Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Joe Bageant’

Two Prophets of the End Times

In American Economy, American Society, Current events on February 23, 2014 at 11:10 pm

The Transfiguration

I would call most of what I do on this blog ‘commenting’ – I have a look at what people are saying and doing, and talk about how I think it’s good or bad for America. I like to play the Devil’s Advocate, questioning concepts that we take for granted, looking at the bad ideas that are often floating around, extending them out to their often frightening logical conclusions, wondering aloud how our society could be better if we could just break out of lazy, routine habits of thought. I do not believe that our future as a nation has already been decided by an all-knowing deity somewhere at the center of the cosmos; we, ourselves, will decide our own future, either through purposeful action or blind inaction, for good or ill.

Sometimes, however, while looking for something germane on which to comment, I encounter a real prophet. In doing some research about Scots-Irish immigration to America, I ran across an irreverent essay written by Joe Bageant, How the Scots Irish Screwed Up America. That’s actually the subtitle; I’ll warn gentle readers that the main title might offend. Bageant’s writings show an understanding of the plight of the used-to-be middle class better than other I’ve read. Here’s an excerpt from his essay Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball that truly explains our economic problems today:

“As an Anglo European white guy from a very long line of white guys, I want to thank all the brown, black, yellow and red people for a marvelous three-century joy ride. During the past 300 years of the industrial age, as Europeans, and later as Americans, we have managed to consume infinitely more than we ever produced, thanks to colonialism, crooked deals with despotic potentates and good old gunboats and grapeshot. Yes, we have lived, and still live, extravagant lifestyles far above the rest of you. And so, my sincere thanks to all of you folks around the world working in sweatshops, or living on two bucks a day, even though you sit on vast oil deposits. And to those outside my window here in Mexico this morning, the two guys pruning the retired gringo’s hedges with what look like pocket knives, I say, keep up the good work. It’s the world’s cheap labor guys like you — the black, brown and yellow folks who take it up the shorts — who make capitalism look like it actually works. So keep on humping. Remember: We’ve got predator drones…. 

Capitalism is about one thing: aggregating the surplus productive value of the public for private interests. As we have said, it is about creating state sanctioned “investments” for the workers who produce the real wealth. Things like home “ownership” and mortgages, or stock investments and funds to absorb their retirement savings. That crushing 30-year mortgage with two refis is an investment. So is that 401K melting like a snow cone (on) the beach.

As the people’s wealth accumulates, it is steadily siphoned off by government and elite private forces. From time to time, it is openly plundered for their benefit by way of various bubbles, depressions or recessions and other forms of theft passed off as unavoidable acts of nature/god. These periodic raids and draw downs of the people’s wealth are attributed to “business cycles.” Past periodic raids and thefts are heralded as being proof of the rationale. “See folks, it comes and goes, so it’s a cycle!” Economic raids and busts become “market adjustments.” Public blackmail and plundering through bailouts become a “necessary rescue packages.” Giveaways to corporations under the guise of public works and creating employment become “stimulus.” The chief responsibility of economists is to name things in accordance with government and corporate interests. The function of the public is to acquire debt and maintain “consumer confidence.” When the public staggers to its feet again and manages to carry more debt, buy more poker chips on credit to play again, it’s called a recovery. They are back in the game.

Dealer, hit me with two more cards. I feel lucky….”

Unfortunately, Joe passed away in March, 2011, so his prophecies have come to an end. I am enjoying the work he left behind little bits at a time so that I can savor every word. If you haven’t yet read Deer Hunting with Jesus, grab a copy; he really understands what makes America’s white underclass tick.

