By Michael Drohan
The author, Joe Bargeant, was born in Winchester, Virginia, a town of approximately 27,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley of North-Western Virginia. The town, founded in 1752, has a veneer of fame from hosting the Stonewall Jackson Museum and the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. According to Bargeant’s account, it is a depressed rural town that represents best the vast rural landscape that put George W. Bush and then Donald Trump in the office of President.
Bargeant describes himself as the one who got away from Winchester via Vietnam and the chance of a higher education, which almost all his grade school classmates never had. The culture and life of the working class in Winchester he relates corresponds little to what is generally understood to be the blue collar working class of large cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago.
Bargeant maintains that Winchester is “an unacknowledged parallel world to that of educated urban liberals”. His part of town contains the town’s most hard-core working class neighborhoods where one finds $20,000 a year laborers and $14,000 a year fast food workers. Apart from the service sector of the town, the principal employers are Newell Rubbermaid and a GE electric lamp factory. But even these are threatened species with the advent of Walmart which put the screws on Rubbermaid to reduce prices to the extent that relocation in Mexico, at least partially, was their only option. Despite the glamour and grandeur of central Winchester, the general housing stock of Winchester is dismal, consisting of mobile homes and modular homes of poor quality.
One of the main social characteristics of this so-called heartland is a rejection of what they call liberalism and liberal values. Most of the inhabitants oppose welfare schemes, workers unions, human rights laws, affirmative action, environmental regulations, OSHA regulations and, above all, any increase of gun laws. For those whom the liberal state have meant to help by such regulations, one might find such a mentality puzzling to say the least.
Bargeant’s way of explaining this phenomenon is by pointing to a lack of education bordering on illiteracy, magnified by the influence of right wing television and radio. The average American spends about one third of his or her waking life watching television. Bargeant maintains its neurological effects are profound. It produces what he calls the American hologram, meaning that the average American reflects what the television writes on his/her brain surface and projects it as the way the world is and should be.
Another aspect of the heartland culture which Bargeant delves into is religion and the role it plays in their life and culture. Bargeant’s brother Mike is the pastor of the local Baptist Church and he attests to having driven out demons from some of his flock. The religion that Bargeant maintains is dominant in his own town is a mish mash of fundamentalist Christianity that subscribes to End Times theology and belief in the Rapture at the end of times. In general, what is called Reconstructionism characterizes their world view and their interpretation of the Bible.
In the Reconstructionist view, capital punishment is defended for a wide range of “crimes” such as blasphemy, witchcraft, adultery, sodomy and homosexuality. The espousal of this form of Christianity makes heartlanders open to full-blooded support for Israel and the wars in the Middle East. As a precursor of the Rapture, which is to take place in Israel, the Jews must retake the entire biblical lands from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates. Here is where the religion of the heartland and the warrior state and American exceptionalism overlap in their world view, providing ample gun fodder for the military industrial complex in its Middle East endeavors. Defense of gun rights are a given in the heartland and any curtailment of them is anathema.
One of the upsetting facets of Bargeant’s book is his belief that the effort to regulate gun rights is a misguided obsession of liberals; an opportunity for “the fearful rich and the Republicans to capitalize on in order to kick liberal asses in elections”. He also maintains that gun possession results in the saving of thousands of lives each year, that school shootings and gun accidents among children are declining, contrary to statistical evidence. Gun violence, in the opinion of heartlanders and Bargeant, is largely due to “meth-heads” and “gangbangers” whom one is unlikely to meet up with at a gun show. In the closing chapter of his book, Bargeant gives a profile of what one might call a real estate tycoon named Bobby Fulk ( not his real name). Despite his great wealth Bobby is functionally illiterate, anti-union, pro-death penalty and pro-war, much like that other real estate tycoon, Donald Trump. Such are the folks that the heartlanders look up to and consider astute.
Michael Drohan is a member of the Editorial Collective and of the Thomas Merton Center