I recently finished the auspiciously published memoir Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. Published this year, it has stayed aloft in the bestselling list where it’s currently #1 nationally and in the Bay Area. It’s popularity is due in part to a widespread desire to better understand the zeitgeist that seems to have been underneath the Middle-of-the-country-states widely unexpected surge in support of candidate Trump’s (and soon to be president) harkening call to make America Great Again. The memoir is a sort of snapshot of this area both misunderstood and possibly overlooked in our dominant cultural landscape.
I experienced it as a tough love letter written to his tribe of people (who in the end aren’t that different than my own) articulating what he deems to be their defining “learned helplessness.” It’s his image for their stuck-ness, born and bred from the mass exodus of Scots-Irish rom Appalachia in the past fifty years in the hopes of a better life with more economic opportunity for upward mobility. They now find themselves dispersed geographically while still sharing a common cultural experience, namely that of feeling forgotten and left behindIn the globalized post-industrial world of today. This Scots-Irish Appalachian tribe have maintained a persistent and unchanging regional subculture. This emphasizes a strong sense of loyalty and zealous dedication to family and country, but also promulgates a definition of masculinity that delegitimizes the value of education, twists the notions of Christianity to become a reinforcement of tribal thought, and encourages a denying of the truth of the hardship of life including a seeming epidemic of verbal, alcohol and drug abuses which often impedes any opportunity for healthy change. What the tie that unifies and defines them, is also the same one that binds and incapacitates them in our changing world.
The author rejects the notion of this cycle of poverty and disempowerment as rooted in a structural analysis of our culture and economy. It’s not an -ism that may intentionally or unintentionally exclude this subpopulation from the dynamic of our economy and culture. Vance says that it’s more about what each generation passes to the next: a pessimism and learned helplessness. They see themselves in an impasse, a sinking ship, from which their can be distraction through things such as mass consumption or opioid use; but not escape. He asserts that the only way out and forward is through tough love and personal responsibility. Government policies and programs, or non-profit strategies can’t offer liberation, only direct, personal relationship and intervention.
His memoir is first and foremost the story of his escape from this isolating and debilitating pessimism. His upward mobility: exodus from cyclic poverty towards and into the American Dream, is made possible in large part because of the pregnant power of solid – even if mistaken and at times abusive – relationships, mentors, friends and distant cheer-leading relatives. He summarizes his story with analytical words spoken by a friend when describing the plight of the working class as :
The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can’t fix these things. They’ll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale for the people at the margins. (p. 238).
He weaves this observation through his personal narrative, highlighting the ways in why many thumbs were put on his scale to provide him with an unimaginable chance. He argues that government policy can help in that it can provide for a more diverse educational atmosphere for children stuck in this helplessness, by ensuring and engineering school settings as to ensure that those that are helpless and not isolated from the helped and helpful; but rather that learning together, they can rise together on the tide of shared hope, education and positive mentorship.
While I was challenged by the book, finding myself both personally interrogated and vocationally challenged; I saw roots of my own Scots-Irish family values and history (including the same name used for my grandmother) in his story/ I found myself thinking about ecclesiastical leadership and the responsibilities of communities of faith to nurture a pragmatic, results-based yet relationally-focused living-out-of-faith; I ultimately left it disappointed.
I came to the memoir expecting it to give voice, or what I surmised to be a justifying voice, to the populist wave that created a victory-inducing surge in the mantra of “Make America Great Again” associated with President-elect Trump. I didn’t ever believe that the red-tribe of Trumpites were all deplorable racist and misogynist haters; knowing that they were a diverse grouping of people with different perspectives brought together with a common hope for something better. But the book didn’t imbibe me with any hope for our emerging future. If the “hillbilly” culture is the dominant shared characteristic of the electoral college majority that won out over the popular vote majority, than I myself feel helpless. For Vance portrays a sub-population, what I would call a tribe (from Biblical language) that is first and foremost self-focused without the moral strength to recognize their own addictions, self-reinforcing cultural encumbrances and limited vision. He points to a victim mentality within their subculture, that they won’t admit. A dominant male perspective identifies education as for pussies, a misogynistic perspective of personhood; which then serves as the foundation upon which their feelings of forgottenness is built like a house of cards.
And while the narrative talks of this subcultures in the line of “if you’ve lived it you understand it,” I can say that I don’t feel like that “it” is the wisest voice to be choosing the direction of our country or economy in a hyper-globalized, cloud-based world. When talking with someone about the book, I was labeled an elitist I believe that my perspective on the world is more holistic than the “hillbilly” which I came to glimpse in my read. Is that a question of elitism or of education, or judgment or of perspective? Do I have to come out of the closet as an elitist because I have education-based views, am grounded in a more leftist and internationalist political stance?; or because I have graduate degrees? To show active empathy do I have to renounce my own beliefs, convictions and epistemological point of view?
While I feel like Vance gifted me with the rare opportunity to walk a mile in his shoes, I ultimately find the way in which I approached the book, and the way in which I’v heard so many others talk about the books, to be deceptively simple. To understand is not to appreciate or value. Just as to hold in contempt is to objectify. The book doesn’t lay a map for how we can all “just get along.” It teases out the depth of complexity in which we find ourselves (and maybe always have been). We cannot choose one or the other, red or blue, hillbilly or urban elitist. To move forward we have to recognize and embrace the dialectic of our diverging worldviews as a whole, not merely reducing them to doublethink or newspeak. While I am privileged in our society through my gender, race and class; I do recognize that others are not, can learn helplessness. But I don’t have to choose between the sublation of repressive racism subverted by the call of #blacklivesmatter and the call for help of the forgotten white poor mired in learned helplessness. I don’t have too choose between being overly-inclusive politically correctness or a tribe-affirming racial supremacy. I can be both rooted in my Christian faith and embrace pluralism. I can be both proud of my Scots-Irish heritage and enthusiastically champion multiracism.
Ultimately the question we’re facing as a pluralist nation in which no one religion, ethnicity or heritage is dominant, or prescriptive; is the one posed in the Pirqé Avot 1.14 :
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:
He [Rabbi Hillel] used to say: If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?