Still alive and kicking – and seemingly as mad as a hornet – is another doomsday prophet, James Howard Kunstler. Where Bageant seems annoyed, Kunstler is truly pissed off. And, like any good prophet, he predicts a host of calamities that will soon beset the world order as we know it. If you want to know how 2014 is going to turn out, have a look at a Burning Down the House, a recent post on his blog, the title of which, once again, may offend the gentle reader. Here’s a sampling of some of his least frightening observations:

“Sorry to skip around, but a few stray words about the state of American culture. Outside the capitals of the “one percent” — Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, etc. — American material culture is in spectacular disrepair. Car culture and chain store tyranny have destroyed the physical fabric of our communities and wrecked social relations. These days, a successful Main Street is one that has a wig shop and a check-cashing office. It is sickening to see what we have become. Our popular entertainments are just what you would design to produce a programmed population of criminals and sex offenders. The spectacle of the way our people look —overfed, tattooed, pierced, clothed in the raiment of clowns — suggests an end-of-empire zeitgeist more disturbing than a Fellini movie. The fact is, it simply mirrors the way we act, our gross, barbaric collective demeanor. A walk down any airport concourse makes the Barnum & Bailey freak shows of yore look quaint. In short, the rot throughout our national life is so conspicuous that a fair assessment would be that we are a wicked people who deserve to be punished.” 

Old Testament doomsayers such as Ezekiel or Nehemiah could hardly have said it any better. Is anyone paying attention?

Be sure to ‘like’ americansecularist on Facebook to get posts as soon as they’re published.

Also, check out my newest blog – nevercomingback – for tales from my travels abroad.

The Gospel According to Bubba

In American Society, Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on February 13, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Read the Epistle of James here.

Scholars cannot even seem to agree on who wrote the Epistle of James, let alone exactly when it might have been written. A complicating factor is that first century Judea had far too many people walking around named Jim – a problem all modern English-speaking countries share. There was James, son of Alphaeus, whose name is listed in all three synoptic gospels as one of the original disciples, then never really mentioned again. There was James, son of Zebedee who quite prominently figured into the New Testament narrative as one of Jesus’ first and most beloved disciples. Unfortunately, he was also among the earliest martyred, in 44 AD, when Christ’s followers hadn’t yet seen the need to do much – if any – writing. Finally, as the letter appears to be written to Jewish Christians only, many attribute the writing to James the brother of the Lord, who, although not listed as a disciple in the gospels, appears to have been the pastor of the church in Jerusalem soon after Jesus’ death.

As a kid growing up in the American South, I am familiar with the dilemma of having too many kids running around bearing the same given name – not too many Jacksons, Aidens, or Liams christened in the hills of Appalachia back in those days. Looking back at my father’s generation and earlier, it seems every male in my family had some variation of only about five names – George, James, Earl, Andrew, or Donald – two of which they happily passed on to me. The only way to know whom you’re talking about at any given time in this situation is to assign a distinctive nickname or moniker to pretty much everyone you know. Thus, most of your friends end up with names like Junior, Little Billy, Fatboy, and Jimmy the Jew. Once you are stuck with a nickname – even if you eventually become bigger, slimmer, or less careful with money – you are stuck with it for life.

First century believers solved the ‘too many Jims’ problem in exactly the same way, albeit their nicknames were kinder, if not any more imaginative. So Alphaeus is known as James the Less, Zebedee as James the Greater, and Jesus’ brother as James the Just. Historians think the appellation ‘less’ had something to do with Alphaeus’ youth or stature, not an indication of his rank among the disciples. In the perverse naming process of the South, James the Less would weigh in at 300 pounds, while James the Greater would stand about five foot five. And James the Just would be either someone truly above reproach – or the town crook. Southerners can’t resist this kind of cruel yet mirthful irony. So, if you live in West Virginia and you’ve just met a guy online whose nickname is ‘Tiny’, you might want to think twice before going out on that date.

I am dwelling on a trivial bit of detail – nicknames – because as I study the New Testament, I am constantly fascinated by the cultural parallels between the group of people who created the Bible a couple thousand years ago and those who most fervently believe in it today. I am currently reading two insightful books that relate some of the history of my antebellum ancestors, the forefathers of those who inhabit America’s Bible belt.

