An Interview with Joe Bageant

John Smith—08/2004
You have probably read one of Bageant's articles, but who exactly is Joe Bageant? We interview him on his life, his work and his newly found internet cult status.

IWAS FIRST CONTACTED by Joe Bageant back in April this year, when he sent me, out of the blue, his article Sleepwalking to Fallujah. That article was written in a way that only a top writer can, and soon afterwards, more pieces followed. From his work and some email exchanges, I realized that Bageant is an extraordinary man as well as a very gifted writer, with a unique take on the American political situation that ensures the huge popularity of his articles and his growing internet cult status.

A product of a working class Virginian background, 35 years experience as a writer and editor, as well as personal friendships over many years with some of the most progressive thinkers of our time — including Timothy Leary, Stephen Gaskin, Allen Ginsburg, Trungpa Rinpoche, William Burroughs, John Lilly and Marshall Mcluhan — have given Bageant an education that would be the envy of any Ivy League graduate, a writing ability that is certainly comparable to Gore Vidal's, and an obsessive drive to champion the ordinary men and women of America.

Many people mistakenly believe that Bageant is somehow anti-American, that this openly socialist writer hates his country and democracy. The truth is Bageant absolutely loves his country and its democratic ideals, which is why he writes such vitriolic articles about what the Bush administration is doing to these ideals — hijacking patriotism to support a corrupt and insidious government that is rapidly turning the US into an Orwellian police state, and other countries around the world into US military bases. In his view, America, the icon of freedom, is being played in the same way that the Nazi Party played pre-war Germany. Bageant is a man who, like Michael Moore, feels compelled to speak out for freedom, justice and democracy, the bedrock of the country he loves; although, in our topsy-turvy world of disinformation and ignorance, he fully accepts that such sentiments will often get one labeled as "unpatriotic" or "anti-American".

The reason that you have probably not heard of him before, is that Bageant is not an ambitious writer, and has been happy to live the life of a low-profile magazine and newspaper editor, although as a senior editor with Primedia Magazine Corp., publishers of over 300 American magazines, he is certainly highly regarded within his profession. All that changed, however, when Bageant discovered the internet earlier this year and realized that it gave him the perfect platform to freely speak his truth. Writing a string of uniquely perceptive articles during these dark times in America's history have put an end to that relative obscurity, thrusting Bageant and his message of a true and caring democracy squarely into public awareness.

I am privileged here to present an exclusive interview, the first as far as I am aware, with this extraordinary writer:

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JS: Thanks Joe for agreeing to be interviewed by a tiny online magazine like ourselves. I know that you are a person who has always championed the little guy. Why is that?

Bageant: Well, hell. I come from a long line of little guys. My daddy never made more than $55 a week in his life, until he was finally so sick he had to go on the dole and get Social Security. He never got past the eighth grade and worked his dick into the dirt. Had his first heart attack before he was 40. And I myself have worked construction labour, in car washes, loaded rail cars, even once had a job chopping up dead rotten hogs with an axe on a big hog industrial farm. I come from America's invisible and non represented people, the ones who shovel the shit and seldom complain. So now I am finally in the middle class, sort of, but I still write from the vantage point of my people because it's the only thing I really know much about. That and lobbing hand grenades at this rogue nation of mine.

JS: Tell me something about your childhood in Virginia? How did a Lefty come out from the cradle of Neocon America?

Bageant: I grew up very poor at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Virginia/West Virginia line. My first 14 years of life were spent in the country. Actually they were rather happy years, despite the relative poverty. Nearly everyone else there was poor too, and we never thought much about it. We feared god, hunted deer, worked hard and never expected much, materially speaking.

But I was especially lucky because I saw the end of an era in Appalachia, a peaceful subsistence farming lifestyle of my grandparents. I went to a one-room schoolhouse, the same one my father and grandfather went to, carried water and chopped wood and had countless hours of solitude playing in the forests and imagining things. Hell, we didn't have a lot of toys and crap, so we had to use our imaginations. I think it had a lot to do with becoming a writer.

Then when my dad moved us into town so he could work at a gas station, life got complicated. There were class issues among the town kids. In my hometown of Winchester, Virginia we have a throwback class system, left over from the days of English settlement. If you don't have the right last name in my town, or are not useful to someone who is from the right family, your name is shit. You're gonna have to leave to be anything in life.

