I was first contacted by Joe Bageant back in April this year, when he sent me, out of the blue, his article Sleepwalking to Fallujah. That article was written in a way that only a top writer can, and soon afterwards, more pieces followed. From his work and some email exchanges, I realized that Bageant is an extraordinary man as well as a very gifted writer, with a unique take on the American political situation that ensures the huge popularity of his articles and his growing Internet cult status.
A product of a working class Virginian background, 35 years experience as a writer and editor, as well as personal friendships over many years with some of the most progressive thinkers of our time — including Timothy Leary, Stephen Gaskin, Allen Ginsburg, Trungpa Rinpoche, William Burroughs, John Lilly and Marshall Mcluhan — have given Bageant an education that would be the envy of any Ivy League graduate, a writing ability that is certainly comparable to Gore Vidal's, and an obsessive drive to champion the ordinary men and women of America.
Many people mistakenly believe that Bageant is somehow anti-American, that this openly socialist writer hates his country and democracy. The truth is Bageant absolutely loves his country and its democratic ideals, which is why he writes such vitriolic articles about what the Bush administration is doing to these ideals — hijacking patriotism to support a corrupt and insidious government that is rapidly turning the US into an Orwellian police state, and other countries around the world into US military bases. In his view, America, the icon of freedom, is being played in the same way that the Nazi Party played pre-war Germany. Bageant is a man who, like Michael Moore, feels compelled to speak out for freedom, justice and democracy, the bedrock of the country he loves; although, in our topsy-turvy world of disinformation and ignorance, he fully accepts that such sentiments will often get one labeled as "unpatriotic" or "anti-American".
The reason that you have probably not heard of him before, is that Bageant is not an ambitious writer, and has been happy to live the life of a low-profile magazine and newspaper editor, although as a senior editor with Primedia Magazine Corp., publishers of over 300 American magazines, he is certainly highly regarded within his profession. All that changed, however, when Bageant discovered the Internet earlier this year and realized that it gave him the perfect platform to freely speak his truth. Writing a string of uniquely perceptive articles during these dark times in America's history have put an end to that relative obscurity, thrusting Bageant and his message of a true and caring democracy squarely into public awareness.
I am privileged here to present an interview, the first as far as I am aware, with this extraordinary writer:AP: Thanks Joe for agreeing to be interviewed by a tiny online magazine like ourselves [EnergyGrid]. I know that you are a person who has always championed the little guy. Why is that?
JB: Well. hell. I come from a long line of little guys. My daddy never made more than $55 a week in his life, until he was finally so sick he had to go on the dole and get Social Security. He never got past the eighth grade and worked his dick into the dirt. Had his first heart attack before he was 40. And I myself have worked construction labour, in car washes, loaded rail cars, even once had a job chopping up dead rotten hogs with an axe on a big hog industrial farm. I come from America's invisible and non represented people, the ones who shovel the shit and seldom complain. So now I am finally in the middle class, sort of, but I still write from the vantage point of my people because it's the only thing I really know much about. That and lobbing hand grenades at this rogue nation of mine.
AP: Tell me something about your childhood in Virginia? How did a Lefty come out from the cradle of Neocon America?
JB: I grew up very poor at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Virginia/West Virginia line. My first 14 years of life were spent in the country. Actually they were rather happy years, despite the relative poverty. Nearly everyone else there was poor too, and we never thought much about it. We feared god, hunted deer, worked hard and never expected much, materially speaking.
But I was especially lucky because I saw the end of an era in Appalachia, a peaceful subsistence farming lifestyle of my grandparents. I went to a one-room schoolhouse, the same one my father and grandfather went to, carried water and chopped wood and had countless hours of solitude playing in the forests and imagining things. Hell, we didn't have a lot of toys and crap, so we had to use our imaginations. I think it had a lot to do with becoming a writer.
