Saturday, August 20, 2011

Joe Bageant's Toxicology Report: A Delayed Literary Post-Mortem

(By American Zen's Mike Flannigan, on loan from Ari.)

The late, legendary Joe Bageant, who died of cancer this past March 26th, had been called many things, including "the Woody Guthrie of the Typewriter." Whatever honorific you wish to append to his surname and whatever muse you think it was that drove him to alacritous irascibility, one thing was obvious: His patron saint was not his publisher, distributor nor the toilet paper salesmen and eponymous executives who run the publishing and bookselling businesses but simple, good ole fashioned word of mouth.

Joe was part of that tried-and-true, time-tested and tiny fraternity of trusted scribes of whom others, all of them well-read and discriminating, would say, "You ought to read him." There are few others, among them Naomi Klein for The Shock Doctrine and the late Howard Zinn, largely for A Peoples' History of the United States. After some inexplicable, muted tragedy of ignorance or apathy or whatever, you begin to feel compelled to buy their books to get in on the secret as if finally discovering some state-censored samizdat that will forever change your thinking.

Then, when you finally get that manila envelope in the mail or riffle through the pages at your local bookstore, only then do you "get it."

And, oddly enough, when people would nudge me toward whereever in the world he was, whether it be Italy, Mexico, Australia or his native Winchester, VA, they were always imploring me to read not his books such as Deer Hunting With Jesus or Rainbow Pie but his blog. I cannot speak for every working writer but my guess is that a published author would look at their blogging as a necessary sidelight, a harmless and communicable addiction that gets people hooked not on phonics or a certain political ideology or dialectic but on ideas. However elevated the level of writing in their blogs, my guess (and I'm speaking as a political blogger, myself) is that they consider their books their true legacy and that their blog posts are a merely entertaining sideshow to tide us over until Amazon's marketing machine nudges us to alert us of the next book. And I suspect I speak for many when I say that it would never occur to us to put our blog posts between covers.

But Joe Bageant was special. Not unique but certainly rare in the regard that his blog posts were an elevated form of the diaries kept by Samuel Pepys and Henry Crabb Robinson but more eminently readable. The main value of the great diaries of antiquity were largely if not exclusively historical records and the aim was certainly not political or social commentary except in the most happenstantial and incidental degree.

But blogging, especially of the political variety, had given previously obscure, pre-9/11 writers such as Markos Moulitsas, Jane Hamsher, d r i f t g l a s s, the Rude Pundit and others a national stage in which the size of one's readership wasn't determined by Amazon tags or marketing and PR strategies (or lack thereof) but through writing talent, unique and piercing perspective and a savviness for self-promotion. With few exceptions, Bageant had no peers.

Bageant was, in a way, a more countrified version of Hunter S. Thompson, the kid on the swinging bench in Deliverance only one armed not with a banjo but a half dozen instruments playing a symphony of outrage for the Ronnie Coxes of the internet who'd drop in for a spell. Bageant was no more a liberal than Thompson and the two men had a passion for guns and the right to own them and both took literary aim at each side of the Great Ideological Divide. If Bageant and Thompson more often took aim at different eras of the Republican Party it was simply because they saw more destructive evil on the right side of the aisle.

His last, epic, post, "AMERICA: Y UR PEEPS B SO DUMB?", written on appropriately the date the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, will likely go down on record as being the greatest swan song in the brief history of bloggerdom. It's a damning indictment on not one political party or another but largely on the post-cultural American people who pride themselves on their level of ignorance. In this extended rant, perhaps sensing the end was near, Bageant bids farewell to a nation that's lurching more and more toward the post-apocalyptic America of the satire Idiocracy.

He makes many of the same points I've been making for years in my own writing, that America does not have a culture at all but, if we ever had one, has been supplanted with hyperactive consumerism. He references junk technology and the untold tragedy of all this information at our fingertips even as we sink deeper into our own ignorance, in his own words, "like a thrashing mastodon giving itself up to some Pleistocene tar pit."

