Monday, March 28, 2011

R.I.P. Joe Bageant (1946-2011)

Joe Bageant, to his friends and readers, was known as a 'loveable curmudgeon.'

That's a strange word, "curmudgeon." It's generally defined as meaning an  ill-tempered, difficult, cantankerous, 'crusty' kind of person--usually referring to an old man.  Joe wasn't all that old but yes, one could say 'curmudgeon' fits.  His writings were often what you'd call cantankerous; sharply worded grumblings spewed forth in passionate bursts that rattled one's complacency.    But, as Jon Winokur once said, "Perhaps curmudgeons have gotten a bad rap, in  the same way that the messenger is blamed for the message: They have the temerity to comment on the human condition without apology. They not only refuse to applaud mediocrity, they howl it down with morose glee....   Curmudgeons are mockers and debunkers ... Their awareness is a curse...   Their versions of the truth unsettle us, and we hold it against them, even though they soften it with humor."

I admit it, Joe Bageant's writings unsettled me. When I first looked at one of his columns I kind of winced--at the liberal use of the F word (it jarred my eye's ears, so to speak); he called feces: 'shit'; derriere: 'ass' and highly annoyed: 'pissed', spontaneous utterances of the sort that used to get bleeped out on TV, for example) but--damn, what he wrote made sense, was what I myself often suspected or thought or felt but was too timid to tackle writing about, and certainly not that bluntly.

Joe told it like it is,  no holds barred.  I found myself going back, again and again, reading his  take on events and people and issues which helped me sometimes see the story behind the story, and an intriguing analysis from a perspective I'd not considered.  And he made me laugh, out loud.   Joe woke me up with his columns, made me see other sides to a thing, from more than one perspective.

The same things that bothered him about certain matters also bothered me:

The Pentagon and the administration hail depleted uranium shells and armor as a breakthrough in modern warfare. U.S. Representative  Christopher Shays said that any health effects the Iraqis suffer from  depleted uranium -- kidney damage, lung cancer, mounting birth defects  -- "pale in comparison with the benefits of regime change in their  country." Well then! Fry my ass on a plutonium skillet! Bring on the  bunker busters! Iraqi and Afghani mothers seem unimpressed with regime  change, even as they weep over twisted, blind infants. [From a posting by Joe on 5/23/05]

It wasn't just his choice of topics--it was the sustained outrage at and concern about things and the evident passion behind the words that resonated, from this (as Joe once referred to himself) "imperfect synthesis of snot-assed liberal and redneck Southern dirt eater."
[From a posting on 3/11/05.]

News of his passing saddened me.  In "Staring Down the Jackals," one of Bageant's posts from 2004, he wrote "There are still some of us old bastards around who have seen enough in our lifetimes to call things what they really are."  He described, in refreshing clarity, what some of us feared America was turning into but we couldn't say it, at least not in certain venues.  In August of that same year, he wrote about the "repressive stench" in Washington, saying "If the worst does happen in my lifetime, I want history to record and my  grandchildren to know that I gave honest voice to the chill I felt in  the air during my times."

Click here to sample The Best of Joe Bageant essays. 

When I heard about Joe's passing in an email this morning, I started thinking for some reason, about Molly Ivins,  newspaper columnist, political commentator, humorist and author, who died of cancer four years ago.  Like Joe Bageant, Molly used satire as a 'weapon of the powerless against the powerful'. Critic James Thurman said of her, " When Ivins writes, there has to be a jalapeno in every line." She, like Joe Bageant, "raised hell," with her words. 

I like to think maybe they'll somehow connect with each other in the Great Hereafter, as fellow former hell raisers, maybe even get to go deer hunting with Jesus (title of one of Joe's books).

I thought, too, this morning, of an elderly friend, J.F., who passed away some years ago in Vermont. Like Molly Ivins, J.F. too was what they called "feisty" (perhaps the female equivalent of 'curmudgeon'), where 'feisty' is defined both as spirited, spunky, plucky, full of animation, energy or courage (if you like the person); and pushy, ill-tempered, pugnacious, touchy and aggressive (if you don't). There's 'feisty' charming and 'feisty' annoying, apparently, depending on the observer's perception.

