Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (Book Review #84 of 2016)


Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis

I picked up this book because I wanted to both understand my neighbors better as well as the motivation behind the rust-belt surge for Trump in November. I'm from Kentucky and live in a town similar to the Middletown, OH where Vance's parents grew up. Georgetown, KY houses a Toyota plant, which employs 7,000 people who are increasingly either from Appalachia or are second and third-generation Appalachian transplants from Ohio, like Vance. My middle-class neighborhood is almost entirely made up of former coal miners or former factory workers from OH and MI with some connection to East KY who now work at Toyota or one of its subsidiaries, over 50% of the county's employment is manufacturing. I saw no Hillary signs in yards, but plenty of Trump signs (still up) and a smattering of Bernie signs. I grew up in a more affluent and liberal part of Central Kentucky 30 minutes away, and the culture I returned to here in Georgetown after 15 years apart seemed foreign in ways I could not understand until I read this book. Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands (and the follow-up series that the Lexington Herald-Leader published 50 years later) is likely a prerequisite. Vance's grandparents represented the aspirational families that Caudill wrote about, who left in one of the great migrations in the 1940s from the hills of Jackson, KY to an industrial town in Ohio; Vance writes of how a majority of Armco workers in Middletown were from a KY county (10% of Ohio's total population in 1960 was from KY, TN, or WV). Ironically, Trump's own Art of the Deal mentions his first apartment complex in Cincinnati in the 1970s, where he worked to run out tenants from the "Kentucky hills" who did not pay rent and whose children destroyed property. Vance's book is not about Appalachia, but about the Appalachian culture of families who have moved elsewhere (he split his time growing up between Middletown and Jackson). It would probably be a two star book if I were grading on the interest of his autobiography; its four star merit comes in the explanatory value of the viewpoint of his very working-class roots from his newfound position among the American elite.

I started listening to David Brooks' (2000) book Bobos in Paradise as I finished reading the last chapter, and I think the combination of the two books offer the most remarkably complete explanation I have seen for the white, middle-class rejection of establishment candidates in 2016 (see my review). Brooks' book focuses on the rise of meritocracy in America from the 1940s-2000, of the "bohemian bourgeouis" ("Bobos" for short). I grew up in more of a Bobo culture, my parents had climbed the meritocratic ladder and my neighbors were more likely to be from another country than they were from Appalachia. The meritocratic upper-middle class moved to suburban enclaves, set the rules about what was socially acceptable or  politically correct, and engaged in the ACT/SAT college-admissions arms race. "Only a shallow person would spend hundreds of dollars on caviar, but a deep person would gladly shell out that much for top-of-the-line mulch." In Vance's Middletown home, where the poverty and disability rate are above OH and national averages, you will find neither caviar, nor Starbucks, nor mulch.

Brooks' own review (June) of Hillbilly Elegy tries to relate the two: "From 1945 to 1995, conservative and liberal elites shared variations of the same vision of the future...global, integrated, and multiethnic. But the elites pushed too hard, and now history is moving in the opposite direction. The less-educated masses have a different conception of the future, a vision that is more closed, collective, protective, and segmented." But Brooks clearly misses the point that Vance makes, namely that the door was never fully open for the "less-educated masses" to climb up the meritocratic ladder. Vance writes of his discovery that it was cheaper for him to attend Yale than it would have been to attend a public in-state school. (He cites a recent NY Times article on how Ivy League schools hold slots open for low-income students but receive very few applications.) At Yale, there is a whole vocabulary and protocol that he has to learn in order to survive, much less thrive. The elites have designed a system completely foreign and has at least the illusion of being unavailable to a huge swath of the white underclass, such as Vance's peers in Ohio, and this makes them angry.

Once Vance got on the ladder, he saw how far the elites' world is separated. Vance writes of a Yale professor who would rather not accept students from public schools. Many of his friends had never even MET an Armed Services veteran, much less served themselves. "I was an anamoly" (p. 182). This exclusion is what has fueled the anti-establishment movement on both the Right and the Left. Vance writes of his Ohio peers' "deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society. And it’s becoming more and more mainstream" (p. 173). Vance penned much of his book prior to 2015 and does not write about the 2016 candidates, but does write about the white working-class rejection of Obama for seeming like the epitomy of the Bobo system: "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" (p. 172).

