Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

‘Hillbilly Elegy’, Class Conflict, & Mercy

What you think about the movie might depend on what you think about the white working class and poor
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Have you had a chance to watch Hillbilly Elegy yet on Netflix? Friends of mine who have report to me that they had the same experience I did: the movie is much better than the critics say. Two friends in Washington — both of them politically savvy — agreed with me that most critics met the film with such vitriol because they consider it a stand-in for white working-class Trump voters. It’s not at all, but this is what they projected onto the movie. It is now okay to hate Deplorables again, and maybe even mandatory.

One of my DC friends said this the critical gang-up on the movie reminds him of how so many liberal elites jumped down David Brooks’s throat for an observation he made in a 2017 column about the cultural barriers elites establish that keep a lot of people out. Brooks wrote that he inadvertently made a friend of his feel uncomfortable when he took her to lunch at an upscale sandwich shop, where she did not understand the menu:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Man, the pile-on was massive and vicious. Basically, these were educated liberals bashing Brooks for being condescending. But as my DC friend points out, if you have ever been in the situation of Brooks’s friend (as the reader has), it made perfect sense. The people hating on David Brooks simply could not imagine the deep class anxiety that Brooks’s friend experienced. Similarly, in the only relatively positive review of the Hillbilly Elegy movie that I saw, critic Matt Zoller Seitz observes:

Some of the early screenwriting details lay on the “country man vs. the elites” details rather thick—is it really believable that this guy would’ve gone all the way to Yale Law School without learning which utensil to use for which course, or that there’s more than one type of white wine?—but the actors sell it, and Howard’s subdued yet borderline-mythologizing approach to J.D. is part of a long snobs-vs.-slobs tradition in American film.

Guess what? It all happened exactly like the film depicts. I know this not only because I read Hillbilly Elegy, but I checked just now with J.D. Vance. Not only did he not know about different types of wine and which utensil to use, but he also really did duck out of the Yale meeting to call his then-girlfriend Usha to ask. Matt Zoller Seitz is a sensitive critic, but even he can’t imagine what life really is like for people who grew up outside of the educated middle class.

I grew up in somewhat more sophisticated circumstances than Vance did, but I would have been in the same boat on wine at his age. My people did not drink wine. They do now, but that’s a change that began in the mid-1990s or thereabouts. It affected the menu planning for my wedding reception in 1997. My wife had to explain to her mother, who was planning the reception, that there had to be a non-wine option for drinks, because Rod’s dad and relatives drink only beer or bourbon. It was the culture.

Even now, there are all kinds of class markers attached to craft beers — even craft beers made in Louisiana.  You would think that everybody here would feel a certain pride about being able to drink beer made right here in Louisiana, as opposed to some factory somewhere. Some do, but you’re not going to find a lot of working class folks eager to walk away from Bud Light to drink something they associate with fancy people. It took me a while to learn that. I would bring some new Louisiana craft beer to my dad to try. He was polite about it, and would drink one, then go back to his Schaefer Light. I finally realized that he saw those gift beers from Louisiana as one more opportunity for his uppity son to make him feel bad about what he liked.

That’s not how I saw it at all. For me, it was all about, “Hey, there are some guys over by Lafayette brewing beer now. I think it’s pretty good, so I thought you might like to see what it tastes like.” It was about sharing an experience. It took me a long time to figure out that this was not something I should do. Readers of my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming will remember how my new wife and I cooked a bouillabaisse for my Louisiana family, as a way of doing something nice for them when we were home visiting. It’s a fish stew in a tomatoey broth. In south Louisiana, Cajuns have a similar dish called courtbouillion (pron. “KOO-bee-yon”), and if I had told them we were going to make a courtbouillion, they would have loved it. Instead, I used an unfamiliar French word, and despite the fact that it was just fish, garlic, onions, and tomatoes in broth, none of them would eat it, and my sister insulted us at the table as fancypants people. Again, what’s so interesting about this to me is that these are south Louisiana people; we suck the fat out of the heads of boiled crawfish. What made the bouillabaisse so offensive was not the ingredients, but the fact that this was something they had never heard of, being forced on them by the city relatives. Even though I had asked for permission to make the dish for them, and they granted it, the understanding was that of course they were just being polite to say yes, and that if I had been a good person I never would have asked in the first place.

What finally brought this into focus for me was this 2012 essay by Will Wilkinson, about country music, openness to experience, and the psychology of culture war. Excerpt:

My conjecture, then, is that country music functions in part to reinforce in low-openness individuals the idea that life’s most powerful, meaningful emotional experiences are precisely those to which conservative personalities living conventional lives are most likely to have access. And it functions as a device to coordinate members of conservative-minded communities on the incomparable emotional weight of traditional milestone experiences.