So I left. Quit school in the 11th grade and went into the Navy at age 16. Later I got a high school equivalency diploma and went on with school. Much later.because when the Sixties started happening I jumped in head first, stark nekkid and screaming for glory. Headed west to join the counter cultural revolution. Lived in a school bus, worked all sorts of labour jobs, ate lots of acid and began to write. That went well from the very beginning, in as much as everything I wrote got published somewhere, usually in hippie or student newspapers, and sometimes in national mags. People seemed to like it. So I figured what the hell? I must have found a vocation in life! It also eased my soul a lot. I wrote approximately in the same way then that I do now. It was shallower though because I didn't have as much experience in life. Fewer convictions.

JS: Who were the people who were most influential to you growing up?

Bageant: At first I worshipped my father and grandfather and all my rough and tumble uncles who knew how to butcher a hog, plant by the stars and fix any damned mechanical thing that ever got broken. Real survivors. Real men of the old school. But as I began to develop an intellectual life, we had less and less in common. Finally, by my early teens, we didn't understand each other at all. I retreated into books about art and music and never came back

As far as writing goes, I was influenced by all the usual suspects of my generation, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gaye Telese, William Styron, Genet, and especially all the Southern writers, Welty, Willie Morris… not to mention a lot of people who never got the respect they deserved, especially poets like Marc Campbell of Taos, New Mexico and Jack Collum of Boulder, Colorado. Their works really clued me in on the connection between words, your brain and your heart.

JS: Your writing is certainly passionate. Tell me something of your years at college and how they formed or changed you? Is that where you leaned to write so lucidly

Bageant: College? LOL! I took classes along the way, but never cared about any kind of serious program. I just studied what I wanted, painting, history, writing, comparative religion, and journalism. It was the Sixties and I didn't give a fuck about degrees or jobs. I wanted to design my own intellectual life. I was already meeting what I considered the important artists and writers of my day, and professors were begging for introductions to them. Also, I had a wife and son early in life and was far more interested in my hippy family, communes, and the self-realization movement. Like I said, everything I wrote was getting published and I was getting choice cultural and media assignments. For very small bucks but I always got the good ones. So hell, I was a pretty happy guy.

JS: How did the likes of Timothy Leary, Stephen Gaskin, Allen Ginsberg. Trungpa Rinpoche, William Burroughts, John Lilly and Marshall Mcluhan become your personal friends and mentors?

Bageant: I spent 14 years in Boulder Colorado, much of that time interviewing or writing about those people for regional arts and culture and rock and roll rags. The counterculture's heroes were always coming through town, or hanging out at the Buddhist university there, Naropa. So I got to know some of them. In fact, part of the reason for writing for papers and mags was so I could get to meet them and hang out.

They were heroes of mine long before I ever met them. For example, I named my son for Timothy Leary before I ever encountered Leary personally. As for them being mentors, nobody was sitting me on their knee and telling me the secrets of writing and magicianship. But I was accepted in their company and at parties and got to watch them live their lives creatively and with passion. I came to the conclusion that this writing thing and the arts in general had as much to do with how you lived as anything else. It was clear to me that I should watch and learn from people like Ginsberg, who was the most famous poet on the planet for a reason.even if he couldn't keep his goddam hands off your ass. And it only took a few minutes to see for yourself that even though the shallow media never understood him, Tim Leary was a scientist philosopher bard, a Galileo of consciousness and one of the great thinkers of our time who had lifted off from this earth and didn't mind waving bye bye to the inhabitants of planet yokel.

As for Trungpa Rinpoche, I never got him at first, and made fun of him the whole time he was alive. Then years later, after his death, he hit me like a sledgehammer. I finally got it. Or at least enough of it to do some good.

JS: You seem quite passionately political, and yet you are also devoted to Buddhism, a religious system that advocates detachment. How do you hold such differing perspectives?

Bageant: I do not find them all that differing. Both are concerned with mankind, people together and as a whole. Socialism covers the material side of it, and Buddhism deals with the spiritual aspects. But both acknowledge that we are in this river of life together, that we are presented with struggle from the day of our birth, and that we have to make individual choices. That we will only arrive at the other shore together. Both are about the path, not religions. Sure, Marxists are too much focused on the material aspects. But that doesn't negate the deep wellspring of Marxist thought. And Buddhism, despite the pop Euro and American notion of its supposed bliss and pacifism, has a place for violence in its cosmology. That's why there were many Buddhist resistance fighters against the murderous Chinese takeover of Tibet.

