Sucking it up for Herman Cain

The Thinker by Rodin

Herman Cain is Tea Party America’s favorite presidential candidate of the moment. Recent polls show him leading among Republican voters. While recent history suggests that Cain fascination will be brief (Michele who? Rick who?), you can understand why conservatives would be gaga over him. Cain, when speaking about Occupy Wall Street protesters, had this retort:

Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! […] It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded; it is someone’s fault if they failed.

Attention 99% America: this may not be obvious to you but anyone can succeed in America. The only reason we are all not millionaires is because only one percent found the moxie to become a success. The ability to achieve success includes everyone: including the crippled, the disease ridden, the mentally retarded and the homeless. You can all become independently rich if you try hard enough. And if you don’t, you are a failure. A complete looooser.

If you are still not getting it, consider the curve of standard deviation below. It seems in nature most of us fit somewhere in the middle of the curve, but some of us are must inevitably be on the low or the high end. There are very few in the top one percent of the curve. Herman Cain is one of them. You and me, we’re in the 99% and the reason that I infer this is true, channeling Herman Cain, is because we chose to go fat and be lazy:

If you are not in the top 1%, you are a looooser

In the world of Herman Cain and Tea Party America, here is where we could all be if we tried hard enough:

The possible American world according to Herman Cain
The possible American world according to Herman Cain

That’s right. We all can all be millionaires, just suck in it, suck it up, be clever, put your nose to the grindstone and inevitably you too, like Herman Cain, can rise from humble circumstances to become a millionaire. It’s that simple. When you have the right mental attitude, just like God, you can move mountains. End of story.

But some people just aren’t getting it. They apparently include Matt, a guy I hired to do some handyman work for me. The guy I tried to hire was too busy, so he referred me to Matt. Matt is a guy who lives somewhere off I-66 in Virginia’s Piedmont. Five days a week he works a full time job somewhere that obviously does not come close to covering his modest lifestyle. When not working, he is taking care of his four kids so his wife can work at her odd part time jobs. On some Friday and Saturday nights, if he is lucky, he gets gigs playing the guitar at local pubs, which contributes some spare change to household expenses, and is his one passion in life. On Thursdays and Saturdays he runs his other business: handyman for hire. He does about a third of the work himself, but he also hires other good ol’ white boys like him to put in a few hours here and there to handle customers like me who are not Tool Time Tims. All of them so far that I’ve met smoke and all appear to live hand to mouth. They are Joe Bageant’s poor working class. This week some of them made some spare change because Matt subcontracted some of my work to them.

The weather has not been a construction worker’s friend this week. We had torrential rain for a good part of yesterday. The guys tried to tack down the new screening on our deck between downpours; otherwise they were in our garage trying to put up a new garage ceiling. For some reason the morons who built our house back in the 1980s attached drywall to the ceiling of our garage. About a quarter of it fell out while I was cleaning it a few weeks back, fortunately not while I was directly under it. I’m having them replace it with sturdier particleboard, and directed that they actually use screws to attach the boards into the joists instead of the drywall nails used when the house was constructed. Anyhow, progress has been slow.

Matt apparently is not working hard enough to be a success. He was managing multiple other projects with other good ol’ boys, which meant frequent trips to Manassas and other places to make things right. He’s pissed that he’s behind on our job, and is apologetic. Fortunately I am in no hurry.

Matt is basically doing everything possible to make money in this economy with his natural talents, but even with three jobs and essentially working twelve or more hours a day seven days a week, it’s still not enough. What’s the problem here?

If you were thinking, “Well, the economy is not doing too great, and a handyman’s wages are pretty modest, and gosh, it takes a lot to feed a family of six” you are one of the 99% and hence a looooser. If you are the surreally out of touch Herman Cain, the solution is obvious: Matt is a failure. Moreover, he is simply not trying hard enough. Maybe if in addition to working seven days a week he gave up the guitar gigs and worked instead of sleep, he could finally achieve success. He basically should run himself into the ground even more than he is doing now, which is leaving him obese, tobacco addicted and with circles under his eyes.

I bet you can guess where I stand on this. It’s pretty simple. Herman Cain, you may be a success, but in many ways you are also a moron who cannot see one centimeter past the bridge of your nose. Only a moron or a conservative would actually believe this crap that you spewed out. And yet it seems part of our American character to believe your crap. The fault is never in our stars, or in the broader economy, or in life’s circumstances, or our genetics, or our abusive parents, or our substandard schools but only in ourselves. Just like original sin that the Catholics believe in, in your mind the original sin is the inability of everyone to replicate what you achieved. The rest of us are failures, basically dog poop.