And, behind the curtains and pulling levers like the Wizard of Oz on speedballs, the political and corporate Powers That Be who play some endless musical chairs game where the object is to occupy a seat in another sector before it gets cold.

Bageant didn't have to name names in this article. He didn't have to mention the Koch brothers or Dick Armey or the Bilderberg Group or ALEC or any of the usual suspects because he trusted we already knew who they were. Joe was smart enough to know that the unconverted don't easily convert or that there was a certain rate of recidivism and was content to know that eventually, the converted would nudge the gentiles over to his corner of Appalachia, those who would whisper in the ears of others, "You really ought to read this guy." One of the most crucial steps in the confidence-building of a writer is to know that your true and devoted readership, however great or small, will eventually find you.

In return for a faithful readership, Joe entered into a pact with us that he would always respect our intellects and just assume, as he said in his opening paragraph, that we'd ask the right questions and, if not always get the right answers, it wasn't through lack of trying.

He was the kind of guy who'd abruptly drive off the beaten path and through a farmer's field or on a dirt access road when he was supposed to be taking you to the corner store or the nearest gas station. That was his greatest and perhaps only failing as a writer. But, however extended the detour, he always made it entertaining, always took the scenic route and you suspected that you'd be the poorer in your life without that detour. He didn't have the pompousness of a Glenn Greenwald, the laziness of an Atrios, the shrillness of a Jane Hamsher nor was he dessicated by his own wit and intellect as James Wolcott.

Yet he remained an effective writer and social commentator to the very end and did so without any crippling affectations. Joe Bageant was, as are we all, unique, but Joe was more unique than others.


At August 21, 2011 at 8:21 AM, Anonymous Longtime reader said...

I didn't know you were a fan of Bageant! I'm one of the people who suggested him to you years back and several blogs ago, if my memory serves me correctly, which it does not always do these days. He answered in blog posts several of the e-mails I sent him, before I stopped doing that because I didn't want to feel like I was stalking the guy.

I was lucky enough to see him once in person on a book-promoting tour. He was dressed sharply, not redneck. This was in a foreign country, too, and I was amazed that a guy who was little-known could pack a bookstore far away with non-Americans who were familiar with his work. Bageant was every bit as entertaining in the flesh as he was in print, only more polite.

When I think about the modern human condition, not just the American condition, I have some of Bageant's essays in mind. Like the one about how we're so wedded to our jobs, how we (at least in the Western world) define our self-worth by them. I think of how we're all climbing on the Chinese garbage dump. I see how our perception of reality is shaped by "the hologram." He attained that quality that's rare in this venal, shallow world -- the wisdom of age.

You have a bit in common with him, especially when Flannigan is writing. But what sets Bageant apart from you (no insult intended) is his hook, his angle, his schtick, the "redneck socialist" thing.

You write well, have a good analysis of the fucked-uppery of politics, but so do a lot of people. Maybe if you developed an angle like "the ground-up, spat-out son of the American working class" or something, you'd eventually hit pay dirt like Bageant. He labored in the trenches of bloggery for a lot of years while he held his day job at the military magazine before "Deer Hunting with Jesus" got printed. You've got the laboring in the trenches part down. Now get the hook.

I don't usually mentuon the captcha word, but this one is "sucks," I shit you not. Maybe Bageant's ghost inside the machine did that...

At August 21, 2011 at 10:26 AM, Blogger jurassicpork said...

I don't usually mentuon the captcha word, but this one is "sucks," I shit you not.

Pretty par for the course. Just my luck.

Your advice is taken and is well under advisement. You're right, of course. Before people will listen to you they need a reason why and one needs that "hook." Personally, I never thought I needed one nor should I need one. The message, and a good, idiosyncratic presentation is enough, I'd think. But people being what they are, they have to be lured in with shiny objects before they'll let themselves get hooked.

I'd hoped, when I started writing in my Flannigan alter ego three years ago, that American Zen and the tie-in would be all the hook I'd need.

I was wrong, obviously.


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