

Before you dismiss Bageant as some Neanderthal with no merit to his arguments, arguments that are allegedly essentialist, consider the time he spends in the article critiquing the liberals as well.  I don’t hear any complaints about this “essentializing.”  Curious.  If you want to claim that he is “essentializing,” at least he’s doing so “liberally,” that is to say, spreading it around.

But does Bageant really essentialize?  Notice that he does qualify his remarks by saying “garden variety’ which is as much as saying “in general, every liberal is…  In other words is he still guilty of speaking in generalities when he prefaces his remarks by an admission of his generalizations? 

Note that when he moves to the other side of the aisle, he says the following:

“When I look around America's barrooms, church suppers, swap meets and strip clubs, I see that "the American people" like the way things are going.”

Is this, too, essentializing?  He says, in essence, “in my experience in these select locations, I have judged them to be …” He even goes so far as to put “American people” in quotes.  Why would he do that if he were unconscious of the ambiguity of the generalization he was about to introduce?

In the same paragraph that you cite, he does this same move twice:  Again, he says,

"The people" don't give a rat's bunghole about…”

This comes right before your choice quote about what They like.  Are you so sure he was not aware of what he was doing?  It seems to me that the quotation marks and the qualifications serve the reader notice of his awareness of generalizations, the very fact he accuses the liberal book editor of in the second paragraph you will notice.

No, the essentialist argument doesn’t hold much water; in fact, I view it as red herring, perhaps one not intentionally employed by you, but is an increasingly familiar maneuver utilized by those afraid to face the essence of his argument: the judgments of the faith-bound are devoid of reason, and these obscurantist tendencies are driving us to Armageddon.  What rough beast, indeed, is slouching towards Bethlehem?

I constantly encounter this defense of an irrational faith still demanding its exemption from standards of evidence we apply in every other realm of our lives.  This is the sort of anti-reason that decided our last election, perpetuates the Bush war crimes, and turns a blind eye to the rising fascism in this country. 

Consider that a mere 11 years ago, a Gallop poll found that more than one in three adult Americans believe God speaks to them directly.  Forty-eight percent say God speaks through an internal feeling or impression.  About half of those interviewed believe God speaks today through the Bible or scriptures.  Nearly a quarter say God speaks through another person, say the pope, or President George W. Bush.  This number has certainly not gone down in the last ten years.

So, rather than a facile concession to your non-critical readership and a retreat into tired anti-essentialist arguments, let’s look at Bageant’s argument and see how far out in left field he is.

“Meanwhile, it is football and NASCAR and guns and a republic free from married queers for the people.”

Are you saying that this sort of sentiment has no foot in reality?  Are you saying that a large block of Bush supporters do NOT fit this bill?  Again, keep in mind, that Bageant is qualifying all of his so-called essentialist remarks.

We all remember the exit polls that pointed to evangelicals as the swing vote, and as Bageant said, there are more where that comes from.

While acknowledging the popular conception, Bageant’s doesn’t rest on the easy media answer of “values,” however.  As you pointed out, this is a superficial description of the situation.  What does Bageant ascribe it to?  Bageant calls it rather a “hatred of other human beings unlike themselves.”  (Still think Bageant is unaware of the “othering?”  Yeah, that’s why he says, “It was always about hating those who are different.  Hating "the other.")

Why does he say this?  Does he just pull these statements out of his ass?  Let’s see, does he cite anything at all?

Hmmm…he mentions growing up in the Jim Crow era (yeah no racist “othering” going on there; he’s probably making that up, too), and at least two other anecdotes from his personal experience that support his view.  Admittedly this is weaker type of evidence, but consider the virtual impossibility of measuring and verifying the view presented in his opinion column, and you see why anecdotal evidence is apt for his argument.

The question to ask yourself is: though we all have limited experience, Bageant too, are his thoughts about American xenophobia that out of line?  Consider your own experience then add that with Bageant’s and mine.  I have an uncle in Indiana with not one, but two huge confederate flags flying from his porch.  His son, my cousin, has a white supremacist web site.  Aberration?  I think not.  My sister voted for Bush primarily on the abortion issue, though Bush has little affect over this law.  When pressed, no pro-lifer can give a logical reason they are against all abortion.  They must inevitably appeal to some unverifiable demarcation of when life begins, a line they have been told to hold by their clergy.  But I digress.

But what of weird America?  Are we so offended or surprised?  Tell me this place isn’t growing odder by the minute.  But even if you disagree, why does Bageant say this?  Does he just spout his opinion?  No, he cites an episode of Springer, which is hardly the acme of American civilization.  Jeff, I doubt you would cite Springer as support for the rationality of America.

As shocking as his statements may be (not really when you look with a cool head and without knee-jerk pandering to those lobotomized by faith), consider how far off Bageant really is.  Consider the ratings of a show like Springer.  Consider the mass appeal of NASCAR, of soap operas, and strip clubs: they have tens of millions of supporters, perhaps even over 100 million.  Now while it is NOT true that all of these NASCAR fans, strip club patrons and Jerry Springer viewers voted for Bush, or are neo-con fundamentalists, I think it is safe to say that few of them are college grads and non-Christians.  How do I know this?  I do not.  It’s more of a hunch:  I don’t see how any one with a modicum of intelligence can watch any of the above.  And the same goes for voting for Bush.  After what he has pulled on us, one would have to be either stupid, uninformed, or an imperialist pig to vote for him.  In the final analysis, we see that Bageant is simply operated inductively here.  He sees the evidence and concludes the majority of Americans (52%) are [insert a less offensive adjective here].

And what is the weirdest aspect of America?  Check his last anecdote.  Bageant talks of America’s despicable selective morality.  We will not permit the American atrocities to be aired, we continue to “avert [our] eyes to our murder of dark-eyed Iraqi children,” but walk out of the “wine-and-porn shop…with “More Hot Black Booty Getting Jiggy!”

So is Bageant simply off?  Rather, I say he’s right on.  America has some serious problems and at least half of our nation is in full support of them.

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