Elegiac

January 13, 2017

(Hey, look at this! I’m blogging!)

So I finished Hillbilly Elegy today.

I figured I should read it, as my beloved wife is a native of Middletown, OH and a good hunk of her family still lives there. I have a few thoughts.

In many ways, this is an inspiring narrative, and one that resonates with me, though – and I want to make this absolutely clear – I am not from a broken home. Indeed, for whatever issues I have had with my family (and it would be intellectually and morally dishonest to say that we have not had issues), I am forever grateful that my home life was so stable. It really does make a difference. We may have been rural, but my parents would never let us be “rednecks.” This is one of the reasons I so often ask why it is necessary to conflate the two, and why so many people (both within and without the rural community) encourage such conflating.

But, as is said in Revelation, I have a few things against thee, JD Vance.

First of all, I don’t entirely agree with your characterization of several sections of Middletown. This is a minor point, but there is more going on than you state. Downtown, for example, has some neat things underway, even if it’s not there yet. I am willing to attribute this to two things. A) We have a tendency – and clearly I am guilty of this – to either overromanticize our hometowns or exaggerate the perceived awfulness, and; B) It sounds like you haven’t been back in a few years. Completely understandable, and I am willing to concede this particular point to these two ideas.

My second point consists of a sharper criticism, one that I believe is linked to Mr. Vance’s current situation. Mr. Vance rightfully points out several flaws with the culture that produced him, and indeed you must change the culture to change the situation for the greatest number of people. But apart from some perfunctory slaps on the wrist, Mr. Vance is almost completely unwilling to assign any of the blame to corporate and financial practices that contribute to the problems. There was a telling moment when he describes working for former Ohio state senator Bob Schuler, who was opposed to further payday lending regulations. Vance says that these predatory loan places were the only place people from his background could go to get financial assistance, and that if more people from his background were part of the system, governments would not be so quick to impose further regulations on these institutions.

As Joe Biden might say, that’s malarkey. There are other ways to get assistance without having to resort to near-usury.

Keep in mind that, no matter Vance’s beginnings (and it is an inspiring narrative), he cut his legislative teeth working for a state senator determined to protect predatory lenders, and he is currently the principal for a major financial firm in the Bay Area, one which is founded by Peter Thiel. I am not so blind as to not understand the importance of both capital and the ability to move capital in our current system (indeed, it is why I cannot endorse the idea of wholesale destruction of the financial sector), but Vance is not exactly a disinterested party. By shifting the blame away from financial policies that could have mitigated the situation, and from corporations and investors that intentionally drained money from communities, Vance is able to maximize his otherwise just criticism of his native culture while signaling that he is – to use a phrase that I have heard many times in different circumstances – “one of the good ones.”

This same idea permeates my third criticism, that he is too dismissive of the social contract. Throughout the work, there is almost no mention of the role of government and political structures in assistance, except to say that Child Protective Services is often viewed by Appalachian culture as “the enemy.” There are moments of criticism for the government programs that provided assistance, but – in keeping in line with someone published regularly in Bill Buckley’s National Review – the ideology of the book is rooted in encouraging bootstrap-pulling among those who are bootless.

I am not completely against the book. Vance has clearly overcome many obstacles, and he makes a compelling argument for transcending one’s limitations and beginnings. He does, to his credit, consider arguments from all over the political spectrum, and is as quick to blame conservative fake news as he is liberal snootiness. I just wish he wasn’t so determined to maintain the Horatio Alger narrative, as it doesn’t tell the full story and in some cases deliberately shifts blame. I would still recommend it, approving quotes from David Brooks and all, because unlike other conservative writers, Vance is at least trying to figure it out.

(This review, by Alex MacGillis in The Atlantic, hits on similar points.)

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