This book has gotten a load of press, particularly since the Trump election. Reviewers and pundits see it as an explanation of the Trump phenomenon — who voted for that rat bastard and why? The disaffected and neglected white working class, that’s who! Of course, it is a mistake to think that it is just the white working class who bear responsibility for Trump. As Ta Nehisi Coates and others have pointed out, Trump’s support is all about being white, with class having little to do with it. Nevertheless, this book has been sitting on the NYT bestseller list and is apparently about to be made into a movie. I honestly had zero interest in reading it, but my niece had a copy and gave it to me. She warned me she hated it, and I had already seen backlash reviews against it (read this one by a woman whose background is similar to Vance’s), but I decided to just do it anyway. Having finished it, I can say that if there is such a thing as a hate read, Hillbilly Elegy is mine.
JD Vance was born and raised in Middletown, Ohio, as was his mother before him. Now, Middletown is NOT in Appalachia, which is where “hillbillies” are found. Vance claims his hillbilly cred from his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, who were born and lived in Breathitt, KY (hillbilly country) before running away as teens in the 1940s to Middletown, Ohio. Vance believes that spending some summers in Kentucky and being raised by his grandparents when his mom struggled with drug addiction and a series of bad marriages makes him a hillbilly. He also seems to think that Middletown exhibits “hillbilly” culture because so many Kentuckians moved to Middletown post WWII for jobs at Armco Steel. I’m not sure I buy that and I wonder if the people of Middletown do. Vance is what I might call “hillbilly adjacent” as opposed to genuine hillbilly, but what do I know? I’m from Cincinnati and I’m not from hillbilly stock. Instead, take it from this writer or listen to the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast. The “Trillbillies” are “true hillbillies,” and I can tell you that they HATE Vance and his book. Podcast #1 is devoted to that topic and Podcast #2 entitled “Who Gets to Save Appalachia” is just damn interesting. These real hillbillies who live in hillbilly country talk about economics, opportunity, and their community. Anyway, right off the bat, we have to question whether or not Vance is a reliable voice for the population he claims to represent.
So what is a “hillbilly”? Well, according to Vance they are of Scots Irish descent, come from Appalachia, and have a culture based on “an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country” as well as a dislike of people who are different. Throughout the book, Vance refers to the “hillbilly code” of loyalty, which involves sticking up for your kin, using physical force when necessary, and keeping family business private. As the Trillbillies point out in their podcast, Vance is violating the code with this book and is therefore a snitch; they seem quite willing to subject him to some hillbilly justice for that.
Of the Scots Irish, Vance says,
We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk. To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.
The take-away from that description is that the Scots Irish are assholes. I can tell you, however, that my husband’s side of the family is half Scots Irish and I never would have described them as anything like that. Vance goes on to say that they are also a pessimistic and socially isolated people. Naturally, this “culture” is going to feed into what Vance sees as the inability of the white working class (which he seems to conflate with hillbilly) to rise above its circumstances.
When Vance talks about his personal experiences, he is at this best. His grandparents were fascinating people who broke out of their life in Kentucky to build something new in another state, but they had their own struggles with alcoholism and abusive behavior. They were, however, a constant and reliable source of support for Vance. His older sister is a rock in his life who had to become a sort of surrogate parent for the young JD. His mother is tragic. This is a woman who was smart and worked hard to become a nurse, but her alcohol and drug addictions plus a series of bad relationships undermined all she worked for and caused lasting damage to her kids. It was not a foregone conclusion that Vance would be able to avoid a similar fate. Thanks to the support of key family members around him and his own desire to do better and avoid the fate of his mother and others he witnessed in his neighborhood, Vance managed to turn around his own behavior. He finished high school and joined the Marines, went to Iraq, and after being discharged, he enrolled at Ohio State University. From there he went to law school at Yale and is a successful and happily married attorney today. As much as he has been hurt by his mother’s addiction and abusive behavior, he tries to help her and others in his community who are at risk of a similar fate.
The problem is when Vance turns his gaze outward to the larger community and makes generalizations without much in the way of facts or detail to back them up. His neighbors, his classmates, the customers at the store where he worked as a teen are lazy and irresponsible, and the government’s welfare system simply encourages bad behavior. They seem to be the undeserving and unmotivated poor in his opinion.
