J. D. Vance is getting a lot of attention for his recent memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. It’s decent book for what it is, but it ends up being mostly fodder for conservative rationalization and praise for WASP culture. If you’re interested in poor whites of the Upper South, you’d be better off gaining useful insight from the likes of Joe Bageant.
I’m not motivated in doing a full review of the book. I only wanted to note something from the introduction and comment on it. Here is what stood out to me (Kindle Locations 215-224):
“One guy, I’ll call him Bob, joined the tile warehouse just a few months before I did. Bob was nineteen with a pregnant girlfriend. The manager kindly offered the girlfriend a clerical position answering phones. Both of them were terrible workers. The girlfriend missed about every third day of work and never gave advance notice. Though warned to change her habits repeatedly, the girlfriend lasted no more than a few months. Bob missed work about once a week, and he was chronically late. On top of that, he often took three or four daily bathroom breaks, each over half an hour. It became so bad that, by the end of my tenure, another employee and I made a game of it: We’d set a timer when he went to the bathroom and shout the major milestones through the warehouse—“ Thirty-five minutes!” “Forty-five minutes!” “One hour!”
“Eventually, Bob, too, was fired. When it happened, he lashed out at his manager: “How could you do this to me? Don’t you know I’ve got a pregnant girlfriend?” And he was not alone: At least two other people, including Bob’s cousin, lost their jobs or quit during my short time at the tile warehouse.
“You can’t ignore stories like this when you talk about equal opportunity.”
Damn straight! We can’t ignore stories like this. Nor so easily dismiss the real people behind the stories.
My initial response to this was that Vance sounds like a heartless asshole. He is quick to judge people he seems to know nothing about. These people were just stereotypes to him and so to be dismissed. He offers no insight about who these people were, what their lives were like, and what they struggled with.
The woman was pregnant, as Vance admits. She could have been dealing with serious morning sickness. There might have been complications with the pregnancy or other unrelated medical conditions involved. Maybe she was tired out from trying to work multiple jobs to save money for when the child came and was having a hard time balancing the work load. As far as the reader knows, she had other kids at home or maybe an elderly parent who needed regular caretaking.
Vance doesn’t inform the reader about any details. One must assume he didn’t know these people very well and apparently had no curiosity to get to know them. He could have, for example, asked her why she wasn’t feeling well during the pregnancy and whether there was anything he could do to help. That is what a compassionate person would have done.
The same goes for the guy, the prospective father. All we know is that he had to use the bathroom often. That could indicate a medical condition, from irritable bowel syndrome to some kind of lingering stomach flu. It could have been lots of things. And maybe with medical costs related to the pregnancy, the guy couldn’t afford to see a doctor about whatever might’ve been ailing him. We shall never know and neither shall Vance.
Instead, Vance mocked him openly and drew management’s attention to the poor guy. It sounds like Vance helped get him fired, in true asshole fashion. Not even an ounce of sympathy toward those who haven’t been as lucky as he has been, at least in this particular case.
Here is the conclusion he offers (Kindle Locations 224-233):
“Nobel-winning economists worry about the decline of the industrial Midwest and the hollowing out of the economic core of working whites. What they mean is that manufacturing jobs have gone overseas and middle-class jobs are harder to come by for people without college degrees. Fair enough— I worry about those things, too. But this 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.
“The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy. Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work— a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way— carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance. More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him. There is a lack of agency here— a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself. This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.”
The problem is that he never explores deeply, much less widely, “what goes on in the lives of real people”. It’s mostly just a memoir and primarily focuses on his immediate family. He doesn’t travel the region doing careful interviews. He certainly doesn’t look at any of the data showing what is effecting these people. He doesn’t bother to consider what others have previously written. It ends up being personal speculation based on extremely limited anecdotal evidence, which is to say he confirms his own biases.
As one person noted,
“It matters very much, because it ties into how the author of the book judges “hillbilly culture” as a character fault of the people who make it up. For instance, he criticizes man who takes a day off work while his girlfriend is pregnant. I’d like to know how much that job paid, whether it provided a living wage, whether it provided adequate health care, whether transportation was an issue, and how employees were treated by management, before I would be able to agree or disagree that the man was lazy or irresponsible. […] I’m saying that the issue is far more complicated than Vance makes out. Thiel, Brooks, Vance — they all believe that any individual can rise above the direst circumstances if only they have the right spirit. It’s the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” theory, and to believe that if you don’t succeed at this, if you remain in violence and poverty and despair, it’s your own fault… that’s neoconservatism.”
It is a cynical worldview. Obviously, it doesn’t explain why the lives of these people are worsening. Might there be a direct causal link to their lives worsening as the economy and other social conditions worsen for most Americans, just as in the past their lives were improving when the world around them was doing likewise. Why not go with the simplest and most common sense explanation?
* * *
As a side note, one thing that really irks me is the class narrative.
The mainstream media keeps falsely portraying Trump’s supporters as working class whites, poor whites, or simply white trash—as if it is a rising backlash of downtrodden whites. The fact of the matter is Trump’s supporters are on average middle class, above average in wealth compared to most Americans. Republicans in general get a disproportionate percentage of the wealthier vote, whereas Democrats have maintained their hold on working class whites.
Yet Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is being used as an explanation for Trump’s candidacy. It offers economically well off white conservatives a way rationalize away the fact that their party has been going batshit crazy long before Trump came along.
When all else fails, when poor minorities and undocumented immigrants can’t be scapegoated, blame the white trash and the unassimilated ethnic whites. The likes of J. D. Vance is simply following in the tradition of Charles Murray and previous generations of conservatives, such as the polemicists and eugenicists in the early 20th century. It’s the old American defense of WASP cultural dominance against all those who would threaten it.
Income Inequality and Partisan Voting in the United States
By Andrew Gelman, Lane Kenworthy, and Yu-Sung Su
Which Candidate Do the Poor Support?
Presidential Candidates and Voter Demographics
Class Breakdown of the Campaigns
* * *
REVIEW: LAMENTING ‘HILLBILLY ELEGY’
By James Branscome, The Daily Yonder
Searching for the “White Working Class”
By Zoltan Zigedy, ZZ’s blog
FOR HONKY FOLK WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE/WHEN DONALD TRUMP IS ENUF.
By Roy Edroso, alicublog
half touching personal memoir, half neoconservative political manifesto
By Mark bennett, Amazon
Hillbilly Elegy? Not Really
By LH, Amazon
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