Mr. Cain, please print this out and stick it up some orifice in your body where the sun don’t shine. Consider it a little thank you from one of the 99%. And Matt, I feel nothing but compassion for you and the good ol’ boys who work for you, even if I can’t get too close to you because I am a nonsmoker. You are doing extraordinary things and while it is still clearly not enough, you have my respect and heartfelt sympathy. You also have my sincere hope that the economy improves quickly so you don’t need to be someone’s handyman anymore and get the chance to breathe again. And I hope you get more gigs strumming out those songs that you love.

Fanfare for the Workingman’s Man

The Thinker by Rodin

Joe Bageant passed away a couple of days ago at age 64. Most likely you are saying “Joe who?” For those of us who haunt his site or have read his books, life without more of Joe’s writing is a huge blow. Just one reading of his seminal work, Deer Hunting with Jesus where he explores the hassled life of the working class of Winchester, Virginia convinced me that he was in the top dozen best authors I have ever read. If you read Deer Hunting with Jesus, you will find that the book will haunt you. Never again, if you come from a family of some privilege (and Joe would include middle class people like me as privileged), will you be able to tune out the working class around you.Joe Bageant

Before reading the book, I was more likely to tune out the guy who empties the trash in my office, the roofer, the clerk on the express lane at the superstore, or the guy haunting a booth at the gas station. Perhaps I turned away in part because I worked that life for a while and was glad to forget it. I spent my teenage and young adult years in suboptimal employment. The jobs I had back then paid enough to get by, if you lived with Mom and Dad, or failing that didn’t mind depending on public transportation and living in a room in a house with multiple roommates. None of these jobs paid enough to allow you to thrive. My workingman experience was designed to be brief. I wanted better things: a house in a nice neighborhood, a car, an office and enough money to indulge regularly in my passion for the arts.

It was unthinkable that I would be a workingman for life, but plenty of people live this sort of life who are constantly living on the edge. Joe chronicled them because he was one of them, and he knew intimately the world of the redneck. Something very weird though happened to Joe. He became part of a social experiment called The Great Society, served in the Navy during Vietnam, and was the first in his family to go to college thanks to government largesse. In college, Joe had a great awakening. In college he became exposed to a larger world and yet somehow he also remained a redneck to the core. He scraped together a living writing for military journals. Thirty years after he left Winchester, Virginia, Joe decided to move back. In his book, he chronicled the sad decline of the working class there. His writing is so good, so personal that you cannot help but step inside the souls of the working poor white people of Winchester. He wrote with such vividness, such empathy and so poignantly that the book was hard to put down even while it was at once both heartwarming and heart wrenching.

Joe knew what’s what better than just about any person I have ever read. His vision of society was largely nihilistic but fundamentally clear-eyed. After reading his essays it was impossible not to agree with him. Even if you could not agree with him, it was impossible not to be blown away by his prose. His discerning gaze saw everything and pierced through all pretenses. Joe was so totally grounded in real life. In style, his writing was much like Hunter S. Thompson, except Joe carried with him a keen sense of empathy and pathos. Joe didn’t like lots of people including, arguably, people like me cocooned in the safety of the middle class. He seemed beyond hate, but certainly not above disdain and loathing. Those of us in the middle class, but particularly the politicians, lawyers, and stockbrokers of the world he saw either explicitly or implicitly as pimps, who turned the backbreaking work of the working class into unearned wealth in the form of 401-Ks, sports cars and McMansions. He knew that the working class were largely unseen and when seen at all, judged with some disdain and contempt by their “betters”.

I enjoy writing, but I will never be as good a writer on a good day as Joe was on a bad day. Never will I be able to write sentences that grab you like two hands with a vice grip on your throat like these:

Below it all are the spreading pox-like blotches of economic and ecological ruins of dead North American towns and city cores, such as downtown Gary Indiana, Camden, Newark, Detroit — all those places we secretly accept as being hellish because, well, that’s just what happens when blacks take over, isn’t it? Has anyone seen downtown Detroit lately? Of course not. No one goes there any more. Miles of cracked pavement, weeds and abandoned buildings that look like de Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of a Street. Hell, for all practical purposes it is uninhabited, though a scattering of drug addicts, alcoholics and homeless insane people wander in the shadows of vacant rotting skyscrapers where water drips and vines crawl through the lobbies, including the Ford Motor Company’s stainless steel former headquarters. (See the works of Chilean-born photographer Camilo José Vergara.)  It is the first glimpse of a very near future, right here and now for all to see.

