“This was my world: A world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way into the poorhouse.”
I have been talking to my readers (rather, my readers have been talking to me). “Maria”, they said, “how about book that’s not about war or nuclear annihilation?” Sure thing, mom. Here’s a book about social decline in the Appalachians. Enjoy!
SO WHAT IS THIS
Everyone has heard about ‘Hillbilly Elegy’. After the 2016 Election, it has become one of the go-to references for pundits and newsroom journalists. You couldn’t escape this book if you tried.
At the very core of it, this book is a memoir – J.D. Vance was born into Hillbilly society (his grandma had a habit of chasing people, yielding guns; his mom struggled with addition throughout her adult life; he was raised by his grandma), joined the Marines, went to Yale and became an Ivy-League Lawyer. It is, basically, a rags-to-riches-story.
He talks about what growing up poor in Ohio was like – his mom’s ever-changing lovers that sometimes became husbands, his sister getting pregnant before her High School Graduation, visits by police and social services. Name any stereotype you have about dirt-poor people, J.D. Vance will have a personal story to tell about it.
It is a story of struggle, of never having enough money (or any money at all), of neglect and decay, but at the same time it’s a story about family and the people that raise us. J.D. talks about it all. You can see why people would just love that stuff. It’s DRAMA.
BUT SERIOUSLY, WHAT IS THIS? AND WHY DOES EVERYONE THINKS IT’S GOOD?
So I’m gonna be honest with you for a second – I wanted to read this book for a while (because several very intelligent people told me that it is a ‘very important’ book) and when I finally found it in my local Charity Shop, I was elated. Now, looking back, I’m glad I didn’t pay full price. Because…
This book has some issues.
The most important one: The author is punching down, not up. He talks about how poverty has been ingrained in the social fabric of his hometown, how everyone is down for the count, and never once does he think about questioning the underlying issues. Instead, he does the easy thing and blames the people. And by doing that, he confirms all the wrong stereotypes.
He keeps talking about how his friends and neighbors are ‘lazy’ and ‘unwilling to work’ – which, to an extent, I guess is true – but wouldn’t you be lazy too if all the work that was available was backbreaking, without any prospect of moving up and not paying that much?
Perhaps I’m too European for this book, I thought as I read it. But – where is the state in all of this? Isn’t the really shocking take-away from this book not that poor people are lazy, as the author says, but rather, that even a Yale-educated lawyer that lived through this poverty would rather blame the people than admit that the American Dream is dead?
Here’s two examples for this.
The first is when J.D. finishes High School and applies for College. He quickly realizes that he won’t be able to pay tuition without going heavily into debt. And the fact that someone who lived around the poverty line (arguably, under the poverty line) still has to go into five figure debt to pay for education never ever makes him pause. He just takes it as a given. So instead of going to College, he joins the Marines. (He never considers that perhaps the American Military depends heavily on recruits from a poor background, and what that might mean in the grand scheme of things.)
Again, perhaps I’m a bleeding Liberal European, but you shouldn’t have to put your life on the line in a war zone in order to pay for College.
The second instance is when J.D. is at Yale and having some interviews with big law firms. He quickly realizes that what’s important for getting fancy jobs is not how good you are, but who you know. And I read this and thought: “Finally, he’s getting it!” and … no. Instead of pointing out how unfair this system is, he turns around, and says that his fellow Hillbillies don’t know how to use a Salad Fork, hence they are unemployable.
Which… Isn’t the point here, is it. Sure, they won’t know how to use a Salad Fork, but then, why would they. The point here, J.D., is that only a very select few have access to the interview in the first place, hence why this is unfair. The problem is not the Salad Fork, it’s the access. Dunce.
And another thing. Everyone who waved this book in my face and said “This explains Trump and Brexit” (looking at you, The Independent) owes me an apology. Because I’d wager a guess (and that guess is supported by voting numbers, because this annoyed me so much I actually did some research) that the people Vance describes in his book – the White Poor – didn’t actually vote for Trump.
Instead, the people in the book is what made Middle-Class White Conservatives vote for Trump. It’s the fear of falling down the social ladder that got Trump into office. The poor didn’t vote for him (they didn’t vote at all.) The people who are afraid of becoming poor did.
And this is where J.D. Vance does his people the greatest disservice. He confirms all the wrong stereotypes. And by doing that, he gives Republicans a template they can use to apply all their worst fears and thoughts about the poor. They are lazy, so cut their welfare. It’s the cheapest type of fear mongering, and the fact that Vance plays into the Republican’s cards so easily and carelessly made me really angry.
Don’t read this book. It’s lazy and down-punching and a serious disservice to people that are being screwed over by the system enough as is.
SO WHAT SHOULD I READ INSTEAD?
Good news is, there are quite a few really good books that ask the right questions. (None of them, to the best of my knowledge, talks about Salad Forks. No, I will not let this go.)
White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. She talks about how the White Poor have always been around, and how they were always used as a political tool. She goes deep into what J.D Vance suspiciously neglects – the relationship between poor Whites and Blacks, how those two groups are played against each other and how they are being used.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. It’s a different location – Matthew Desmond spent about a year reporting on the lives of people living in the poorest areas of Chicago – but it’s the same drill. This book will change the way you think about poverty, landlords, and fair market prices. It’s breathtaking, and it’s very good.
The Unwinding – Thirty Years of American Decline by George Packer. Packer tells the story of America through the eyes of its people – a steel worker losing their job, a political careerist in Washington, Silicon Valley Billionaires. It’s a fascinating kaleidoscope of winners and losers, and it will tell you more about the state of American Society than the Salad Fork Book.
And finally … Just because I loved it so much – Justified is an excellent TV series playing in a Kentucky Coal Town, and the ingrained poverty of the region is almost a main character in the plot.
I’ll be back next week… with a book about booze.