You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.
Where the hell is that coming from? Why is he so willing to assume that underemployed means lazy? He is well aware Armco/AK Steel — once the largest employer in the area — has experienced economic downturn, which means the well-paying full time jobs are gone. And he never has a bad word for those companies that receive corporate welfare nor for the government that supports it. He says he understands why companies leave. None of this is the government’s fault or business’ fault. It’s lazy individuals who don’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
When it comes to schools, Vance believes the failures there are beyond the state’s ability to help.
The most important lesson of my life is not that society failed to provide me with opportunities. My elementary and middle schools were entirely adequate, staffed with teachers who did everything they could to reach me. Our high school ranked near the bottom of Ohio’s schools, but that had little to do with the staff and much to do with the students.
It’s the students’ fault that the high school sucks? Well, I guess if JD Vance got his shit together and pulled himself out, with help from family (that some people might COMPLETELY LACK) then you can, too, you lazy slackass! Oh, by the way, Vance, who thinks government welfare can lead to social decay and might actually hurt more than it helps, and who complains about a food stamp recipient using his money to buy T-bone steaks, lets us know that he himself had Pell grants, government subsidized student loans, need based scholarships (to Yale, because he was poor, not because of merit) and never went hungry thanks to his grandmother’s old age benefits.
These programs are far from perfect but to the degree that I nearly succumbed to my worst decisions…, the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control.
Ok, JD, but you had access to a lot of government help after you made your good personal choices. And may I point out something that you never really tackle as a worthy topic in your book? You are white. I know you have often felt like an outsider because of your social class, especially at Yale, but can you imagine how different your life trajectory might have been if you had been born black?
This gets to the bigger problem I have with this book. Vance’s focus is on white working class, but he doesn’t see how their plight is related to all the shit that companies (with government support) have done to workers or how people of color might actually have it much much worse. He occasionally mentions people of color in passing, but there is a real “woe is me, poor white guy” victim vibe to this book. He has no clue. This is what he writes about President Obama.
He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor — which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent — clean, perfect, neutral — is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right — adversity familiar to many of us — but that was long before any of us knew him.
What the hell?!?!? Sweet Jesus, do I need to go through this? OK so the first black president is described with terms Iike “clean” and “foreign”? Those are some loaded words. Re: Chicago — so how do you think Obama would have fared in a place like Middletown or Kentucky? Can you think of a reason a metropolis might have been a good choice for him? And “the meritocracy was built for him”? Are you shitting me? People of color have to be about 10 times better at something than a white person to get in the door. And the adversity thing — how is your adversity anything like a black man’s? And what difference does it make that he overcame it before you knew who he was? I don’t get that statement at all. He goes on,
President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them…. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls.
Vance neglects to address the importance of the fact the Obama is also BLACK. Isn’t that part of it, too, JD? Because every other president was white and you could have said a lot of the same things about them. Did they make you insecure? And did you ever stop to think what the image of Barack Obama might have meant to people of color? Where are they in Middletown? Did your paths ever cross?
At the end of this book, which, mercifully, is only about 260 pages, Vance opines that government policy probably can’t do much to fix the problems of Middletown/poor white working class/hillbillies unless they can address problems of home life. I don’t disagree with that, but it’s hilarious that Vance, as a suggestion, brings up Section 8 housing. He notes that when Middletown tried to get Section 8 housing into better neighborhoods so as to expose disadvantaged families to better examples, the federal government balked. “Better, I suppose, to keep those kids cut off from the middle class.” This is funny for two reasons. First, Vance mentions earlier in the book that his own Mamaw bitched about Section 8 housing next door in their neighborhood when he was a kid. Second, Vance doesn’t seem to get that government is dominated by the wealthier “haves” who can run for office and get those governments jobs, and who might not want Section 8 housing near their homes. The middle class (white) people of Middletown themselves might balk at Section 8 housing next door. Vance does think the best bet for advancement of his kind is for the wealthier haves to make room at the table for those like him who through sheer force of will make their way to the top. Good luck with that if you aren’t a white guy.
So, yeah, I mostly hated this book. Please do read that piece by Coates that I linked up above.