Hillbilly mythology

October 9, 2017

Jonathan Isaac explains how the memoir Hillbilly Elegy crams old myths into new forms.

J.D. VANCE is on a publicity tour for his best-selling Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, which tells the story of his experiences growing up in Middletown, Ohio, and Jackson, Kentucky.

After the election of Donald Trump, Vance's book has been viewed as an important insight into the rural white working class that supposedly got him into office. And while Vance is a Republican, and right-wing think tanks like the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute have invited him to speak, Hillbilly Elegy is also finding an audience among a more liberal audience.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I am a graduate student, chose Hillbilly Elegy as its "Go Big Read," ensuring that every student on campus has access to a free copy of the book.

Vance won't be speaking, but a panel of experts will speak here October 9 about the book for a discussion they say will shed new light on the problems faced by Appalachia, such as the opioid crisis, declining hopes of educational advancement and decreasing job prospects.

Cover image: <i>Hillbilly Elegy</i> author J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance

But Hillbilly Elegy does nothing to illuminate the lives of the rural white working class. Instead, it reaffirms all the old stereotypes and failed solutions to poverty.

Vance's memoir rests on the idea that hillbilly culture and its penchant for violence, aggression, pride to a fault, and--most damningly, according to Vance--laziness are to blame for the economic woes of Appalachia.

Setting aside for now the danger of ascribing specific cultural traits to large swaths of the eastern U.S., Vance's memoir relies almost exclusively on anecdotal evidence, extrapolating from his hometown experiences to paint a picture of all Appalachian issues as self-inflicted.

In the book's final pages, Vance sums up the worldview he spends the previous 250 pages explaining: "These problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them."

As a socialist and a human being, I hope that this diagnosis of Appalachia makes your skin crawl.

HILLBILLY ELEGY describes Vance's ascension from hillbilly boy to Marine to Ohio State University student to Yale Law graduate. After Yale, Vance used his connections to become a successful venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, but Hillbilly Elegy concentrates on Vance's life and upbringing before that.

Vance grew up in Middletown, Ohio, a decimated former steel town. His mother was a nurse with a drug addiction, so he and his sister were raised by his grandparents, who were from rural Kentucky.

Vance's personal success story is impressive, beating the odds typically faced by children in rural Kentucky and Ohio, and he uses this story to build upon the myth that the only thing holding back poor people from success is themselves.

In the process, he can't contain his condescension toward the people he claims to know so well, including sentiments like this:

The truth is hard, and the hardest truths for hill people are the ones they must tell about themselves. Jackson is undoubtedly full of the nicest people in the world; it is also full of drug addicts and at least one man who can find the time to make eight children, but can't find the time to support them...Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work.

Vance's moralizing about those "who show little interest in honest work"--in comparison to his own hard work and rise to the top--is nothing new. Barack Obama used a similar kind of victim-blaming to argue that the crisis in Black communities was the fault of Black fathers not taking "personal responsibility."

Sentiments like these--shared by white Republicans like Vance and Black Democrats like Obama--attempt to shift the blame away from the actual sources of people's misery and onto individual responsibility and lifestyle choice.

Over 150 years ago, socialist Karl Marx wrote, "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness."

In other words, if we are going to understand the conditions that govern our existence, we have to identify the root causes of such conditions so as to challenge them. Vance's diagnosis doesn't seriously consider the institutions that have led to a "culture in crisis," but rather places blame on individuals' poor work ethic or personal accountability.

For example, Vance writes, regarding his education, "The constant moving and fighting, the seemingly endless carousel of new people I had to meet, learn to love, and then forget--this, and not my subpar public school, was the real barrier to opportunity."

This would be a perfect place for Vance to take issue with an underfunded education system that fails to provide poor students with opportunities and access to resources. But he refuses to do so. Instead, he's set on blaming the children and parents that he claims are conditioned for instability and violence.

THE IDEA that individuals' bad choices are to blame for their own poverty isn't a new narrative, but in the wake of Donald Trump's election, it's enjoying a resurgence.

