Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

A twitter storm this summer brought this book to my attention. I read several articles and interviews with Vance before managing to get my hands on a copy of the book. That circuitous introduction led me to expect some kind of treatise on working class attitudes, so at first I experienced the work through the distorting lens of others’ interpretations.

This book is not any kind of treatise. It is a brave, funny, unsentimental growing-up story, introducing us to a cussin’ gun-brandishing grandmaw who knew instilling accountability and backbone was the best way out of hill country. But when the time came for young Vance to leave via induction into the Marines, grandmaw was reluctant to let him go. She probably wasn’t sure that he’d live long enough to get that college degree she wanted for him.

Mawmaw sounds like a very special person, with her sometimes conservative, sometimes liberal political thought. She didn’t take anything as creed, except the hillbilly creed. That lack of credulousness, that lack of naiveté is something we should all aim for. It is the road to a well-informed, sophisticated citizenry. Wouldn’t she be surprised to know we are thinking of her now. Wish I’d met her.

J.D. Vance is an avowed conservative, but he has some of that “thinking for himself” thing going on. When he was young he turned to the church for answers, and while the church gave him some answers and some help, he could see that it wasn’t going to be the whole answer. “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s what I learned also...the hard way.

While I find myself on the other side of the political spectrum from Vance’s self-described “far right” position as that spectrum is defined in common parlance, I can listen to him enunciate his thinking without having a coronary because he clearly thinks about his opinions and would probably listen to mine, if I am reasonable, and focussed on a solution that is fair and do-able. He is as entitled to his opinions as I am. I believe he is recommending thoughtfulness, openness, creativity, and a willingness to compromise. I suppose he is ultimately headed to political office. His favorite job in college was the state senate, after all.

In a way, this bare-all, plainspoken memoir reminds me of Obama’s family history, Dreams from my Father, that Obama wrote before his big political push. You can’t talk behind the back of a man who has told you the worst already. I wish everyone was able to be so frank with us, but let’s admit that not everyone has the writing skill to pull this off. Vance is in his early thirties and freely admits he does not have all the answers to joblessness and hopelessness in hillbilly country, but he is one of the few conservatives who appear to give a damn.

It is important to note that Vance is better at presenting a balanced, less objectionable point of view in writing. In a book interview on PBS Newshour, Vance said that Trump was one of the few people who “cared” about the plight of poor working class. I think that can be challenged on a number of fronts. There have been public policies put in place in the past thirty years after all, even if they haven’t worked well in practice.

When asked, in that same PBS interview, about Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” Vance says “a lot of these folks are just really hard-working people…” I don’t understand. He spent most of the book telling us that in fact, “white working class” meant hardly working. They have reasons for their disaffection, but the solutions are in community, family, and values, none of which necessarily have much to do with money.

As it happens, I also believe in community, family, and values despite not agreeing with practically anything else on the agenda of the “far right.” I agree with Vance that attacking political leaders for things that are demonstrably untrue (e.g., birtherism) has fomented an unhealthy distrust of government. The press has an important role to play in challenging power, but intentionally creating suspicion helps no one. Vance agrees that conservatives need to do a better job in healing the country and bringing folks together rather than pushing them apart.

Republicans desperately need a rational spokesman, and Vance has put himself up for the job. For a political party that has so lost its moral compass, this man must bring great hope. He has something he cares deeply about, knows something about, and knows how to go about trying to find solutions. Broken family ties is a subject we all need to think about whether black, white, rich, or poor. Rich people have broken families as well, with equally devastating consequences. Hopelessness and despair of ever being able to turn one’s life around—this is something rich folks can share if they, too, are addicts. But learned helplessness and the lack of social capital--that is something rich people do not share.

There is a great deal to discuss in this book, including Amy Chua's advice in law school that Vance not pursue the most prestigious and shiniest job in the basket of opportunities, and how the lives of poor inner-city blacks may parallel and reflect the lives of hillbilly whites. I think we can all be part of this conversation. I believe that is why he started it.

J.D. Vance gives a TED talk (September 2016)

I listened to this book read by the author and produced by HarperAudio. The author read a little too fast as this material was new to me and required thinking as well as listening, but it is still a worthwhile way to gain access to this remarkable personal history.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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