JS: What is your biggest gripe about America today?

Bageant: At my age and with my high blood pressure, I can't afford to have heartburn type gripes with America. But I do have a sadness about my country which, for the sake of interest and readability, I express in, shall we say, "highly animated fashion." I have always loved my country — which is not by the way, the same as loving your government. But now I fear it.

I have fished for bass at night in its once beautiful rivers, and I have played stink finger with its young Southern girls who wear no panties on August nights by the light of its many moons. I have grown what can almost be called old now, with its earth beneath my feet and its legends in my eyes. And now a bunch of cheap murderous cocksuckers have hijacked the place that made me what I am and are busily turning it into one vast capitalist gulag. Stealing my children's' dreams… everything I ever experienced and cared about has become irrelevant. I don't care about my own experiences disappearing into the void so much as I care about the blackness now descending. I am here right now to tell you that America is a rogue nation and the greatest threat afoot to civilization. That doesn't mean that every American is Hitler and it doesn't mean that there is no hope. But we gotta cop to what is going on. When a nation refuses to acknowledge the need for world tribunals for ethnic cleansing and refutes the Kyoto agreements, and murders tens of thousands to keep its stock market afloat, then that nation must be called malignant upon this earth.

JS: When do you think the slide towards a fascist totalitarian state started?

Bageant: Immediately after World War II, when that much-deified dickhead druggist Harry Truman set in stone the intelligence and military industrial complex that had been established during the war.

JS: I don't need to ask you your opinion about President Bush — you make that plain in many of your articles — but how do you think someone so unsuitable could get elected to office

Bageant: Because America has become an ignorant bloated culture of comfort and consumption. Our religion is comfort and engorgement. Not all of us, but enough of us to keep it all rolling. Hell, even our churches preach a baptised version of the American Dream, which comes down to "anything I can get my goddam paws on and devour — fuck the environment and screw the starving millions. We are a nation of belligerent lard-asses willing to kill anyone and everyone to keep our cars running and the god dam Cheetos (which I openly admit that I eat when I am blind drunk and stumbling under the thundering of gins' poisoned hooves) on the coffee table. Angry? Nope. Just the plain facts my Limey friends. You still think your guy Blair can partner up with a psychopath and ensure a supply of oil. Maybe even score one last ruddy-nutted English victory over the sand niggers you once ruled. Ya know, I don't think you Brits understand that when the last blood of dinosaurs is drained from the Middle East, we will bomb the fuck out of you in the competition for the last drop.

As for Bush getting elected, it's the same as Hitler. Bush represents most Americans, or at least a slim majority. But it's a mean majority and we can expect a Reichstadt fire sometime during the next 10 years. Bush may be gone, Kerry may get elected, but we've got an oil habit kiddo, and a lust for empire and you will be roadkill if you get in the road. Sure, there will be some slobbering gutless Democrats elected along the way, but all it will be is a feel-good exercise of an expiring empire. People put too much faith in political parties. They should have taken to the streets 15 years ago.

JS: In a nutshell, what has Bush done for the average American?

Bageant: Given them faith in their own desperate hubris.

JS: If that is the case, and the average American is far worse off under Bush, then why is it that he still has such strong support, often from the very people whose quality of lives is most depreciated by this government?

Bageant: Because we have institutionalised our hubris in the schools and the churches and everywhere else. Because Americans think obesity and belligerence are virtues, and that Jesus Christ and a five piece band came down and made them the new chosen people.

JS: Why is somebody like yourself, who champions the ordinary American, regarded as unpatriotic for opposing a government and its policies that are so clearly destroying the American ideals of democracy and liberty

Bageant: Because the government has nothing to do with real patriotism. Patriotism is a love of the place and the people who have shaped your heart and mind, not your willingness to die for oil or, as Napoleon said "for those baubles pinned on the chests of dead soldiers."

JS: Coming from the South, your views cannot be very popular with your neighbours. How do you deal with them or protect yourself from them?

