Not long ago I spent a stint of insomniac nights wandering through Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War, written in the last waning period of George Bush’s presidency. Honed from his blog www.joebageant.com, Bageant’s style has a gonzo extravagance about it. He mixes political rants with a sassy gum-chewing snappiness – and as the subtitle of his book suggests, he does not mince words. (How many Americans would use the term ‘class war’?).
In spite of his deliberately intemperate style, Bageant in many ways treads a more nuanced political line than most well-off American liberals. He writes about the people in the conservative and working-class American town in which he grew up – the sort of people derided as yokels and white trash by affluent Democrats – in a way that is at once scathing and affectionate. Bageant manages to excoriate the individualist politics and racist sympathies of his white working-class former neighbours, and at the same time to passionately deride the contempt with which middle-class West Wing-wannabes direct their way.
Something of the same nuance is in order concerning the response from certain sections of the American media to the racist faux-pas aired on Australian TV over the past few months. Yes: it was naively racist for a bunch of white-ish Aussies to black up for a nostalgic skit on the Australian variety show, Hey Hey It’s Saturday in October last year. And yes, the more recent KFC ad depicting an Anglo-Aussie cricket supporter winning over black West Indian spectators with a bucket of fried chicken – that was naively racist too. Racism can come from gauche stupidity as well as from malicious intent.
It is no longer widely remembered in Australia that audiences here once flocked to blackface minstrel shows back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In these shows, black people were depicted as simpletons who thought of nothing but fried chicken and happy-go-lucky dancin’. Even though that racist caricature has not survived in popular memory here in the way that it has in the US, where it originated (and even though there are obviously huge disparities with regard to the two countries’ histories concerning race relations), it was still stupid for Australian television to air material that brought those demeaning depictions to mind. But as for the chorus of denunciations about these incidents mixed with a sneering air of superiority from some American commentators – well, that deserves a rant worthy of Joe Bageant in my view.
After the Australian KFC ad was lambasted in the US, there were a whole range of comments by American viewers and talk-show hosts which served to juxtapose backwards Australian racism with soaring American progressivism: “Yeah, coming from the same people who almost single-handedly wiped out the whole race of aborigines (sic). You people are the worst. I’ve had friends who visited Australia and they told me how it is over there”.
The same kind of commentary attended the Hey Hey, It’s Saturday imbroglio. On the TV talkshow The View, one of the co-hosts declared: ‘we are in what people like to call post-racial America right now… we are trying to grow as a country and that’s kind of a demeaning sketch that we would never do here anymore’. Other commentators emphasised that it was an American judge (Harry Connick Jr) who criticised the skit on air (‘thank goodness Harry Connick Jr was there to be the voice of reason’) and ended with a jibe at Australianness: ‘hey hey, we’re talking about kangaroo land, after all’.
A white reader of the Newsweek then cut to the chase. “Thanks Harry Connick, Jr. for showing the world that all whites are NOT racist buffoons’, she wrote. We see here that white middle-class American prestige is the real thing at issue so far as most of those objecting to the ads are concerned – something that would surely prompt a ‘here we go again’ from Joe Bageant were he to comment on these storm-in-a-teacup controversies. Methinks a little less ego-stroking and a little more humility from any non-blacks implicated in our racist histories, both American and Australian, would not go astray here.