Monday, December 5, 2016

J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy"

J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is an engrossing memoir from a hillbilly of Kentucky, born in abject poverty and a host of unfortunate, even toxic childhood circumstances (abandoned by an absentee father, raised by a drug-addicted mother with a-perpetual-revolving door of stepdads and step-siblings), who manages to elevate and make a better life for himself -- thanks in large part to his grandparents (providing a source of familial stability that his own parents could never afford); the cultivation of discipline and self-reliance through a four-year stint in the Marine Corps and the subsequent pursuit of a degree at a state college and eventual acquisition of critical but elusive "social capital", mentors and connections afforded by Yale Law School.

To his credit, while mediating the diverse worlds of his "hillbilly heritage" and the social elite (to which he now immerses himself with some degree of success, howbeit without its challenges) he never repudiates or abandons the former, regarding them with sympathy and understanding and loving them in spite of their flaws. He is cognizant of how many fortunate variables fell into place to give him a chance to transcend his environment:

There was my grandparent's constant presence, even when my mother and stepfather moved far away in an effort to shut them out. Despite the revolving door of would-be father figures, I was ofen surrounded by caring and kind men. Even with her faults, Mom instilled in me a lifelong love of education and learning. My sister always protected me ... Dan and Aunt Wee opened their home when I was too afraid to ask. Long before that, they were my first real exemplars of a happy and loving marriage. There were teachers, distant relatives, and friends. Remove any of these people from the equation, and I'm probably screwed.

Vance's analysis of his white working-poor class and upbringing offers much food for thought and, I think, offers provocative reading for liberal and conservative alike.

For example he is sharply critical of the lack of agency ("a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself") that charactizes so many of his kind and sets them back; a propensity for blaming the government for their ills and succumbing to Internet-born conspiracy-theorizing ("this isn't some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy; this is deep skepticism of the institutions of our society"). However, the right itself is complicit in this evasion of self-scrutiny and responsibility with the increasing suggestion that "it's not your fault you're a loser; it's the government's fault."

Conversely, without ever mentioning Donald Trump by name, J.D. Vance's book also received reknown for offering a sympathetic-yet-critical glimpse into the minds of those who cast their vote for the populist candidate. And now, in the wake of the 2016 election, those inclined to (foolishly, I believe) blanket-label and dismiss "middle America" as a bunch of racists will hopefully be challenged by Vance's account. Consider, for example, his penetrating analysis of his people's perceptions of Obama and the root of antipathy towards him:

The President feels like an alien to many Middletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor -- which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent - clean, perfect, neutral - is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they're frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis, and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his won right -- adversity familiar to many of us -- but that was long before any of us knew him.

President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we're not doing well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for our teenage kids that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose); in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren't. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we're lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn't be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it -- not because we think she's wrong, but because we know she's right. [...]

I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early. I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the "Obama economy" and how it had affected his life. I don't doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he's made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.

In the end, while the content of this book does makes it timely reading in the wake of the 2016 election, there is also plenty of wisdom afforded by Vance's biography that I believe it would engage any open-minded reader, regardles of political affiliation.

Further Reading and Discussion

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