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Trashing J.D. Vance

NYT book review unfairly slams Hillbilly Elegy and its author for gettin' above themselves
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Writing in The New York Times, a black female columnist complains that Michelle Obama is too agreeable in her memoir:

As the highest-profile black American woman in the world for eight years, as a towering first, she has a rare chance — an obligation, in my mind — to broaden the national narrative of exclusion from a story of black striving and overcoming to a story of black discontent. That would be much more meaningful than any feel-good awards-show speech about the “unifying power of music.”

She could at least give our discontent the same consideration she gives to Iowa voters and military families and other groups whom she describes as having opened her eyes to the deepest meanings of being American. But we don’t get that here. Once again we are denied our fullness because of a (justified) fear it will be interpreted as anti-American. Mrs. Obama still follows the rule of assimilation: It’s more important to retain white empathy than to be truly empathetic to ourselves.

In other words, Michelle Obama is acting white. As president, Barack Obama used to speak out from time to time, criticizing those black kids who accused studious black kids of acting white. And the president got pushback from some black commentators for that — for going off-narrative.

I thought about that when reading NYT book critic Dwight Garner’s review of an essay anthology critical of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Excerpt:

[Hillbilly Elegy] is about how young J.D. survived his mother’s drug addiction and a long series of hapless stepfathers and went on, against steep odds, to serve in the Marines and graduate from Yale Law School. It’s a plain-spoken, feel-good, up-from-one’s-bootstraps story. It would have gotten away clean if Vance hadn’t, on his way up, pushed Appalachians back down.

He calls Appalachians lazy (“many folks talk about working more than they actually work”). He complains about white “welfare queens.” He’s against curbs on predatory payday lending practices. He harkens back to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial “culture of poverty” themes.

Wait a second. This is very, very unfair. “Pushed Appalachians back down”? You cannot read Hillbilly Elegy without seeing all over it J.D. Vance’s love for his people. If you had never read the book, you would think from Garner’s comment here that Vance trashed all the people back home. That is completely untrue. Here is a characteristic passage from the book (p. 17 of the hardback):

Some people may conclude that I come from a clan of lunatics. But the stories made me feel like hillbilly royalty, because these were classic good-versus-evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something — defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes. The Blanton men, like the tomboy Blanton sister whom I called Mamaw, were enforcers of hillbilly justice, and to me, that was the very best kind.

Despite their virtues, or perhaps because of them, the Blanton men were full of vice. A few of them left a train of neglected children, cheated wives, or both. And I didn’t even know them that well: I saw them only at large family reunions or during the holidays. Still, I loved and worshipped them. I once overheard Mamaw tell her mother that I loved the Blanton men because so many father figures had come and gone, but the Blanton men were always there. There’s definitely a kernel of truth to that. But more than anything, the Blanton men were the living embodiment of the hills of Kentucky. I love them because I loved Jackson [Vance’s ancestral village].

Does he call some Appalachians lazy? Yes, and he doesn’t apologize for it. Here’s the thing: J.D. Vance lived that life. In the introduction to the book, he talks about busting his butt working in a warehouse one summer. He said that he used to believe that the problems of his region were about the loss of the industrial economy. But going to work in a warehouse taught him that the story is a lot more complicated than that. He said that even though the warehouse work was physically hard, it paid pretty good money, and even offered health benefits  — but the managers could not keep the jobs filled. The men who worked there (and the women, who did clerical work) were undependable. They would either lose their jobs, or quit. Vance:

“You can’t ignore stories like this when you talk about equal opportunity,” Vance says. It’s true that good industrial jobs have left the area, contributing mightily to the decline.

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 he saw at the tile warehouse were typical. People who had every reason to need to work just did not want to, and did not want to impose on themselves the kind of discipline necessary to keep a job, and build a stable future for themselves and their families. Vance:

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.

Do these people who have written essays in this new book deny that there is a big cultural problem here? Or is it all the same old reflexive blaming of others for one’s problems, but using big academic words? Garner:

For every essay in “Appalachian Reckoning” that’s provocative, another is unreadable. The academic language in some of these pieces — “wider discursive contexts,” “capitalist realist ontology,” “fashion a carceral landscape” — makes it seem as if their authors were walking around on stilts.

Based on Garner’s review, it sounds like the critics of Hillbilly Elegy read a different book from the one I read. As I said, poor black folks who work hard and study hard to make something of themselves are often accused of being race traitors for it. In the same way, poor white folks who do the same often stand accused of “getting above their raisin’,” or some other form of snobbery.

I will never forget visiting a friend at the University of Cambridge in the late ’80s, and talking late one night to a young woman who was a PhD student in the hard sciences. She came from a family of coal miners. “They must be so proud of you,” I said, naively. She started to cry, and said no, they are ashamed of her, because they think she’s betrayed her class.

Early in the book, Vance talks about how ABC News, back in 2009, broadcast a report on poverty, deprivation, and bad health among Appalachian children. The network faced a broadside of criticism from Appalachian people, allegedly for propagating negative stereotypes. Vance says his cousin Amber, who grew up in Jackson, went online to combat the critics, saying that these ugly stories were based in fact, and that there was no way to fight the poverty, deprivation, and health crises if people were too proud to admit that they were true — even if some outsider pointed them out. Vance goes on:

We tend to overstate and to understate, to glorify the good and ignore the bad in ourselves. This is why the folks of Appalachia reacted strongly to an honest look at some of its most impoverished people. It’s why I worshipped the Blanton men, and it’s why I spent the first eighteen years of my life pretending that everything in this world was a problem except me.

Got that? He goes on:

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. It is unquestionably beautiful, but its beauty is obscured by the environmental waste and loose trash that scatters the countryside. Its people are hardworking, except of course for the many food stamp recipients who show little interest in honest work. Jackson, like the Blanton men, is full of contradictions.

Things have gotten so bad that last summer, after my cousin Mike buried his mother, his thoughts turned immediately to selling her house. “I can’t live here, and I can’t leave it untended,” he said. “The drug addicts will ransack it.” Jackson has always been poor, but it was . never a place where a man feared leaving his mother’s home alone. The place I call home has taken a worrisome turn.

That’s in part what his book is about: that worrisome turn, and how his Mamaw helped him escape the cycle of poverty by compelling him to study hard. Going into the US Marines, and discovering what self-discipline could do for a man, was also transformative. Hillbilly Elegy is a hopeful book, because it’s a book that talks about how discovering that one has agency can change one’s life. Why that’s bad news for some people, I don’t know, but if you haven’t read J.D. Vance’s book, please be aware that there is no way to read this book fairly and conclude that in it, Vance “pushed Appalachians back down.”

I’ll be honest here: J.D. Vance is a personal friend, which has something to do with my anger at the way he’s been lied about here. But he did not ask me to write this. I write it because not only do I know the book — you’ll recall that I did one of the first interviews with him back in 2016 — but because I know the author, and have a pretty good idea of where his heart is.

And do you know where his hillbilly butt is right now? In Vance’s home state of Ohio, living there with his wife and their son. J.D. and his wife, both Yale Law grads, had a comfortable life before Hillbilly Elegy. Now, because of the book’s massive success, J.D. is rich. He could be living on either coast, but he went back to the, um, narrower discursive context of his home state. I dunno what how the capitalist realist ontologists and their academic nitpickers work up the wherewithal to shake their money makers, but J.D. Vance is damn sure not faking it.

By the way, J.D. is going to be the speaker at TAC’s fundraising gala on May 9. Buy your ticket here. I have no inside information about it, but I am pretty confident he’s going to give a hell of a populist speech about the future of conservatism in America.



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