Night Comes to the Cumberlands, by Harry M. Caudill, tells a tale not often heard in high school history classes, the story of the many Scots-Irish immigrants of the early to mid-18th century who came to these shores less than willingly. Orphans cleared from the streets, petty thieves or debtors pulled from jails, even poor working men simply kidnapped from their homes, this human surplus of England’s cities and larger towns were sold into indentured servitude to the plantation owners of Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Many of these arrivals cast their eyes to the mountains that made the western frontier, and ran off into the Blue Ridge or Shenandoahs at the first opportunity; those unable to do so often joined them when their term of service finally expired.

In Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant refers to these frontiersmen as Borderers. For centuries, their Scottish ancestors eked out a miserable, often violent existence along the ever-changing boundary between Scotland and England, with fierce Scandinavian raiders arriving from time to time to make things all the more pleasant. Hardened in both body and spirit by centuries of violent clan war and privation, they so threatened the social order that James II (another Jim!) rounded up as many as he could and sent them to Northern Ireland, hoping they might direct their energies into pacifying the Catholic Irish. When that worked out as well as might be expected, they began to arrive on colonial American shores.

These Borderers had little to offer in the way of knowledge or skill, good for only labor – and securing frontiers. In fact the landed gentry of colonies like Pennsylvania were all too happy to send these barbarians out to the edges of their territories. If they could scratch out a living while enduring the raids of the French and the feathered native, great. If they couldn’t, perhaps they might at least wipe out enough of them that the job would be easier for the next guy.

Wanted Jesus 1917

Judea is located in one of the world’s first natural battlefields, unfortunately situated halfway between two incredibly fertile river valleys, the Nile to the west, the Tigris and Euphrates to the east. The hardscrabble mountains, deserts, and wilderness areas of the land we call Israel today were no match for the well-watered agricultural lands that surrounded them when it came to raising up empires. The ancient armies that rolled through on their way to somewhere else are well-documented in the Biblical record – Egyptians, Philistines, Phoenicians, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans – to name a few.

Because we look at history from the point of view of the writers of the OT, we tend to think of Israel as being in the center of what was really happening in the world; in truth, it lay at the periphery. Other cultures were building massive cities and monuments as early as 3000 BC; two thousand years later, Jacob’s progeny had only managed to build a tiny fort on a scrubby hill – the City of David – the crowning achievement of which was a temple so small Joel Osteen couldn’t manage a staff meeting inside.

No, Israel wasn’t at the center of things – the Judeans were the Borderers of antiquity. They had been smashed on every side for centuries. They were slaves in Egypt. They saw the finest of their people carted off by the Babylonians. The Romans burnt their holy city nearly to the ground. Their scrubby patch of land never allowed them to produce the sheer number of soldiers needed to fight off the armies of the great empires. They were a tiny cog in the great machinations of international schemes.

What’s a Borderer to do? Both groups grabbed hold of their religion and held fast. They rankled at the thought of any authority other than God himself. They dreamt of apocalypse, when those who had oppressed them would get what was coming to them. After hundreds of years, they continue to name their children after heroes, men who may have existed, or are perhaps no more than ancient fairy tales.

The men at the forefront of Christianity in the first century were the religious rednecks of their day. They were uneducated, blue-collar workers, carpenters, fishermen. For nearly two decades after Jesus’ death, they didn’t even bother writing anything down. They weren’t theologians, they were preachers; the Holy Ghost wasn’t something you explained, it was something you felt.

I’ve heard uneducated, uncouth backwoods preachers claim that they know more about the New Testament than any Harvard-educated professor ever could. In a sense, there is some validity to this claim. Today’s Bible belt believer is the natural heir to the first century Christian, like it or not.

So, who wrote the Epistle of James? Well, it was either James, or someone named James, as the old joke goes. We could call him Just, or Lesser, or even Bubba if we wanted. What we should truly concern ourselves with is how its message is playing out today in American churches – and American society.

Be sure to ‘like’ americansecularist on Facebook to get posts as soon as they’re published.

Also, check out my newest blog – nevercomingback – for tales from my travels abroad.