Bageant: Well. for a while I was some kind of goddamed anti-Christ around here. All kinds of scary threats, and such. Now I have been laying low like old Bre'r Rabbit (You Brits don't have the slave tales of Bre'r Rabbit do you?). The locals are so consumed with being good Germans amid their neighbours, they do not even think about the internet stuff. They are busy keeping mental lists of which liberals they are going to put on trial when the Republican Reich finally dawns.

JS: In your articles you seem to indicate that it is hopeless trying to convince many of your compatriots that they are actually supporting a government that is not in the interests of the American people or of American ideals. Do you see any way through this

Bageant: Nope. They gotta find their own way. That's what democracy is about. People finding their own way. Or not finding it.

JS: In "The Covert Kingdom" you illustrate the mentality of the Christian Fundamentalists that the progressive left is up against, a mentality that is only matched by Muslim Fundamentalism. How can we, in a democratic system, keep such destructive segments of society from harming the less vocal majority (assuming that they are not a majority!)?

Bageant: It can't. Until the progressive left gets out there on the street and recruits every ignorant piece of white trash and person of colour it ain't gonna happen. But here in the US, the so-called left is comfortable being in the catering class of college professors, managers, journalists, school teachers and others required to keep the capitalist system humming, they ain't gonna take any risks. They just don't get it that if they do not love their labouring brothers, beer belly, ignorance, crack habit and all, their ass is grass too. It's only a matter of time. But they simply do not believe these people are their brothers, or even human, for that matter. America is a class system first and foremost.

JS: Tell me some of your views on freedom. Many would accuse you of being left or communist. which can also be totalitarian.

Bageant: I am not a communist. I am a universalist humanist socialist. I would be a commie, but for the fact that communism seems too easily hijacked by despotic thugs. I don't know why, and at this age I do not have the time to find out. I'll run with what I know so far. Stick my spear in the ground and tie my leg to it and do the best I can.

JS: If you were President, what are the first things you would do to move the US away from fascism and back to democracy?

Bageant: I would cut the Pentagon budget in half and spread the dough around to health care and education here and in third world countries, and spend billions on peace studies and the ecology. I'm a simple fucker.

JS: When did you first go on the internet and what is your view of this medium?

Bageant: In April of this year. I loved the Internet from the very beginning as I had decided a while back that I was sick of the paint-by-numbers journalism that has ruined the print world, and was looking for an outlet in which I could say exactly what I wanted to the way I wanted to.The internet may well be the political hope of the world. Maybe someday we will have internet referendums on what to do with the world's wheat supply. Maybe someday the global corporations' knees will be broken and every knee will bow in humble submission to the needs of humanity. Every pharmaceutical company will be distributing AIDS drug to the beating heart of Mother Africa. But first there is going to be a lot of death and destruction. The Twin Towers were just the cartoons before the movie of global revolution.

JS: Are you surprised at your meteoric rise to cult internet writer considering you have only been online such a short time? How do you account for this?

Bageant: Yes, I am. I have always had good response to whatever I put into print. But that stuff was always distributed within defined circulation boundaries such as those of a magazine or a newspaper. If a magazine has 150,000 readers, then that is about all a writer is going to reach through that medium. But the internet can aggregate people of similar opinion and outlook with power and speed that is unimaginable in print.

Working in magazines for so many years, it seems to me that magazine and book publishers still just do not "get" the internet. They still suffer under the illusion that people will not read anything over 1500 words, etc. Yet a reader is a reader. They also get too trapped in "marketing segmentation," demographics, psychographics, and all that crap that was so hot with marketing people ten years ago. The net is an ocean of human beings and you gotta swim among them to understand them and what you need to do to stay afloat. There is no magic marketing plan you can wire into, other than provide what people really want on the sites they go to get it.

Half the nation doesn't read and never will. So they will be looking for small takeaway bites from the net. Fair enough. But people who care about ideas and information will devote just as much time to the net as to a book, and probably buy a book related the internet source too if it further serves their purpose. For example, I began restoring an ancient slave banjo from information on the net. Then later I bought a book by the same author I was reading on the net. That would not have happened if the net had not provided instant access to that luthier's advice. It also happened a lot more quickly than if I had had to research the subject by traditional means.