The "culture of poverty" theory--the notion that the undeserving poor develop a set of values that perpetuate their impoverishment--has been employed as a tool of the ruling class since the 1960s to explain how some Americans are successful and others are not. In her 1974 book All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community, anthropologist Carol Stack wrote:

The culture of poverty, as Hylan Lewis points out, has a fundamental political nature. The ideas matter most to political and scientific groups attempting to rationalize why some Americans have failed to make it in American society. It is, Lewis argues, "an idea that people believe, want to believe, and perhaps need to believe." They want to believe that raising the income of the poor would not change their lifestyles or values, but merely funnel greater sums of money into bottomless, self-destructing pits.

This idea--that increasing the quality of life and access to social services for the poor would be like throwing money away--so thoroughly serves the interests of the people who want to cut social spending that it should be easy to dismiss. And yet, these beliefs have pernicious stranglehold on public consciousness.

And Vance is all-too-willing to further this narrative, writing, "I could never understand why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about."

Vance is nonetheless a shrewd conservative memoirist--he makes sure not to place all the blame on hillbillies. He gestures to larger macroeconomic forces in describing the reality of his hometown--but then quickly returns to his favorite pastime of victim-blaming. Case in point: this passage:

Of course, the reasons poor people aren't working as much as others are complicated, and it's too easy to blame the problem on laziness. For many, part-time work is all they have access to, because the Armcos of the world are going out of business and their skill sets don't fit well in the modern economy. But whatever the reasons, the rhetoric of hard work conflicts with the reality on the ground. The kids in Middletown absorb that conflict and struggle with it.

This half-hearted mention of companies and jobs leaving Ohio allows Vance to quickly rebut any critic of his memoir who might take issue with his vilification of "hillbilly culture." But it doesn't change the reality that the main point of Hillbilly Elegy is placing the blame squarely on individuals' bad lifestyle choices.

But we know better.

As Sharon Smith, author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, explained in a session at the Socialism 2017 conference titled "'Rust Belt Reactionaries'? The U.S. Working Class Today," austerity budgets that force the elimination of needed social services, industrial deregulation that makes workplace conditions less safe and gives supreme power to multinational corporations, and the privatization of formerly public goods have all contributed to the dire state of Appalachian social and economic life.

And, she points out:

The neoliberal project over the last 40 years has been entirely bipartisan. It has continued unabated, no matter which party occupied the White House or whether the economy was in boom or slump. And both Hillary and Bill Clinton played a major role in implementing it, alongside the Republicans.

THE FACT that Hillbilly Elegy is being hyped by conservatives and liberal commentators tells you something important. By placing the blame for poverty and misery on "hillbilly culture," Vance lets the people who are really responsible off the hook--the Republican and Democratic politicians who have green-lighted the austerity that has impacted all workers, including rural whites.

We need look for solutions that look deeper at the sources of problems like opioid abuse. As Nicole Colson wrote in SocialistWorker.org:

A society that wants to halt drug addiction must address the root causes--the complex web of social conditions that include poverty, despair, boredom, pain (both physical and mental) and alienation. We should treat people struggling with addiction with more compassion, not shame or ridicule. We should have more resources and treatment available for drug users and their families. We should have fewer lobbyists and drug company vultures who can legally profit off of the misery of millions. Until we do, the drug crisis will only continue.

Vance, on the other hand, demonstrates no compassion for his neighbors: "This is the reality of our community. It's about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life. It's about children who lose their toys and clothes to another's addiction."

Vance shames poor people from Appalachia for the conditions of their life that could lead them to opioid addiction. This characterization erases the decades of government policy that have removed any sources of support for those struggling with drug addiction.

We need solutions that respond to human need, not victim-blaming--things like jobs, drug treatment and quality education. It is by addressing the root causes of such social issues that we can remedy them.

On a larger scale, the culprit is a system that places corporate profit and cheap labor over human and community need. Without this analysis, as in Hillbilly Elegy, we are left with a cycle of shaming, victim-blaming and grief.

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