Monday, August 08, 2016

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

We live in a world of Black Lives Matter, of constant harping about "white privilege" and a focus on the trials and tribulations of the nation's inner cities. What we rarely think about, except to sneer at it, is the huge population of Americans who inhabit the rural and semi-rural white working class that dwell in the Rust Belt, Appalachia and the South, a group of people who are falling behind at an alarming pace and who suffer from the same maladies as inner city blacks except for the astronomical homicide rate. They are a largely forgotten people and many of the opinion makers in America are glad to not have to think about them.

There are some who look at the problems in this group like Charles Murray and his fantastic book Coming Apart: The State Of White America, 1960-2010 but his work is a bit heavy for casual reading. Into this slow moving demographic train-wreck comes Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis by J.D. Vance. Vance comes from a world many people who live in the suburbs haven't a clue about but Vance's book comes out at a critical time in America. As I write this the Republican Party has rather reluctantly nominated Donald Trump to be President and much of his support comes ironically from this white lower class, people from coal towns in Kentucky and shuttered steel mills in Ohio who have found a champion in an East Coast billionaire. If you don't understand these people, you can't understand Trump's rise.

Vance tells his story in a simple, straight forward and pretty raw style. You won't find such salty language even in a George R.R. Martin book and it is all the more shocking because so much of it comes from his grandmother or as he calls her Mamaw. It is the story of an intensely proud, religious, patriotic people who praise the virtue of hard-work but who also seem loathe to engage in it. People who are religious but have no connection to a faith community and who show none of the signs of a believer. A people who are patriotic to a fault but who simultaneously hate the government that many of them are dependent on. Above all a people who think they lack agency, that all of their problems are being inflicted on them from outside and there is nothing they can do about it. From his unimaginably tumultuous childhood with only his extended family to watch over him as his mother engaged in a variety of self-destructive behavior and relationships, to his escape to the Marine Corps (for many kids in poor, rural areas the only path out is the military) to his admittance to Ohio State and then finally to his law degree from Yale of all places, Vance tells what is really an incredibly improbably story.

A hillbilly who almost flunked out of high school going to Yale Law School. That part of his life is the most puzzling to me. Anyone can get into Ohio State if they are from Ohio. I walked into a counselors office on a lark one summer day in Columbus with my future wife and was accepted without applying and registered for classes on the spot. What still seems odd to me is that he parlayed that into acceptance to Yale. Anyway.

I am a native Ohioan but I come from a little different background. Growing up in the Toledo area the son of a doctor meant that might experience as a kid was very different. It wasn't a question of if I could get into college but which college I would attend but even Toledo has it's share of hillbillies. Toledo used to be a white, working class, blue collar union town. My mom grew up in that part of Ohio east of Columbus and south of Cleveland that looks a lot more like Kentucky and West Virginia than Cincinnati. My dad grew up in a poor Polish family in Toledo. I remember visiting family with my maternal grandpa down in the hill country and thinking it was a whole different world. My wife's family still has a lot of those roots as well with many of the same issues that Vance describes in his book. Even where we lived in Ohio and now in Indiana we are just on the periphery of this culture Vance describes so vividly.

Hillbilly Elegy describes a world where about everything that could go wrong, does go wrong. In deep rural areas all around the South and Rustbelt Midwest heroin, meth and prescription drug abuse are rampant. Unwed mothers are common place. Welfare and food stamps sustain a lot of people. But what is most troubling, and if I am honest infuriating, is the fatalism so many people exhibit. Nothing is their fault, everything bad is being done to them rather than being the consequences of their own poor decisions. Boys grow up sneering at academic achievement. Girls seem drawn to absolute losers who knock them up and then move on to the next girl. A lot of people I grew up with mocked blacks for being dependent on the government, being lazy "welfare queens" while living in pretty much the same manner. Vance spins a compelling story that is hard to put down. Living in a home where books were always at hand, where classical music often was playing, where as a family we would watch The McLaughlin Group together for fun this world was completely foreign to me as much as the world portrayed in movies like Boyz n The Hood talked about a foreign world to me. The world J.D. describes is a bad situation and it is getting worse.

So what is the solution? What is perhaps most troubling is that there isn't one. The "War On Poverty", the bottomless pit of "education" spending, a myriad of social safety nets, all of these programs so beloved in Washington have cost us untold tens of trillions of dollars and it can be argued have made things worse. Vance closes out his tale with this:

"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." pg. 256

The hard truth that people in permanent underclasses need to realize is that at some point it is up to each individual community to make things better. People in Washington and New York and Boston can't really fix a problem that they don't understand and trillions of dollars in spending has proven that. It is up to the hillbillies to say enough is enough, enough with the refusal to work to support a family, enough with the constant turmoil and violence in families, enough with the dependency on government and drugs. It doesn't make for a storybook ending but it is the truth and in these times the hard truth is far more valuable than the comfortable lie. I can say without reserve that Hillbilly Elegy is one of the most compelling and most important books to have hit the scene for many years.

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