Once you got a taste for Joe’s writing, it grabbed you and you just wanted more. So you haunted his website and you joined Feedblitz so you were quickly notified when he made a new post because you knew it would be good. Only, Joe had to go all mortal on us. Apparently, Joe smoked, some things legal, some allegedly not, and perhaps because he was a child of the 1960s he ingested things that would land him in jail today. Perhaps that is why he spent so much time in Mexico. His lungs were bad, probably a product of smoking, and his habits probably contributed to his premature encounter with the grave. Doubtless, Joe met his maker pragmatically. He might have even been glad to punch his exit ticket. Joe saw, as do I, that mankind is entering a sad, resource-competitive phase likely to bring out the worst in us instead of the best. If he had been able to do so, I am sure he would have had an amazing essay or two about the overreach by Republicans in states like Wisconsin as just more evidence of a nasty class war already well underway.

Sometimes in tons of rock you will find a diamond. Joe was one of those diamonds. He was a glorious accident whose writing touched me (and thousands of others lucky enough to discover him) to the core. If you haven’t read Joe, check out his website as it may not be around forever. And yes, you absolutely must read Deer Hunting with Jesus. Your humanity will stretch in the process and your eyes will open wider than they ever have before. You may find yourself like me, sadly wiser on the ways of the world and appreciative of the workingmen and women all around us who make civilization possible.

Understanding Bubba, Part One

The Thinker by Rodin

I am trying to retain a positive attitude during my convalescence. Rather than look at my recovery as a drag, I am looking at it as a reason to do more self-education. One of the things I have been doing is reading Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant.

Admittedly, reading this book is depressing as all get out. Author Joe Bageant frames the book in a town where generations of Bageants were born and bred: Winchester, Virginia. In the thirty years I have lived in the Washington metropolitan region, I have never visited Winchester, although it is only about an hour’s drive away. I had no reason to visit Winchester, nor was it on my way to somewhere else.

Winchester is like Binghamton, New York where I spent my formative years. Within its town boundaries, Winchester has about 25,000 people. Around 122,000 people live in the greater area. The City of Binghamton has around 47,000 people but add in the nearby communities of Johnson City, Endicott, Vestal and Endwell (where I grew up) and you get a similar sized area. According to Bageant, the one constant in Winchester has been its Rubbermaid factory, where generations of its working class residents have toiled. The plant is still there. The same cannot really be said about the Endicott Johnson Shoe Corporation in Endicott, New York. When I was last there in 2000, all the former factories, which for generations manufactured lower end shoes and sneakers, were idle. There was something resembling a corporate Endicott-Johnson office in a small building along Main Street. Also gone is IBM. During the time I lived near Endicott in the 1960s, Endicott was a manufacturing hub for many of IBM’s business class computers and processors. Essentially, Endicott is no longer manufacturing anything as evidenced by its crumbling roads and mostly empty downtown.

Unlike Endicott, which has had its soul torn apart when EJ and IBM left, Winchester has done a little better. The Rubbermaid factory is still there. Since the truck corridor of I-81 runs through Winchester (as it does Binghamton), the town also makes some money from truckers and tourists passing through. Working class men and women can get jobs in and around Winchester, but they are not great jobs. Bageant makes clear that today’s working class in Winchester are worse off than their parents who sweated through similar low-end jobs.

For example, Rubbermaid used to offer real middle class wages, benefits and a pension to its employees. Those days are long gone. Winchester remains a workingman’s city, but now jobs are particularly precarious and real wages are lower. Yet, its working class soldiers on because it must. Winchester is a city full of the white working class. They are the sorts who if they are not working at Wal-Mart are shopping there in what feels like a futile effort to make their $8.59 an hour wage stretch a little further. It is a city where the working class survives on their wits. For the vast majority of folks, you work two or three jobs to get by. No job or combination of jobs is likely to provide a ticket to the middle class. Most folks are but one major medical mishap away from financial ruin. It’s hard to build up a medical savings account when you are in arrears to a couple credit card companies already.

Winchester is the sort of place I might well have lived, worked and died in had not I been a bit more fortunate. According to Bageant, my family would be the exception in Winchester. Although my mother had working class roots, both my parents had college degrees. Moreover, my siblings and I assumed we were destined to end up in careers, not jobs. Yes, we sweated through our own working class jobs prior to (or in some cases during) college. We have a basic understanding of what this life is like. Our experiences informed us that this was a life to be avoided, if possible.

