Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball: The best of Joe Bageant

Joe Bageant, Ken Smith

Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball: The best of Joe Bageant
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Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball: The best of Joe Bageant

Joe Bageant, Ken Smith

‘Essentially, it comes down to the fact that a very large portion of Americans are crazier than shithouse rats and are being led by a gang of pathological misfits, most of whom are preachers and politicians.’ ‘Essentially, it comes down to the fact that a very large portion of Americans are crazier than shithouse rats and are being led by a gang of pathological misfits, most of whom are preachers and politicians.’ In 2004, at the age of 58, writer Joe Bageant sensed that the internet could give him editorial freedom. Without having to deal with gatekeepers, he began writing about what he was really thinking, and started submitting his essays to left-of-centre websites. Joe’s essays soon gained a wide following for his forceful style, his sense of humour, and his willingness to discuss the American white underclass, a taboo topic for the mainstream media. Joe called himself a ‘redneck socialist’, and he initially thought most of his readers would be very much like himself - working class from the southern section of the USA. So he was pleasantly surprised when the emails started filling his in-box. There were indeed many letters from men about Joe’s age who had also escaped rural poverty. But there were also emails from younger men and women readers, from affluent people who agreed that the political and economic system needed an overhaul, from readers in dozens of countries expressing thanks for an alternative view of American life, from working-class Americans in all parts of the country, and more than a few from elderly women who wrote to Joe to say that they respected and appreciated his writing, but ‘please don’t use so much profanity’. Joe Bageant died in March 2011 at the age of 64, having published 89 essays online. The 25 essays presented in Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball have been selected by Ken Smith, who managed Joe’s website and disseminated his work to the wider media and to Joe’s dedicated fans and followers. ‘One of the great American writers of his generation.’ - Charles Firth ‘Bageant must be one of only a handful of people who can provide and understanding of what America’s redneck underclass is thinking. The mix of storytelling and political commentary is superb.’ - The Daily Telegraph ‘Bageant may write like a dream but he hasn’t forgotten where he came from … Cutting through the corporatist flim-flam, he describes just what trouble America is in.’ - The Australian Financial Review Magazine


Joe Bageant’s posthumous collection of essays, Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball, is exactly the kind of straight-talking, tequila-slamming political commentary you’d expect from a man who regards his fellow Americans as ‘genuine and intellectual moral snobs whose consciousness is pretty much glued onto an armature of noise, sports, sex, sugar, and saturated fats’. Bageant, however, is hard to pigeonhole politically. Devout cynic that he was, it’s hard to tell if Bageant would have applauded or dismissed the Occupy anti-capitalist movement currently sweeping the globe. While steadfastly critical of the corporate elite, he’s equally scornful of the so-called ‘thinking classes’, who he views as out of touch with the common man, or common ‘redneck’– a rather politically incorrect term he gets away with using by proudly owning it.

While Bageant is heavy on the criticism, one criticism which could fairly be leveled against him is that he is light on offering any solutions. Perhaps this is why he gained such a huge online following – riled up readers were able to interact with Bageant through email and forums, something the offline paperback cannot provide. Thankfully, Bageant’s essays avoid a preachiness commonly associated with those other angry white men, Michael Moore and Glenn Beck, who seem to lack his self-denigrating touch (a ‘moralizing, preachy, and essentially lazy bastard who likes to drink’ is one of the gentler self-descriptions he offers his readers).

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with what Bageant has to say on politics and society. What’s important is that you read it and have something to say. For all Bagaent’s devil-may-care attitude to political correctness, he is most angered by the level of political apathy spreading among the citizenry. As he grimly concludes, ‘How can we solve the problem when we are the problem, other than by self-extinction?’

Emily Laidlaw is a freelance reviewer

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