Which Side Are You On?

a review by Bob Roman

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Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, HarperCollins, 2016. 264 pages, $27.99

This memoir is about coming of age in the Appalachian parts Ohio and Kentucky. The book has been out for a while now, and there have been a considerable number of reviews: Understandably, as J. D. Vance self-identifies as a conservative and this book promises a reasonable insight into the cultural revolt that delivered some crucial working class votes to Donald Trump. Most of the reviews, rightwing and leftwing, were written with an ideological and political argument in mind and most of them present something of a caricature of what you will actually find in the book. It’s mostly been “Hooray for our side!”, “Boo for their side!”, “Who appointed Vance spokesman for the hillbillies?” In my humble opinion, the best of the reviews, but still not great, is Joshua Rothman’s The Lives of Poor White People in The New Yorker.

Vance actually gives the reader two things with his book. One is a personal story of resilience, growth and discovery that is well-written and engaging. It very much reminds me of Nathan McCall’s rather more violent 1994 memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, but it could easily be any number of other escape from poverty biographies.

The other thing is a discussion of poverty as a social and political issue. Vance steps into the middle of a very old conversation, best represented by an exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As I recall the conversation, F. Scott Fitzgerald opined, “The rich are very different than you or me.” To which Ernest Hemingway replied, “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

It is here that Vance and most of his reviewers lose their way. Vance’s journey is more than just an escape from penury. He grew up in unstable, traumatic, violent, self-destructive circumstances that, despite the best efforts of his grandparents and Middletown, Ohio, schools, left him unprepared to navigate the adult world. This was not only the lack of knowledge and confidence to negotiate bureaucracies or to accumulate and use “social capital” — in other words all the expected aspects of what some call the “culture of poverty.” It was also how to negotiate emotional and social intimacy. A happy family was a stunning discovery. It’s understandable that Vance would stand before this broad new vista and consider: “The rich are very different than you or me.”

Or are they? As I said, it’s an old conversation, and I remember earlier an iteration of the debate where, in reply, an author stripped a family biography of all class and ethnic identifiers. On the face of it, the stripped biography could have fit quite nicely among the worst of Vance’s home town of Middletown. The family? An American political dynasty: the Kennedys. If that’s not enough, just consider how dysfunctional celebrity gossip is sold to us as entertainment. Or consider Donald Trump. “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

So J. D. Vance has picked a side, and given his experience, his choice is entirely understandable. I think this is the point most reviewers miss. What Vance misses is the degree to which the dysfunction of hillbilly culture is really a reasonable attempt by individuals to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. As individuals, the odds are stacked highly against them. As Trump might put it, the game is fixed. As individuals, they are essentially powerless and of no consequence and they live lives of no consequence — no consequence for themselves and maybe not even for their children as why should anyone expect circumstances to improve? Under these circumstances, being lazy is not unreasonable, though being poor comes with more of an overhead of work than the better off might imagine.

Capitalism may have failed them, but so has everything else, including the left. You can find exceptions like occasional desert oases. Families, extended or otherwise, sometimes provide the needed support; Vance may be an example of this. Church communities can also serve, not just as a source of values and norms but as a venue for mutual aid. But when industry died, unions went away as well. There’s no political organization that has a presence outside the middle and ruling classes. I suspect a survey of Middletown would find a disorganized community: few clubs and civic organizations, few businesses, churches with mediocre market penetration among the faithful, and on…. Not much different than many urban poor neighborhoods.

Vance portrays this as a crisis. It is a crisis but it’s not exactly a new crisis. Poverty in Appalachia gets discovered periodically every few decades then forgotten except for when it is convenient for discrediting whatever had been previously proposed as a solution. Vance seems to imply this is a new crisis: a half truth. Just as Blacks had the Great Migration, hillbillies had their own exodus north (Readin’ Rightin’ Route 23)for some of the same reasons. (Arguably Black migrants were as much political refugees as economic migrants, hillbillies not so much.) What is new for southeast Ohio is that the jobs, the greener fields that the hillbillies fled to, left the country or were automated, leaving these economic migrants stranded.

