After his talk last Tuesday at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia, Joe Bageant continued talking about writing at a nearby bar. He was joined by his host Linh Dinh (left), a poet and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, and by Teresa Leo (right), a contributing editor of CrossConnect and The American Poetry Review.
Text of Joe Bageant's talk at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia, Tuesday, April 3:
Thank you for the kind introduction Linh.
I've been writing for nearly 40 years. I've been a news reporter, a magazine writer and editor, and written a thousand puff pieces for celebrities of every imaginable sort. And now, at this late age, I found myself back in my home town writing about the poor and working poor folks I grew up with. Most of what I write is about class issues in America -- mainly because being born in lower class poverty leaves a person with a sense of insecurity and class awareness that remains for a life time, regardless of one's later success.
Along the way I think I've learned a little about the subject. Enough that I finally got up enough confidence to write a book about America's cruelest and most strictly enforced national lie -- that we are a classless society. That nearly everyone is middle class or can be if they try.
Before we go into the question and answer session, let me start off by asking you a few questions. Raise your hands in response.
How many of you see yourselves as members of an elite class in our society?
How many of you are college graduates or expect to graduate from a college or university?
How many of you believe the current administration's actions in Iraq and secret "black site" interrogation and torture centers around the world constitute war crimes?
The answers to all three of these questions work together in unison. For example, only 19% of Americans graduate from a bona fide university, so that makes you an elite, a person in the top fifth of society, educationally speaking. It also makes you complicit in most of our Empire's crimes both here and abroad. You see, the Empire cannot function without administrators, managers, teachers to instill its doctrine in the schools and universities, lawyers, MBAs, industrial psychologists to manage its laboring millions, economists to justify its economic rationale, reporters to write its news broadcasts, and a host of other professions and semi-professions to regulate the Empire's domination and corporate profitability, both nationally and internationally. And they come from this 19% or 20% who graduate from our legitimate universities. I call them the catering class, or capitalism's house niggers. Class anger makes some of us see things that way.
OK, now how many of you think America has become an empire causing much harm to the ecology of the planet and rest of the world?
How many of you feel that the American lifestyle, that is to say, home, car, media, clothing, foods, entertainment and other services and commodities are essentially something we all deserve and are entitled to if we work hard to pay for them?
Really? America constitutes 5% of the world's population and consumes at least 28% of the world's resources. How fair is that to humanity?
Now how many of you believe most Americans are middle class?
The truth us that about 65% of Americans are working class, not middle class. It has nothing to do with how much they earn. It has to do with power. Power talks and bullshit walks. They do not have any power over their work, they have no say in the hours they labor, how much they will be paid, at what pace they will work, or how they perform their work, or what kinds of benefits, if any, they will receive -- or when they will be cut loose from their jobs. This is called taking orders from the boss or taking a hike. And that makes you a working class person.
The working class includes all sorts of people we are not necessarily accustomed to seeing as working class, medical technicians, white-collar bank tellers, accountants, call-center workers, and cashiers; registered nurses, blue-collar machinists, construction workers, and assembly-line workers; pink-collar secretaries, many social workers, both hospital and home health care workers -- skilled and unskilled, men and women of all races, nationalities, and sexual preferences. There are nearly 90 million working class people in the U.S. labor force today. They are by far the majority of all U.S. workers. And the amazing thing about it is that our corporate state media has convinced them all that they are middle class.
Here's a fact that is so absurd you don't know whether to laugh or cry: Nearly 40% of households surveyed making less than $30,000 a year believe they are in the top 10% of Americans when it comes to income! In a similar, though more extreme national delusion, millions of North Koreans eating wild grass soup during the winter under Kim Jong-Il, believe they live in the richest nation on earth, and that America wants to attack them out of jealousy. Such are the results of successful propaganda.
OK. One last question: How many of you consider yourselves liberals? Now how many of you consider yourselves affluent?
The Republican Party may be the party of the oppressive rich, but statistically, liberal Americans as a group, probably because of their belief in the virtues of education, are more affluent and educated than Republicans. You read and think.
And for that I am prepared to fall down and pound the goddamned floor in gratitude. Because the majority of truly substantive books, real literature, seems to be purchased by folks with a liberal bent and at least some experience with higher education and/or an interest in philosophy, politics, important fiction, travel and the arts. I am lucky enough to be in a room full of such Americans tonight.
