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A Bleak Look at America's Poor Whites
on November 25, 2009
Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus investigates the political conservatism and declining economic fortunes of America's poor whites (i.e., "rednecks" or "crackers" or "white trash"). In order to write the book, Bageant moved back to his Appalachian hometown of Winchester, Virginia, after a 30-year absence. As both my family and my wife's family are from Appalachia, this book struck very close to home with me.
The "human" side of Bageant's work is excellent. He recounts the impact of religion and guns in his family. Even though I am not a hunter, Bageant's description of hunting's role in his family helped me understand why the sport is so important to so many people. He also explains about the declining fortunes of many rural whites since the end of the post-World War II boom. Few readers will be unmoved by the tales of how hard many of these people work for wages that are never sufficient to make ends meet.
I was less enthusiastic about Bageant's attempts to put the problems of the white working class into a broader perspective. None of his commentary seems original. Bageant makes the good point that many of these people vote against their own economic interests by supporting Republicans. (The same argument could be made about wealthy Americans who vote for Democrats). I think that Bageant's argument that these people are simply too ignorant to know what's good for them is debatable; another interpretation is that Americans who vote against their economic interests do so because, for them, cultural issues are more important than economic issues.
In my opinion, Deer Hunting with Jesus is worth a look, but it could have been much better.