Reviewed by Lynn Schneider
Upon learning that Joe Bageant had written Rainbow Pie A Redneck Memoir, I wrongly assumed it would be a story of his life. There are some snippets of family history in this engaging and educational book, but mostly it is the story of the corporate takeover of America from the viewpoint of one who has seen it evolve, been a self-professed member of the “underclass”, yet also been one of the fortunate few from that environment to have booted himself up and out of it, to become a writer so he could tell others what the real deal is.
Joe tells the story of Winchester, VA, but it could be any town, any state, any area. Perhaps the South exemplifies, more than anywhere, the orchestrated post-war economic shift from an agrarian to a consumerist society which happened, beginning in the late thirties. During World War II, the men were off fighting and the women worked in factories which manufactured everything we needed to kick the butts of real villains (as opposed to the made up ones of today). Life and profits were good for those at the top, who owned those factories. When the war ended, they needed a way to keep the profits up – can’t have life returning to the way it was before the war – so they figured out ways to entice the young people into the cities where they could purchase little white houses and Buick Roadmaster sedans, to work in their factories and become consumers of their goods. One government brochure promised “an onrushing new age of opportunity, prosperity, convenience and comfort has arrived for all Americans.”
Summed up at the end of Chapter 1:
Employing the mind and body in a purposeful way was the only manner in which people like Pap knew how to be. It was an entire world and a way of being that was anachronistic even in the 1950’s … vestigial, charged with folk beliefs, marked by an ignorance of the larger world, and lived unselfconsciously under the arc of Jeffersonian ideals, backed up by an archaic confidence in the efficacies of God’s word and grapeshot. I consider myself fortunate to have caught a glimpse of a more-purposeful and meaningful way as it went around the corner, only to be ambushed by an increasingly fancy and “store bought” America – a slicker, glossier one with no handmade edges.
Joe Bageant is an excellent writer, and interspersed with the sociological picture of America – both then and now – are snippets about himself and his family, which makes it personal. He is also very funny with a type of humor I can relate to.
Here’s a good example of that:
According to our national storyline, the death of our agrarian society was unavoidable – just part of our onrushing national vitality. In the official version taught in schoolrooms everywhere, America arrived at the industrial age by means of the raw strength of a younger nation endowed with can-do spirit and vigor; at the nuclear age by sheer brilliance; and at the consumer age because God wants his anointed people to own iPods, a DVD player in every room, and at least one salad shooter per family member.
In addition to spreading propaganda about how life would be so much better in the cities, Big Agri-Business (who contributed generously to Big Politicians) used other methods to eliminate their smaller competitors. The book cites the following example. What looked like a drug law, The Marijuana Tax Act, taxed hemp at $200 per ounce, unless you had a permit. But, wait. No permits were issued. Hemp is used to make rope, and rope made of natural stuff was in direct competition with rope made with petroleum products. By virtue of this tax, the synthetic fiber and plastics industry were able to eliminate the competition, quite nicely.
Here’s how Joe explains it:
Thus it was that, in 1937, American was at last made safe from an epidemic of “Reefer Madness”, and the planting of the evil fiber that, according to public service films, made young girls throw off their panties in the throes of crazed lust, and young men suddenly purchase switchblades and go roaming the “angry Negro streets at dawn” in search of the nearest opium den.
If I have any criticism of this book, it’s that I detect a bit of ranting. I can picture Joe tearing up the keyboard, leaving his laptop battered and bruised as he pounds out his dislike and his vengeance.
Meanwhile, you there! Yes, you, my oxi-addicted nephew, my drunken, redneck backhoe-operator cousin, you, the unemployed Holy Roller … Be assured that you will be allowed to work again. And again. For that is your sole purpose in the system, your lone value to it, as a replaceable moving part made of flesh.
He made it his life’s work, mostly, to expose what Big Business has done to us. And he’s talking about everyone. All of us have been affected, those of us who spend our days filling out forms, and selling insurance policies, and sending credit card transactions into cyberspace, and even those of us who issue eviction notices and repossess cars, brought about by the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, which is still going on, and was caused by … well, everyone knows who caused it.
Joe points out that, while he speaks specifically about the subsistence farmers of the South, it hasn’t stopped there. The erosion of jobs is still happening. The agriculture jobs are gone, taken over by the likes of Dole and Tyson and Del Monte. Factory jobs are gone, shipped overseas, and even our customer service and tech jobs too (outsourced to places where they still burn dung), which has caused a shift into two classes, the upperclass and the underclass.
The book is easy to read, easy to understand, not dry, full of wit and humor and sarcasm. It has been said that it should be required reading, though probably at the college level, when students actually begin to care about such things. Well, at least some of them do.
Here comes the bad news. Joe died of brain cancer in March, 2011, four days before Rainbow Pie was published. We won’t have any more of his wonderful books to read, that might educate us, might make us think about things a little differently than we do.
No culture in which NASCAR flourishes can possibly last another decade. But then, I’ve been saying that for thirty years. Joe Bageant, 1946 – 2011.