Ironically, Obama came from a broken home and lived between cultures similar to many in Middletown. (David Axelrod's memoir relates how Obama was able to endear himself to many white voters in rural Illinois because of his similarities vis-a-vis his upbringing.) As I write this review, Vance has just published an op-ed in the NY Times praising Obama for being an excellent family role model in the White House. But voters in Middletown and Appalachia rejected Obama for representing the result of his successful climb into the rule-making meritocracy: "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" (p. 172). It's therefore not hard to see why these people voted for Bernie and Trump--candidates who had been rejected by the meritocracy of their own parties and said things centrist elites would not.

Fox News, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, and others helped create the monster they now cannot control. As the Middletown factories close and people leave for jobs elsewhere or are stuck where they're at, "the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault" (p. 175). "The government's fault" quickly became "Obama's fault," or "China's fault," which played to patriotic instincts that Vance notes is "religion" to the largely non-church-going Appalachian people. They largely believe Obama is making things worse because he's a Muslim, or not actually born in America, etc (p. 171). Vance writes that the GOP has now allowed the Rust Belt to have scape goats, rather than point fingers at themselves. When the factory jobs and coal jobs don't return as Trump has promised, then I have to imagine these peoples' last shred of faith in institutions will be gone.

Now that Vance is of the meritocracy himself, he has empathy. "As a cultural emigrant from one group to the other, I am acutely aware of their differences. Sometimes I view members of the elite with an almost primal scorn—recently, an acquaintance used the word 'confabulate' in a sentence, and I just wanted to scream" (p. 224). Vance surveys his Yale friends and his Middletown family to see how they measure up in terms of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE); the results bear out the national statistics, that working-class people have seen more traumatic incidents and face more adversity as a consequence. He notes studies showing the correlation between such ACE scores and anxiety, obesity, depression, and failure to form stable households. Those with low ACE scores struggle to understand those with different childhoods, as is borne out anecdotally in his relationship with his stable-household wife. Vance lived much of his life estranged from his birth father and his drug-addict mother was constantly bringing various men into the home; there was constant conflict, and he brings that baggage into his marriage.

"One way our upper class can promote upward mobility, then, is...by opening their hearts and minds to the newcomers who don’t quite belong" (p. 184). But this statement brings to mind the flood of recent stories about Title IX and universities no longer permitting a traditional First Amendment understanding of free speech. As Nick Kristof wrote in 2016, "(T)he one kind of diversity that universities disregard is ideological and religious. We're fine with people who don't look like us, as long as they think like us." Once an institution is created and a culture is entrenched, such as with the Bobos, it will be defended. When I go to the local playground with my son, I increasingly see men from this culture open carrying pistols on their hips. I get the sense that they do it as much because they feel their ability to do that is threatened by politicians advocating "common sense" gun laws. I can't imagine such a practice being accepted at a public park in, say, White Plains, NY.

What about those in the white working-class, can they be taught habits at an early age to get into the higher society? (Isn't that what public educators try to do?) "Mamaw always resented the hillbilly stereotype—the idea that our people were a bunch of slobbering morons. But the fact is that I was remarkably ignorant of how to get ahead" (p. 197). The educated elite are "playing a different game," writes Vance. They exercise and cook meals at home because eating out is unhealthy-- they avoid McDonald's. They join civic societies and clubs that build a network so they do not have to rely on sending out CVs and job applications. Can such rules of the game be taught? Vance points out that his school had a nice building and textbooks, and good teachers, but there was only so much educators can do with children whose families are unstable, in which the children may not get enough food and sleep, much less love. If people in the Middletowns of America increasingly reject government programs as being paternalist and designed by elites, if they reject Michelle Obama's advice about nutrition guidelines out of pure spite, then what hope is there? Vance writes that the white working-class are routinely passing up available jobs and other opportunities. "My dad, for example, has never disparaged hard work, but he mistrusts some of the most obvious paths to upward mobility" (p. 175). Vance offers few answers. Appalachian poverty is no different than black inner-city poverty, as Vance remarks as a teenager reading William Julius Wilsons' The Truly Disadvantaged-- there are no magic bullets. "People have struggled to get out of Jackson for decades; now they struggle to escape Middletown" (p. 24).

Perhaps what I paid the most attention to in this book is Vance's interaction with, and critique of, the Church. Churches and other civic institutions and charities are conspicuously absent from the Middletown, OH that Vance describes. "We never went to church, except on rare occasions in Kentucky or when Mom decided that what we needed in our lives was religion" (p. 79). Just Googling brought me to the websites of several organizations there that one would think Vance would have interacted with, or at least mentioned, in his book. These non-profits can bring stability, meet physical and emotional needs, and can fill in the gaps in the safety net. Vance apparently never saw a church that engaged the Middletown culture to reach needs and teach or reinforce the values that Vance notes are critical to moving people out of poverty. Perhaps his family was too proud to attend a Christmas toy giveaway or other functions? (He writes that his mom and others would utilize a payday lender or borrow against a future tax return to put last-minute presents under the Christmas tree.)

