Sunday, March 26, 2017

On an Emotional Edge

“Hillbilly Elegy – a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance

This book is a memoir of a still young man about his life in Middletown, Ohio, and its roots in the coal country of southeastern Kentucky, just north of Harlan.   Vance became a marine, then a Yale Law school graduate and lawyer, and is now a boss in a Silicon Valley investment firm.  So the book reads like a twisted Horatio Alger tale, as his early life could have led him into addiction, unemployment or jail instead.  Vance’s ultimate point is that there is something wrong with ‘hillbillies’ (his word) that jobs or education or a better social structure won’t help.  He wants hill people to stop blaming government or businesses and look at themselves.  As such, Vance is another in a long line of people focusing on the ‘culture’ of poverty.  But this time he’s white.  This fits into a narrative that upscale conservatives have been pushing for several years now.

To start, there is no such thing as the ‘white’ working class, a phrase he uses frequently.  There are white people in different strata of the working class that come from different geographies.  The impact of the 40-year decline in real wages and solid blue-collar jobs is now impacting layers of the working class that never had to deal with it.   And this is happening especially in Appalachia, which had poverty even in the ‘go-go’ 1960s.  It is now being decimated, as are many other rural towns and “Rust Belt” blue-collar cities like Middleton, where Vance’s family moved.  Vance frequently compares some of the impacts of his life story to what also happens to black people, and that is certainly legitimate.  Economics knows no ethnic barriers when it decides to make itself known. 
AK Steel in Middletown, OH where Pawpaw worked
Vance’s narrative is not really about Appalachia, but about the people that left it.   The migration looking for work from the South to the North in the 1920s and 1960s didn’t just a happen to black people.  It included many Appalachian Scots-Irish families who wanted a better life, and moved north above Cincinnati on the ‘hillbilly highway.’  Vance’s grandfather (Pawpaw) got a job in the AK steel mill and they and many others were able to buy cars, homes and ‘stuff’ that would have been impossible in Breathitt County, Kentucky.  But they brought with them cultural values that clashed with those in their new northern communities.   

Vance insists that the Appalachians were different from the Ohio working class as their culture was far more extreme – though I do not see any comparisons in this book.  Vance’s mother became a drug addict; his steel-worker grandfather was an alcoholic.  Heavy drinking, as we know, is a point of pride in certain varieties of 'maleness.'  The families engaged in constant violent arguments - yelling, hitting and getting arrested.  Strangers who insulted their ‘honor’ drew fights.  ‘Hillbillies’ were always praising ‘work’ verbally but some did not want to work at all.  For males, education and wimping out on a fight to defend one’s ‘honor’ was ‘sissy,’ though his own grandmother and mother encouraged him to do well in school.  Vance’s mother ran through a long string of boyfriends and ‘husbands’ to the point where he had to move constantly from one house to another.  His own father quickly left, and he took the name of another step-father, who also left.  This instability was particularly damaging. Early pregnancies, dropping out of school, early drug use, large quantities of guns, arrests - all typical markers.  

This is where Vance’s story is valuable, as it describes the difficulties of growing up ‘hillbilly.’ The constant instability and emotional stress contributed to many human failures.  Things like doing a budget, not blowing money on Xmas presents and buying things carefully; what food was healthy; how ‘social capital’ works or wearing a suit to certain job interviews were beyond his experience.  His life at Yale was as a token working-class student with a southern accent who basically got to hobnob with very rich students and top professors through Yale’s generous endowment.  Yet it still never made him feel like he belonged.  He sees that the culture of the wealthy that he now inhabits and the one he came from are almost completely separate.  Vance pinpoints his grandmother (Mamaw) as the key to his survival – a swearing, gun-toting woman who stood by him, especially in the last 3 years in high-school when he left his mother to live with her.  He credits her with his ability to become an ‘anomaly’ in his community – not just one of the only ones to go to college, but the Ivy League at that.   

Vance is now a conservative – but perhaps one that thinks he is ‘compassionate.’  He supports pay-day lenders, for instance, because they provide a ‘valuable service’ to impoverished people who have no family or money to turn to.  Not a word about their extortionate interest rates or perhaps an alternative like Post Office loans.  Vance has written for the National Review, an arch intellectual journal of the elite.  He went to Iraq as a PR officer and has not one negative word to say about that disastrous war or the billions doled out to war profiteers.  He just felt lucky that he wasn’t Iraqi.  (You want to see poverty, he muses…)  Ostensibly a man of the world, he still calls the U.S. the ‘best country in the world” and seemingly wants to ‘lift up’ his people… sort of a George Washington Carver of Appalachia.  He is an atheist that upholds the church as a possible savior, given it is about the only institution in some towns that can provide practical help to parishioners - and only hints that its irrationalism is part of the problem.  Vance celebrates the Marine Corps for teaching him things he never learned at home, but ignores its real role in the world.  To Vance the lack of coal mining jobs does not mean that government should have a program to provide guaranteed jobs for coal miners, such as installing solar or wind or maintaining infrastructure.  Not a word.  

Vance’s approach ignoring economics will ultimately fail, as you cannot pull yourself up ‘by your bootstraps.’  Try it sometime – you body doesn’t get lifted, only your boot.  Culture is a condition of economic life and, while mobility is possible, even he recognizes that it is now less possible in the U.S.  Working class life in Appalachia is one of the hardest in U.S. rural areas… the recent opioid / suicide / alcohol statistics show that.  Yet conditions in Appalachia come in second to rural areas in Mississippi, Alabama and other southern states with large black populations.  ‘Hillbilly’ culture comes with cultural, emotional and educational baggage that cannot be changed overnight just by getting a job.  Conservative cultural definitions of being a 'man' or a 'woman' create problems in themselves.  Because sometimes ‘emotional poverty’ can lead a person to lose that job, and those stressors do not go away.  Oppression oppresses…and 'culture' can crush.  

What is apparent from the book is that, while having a job is not a magic bullet, having one provides economic stability which can translate into emotional stability at some point.  It is no accident that conditions in Middletown have become worse as AK Steel has downsized.  The two interact dialectically, but one cannot exist without the other.  Ultimately, cultural conditions for Appalachia cannot change until there is a movement that politically unites these communities against capital.  As you might remember, nobody was bitching about opioid use during the battle of Blair Mountain or during the Pittston coal strike.  Class struggle brings out the best in people and is the real road to revival.

Reviews of books on a similar topic, below:  White Trash,”Chavs,” “Rich People Things,” “Class Lives,” “Factory Days,” “Gray Mountain.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
March 26, 2017

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