Then when my dad moved us into town so he could work at a gas station, life got complicated. There were class issues among the town kids. In my hometown of Winchester, Virginia we have a throwback class system, left over from the days of English settlement. If you don't have the right last name in my town, or are not useful to someone who is from the right family, your name is shit. You're gonna have to leave to be anything in life.
So I left. Quit school in the 11th grade and went into the Navy at age 16. Later I got a high school equivalency diploma and went on with school. Much later.because when the Sixties started happening I jumped in head first, stark nekkid and screaming for glory. Headed west to join the counter cultural revolution. Lived in a school bus, worked all sorts of labour jobs, ate lots of acid and began to write. That went well from the very beginning, in as much as everything I wrote got published somewhere, usually in hippie or student newspapers, and sometimes in national mags. People seemed to like it. So I figured what the hell? I must have found a vocation in life! It also eased my soul a lot. I wrote approximately in the same way then that I do now. It was shallower though because I didn't have as much experience in life. Fewer convictions.
AP: Who were the people who were most influential to you growing up?
JB: At first I worshipped my father and grandfather and all my rough and tumble uncles who knew how to butcher a hog, plant by the stars and fix any damned mechanical thing that ever got broken. Real survivors. Real men of the old school. But as I began to develop an intellectual life, we had less and less in common. Finally, by my early teens, we didn't understand each other at all. I retreated into books about art and music and never came back.
As far as writing goes, I was influenced by all the usual suspects of my generation, Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gaye Telese, William Styron, Genet, and especially all the Southern writers, Welty, Willie Morris.. not to mention a lot of people who never got the respect they deserved, especially poets like Marc Campbell of Taos, New Mexico and Jack Collum of Boulder, Colorado. Their works really clued me in on the connection between words, your brain and your heart.
AP: Your writing is certainly passionate. Tell me something of your years at college and how they formed or changed you? Is that where you leaned to write so lucidly?
JB: College? LOL! I took classes along the way, but never cared about any kind of serious program. I just studied what I wanted, painting, history, writing, comparative religion, and journalism. It was the Sixties and I didn't give a fuck about degrees or jobs. I wanted to design my own intellectual life. I was already meeting what I considered the important artists and writers of my day, and professors were begging for introductions to them. Also, I had a wife and son early in life and was far more interested in my hippy family, communes, and the self-realization movement. Like I said, everything I wrote was getting published and I was getting choice cultural and media assignments. For very small bucks but I always got the good ones. So hell, I was a pretty happy guy.
AP: How did the likes of Timothy Leary, Stephen Gaskin, Allen Ginsberg. Trungpa Rinpoche, William Burroughts, John Lilly and Marshall Mcluhan become your personal friends and mentors?
JB: I spent 14 years in Boulder Colorado, much of that time interviewing or writing about those people for regional arts and culture and rock and roll rags. The counterculture's heroes were always coming through town, or hanging out at the Buddhist university there, Naropa. So I got to know some of them. In fact, part of the reason for writing for papers and mags was so I could get to meet them and hang out.
They were heroes of mine long before I ever met them. For example, I named my son for Timothy Leary before I ever encountered Leary personally. As for them being mentors, nobody was sitting me on their knee and telling me the secrets of writing and magicianship. But I was accepted in their company and at parties and got to watch them live their lives creatively and with passion. I came to the conclusion that this writing thing and the arts in general had as much to do with how you lived as anything else. It was clear to me that I should watch and learn from people like Ginsberg, who was the most famous poet on the planet for a reason.even if he couldn't keep his goddam hands off your ass. And it only took a few minutes to see for yourself that even though the shallow media never understood him, Tim Leary was a scientist philosopher bard, a Galileo of consciousness and one of the great thinkers of our time who had lifted off from this earth and didn't mind waving bye bye to the inhabitants of planet yokel.
As for Trungpa Rinpoche, I never got him at first, and made fun of him the whole time he was alive. Then years later, after his death, he hit me like a sledgehammer. I finally got it. Or at least enough of it to do some good.