If you want to see just how entrenched our political ideologies are to our identity, meander over to the reviews of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy over at Goodreads. If you prefer to retain your sanity, stay with me here. Vance’s book was timely. Released in 2016, for many it became a window into understanding the Rust Belt that propelled Donald Trump to victory. Vance, while a Republican himself, doesn’t write the book as a defense of conservative Rust Belt politics (he’s quite critical at times) and certainly it is not written with Donald Trump in mind. And yet, in our politically overheated climate, this is certainly how many have read Vance’s book.
Vance’s book was about something much smaller and much bigger than explaining the 2016 election. He writes the book to provide a window into an area of the country that, while large, is largely anonymous to many Americans, myself included. “Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash,” Vance says, “I call them neighbors, friends and family.”
Vance, who hails from Middletown, Ohio, and has roots in Eastern Kentucky invites us into his Appalachian world. These are the descendants of the Scotch-Irish, who dug America’s coal, forged America’s steel and built America’s automobiles. They were faithful churchgoers and fiercely patriotic. But with the shuttering of coal mines and the decline of industrial America, it’s a people who have struggled to enter the 21st century and whose self-perception as hard working and devout Christians has been hollowed out. The data shows a people who are, despite how they project themselves, deeply reliant on government assistance, and AWOL from the church. As opportunity has vanished, so has church attendance and belief in the American Dream. It has been replaced by broken families, liquor, painkillers, and heroin.
The reality of this world is captured by Vance here: "This was my world: a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads...Thrift is inimical to our being...Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we're spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs...At especially stressful times, we'll hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family, including young children...We don't study as children, and we don't make our kids study when we're parents. Our kids perform poorly at school. We might get angry with them, but we never give them the tools -- like peace and quiet at home -- to succeed....We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs. Sometimes we'll get a job, but it won't last. We'll get fired for tardiness, or for stealing merchandise and selling it on eBay, or for having a customer complain about the smell of alcohol on our breath, or for taking five thirty-minute restroom breaks per shift. We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we're not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese...We talk to our children about responsibility, but we never walk the walk."
In Vance’s telling, the hillbilly experience is shot through with irony. It’s a culture that prizes family, country, and Christianity, and yet broken family structures are the norm and church attendance is exaggerated. They talk about hard work, family, and Christian values, but their choices reveal very different values, values established in a system that breeds hopelessness. “In a recent Gallup poll, Southerners and Midwesterners reported the highest rates of church attendance in the country. Yet actual church attendance is much lower in the South.” Christian and national commitments are closely entwined, “Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”
Because of broken social structures, working class whites are the only group in America who expects that their children will be a worse economic situation than they are in – and this has been their experience to date. “Psychologists call it ‘learned helplessness’” Vance says, “when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life.” One coping mechanism for dealing with the dissonance between the values of the white working class and the reality is to continue to ratchet up the blame on the government. If it is the government’s fault that jobs have gone overseas and that mines have been shut down, there is an easier explanation for one’s experience and expectations.
Vance is both an insider and an outsider. He begins in Appalachia and ends in the halls of power. His childhood story is a story that could be told many times over. Abandoned by his father and left with a mother who hopped from abusive relationship to abusive relationship while battling her own demons, Vance is raised by his Mamaw and Papaw. They are fierce, hard-drinking battlers with a proud belief in individual honor and family solidarity. They might beat their kids, but no outsider better speak down to them or lay a finger on them. They probably did their own children little good—especially Vance’s mother, addicted to heroin and entrapped in a cycle of poor relationships with men—but they were critical to Vance’s success, giving him the stability and structure he needed to succeed. Mamaw has an oversized and powerful personality and Vance has incredible respect for her. Because of her and others who stepped in at critical moments in his life, he was able to make it out of a difficult situation, despite himself: "Whatever talents I have, I almost squandered until a handful of loving people rescued me. That is the real story of my life, and that is why I wrote this book. I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it."
The fundamental cause of this brokenness is the broken family structure, Vance asserts. “For kids like me, the part of the brain that deals with stress and conflict is always activated...We are constantly ready to fight or flee, because there is a constant exposure to the bear, whether that bear is an alcoholic dad or an unhinged mom....I see conflict and I run away or prepare for battle.” And yet, the white working class experience can’t be flattened, ““Not all of the white working class struggles. I knew even as a child that there were two separate sets of mores and social pressures. My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother and, increasingly, the entire neighborhood embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.”
Because of his Mamaw, Vance and his sister Lindsay are able to navigate their way out of an oppressive situation. Vance enlists in the army and then eventually graduates from Ohio State and, to his own incredible surprise, from Yale Law School. It is during his time at Yale that Vance is able to appreciate just how strange his hillbilly world is to the rest of America, especially to those in the halls of power.
Vance’s own politics don’t shoot straight down party lines. He recognizes the need for government structures, for education and yet believes that both the right and the left have succumbed to narratives of victimization which undermine the ability of those who have been left behind to take responsibility for their choices which have exacerbated their situation. "How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions,” Vance reflects, “and how much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom's life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?"
Vance’s story is one of pain and loss and also hope. And while Vance doesn’t offer sweeping pronouncements for how to change what appears to be an intractable problem, he does make a few suggestions, beginning with ownership: “I don't know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” And Vance doesn’t believe that the solution lies solely on the shoulders of the white working class. For those in the circles that Vance now walks, the liberal establishment, he offers: “One way our upper class can promote upward mobility, then, is not only by pushing wise public policies but by opening their hearts and minds to the newcomers who don’t quite belong.”
And yet Vance demonstrates quite a bit of humility and charity in the midst of the struggles of his family. Despite to achieve success, I never felt as though Vance looked down on his family or those who remain trapped where he grew up. There is an incredibly touching scene that concludes the book where Vance and his sister are still taking care of his mother. You can disagree with Vance’s political prescriptions and still respect his grounding, his integrity, and his heart.
Hillbilly Elegy opened up a world that was new to me. Growing up in the Southwest (where I have returned) and spending sixteen years in the Northeast means that this part of the American experience is foreign to me. I’m grateful for Vance opening this world to me and better understanding not only him but America. In a nation increasingly polarized by identity-politics, I pray we continue to be open to hearing and talking to those who have radically different experiences and perspectives from our own. Stories such as these are a ray of hope in these times.
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