My friend J.F., too, was outspoken, that is, she spoke out, and loudly, about stuff that bothered her.  Not just the little stuff (like a poorly cooked, tasteless meal), but larger things--like a caretaker going through her jewelry box and stealing a family heirloom; the outrageous monthly charges for her tiny, rented room; or the determined, stunningly cruel actions of certain family members and sometimes, of mankind in general. She, too, was knowledgeable and articulate ...and funny. She chuckled even at herself, telling me one time that she was tired, she wanted to die--but apparently "Neither God nor the Devil want me.  So here I am, what can I do, ha ha ha ha ha ha," and she'd toss back her head and roar with laughter.

Joe Bageant, on the unwakefulness around us:

Few can truly grasp the fullness of the danger because there is no way they can get their minds around it, no way to see the world in its entirety. The tadpole cannot conceive of the banks of the pond, much less the wooded watershed that feeds it. But old frogs glimpse of it.

Still, there is choice available, even a superior choice -- the moral one. Accept the truth and act upon it. Take direct action to eliminate human suffering, and likewise to eliminate our own comfort. We can say no to scorched babies in Iraq. We can refuse to drive at all and refuse to participate in a dead society gone shopping. We can quit being so addicted to the rationality and embrace the spirit...

This sort of suggestion, I've discovered, isn't all that enthusiastically embraced by most.)

All the green energy sources and eating right and voting right cannot  fix  what has been irretrievably ruined, but only make life amid the  ruination slightly more bearable. Species gluttony is nearly over and  we've eaten the earth and pissed upon its bones. Not because we are  cruel by nature (though a case might be made for stupidity) but because  the existence of consciousness necessarily implies each of us as its  individual center, the individual point of all experience and thus all  knowing. The accumulated personal and collective wounds fester and  become fatal because there is no way to inform the world that we must  surrender our assumptions, even if we wanted to. Which we do not because  assumptions are the unseen cultural glue, the DNA of civilization. If  we did so, the crash would be immediate.

No one yet knows with absolute certainty the outcome of our terrible  common plunge toward truth. But even in the worst of times, there is  glory in the sheer electricity of life ...  Life is never completely joyless...

What could be better than a meaningful life during meaningless times? 

  [Excerpts from The Ants of Gaia: "It's only the end of the world; quit bitching"].
My friend, J. F., was not a writer, yet I remembered the words of our many little conversations, as I have of some of Joe's and Molly's written words. They made an impact.  J.F. taught me that you can depart this life, carrying sadness, yet still look back on life with fondness, as in  "Life was a hoot.  It was .... interesting.  I had my say. Thanks for the ride."

 Molly Ivins reminded me that it's not easy, calling attention to darkness, or to an injustice--sometimes you just have to take to the streets banging pots and pans, if that's what it takes.  She meant that literally, by the way; but one can also bang with words--words that break down barriers of inattention, walls of indifference, words that make you perk up, that seep into your consciousness so you can't ignore them, words that compel you to think, and sometimes to act.

 Joe Bageant's words did that for me.  Paraphrased from the previous long quote:

~ ~ Find the truth and act on it.

~ ~ Do what you can to help others who
      who are suffering.

~ ~ You can say No to something you   
      feel is wrong; don't stay silent.

~ ~ Even if you live in meaningless times, 
      make your life meaningful.

So, thinking of Joe Bageant today, and Molly Ivins, and my friend, J.F.--feisty, funny spirits all (who some people would describe as "characters")--what they have in common, for me especially, is that they've made a difference, made me more aware, unknowingly encouraged me to stand up and fight back, make my words and actions count, find humor in even the darkest situations.  I applaud their indomitable spirit, their gutsy gumption, their wholehearted "Bring-it-on!-no-matter-what involvement in life -- but most of all, their unending resolve, to-the-very-end, to keep stoking that inner fire, still burning, still caring, still 'speaking'.


*Joe Bageant's last book, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir comes out on March 30th and is available for pre-order here

*Remembering Joe Bageant, on Dangerous Minds.

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