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A Weekend in Austin: Joe Bageant, the Class War & Community Media

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I finally got out of town, went to Austin for the weekend to see brother writer Joe Bageant, author of "Dear Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War".  I also went to the first media summit in Texas to take a look at the fairly sorry state of community media in Texas.  Somehow both fit together.

Brother Joe now lives in Belize most of the time, writing in a small village on the coast a three hour bus ride from Belize City.  He was in Austin reading at St. Edwards University and at the Austin Writers League.  Joe is quickly climbing into that small class of great storytellers that can drop you in the world of the great, invisible, American working class. He reveals the indignities suffered when you live on the economic edge and the courage needed to face life in a world where bombing people in foreign lands for oil takes a higher priority then providing basic health care and education. It's the real story of many people, you see them everyday, but you just avoid the question of what life is really like in their America, a condition that looks sure to spread.

Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn both did cold reviews (they read it on their own and wrote a review without a request from the publisher).  Zinn, called Bageant "a brilliant writer", Terkel described it as "...recounting of lost lives-of white have-nots in one of our most have-not states-has the power of an old-time Scottish Border ballad."  Terkel was so impressed he called Joe up. Joe said he was speechless to find his hero on the other end of the phone.  What Joe feels is the greatest honor of all though, is that he has been asked to read at City Lights in San Francisco where some of his other heroes Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg read their work.  A former newspaperman (Rocky Mountain News et al), magazine writer (Rolling Stone et al) and magazine editor; he got "discovered" at 60 writing on the internet.  Now in addition to his book he has contracts with Playboy, Le Monde and a potential movie deal.  At the Austin Writers League he offered practical advice to others on "getting discovered".  Find your place on the net, it may take you forty hours to find the spot your work will get looked at.  It has to be someplace that attracts good writers and gets good readership.  Publishing companies and agents monitor the sites looking for good work. Once you find your home sites then write well and get it posted at as many spots in that group as you can. He wrote five essays a month for over a year. If you are a good writer, you may get noticed.  You have a much better chance, however, if you have identified the right sites for your work.The best but most depressing discussion we had later, that evening at the hotel bar.  That focused on the general sorry state of things and the coming cataclysmic implosion of world capitalism.  The me first, get all the junk I can and to hell with the rest of the world is coming to a screeching halt.  Climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, massive pollution, war, disease all in an inverse ratio to the concentration of wealth, we're in trouble.  Worse, it requires between 25-30% of that world wealth each year to support us, the good old U.S. of A., 6% of the world's population.  One thing though, with the great debt bubble bursting Republicans may not be able to say our poor are better off then the poor in other countries much longer. A direct result of corporatization, monetization and speculation.Joe says that serious experts that he has talked to say we are in a box canyon with a crowd continuing to push in the other end called population.  Simple law of nature, by their estimate, probably 70-90% of the world's population will die off before we can live within a stable sustainable carrying capacity of humans on earth.  Then maybe after a million years or so (I'm not kidding) the earth will recover from our ravages. The culprit will probably not be nuclear holocaust or even killing climate change, it will be just a bug, probably an evolved virus. An exterminating pandemic. So much for evolution being a myth, oh yeah, just another plague from god.  The sad part is with an environmental biology education including a fellowship at Princeton for a month in 2001 to look at this stuff, I know he is, in all probability right.In the meantime we float along in a virtual world wrapped in advertising symbols so disconnected from the world of nature and each other we don't even know what it does to us. The product of learned helplessness, the ultimate in advertising, resistance is futile. If we don't even comprehend what it does to us, what does that mean for the invisible working class person we see every day let alone some poor starving child of a rape in Darfur? All unknowingly sharing a common fate. We have to admit it, every American, some more then others, participate in war crimes and human exploitation.  Cheap stuff seduces us from looking at the slave labor it takes to have "low, low prices".  What we do get out of this, is a cheapening of life, including our own. Landscapes of corporate plastic ticky tack stores, someone once said, deposited on any high traffic urban strip in America not knowing where you are there would be no clues because the all are the same.  It's a Wal-Mart world. To make it run right you have to feed people a steady diet of distractive mind mush, so much the better if panders to their most basic instincts.  It's the stuff that softens your head for the real message the advertising.  But what about our great advances in technology that make us the most advanced culture and civilization in history?  I saw some of that advanced culture today while channel surfing. A group of 20 year old girls in their underwear, diving into a child's plastic wading pool full of spaghetti and grabbing meatballs in their mouths.  They then would get up and run over and spit them in a bowl.  As near as I could figure out it was a contest to get picked by some rich dweeb for a date. It was revolting, I watched the whole thing.We react like Pavlov's dogs going deeper into debt in order to keep the great consumer economy of unneeded crap fed and the rich can get richer?  