Vance writes of his admiration for church as such a stabilizing influence. "Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all," studies have repeatedly shown (p. 86). He enjoyed church activities and the stability of his birth father's family temporarily in Jackson, KY. But he later left the Christian faith due to his distaste for the reactionary conservative fundamentalism he experienced, which he sees as just as closed-minded as liberal institutions. (If JD Vance ever reads this, I recommend Daniel Taylor's The Myth of Certainty as critical-thinking Christians also often feel suspended between two worlds that will never fully accept them.)

I suspect from Vance's words about the prevalence of Pentacostalism (the snake-handling variety) in East Kentucky, and from my own conversations with people in that tradition, that the Christianity Vance was exposed to had a particular inward bent (he notes one of his Marine Corps buddies had not even heard of a Catholic before). Many Pentecostals do not believe in charity, believing instead (against the Bible, rather than with it) that the more pure your faith is the more God will bless you with wealth. Vance's lasting impression of the Church is an institution withdrawing in fearful isolation from a secular world bent on destroying it and eager to root out corrupting influences from within. He instead wants to see a church "that forces kids like me to engage with the world rather than withdraw from it" (p. 226). My hope is that now that he has recently returned to exploring Christianity in adulthood he finds a more Gospel-centered church.

How did Vance break the statistical mold and "escape"?  An older cousin encourages him to join the Marine Corps, and that breaks his cycle of "learned helplessness," gives him great responsibility and self-confidence, and pays for his undergraduate education. A tour in Iraq teaches him cultural sensitivity as well as a thankfulness for American poverty compared to the alternatives. The Marines also taught him (and all recruits) basic etiquette, personal hygiene, and personal financial planning. Militaries internationally are historically designed to be a civilizing force, which is why some level of participation is mandatory in many countries. While I am glad we have such an institution in the US, I am loathe to offer it as a prescription. Vance's Marine Corps experience is lucky in the sense that he was in a largely non-combat role, suffered no trauma, had an assignment usually done by those well above his pay grade, and he made good choices with his resources afterwards.

Vance is an economic conservative in his viewpoints, but argues for government policies that "put the thumb on the scale" for the poor. He advocates making it easier for extended family members to be foster parents, so that children won't lie to authorities about mom's abuse for fear of never seeing grandma again. He advocates eliminating some occupational licensing to make it easier for people to become hairdressers or taxi drivers, such deregulation would help the poorest of the poor (I recently saw some Democratic legislators embrace this in Kentucky, specifically to help immigrants and ex-convicts). He advocates spreading Section 8 housing vouchers to diverse neighborhoods, instead of clustering them all together as that exacerbates the pressure on those individuals by isolating them from non-poverty lifestyles. Nothing incredibly controversial (or original) there.

I think Vance's lack of acknowledgement of how fortunate he was in his circumstances, then preaching to his Middletown peers what they need to do to improve their lot, is what irks many on the Left about this book. His message is similar to President Obama's unpopular message of personal responsibility circa 2008: be a father to your children, make the most of education that's available, accept the job even if it requires you to wake up at 8am every day, and don't blame others for your circumstances. (That is, after all, what Obama did.) Sarah Jones' criticism of this book in The New Republic is incorrect, Vance does criticize the elites and the system they have created. But he is more greatly concerned about the pessimism and lack of trust in institutions he sees holding back the working class.

I have a fairly liberal activist friend whose Appalachian roots are similar to Vance's and she does a lot of advocacy there (she's a lawyer as well). She told me of frustrations she has trying to teach basic financial literacy and the importance of even just having a checking account; the people in the mountains tend to distrust institutions and prefer to stay in a cash economy. Distrust generally is a complement of pessimism. Vance cites Pew Research, "There is no group of people more pessimistic than working-class whites" (p. 175). This pessimism leads to cynicism and the "learned helplessness" that Vance experienced in Middletown, where people believe they can never advance. Rather than try, he writes, they blame, and we just saw a 2016 campaign where the winning candidate encouraged them to blame scapegoats and preyed on their distrust of institutions like government and the media. "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," (p. 227)-- I don't see how that makes him a "false prophet" any more than Harry Caudill was. Four stars out of five.

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