Vance is not really very helpful with explaining the Trump phenomenon, partly because the book was published prior to the election. His account does kinda help make sense of it to me at least. The best way of thinking about Trump with respect to working class voters is as a wooden shoe: as an act of sabotage, in other words. For many voters, Trump was not elected in support of any particular agenda (promises! promises! politicians promise then go away) so much as an intent to disrupt things as they are. Loki, Coyote, Disrupter-in-Chief: Trump need not do anything more than make the world scream to be a success. Whether they’ll put up with success for four years is another matter.

So read this book. It’s not likely to change your mind in any major way. But Vance’s experience is worth sharing even if his diagnosis is inadequate. He’s also far closer to what might pass as the political center than any of the reviewers would let on. But I don’t think Vance is any longer a hillbilly. These days he’s one of them.

Football and Protest

The Black 14

When the topic of protest among professional football players comes up, we might recall the protest at the 1968 Olympics as a model, but the 1969 protest by collegiate football players in Wyoming is gone from memory:

Note how the reporter and coach both use the term “fired” with respect to the Black 14? But of course, they’re supposed to be amateurs. At least, that’s what colleges and universities say whenever compensation is brought up. It’s union time.

Rahm Emanual’s Inaugural

Originally published in New Ground 136, May — June, 2011, as “Letter from the Editor”. Note the emphasis Emanual placed on the importance of Chicago Public School’s CEO.

by Bob Roman

At Rahm Emanual’s inaugural speech, he declared three priorities for his first term as Mayor of Chicago: education, public safety, and efficiency. Education is clearly his first priority. “The decisions we make in the next two or three years will determine what Chicago will look like in the next twenty or thirty,” he said. “In shaping that future, our children, and their schools, must come first.”

Considering that the unemployment rate rises radically the less education you have, there is a real temptation to suppose that if everyone had PhDs, we’d be halfway down the road to utopia. Any Tunisian cab driver could tell Mr. Emanual, it ain’t necessarily so.

But how does our new Mayor propose to fulfill his goal? First is management: “To lead our efforts in Chicago, we have a courageous new schools CEO, and a strong and highly qualified new school board, with zero tolerance for the status quo and a proven track record of results to back it up.” Next are teachers: “My responsibility is to provide our children with highly qualified and motivated teachers and I will work day and night to meet that obligation.” And then comes parents: “For teachers to succeed, they must have parents as partners. Working together, we will create a seamless partnership, from the classroom to the family room, to help our children learn and succeed.”

Two things spoke loudly by their absence, items that seem absent from most discussions of school reform these days.

The first is the students themselves, as actors in the educational process. These days students seem to be reduced to objects to be manipulated, pumped up, planed down, buffed, polished, and molded to spec. The teacher is now a worker under management discipline. The school is now an assembly line. But it’s obvious to anyone in a classroom that if the kids do not buy into the project, there’s not much you can do but fail. As a group, kids are not stupid, no more so than adults. If an education seems attainable and relevant to their perceived future life possibilities, they’ll typically buy into schooling; otherwise, you’re selling home electronics to someone off the grid.

Also notably absent: the school’s community. Mr. Emanuel mentions parents as if they are teachers’ aides. But parents, and non-parents, do much the same calculations that the kids do, and they come up with similar conclusions. If college seems fiscally unlikely, it may be more important that the kids learn how to fit in so they can be “good” assembly line workers or cubical rats. In other more despairing neighborhoods, it may be more important that the kids are off the streets and relatively safe in school. Academics are fine but, rationally, they may be the community’s second or third priority.

The bottom line is a stark choice. You can consign a plurality to a majority of your children to the trash heap while concealing what you’re doing. Or you can make race and class irrelevant to a child’s future prospects. Which do you choose?