By the way, I did not just recently discover the net. I have been into it from the beginning. However, I recently decided that it was better to give my articles and essays away for free than to piss around with any longer with the restrictions of print and the talentless and gutless people and corporations that so often own or manage it. And hell, I am one of those people! So I understand why and how the corporatization of media has reduced our once-thriving American dialogue to a warm puddle of commercial piss. With the exception of a few good magazines like Harpers, there's nothing left to read in this country. Yet, I can go on the net and find some extremely talented people with something to say and web editors who are not afraid to let them say it, if I devote time enough to the search. They may not have the writer's craft, but their ideas and insights as human beings move us and feed our minds.

JS: How hopeful are you about the future?

Bageant: In the long view, very. But we are talking about centuries here. I won't be around to see it. Neither will you. The bad news is that you young'uns are going to have to take up the fight. A worse fight than I ever knew. The good news is that it won't be over in your lifetime either. So your victory does not have to be complete. There are laws of physics and the universe neither of us can change. Right now Americans believe they can deny the second law of thermodynamics.

But in the end some upright hominid will be scraping lichens for food off a radio active rock with a computer chip shard and once again starting the slow upward trajectory of humankind toward the stars. That's the thing about this smear of biology on a speck of cosmic dust called earth. It is a virulent strain, and assuming a new biology on a ruined planet, it will send its silver seed, even if robotically, away from this gravity well called earth into the singing interstellar void. As any Buddhist understands, it's never over. It's just a ripple in the atomic tides of the universe.

JS: Please describe to us your utopian or ideal society.

Bageant: Ain't no such thing. Just struggle. Constant struggle, and if you do it right, you get to struggle for beauty and truth in a society that allows them to exist.

JS: I understand you are a family man. Tell me about your wife and children

Bageant: My wife Barbara is a historical archivist and a feminist, and was a Madison Wisconsin radical feminist during the 1960s. She is currently involved in establishing and restoring a slave school museum here in Clarke County… a historical record of the post-slavery experience in Virginia as expressed by their descendants. She has a son, Spencer, who is a gifted popular culture expert in Seattle.

I have three children by two previous marriages and I am now married for a third time. Let's just say I have been happily married more times than the average person. I have a 37-year old son by my first wife, Cindy, named Tim — for Timothy Leary. He grew up in the midst of the entire Sixties adventure, saw it all go down… the glorious and the ugly, the strangeness and the joy.  Lived in school buses, ate snails with Hunter Thompson, traveled to Latin America with me… And because of all that he understands me more than anyone else on this earth. He is my deepest and most constant brother, son and friend. In that I have been a lucky man. He sees through this country's bullshit with x-ray vision.

I have two other children by my second marriage, Patrick, who is a good lefty and getting ready for law school. And Elizabeth, who just returned from a long stint as an AIDS worker in Mozambique. She is destined to save the world.

JS: How did you bring up your children… did you do anything to try to make them more aware of what was going on in society around them

Bageant: No, mainly I just fucked up a lot in front of them and they seem to have learned from my mistakes.

JS: What do your family think of what you write?

Bageant: As far as I know, they do not read what I write. They have seen me be a writer for many, many years. It's just a fact of life to them. I am not the center of everything in my family. They are intensely involved in their own lives because they are self-realizing people with dreams of their own. It works really well for all of us. I do suspect however, my wife Barbara will probably read my book. She's a big reader and will probably want to know where all the recent money came from.

JS: Finally, what are your personal plans or goals for the future? Are you going to have your own website soon, radio/TV show or write a book?

Bageant: Dammit kid! You ask NOTHING BUT hard questions! Can I adopt you? I am starting to get book and movie offers. Enough of them that I had to get an agent. Jimmy Vines of New York. If they do come through, (and I am not pounding my meat over the possibility) I plan to have a cottage in someplace like Andalusia, or French Martinique; someplace VERY cheap that I can go and write and snipe at the Republic of terror. One man never beat a mob in its own turf. I'll stroke my wife's sweet snatch, pet my dogs and give heart to my children (every one of whom is a good lefty) in some dry place where my arthritic fingers will loosen up enough to learn to play flamenco guitar. I'm serious folks! There is not a person on this earth who can say I never did what I promised… eventually. And every reader here, every son and daughter of good yeoman liberty and decency, as it is defined by the suffering poor of this planet, is invited to come visit, eat tapas and drink wine at my table.

Solidarity!