By Kyle Hayden, Columnist
J.D. Vance, author of national bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy,” visited Miami University yesterday to give a talk about his book.
Vance’s heart is in the right place. The book resonated with me thoroughly. However, I have some major and fundamental disagreements with its political premises.
Prior to his talk Wednesday, I was invited to a lunch with Vance by the department of media, journalism and film assumedly because I’m from this area — I’m from Sidney, Ohio.
Vance is also from this area and the bulk of the book concerns itself with Middletown, Ohio, where Vance was raised.
Vance’s family, however, is from Jackson, KY.
Half of my family is Williamsburg, KY (also Appalachian Kentucky) and shares a remarkably similar history of migration with Vance’s — although my family moved from Appalachia to Over-The-Rhine, Cincinnati after World War II and then to Shelby County, Ohio in the 1960s.
But there exists a deeper position at issue in Vance’s book that I find eerily similar to a series of sociological gaffes I have been exposed to through my usual reading and thinking.
Vance’s book opens with an introduction that enforces a cultural trend I find particularly troubling that needs to be absolutely debated and established as a farce.
From Page 7:
“…[T]his book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”
That word, “culture” rang a bell in my head. In the 1960s, Columbia University anthropologist Oscar Lewis wrote a book titled “La Vida: A Puerto Rican family in the Culture
In Vance’s book, admittedly not a work of anthropology (“just a memoir,” Vance said), I find starkly reflective of Lewis’ message: that there are certain traits of people in poverty that ensure they remain there. A sentiment resurrected quite plainly in Vance’s book.
Under Vance’s view, objectionable personal behaviors are the cause (not the result) of poverty that helps “encourage social decay.”
Individuals, like the co-worker readers meet in the introduction are stripped of their personhood. The co-worker in question would show up to work chronically late and take long bathroom breaks. Could this person have had a sick mother at home he was attending to (we know he has a “baby on the way,” Vance writes), making him late? Or did he have Crohn’s disease that sends him to the toilet several times a day, being quite possibly unable to afford the proper medication and experiencing
The reader will never know
because Vance didn’t bother to ask.
So why choose to include this bit?
The reader is supposed to buy into the demonization of this half-floating stereotype of a patently irresponsible young man trying to survive in Middletown post-financial crisis (around 2010). To me, most of Vance’s cultural posturing in this regard felt like textbook victim blaming.
Lewis’ work also helped create and enforce the idea of the “welfare queen”, a lazy, loud and entitled “bad mother.” Vance uses this term specifically on page 8.
This orientation plays into the stereotypes and ways in which urban liberals want to see Appalachia and its problems. In that, it does not surprise me that “Hillbilly Elegy” has become a bestseller. It positions easy solutions (“blame yourselves”) to
Americans now live in a culture that continually fails to connect private troubles as larger public issues.
In Vance’s pages readers are told not to question elites and banks that caused the housing crisis, or question the economic liberalization brought by international trade policies that are responsible for the emptying out of Midwestern manufacturing cities like Middletown and Sidney. We are told not to question
Further, don’t question the immiseration caused by a ruthless and cruel market society imposed by elites to which ordinary people (like the ones featured in Vance’s book) have little contact or influence over.
This is a society in which corporations, in order to remain profitable, put people out on the street without a second thought.
Though Americans have voted themselves out of labor protections, they are told not to blame anyone but themselves for the grinding misery draped over them by the deepening miserly economic circumstances.
We need to realize politicians, mostly beholden to the whims and demands of corporations, wouldn’t be interested in meliorating a crisis created by the economic liberalization polices they have been sliding over the country in the last 40 years.
C. Wright Mills, more than 50 years ago, was writing about the increasing inability of the American public to translate private troubles into larger public issues. Of course we must realize that if we have an unstable, turbulent society and economy, we will have unstable families and unstable lives.
This sort of denial of a larger social reality — the idea that individuals are the only ones to blame for the state of affairs – has produced a society that is “civically illiterate” writes
“Illiterate in this instance refers to the inability on the part of much of the American public to grasp private troubles and the meaning of the self in relation to larger public problems and social relations.”
It is this collapse into the personal, the disengagement with the larger social and political reality that troubles me. That so many people are evidently (literally) buying into this logic casually is more alarming.
In the end, I was sitting at the lunch table thinking how mad
Wendell Berry would be at the hypocrisy displayed by Vance. I was at the table thinking on my dreams of commitment to place eschewed by the Silicon Valley careerists,
Everyone wants to talk about community and having a commitment to their home region and rebuilding the community, but I have yet to see many people actually walk the walk, Vance included.
I was thinking of Sidney.
I was thinking of the family I’ve lost to heroin.
While most young college graduates continue to cram into the metropolitan regions on the coasts, I want to remain in my home region.
If we keep emptying out our small towns and small economies with this urban condescension: a fetish-preference for the megalopolis and its luring information jobs and tech careers lauded by authors like Richard Florida in his “Rise of the Creative Class.”
If we continue to ignore the middle of the country and its nuance, we will end up with a country full of places no one cares about and as James Kunstler writes, we may end up with a country not worth defending.