Yet, historically in this nation, you are a vanishing breed. In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville noted that there was scarcely a plowman in America who did not have a book or a broadsheet newspaper fastened between the handles of his plow so that he could read as he tediously trod the rows of earth turned by his prairie cutter plows. It was a time when books were expensive and hard to get, yet they were widely shared and much discussed by Americans of all classes.
Today, I am told by book marketers that about half of all American households never buy a book in any given year. And of those books which are sold, about one half are about celebrities, entertainment or sports or other subjects directly related to, or learned about through television and similar forms of media. That leaves about 25% of the households in the market for other types of books, whether they be fiction, romance novels, politics, philosophy, self-help, history or perhaps (god forbid) subjects requiring critical thinking.
And as for the news, which is now classified under the entertainment divisions of network television, even liberals seldom exert much more effort than conservatives. Surveys show that 77% of all persons under 35 defining themselves as "liberals" say The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is their primary news source. Which probably makes Jon Stewart happy as hell but doesn't bode well for what little remains of our republic.
Yet, as recently as 40 years ago most Americans gained their knowledge base from text. From reading books. Which requires concentration, attention and involvement. But today, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, when most Americans read, they read in television, not text. Meaning that we process the information in the fleeting symbology and empty shorthand clichés of television. Our consciousness has been thoroughly modified by the injection of images straight into our brain stems, bypassing the critical thinking process. Consequently, our sense of reality as a nation and individuals is now interpreted and defined in those pre-selected manufactured images, even when presented in text.
The result is that very few Americans are critical thinkers. Most Americans suffer from a collective learning disability based on the complete commoditization of our consciousness by consumerism and electronic media. I call it a learning disability, which it is. But it's also a polite way of saying that, as a nation, we have become collectively as stupid as a sack of hammers.
Americans are so conditioned to rote consumption and substituting entertainment and illusion for actual involvement and experience that it feels completely normal. And so, even when hit square in the face with evidence that the world extends beyond the shopping mall and their own suburban cul de sac or apartment, they have no critical thinking tools to deal with it. Beyond that, least half of us are so conditioned we are incapable of human or political insight at all. The election of George Bush proved that.
Now, just what the hell is a well intentioned writer with even a smidgen of conscience or consciousness supposed to do in such a society? Well, to be perfectly honest, writers are no braver than anyone else. So we suck it in and do what we feel we have to do to pay the mortgage, put the kids through school and keep the credit cards from going into a complete meltdown. I just spent seven years editing a military history magazine that glorified wars and warfare, especially as conducted by America. Scarcely a person working at that publication believed a word of what we published. But somebody has to maintain America's mythmaking machinery, and besides that, it was a fairly comfortable living, all things considered.
Yet, comfortable as we have been in our plenitude, and confident as we have been in our providence -- or perhaps even because of these things -- we are now at the most critical and terrible juncture in American history. We have become a super state. An empire. A nation whose sustenance and comfort depends upon perpetual warfare, oil, and the sweatshops in the smoking trash heaps of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. And even upon the gaping disparities within our very own nation among our very own people.
Does a writer have a responsibility about these things? Is writing more than just a marketable skill sold to the highest bidder?
I can only tell you my own conclusions about what I should do as a writer, as a person just like you who still believes in and reveres the power of words written by a free pen. Writing is a calling. And that calling is to bear witness, name things exactly for what they are. To speak out passionately and critically in the face of power. To take risks, the greatest ones before you if possible.
And if you can find it within yourself to do so in such grave times as these, then do it all with whatever sense of humor you can muster. Because the greatest paradox is that pathos -- perhaps because of man's innate understanding of his own futility -- is laced with humor. Graced by humor.
So embrace humor amid struggle. In doing so, whether our writing talents be great or small, we morally and spiritually join the company of Joe Hill, Emma Goldman and Gandhi. No writer could ask for more.
Thank you all for taking your valuable time to endure my ramblings. I always tell interviewers that I do not have readers, I have friends who read and think. I am very happy to have met some new ones tonight. I mean that with all my heart.
Again, my sincerest thanks.