Only problem is we are running out of resources to buy and credit to buy it with. The capitalist economy no longer exists except as a tool to extract from the people on the bottom to give to the top.  As Joe says, there is no need for a conspiracy, it's just a herd mentality all after the same goal, more of something. ? Whether at the local Chamber of Commerce level or the multinational corporation, its one pursuit, more.   Its The Matrix with people kept alive only to supply energy to a system which no longer has a purpose other then its own existence.  It's the natural outcome of an economy that consumes everything and produces nothing. Used up or poisoned all its resources. Bankrupt. Can we change this? Maybe. Chances are, as my father would say, "slim and none".  We have created such a dependence on excess to live the way we do, it means an entire transformation of our value structure.  A monumental feat of international commitment, if it comes at all, it will likely be too late.  How many American's could conceive of living on say $5,000 a year.  Luxurious compared to the $2/day that half of the world's population (3 billion people) live on. Of course it's possible if people all around the world set aside their religious, economic and political beliefs to work together and American would have to take the lead. The next morning at breakfast with Joe I read that the EPA at the behest of the Bush administration, ruled that California and other states cannot implement stricter restrictions on greenhouse gases then the feds. Like I said, "slim and none".Joe got on a plane and went back to Belize where he is helping a village stay economically viable so that maybe they can avoid getting sucked into the hurricane of speculative development that is destroying indigenous people around the world.  From an Anthropological point of view indigenous peoples are civilizations that have been maintaining a sustainable lifestyle for thousands of years.  We keep mistaking their refusal to join us in the mass suicide of consumerism for primitiveness and set out to destroy them through force or infiltration.  Resist, you are a terrorist.  Maybe instead we ought to learn how they did that.  It seems kind of important right now.It's like an old girlfriend said about an island she lived on in the Caribbean, "things started going to hell right after satellite television came to the island. Kids started demanding glow in the dark tennis shoes." It was about the same time the resort developers started showing up and trading what amounted to beads for beachfront and a few years later the islanders became a dispossessed shantytown people, stripped of their culture and resources but they and their children had a solid shot as a future dishwasher.This all begs the question about how do we go about getting the message of the state of things when the mainstream media is a massive part of the problem.  That was Saturday, the first hopefully, annual Texas media summit for alternative and community media.  The first is always good no matter how well it goes.  This one had some holes.  First it seemed many, if not a majority, were there from public access television concerned about Senate Bill 5 that somehow transfers the public access channels to cities to operate.  That ended up dominating the discussion except for notable presentation on web video.  The social networking people, the net news people and the print people, which were few, were subjected to long discussions about saving public access tv while net neutrality a much bigger and more important fight was mentioned only once.  The question of whether it should be saved was finally brought up. Egad you say, abandon public access?  Public access has major problems including its revolving timeslots, poor equipment and management, and vanity shows that insure it will never reach many people in its current form.  But really, why bother, required digital and broadband will allow radio and television stations to transmit multiple signals in stereo like clarity.  Time will be very cheap on commercial stations plus web casting.  Unfortunately, the digital divide, the difference in access to information between people who have and use cable and internet services vs the huge group of people in the country who don't will worsen. All equipment for receiving will have to be modified or replaced to work. Companies will be allowed to practice redlining of services, not installing broadband access to those areas where the demographics don't promise a high enough return. Much of the independent and community media is caught up in its technology prejudice for the quick, easy and showy forms of video.  It creates a cultural divide with working folks.  One web guy showed it clearly when he said "why screw around printing 20,000 papers like this guy over here (me), when a web video Mike's daughter made can reach 37,000 on the net? To be real community media that can influence social and political change you must look at a multiplatform model. What model reaches the people in your area that you want to get the message? We put out 20,000 newspapers a month with an average of 32 pages packed tight with investigative reporting and local content that relates to state and national policy, we don't have a digital divide.  We are available in every Mexican restaurant and other places working people go, and it's free.  It is a level of community impact available to everyone.  We started with 2,000 copies of eight pages.  Sorry, it's not instant. We have an online edition that will be a multi-media platform. We are finishing a studio that will allow us to produce live, streaming or prerecorded audio-video feeds and downloads to our website.The one highpoint was the guy that spotted us down here and invited us to the summit wo seems interested in doing something specifically in South Texas to empower people to build these media networks in their community.  That sounds worthwhile, even if we can't avoid the collapse of a nature extracted existence.  What the hell, you have to have something to do while your sitting around waiting for the end of a civilization.
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John Kelley is the Managing Editor of a monthly progressive newsmagazine, "We the People News", in Corpus Christi, Texas
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