Bageant understands the white working class intimately because this is how he grew up. What makes Bageant unusual is that he awoke from his working class stupor. He also became a gifted writer. Through the prism of his experience, I can subsume myself into the world of Winchester’s working class. I can taste the draft beer at the Royal Lunch diner where Bageant hangs out with his kind. I can peer (however indirectly) into the souls of these people. Moreover, with Bageant’s help, I can see their world through their resigned and pragmatic eyes. It is a world where continually dodging life’s many landmines informs folk much more than some fancy pants education. It is an area where the gun feels as natural as the many sidewalk ministries in the town. It is a place where the town’s elite can keep the working class forever in control. For Winchester’s working class are largely unable to marshal the combination of family support and financial resources to really escape this lifestyle. Moreover, if you told them this was the only way they could escape, they would berate you for your silly liberal notions.

According to Bageant, the working class in Winchester earnestly believe that somehow by applying themselves just a little harder they will reach the next economic rung, despite mountains of evidence that it takes a supporting infrastructure of family and community for all but a handful of us to reach that next rung. It is The Big Lie they tell themselves which is also endlessly fed to them by their politicians. It causes them to vote for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush or more recently Bob McDonnell, who yesterday was inaugurated as Virginia’s latest Republican governor. Naturally, McDonnell is preaching the same old tired Republican soap that has yet to work: that he will somehow do much more with much less and in the midst of a recession to boot. Winchester will be lucky if its Rubbermaid factory does not end up in Mexico, where many of its other factories have gone over the last few decades.

If I feel like I do not understand their lives very well, the same is true with them and my life. I would feel awkward drinking beer with the locals at the Royal Lunch diner in Winchester. They would feel just as awkward bellying up at a local sushi bar or buying wholly organic food at a Whole Foods. In Bageant’s case, he got lucky. Remember The Great Society? Those of us of a certain age will remember. Back in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson earnestly tried to right longstanding class inequities. A few like Bageant were the beneficiary of the social experiment that for the most part failed in its goals. Thanks to some grants courtesy of The Great Society and despite the considerable odds, Bageant went to and graduated from college as well as did a stint in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Those who attend a good college, like Bageant, finish with not only a degree but also with a true education on the complexity of our messy world. You might say the lens of his life opened up for Bageant, courtesy of Lyndon Johnson.

About ten years ago, he felt the need to return to his roots in Winchester. The result was this book, a seminal work on the working class unseen since the death of Studs Terkel. It takes those of us without the experience inside the lives and minds of the working class rednecks. As uncomfortable and heart wrenching as it is, it should be required reading for every progressive. For until we truly understand the Bubbas of this world, any changes we try to make to society are likely to be merely window dressing.

Bageant lays it all out for us. I hate to admit it, but Bageant is right about gun control. In the past in response to incidents like the Virginia Tech shootings, I have railed about the need for gun control. Bageant blows quite a few holes into the myths about gun control, while perhaps selectively ignoring a few pertinent facts. He points out statistics that show how many intruders are actually deterred because of the presence of a gun in a household. He documents how homicides in places like New York City have decreased as the rate of gun ownership has gone up. Where Bageant may have a blind spot is in dismissing the number of homicides facilitated among people who are related to each other because of the presence of guns. Where Bageant is unfortunately dead on (no pun intended) is the futility of even trying to control guns. It is like trying to put a genie back in the bottle. It simply cannot be done, no matter how much we might wish it so. We might as well wish to change our eye color. Guns are part of our national DNA and will be for at least many generations to come. If it happens at all, it will be long after any of us reading this are dead.

Gun control is really a knee jerk and ill thought out response to a much more daunting set of institutional and societal problems that Bageant outlines with a painful clarity that is hard to criticize. To truly move our country and our planet toward a sustainable future, we must be able to persuade people like the working class people in Winchester to embrace real change. As Bageant makes clear, the hour is very late and the odds are very long. For the rednecks of America have centuries of Calvinist Scots Borderer breeding in them. They do our nation’s dirty work for us, almost reflexively making them easy for politicians to manipulate as long as they pander to their fundamentalist beliefs in the sanctity of God, guns and autonomic patriotism.

Bageant’s book is really a series of long essays about who our puppet masters are, how they got in charge and why we let them remain in charge. Liberals as well as rednecks are at the hands of these puppet masters. Identifying who they are, understanding how they are manipulating us and developing the skills to actually change these institutional forces will give us the ability to create real and meaningful changes. More on this in future posts as well as more analysis of Bageant’s thoughtful book. Stay tuned.