15 October 2007

Lords of the manor

I know I haven't done a good enough job convincing everyone to read Joe Bageant's absolutely essential book Deer Hunting with Jesus, but I'm going to make another feeble attempt at it. The first chapter alone, "American Serfs," does more to peel back the veneer of rural white America than several whole tomes written by either urban liberal intellectuals or whitewashed right-wing propaganda.

An excerpt:

Despite globalism, owners of small and medium-sized businesses run much of the heartland. Many of those picturesque towns you whip by on the interstate are small feudal systems, ruled by local networks of moneyed families, bankers, developers, lawyers, and merchants. That part of a community's life you cannot see from the road of from your Marriott hotel room and is certainly does not appear in tourist brochures pushing Winchester's Apple Blossom Festival or the Oktoberfest in your Midwestern town. It is in the interest of these well-heeled conservative provincials to maintain a feudal state with low taxes, few or no local regulations, no unions, a cheap school system, and a chamber of commerce with the state senate on its speed dial. At the same time they dominate most elected offices and municipal boards. It seems only natural that these small business owners, after generations of shaving down the soap bars in the back room and soaking the pork chops in water for extra scale weight, would conclude that America is solely about the quickest buck. "Screw the scenic creek, you tree hugger. I'm getting an Outback Steakhouse franchise. Pave it, baby!"

Members of the business class, that legion of little Rotary Club spark plugs, are vital to the American corporate and political machine. They are where the multinational rip-off of working-class people byt he rich corporations finds its footing at the grassroots level, where they can stymie any increase in the minimum wage or snuff out anything remotely resembling a fair tax structure. Serving on every local government body, this mob of Kiwanis and Rotarians has connections. It can get a hundred acres rozeoned for Wal-Mart or a sewer line to that two-thousand-unit housing developement at taxpayer expense. When it comes to getting things done locally for big business, these folks, with the help of their lawyers, can raise the dead and give sight to the blind. They are God's gift to the big nonunion companies and the chip plants looking for a fresh river to piss cadmium into--the right-wing's can-do boys. They are so far right they will not even eat the left-wing of a chicken

It's a necessary element in maintaining the illusion of the "American Dream" that each of these small communities throughout the country has its own miniature version of the great class hierarchy that pervades the country as a whole. I had a teacher in high school who once boasted that American capitalism had wrought the world's first classless society; the very dream of socialism realized right here!, though that, of course, is not quite what he meant. His vision of a classless society was one in which the aristocracy was accessible to even those of modest means, so long as they were willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, to use the metaphor the Right is so enamored of. So occasionally they even swallow and induct a new family in to the club.

This has two advantages which has helped to vaccinate the modern aristocracy from the pernicious effects of populism. Giving each little community in the heartland its own little tycoons to admire and ogle is not only a source of local pride but a way to keep them plugged in to the greater American Hologram*. Out in the country they can imagine that, whatever the big-city eggheads are dreaming up to screw them over, it can't have anything to do with money, because our home-bred money would never do anything untoward.

It also saves Big Money from the wrath of all those people who inevitably fail to climb the ladder, like Bageant's friend Buck.

Buck finds there's no room for him at the trough. He is not part of the old-money Byrd family, which owns our local and regional newspapers, or the Lewis family, which owns our conservative talk radio station. And when, after kissing these people's asses all his life, Buck allows himself to realize that it's never going to happen, he turns nasty, breaks bad on the world. He had the right stuff and deserved to be wealthy, so somebody else must be to blame. It must be the welfare bums. It must be all of those taxes for "social programs for minorites," code for "throwing money at blacks and Mexicans." Or tax-and-spend liberals. Or "big governments." It can't possibly be because of the rich elites, because, damnit son, rich is what Buck is trying to be!
This is where the right's new program of cultural populism has worked miracles. In the past, someone like Buck might have realized the inherent injustice facing him trying to ascend the socioeconomic ladder. He doesn't know any drag queens or Muslims, but he does know some millionaires, and they're good white church-going folks like him. Instead of running into the arms of progressive agitators, he falls softly into the new safety net of social conservatives with a new blame game that's more satisfactory to his tribal loyalties.

*Another great invention by the Bageant book