Yesterday’s Washington Post features a classic “conservatives in the mist” piece on the conservative denizens of Washington, OK, and their sense that their values are under attack. Consider this passage about fellow named Mark Tague:

I want my kids to grow up with values and ways of life that I had and my parents had,” he says, so his youngest son tools around the garage on a Big Wheel, and his oldest daughter keeps her riding horse at the family barn built in 1907, and they buy their drinking milk from Braun’s because he always has. “Why look for change?” he says. “I like to know that what you see is what you get.Country music is for this guy.

But why would you want your kids to grow up with the same way of life as you and your grandparents? My best guess (and let me stress guess) is that those low in openness depend emotionally on a sense of enchantment of the everyday and the profundity of ritual. Even a little change, like your kids playing with different toys than you did, comes as a small reminder of the instability of life over generations and the contingency of our emotional attachments. This is a reminder low-openness conservatives would prefer to avoid, if possible. What high-openness liberals feel as mere nostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life. If your kids don’t experience the same meaningful things in the same same way that you experienced them, then it may seem that their lives will be deprived of meaning, which would be tragic. And even if you’re able to see that your kids will find plenty of meaning, but in different things and in different ways, you might well worry about the possibility of ever really understanding and relating to them. The inability to bond over profound common experience would itself constitute a grave loss of meaning for both generations. So when the culture redefines a major life milestone, such as marriage, it trivializes one’s own milestone experience by imbuing it was a sense of contingency, threatens to deprive one’s children of the same experience, and thus threatens to make the generations strangers to one another. And what kind of monster would want that?

All of this made perfect sense to me at the time, and still does. I’m a super-weird dude in that I am a conservative who prizes openness to experience. Wilkinson’s piece, though, helped me understand why for a lot of people, being closed to experience is a form of cultural defense. I rolled my eyes at my dad when I told him I was leaving the Methodist church to become Catholic. “But the Drehers have always been Methodist,” he said, genuinely pained. I pointed out that we weren’t actually big churchgoers, and that I had come to love and follow Christ in a much deeper way as a Catholic. None of this made any sense to him. I did not understand that at the time, but now I have a much better sense of why this caused him pain. We didn’t go to church often, and the church we didn’t go to was the Methodist church. But if a Dreher could turn his back on Methodism, what else might he turn his back on? Daddy was right to worry.

I say all this to point out that for a lot of people in this country, not knowing about how the professional class lives — that is, the knowledge that everyone in that class acquires simply by virtue of being part of that class’s life — is not primarily about being obstreperous reverse snobs. It is a form of self-defense. Look, I’m not defending it, but I am saying that middle class and professional people often move through the world with no awareness of how little they know about the lives of others from the outsider social classes. The people who made fun of David Brooks for condescending to his friend at the sandwich shop were the truly condescending ones. David’s was an act of empathy, once he realized that his guest was uncomfortable in a place that is completely ordinary to educated cosmopolitans. Similarly, there are people — Matt Zoller Seitz is one — who really can’t imagine that somebody could have an experience like J.D. Vance really had, and who therefore interpret its depiction as a form of condescension.

It’s not always easy to predict how this is going to land. In the autumn of 1988, I returned from a summer spent traveling in Europe on the super-cheap with my best friend, and took a college internship in DC, working for a political consultant. I had a little basement apartment on Capitol Hill. Everybody was really nice to me, but I was scared to death of doing the wrong thing socially. I was desperate for friends, and heard one day that there was going to be some kind of mixer for young people on the Hill, over at Eastern Market. I was invited. After work, I went over there, hoping to meet some people. After ranging around the entrance to the space for about ten minutes, trying to work up the courage to go in, and finally lost my nerve, and went back home. I sat in the darkness of my basement hating myself for lacking confidence. What was I afraid of? That people would see that I was a fraud. That’s it. I was 21 years old, and afraid.

Mind you, I had just spent the summer bouncing around hostels in Europe, and had been just fine. There was something about being in my own country, though, in that social setting, that paralyzed me. Nobody there treated me badly at all. Heck, I didn’t give them the chance to! This was all a drama playing out inside my head. I wrote to a friend back home, a former teacher, to confess how embarrassed I was by my sense of inadequacy. She told me something in response that stuck with me: “You are a Southerner who has good manners. A person who has good manners can go anywhere with confidence.”

