Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Review of Joe Bageant's Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir

JoeBaegent | Q: How do you know if you are rich, middle class or poor in America?

A: When you go to work, if your name is on the building -- you’re rich; if your name is on an office door -- you’re middle class; if your name is on your shirt -- you're poor…and, if someone else’s name is on your hand-me-down work shirt.

You always hear about natural-born musicians, artists, teachers, nurses, even businessmen. But what happened to the natural-born farmer and extended farm family when the rural-to-urban migration saw us go from 92% of Americans making their living (and dying) on the land in 1900 to around 2% today? What happened to the natural sense of community that engendered -- that "we're all in it together," culture we now long for? And, what about America's supposedly classless society? How's that working out for ya?

Joe’s memoir begins in 1951 at grandparents Maw and Pap’s small farm along Shanghai (it’s an Irish term) Road in Morgan County, West Virginia. Like many a homestead along the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was a multi-generational subsistence farm (“the farm was not a business”) that had been the norm in America before the great corporate-driven rural-to-urban shift that coincided with the end of World War Two.

Joe’s childhood days “Over Home” were whiled away on the usual attendant chores, hand-picking bugs off garden crops, watching Pap plow fields behind his draught horse or hand-harvest the large cornfield, sweating away with the adults during the all-hands-on-deck haying and wood cutting, helping with the late Autumn hog butchering, dodging the ever-present snakes and bullying older cousins and hunting with the adults or developing future hunting skills plinking holes in a broken metal bucket set on a fencepost.

A Multi-faceted American Tragedy
For the Christian teetotaler Pap -- who likely never brought in more than $1000 in any given year -- freedom “resided in yeoman property rights” -- the Jeffersonian ideal of an Agrarian Democracy. No one in Maw and Pap's hard-working extended family ever went hungry or homeless. As Joe notes, this rural system of subsistence farming and barter right up the great rural-to-urban migration was “an economy whose currency was the human calorie.”

And, that’s what this book is all about: the post WWII shift from Maw and Pap’s agrarian democracy to the urban-dominated/techno/bureaucratic/military/security/consumer Empire of today. He writes how that shift and the resulting class stratification has led us to the brink of economic and ecological collapse.

Joe notes: “Damn few of us grasp how the loss of traditional aesthetic and foundational values, the yeoman tradition, are connected with so much modern American tragedy.”

The rush to “agri-business;” the obesity/diabetes health crisis; the out-migration to teeming cities; the resulting army of disposable laborers; the meth epidemic devastating the “white working-class’s futureless young”… all are tragedies personal and political. It’s also the root of our ecological crisis. You just can’t have “ten thousand years of agriculture synthesized into money” without it. Joe posits, “In all likelihood, there is no solution for environmental destruction that does not first require a healing of the damage done to the human community.”