That is true. I have lived long enough to learn it through experience. Now, at the time, I had the sense to realize that nobody had made me feel bad about myself. I didn’t project my own deep sense of inadequacy onto others, and accuse them of aggression, of trying to make me feel bad about myself. But a lot of people do that, and we live in a culture in which one can gain advantage by doing so.

Educated middle class liberals talk a lot about “privilege,” but I believe their discourse — at least among white people — is mostly in bad faith. They keep it to matters of race as a way of avoiding class. Batya Ungar-Sargon made a similar observation in a recent interview:

So why does this view that erases equality and pushes oppression as the root of everything appeal so much to affluent liberals? To me, it seems like the answer is that despite the pieties they espouse, liberal elites don’t really believe in equality, either; no affluent person does. They know their prosperity comes at someone else’s expense, and a worldview that was actually invested in equality would insist they share more of their good fortune.

Still, they want to believe they are good people. They’re liberals! So just imagine the relief when they are told that the inequality that resulted in their having so much while so many Americans have so little is not the result of their failure to pay more taxes or to send their kids to public schools, but that it stems from something as immutable as the color of their skin. It totally relieves them of the responsibility of doing anything about it. All they can do is feel guilty. They get to keep all their money while feeling like heroes! How perfect.

Of course, there are still horrifying pockets of race-based inequality that persist in America, and they deserve our immediate attention. But there’s now bipartisan consensus about this—the need to end mass incarceration, for example, or for police reform. The totalizing view of America as a white supremacy seems to me a displacement exercise that comforts the wealthy, which you know is true because they can’t get enough of it.

Put more bluntly, I think the “privilege” discourse among middle class educated white liberals is mostly about rearranging prejudices to make lower class white people deserving of the scorn of the uppers. J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy powerfully challenged that view, though at the same time refusing to claim victim status for his people. The Left today has no idea what to do about that. After four years of Trump, I believe that the liberal overclass is just thrilled to be able to justify its fear and hatred of poor and working class white people.

What David Brooks wrote in 2017 is still true:

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

In her thorough book “The Sum of Small Things,” Elizabeth Currid-Halkett argues that the educated class establishes class barriers not through material consumption and wealth display but by establishing practices that can be accessed only by those who possess rarefied information.

As I was writing this, my mother texted me that she just finished watching Hillbilly Elegy, and absolutely loved it, as she did the book (which she read three times). She told me her young life was a lot like J.D.’s, growing up poor, though she did not have a Mamaw to advocate for her and protect her. One thing she really related to was that very scene at Yale, in which J.D. did not know which utensils to use or which wine to drink. This, she said, is the kind of thing that has haunted her all of her life. It’s something that I struggle to understand as her son. She’s my mom, and is beautiful and kind. Everybody who meets her loves her. But she carries within her a profound sense of anxiety about the world beyond what she knew growing up.

She texted to ask me to pass on to J.D. how much it means to her to see people on screen who had the same experiences she did, and who know what it was like. “People can never understand if they never lived in our real world,” she texted. Then she phoned me to say emphatically how much it meant to her to watch Hillbilly Elegy, and feel seen.

I bet a lot of people who don’t write for newspapers and magazines will feel that way about the movie.

It’s so complicated. As I wrote above, I’ve been the victim of reverse snobbery, and it feels like sh*t. It can be self-sabotaging. I do not agree with people who assume that those who are in the less socially privileged position are always correct by virtue of being outsiders. There was no excuse for my family to treat me and my new wife the way they did over that damn soup. The same thing that led them to do that had dramatic repercussions after we moved here, as I recount in the final part of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming. Pointless resentment caused terrible destruction. I can’t pretend not to be bitter about that.

Nevertheless, I wish people — including myself — would work harder to be more understanding of why people are the way they are, and why they make the choices that they do. The truth is, all of us are scared of being found out. All of us are scared of failing. Watching the movie, I felt a lot of anger at J.D.’s mother, the drug addict who trashed her children’s lives as she pinballed through life. My mom didn’t see it that way. She had pity on her, and said, “She was just trying to survive.” That right there is a big difference between my mom and me: Mama has never been a drinker, and never has used drugs, but she intuitively recognized how someone from her social class, raised like that, could fall into that particular hole and not be able to get out. I had judgment; my mother had mercy.

The challenge is knowing when mercy is not merciful — that is, when mercy enables self-destructive behavior without offering a way out of it. This, I think, is one of the things that I appreciated so much about my father, who also grew up in poverty, but who knew (as did his parents) that moral self-discipline was the only thing that would keep him from being overcome by the chaos. Still, we do not suffer from too much mercy in this country.