Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Please Support CounterPunch’s Annual Fund Drive
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We only ask you once a year, but when we ask we mean it. So, please, help as much as you can. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Hillbilly’s Response to JD Vance

J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy became a best seller, and the author was a media presence during the 2016 presidential campaign. Hillbilly Elegy blends a story with a message. The story is a memoir featuring a vivid portrait of Vance’s dysfunctional family. The message purports to draw social and political lessons from the memoir.

There is substantial overlap between Vance’s profile and mine. Both of us grew up in Appalachia and have Scotch-Irish ancestry. Our families were poor. (My father was a coal miner.) Each of us was the first in his family to earn a college degree: Vance from Ohio State University and I from West Virginia University. Each of us went on to another more prestigious institution: Vance to Yale and I to Oxford. Both of us left Appalachia after completing our education. Vance has become a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. I became a Philadelphia lawyer (now retired).

One striking difference between Vance and me is that I did not have a dysfunctional family. Vance’s racy account of his family is entertaining in a cringe-worthy way but will not seem novel to anyone who is familiar with Jesco White and his family, who were chronicled in the videos “Dancing Outlaw” and “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.”

One may doubt, therefore, that the family story alone would have landed Hillbilly Elegy on the bestseller list or Vance on the television screen. More likely, it was the political message that made Vance and his book the darling of The National Review and like-minded media outlets. As summarized by Mona Charen in The National Review:

Though the name Donald Trump is never mentioned, there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that the people who populate this book would be enthusiastic Trumpites.

But the book is far deeper than an explanation of the Trump phenomenon (which it doesn’t, by the way, claim to be). It’s a harrowing portrait of much that has gone wrong in America over the past two generations.

***

The American character has been corrupted by multiple generations of government dependency and the loss of bourgeois virtues like self-control, delayed gratification, family stability, thrift, and industriousness. Vance has risen out of chaos to the heights of stability, success, and happiness.

In other words, government dependency has produced the ills of Appalachia, but Vance’s story shows that such ills can be overcome simply by rejecting the dependency and adhering to “bourgeois virtues.”

I suspect that Vance intended Hillbilly Elegy to be interpreted in that way, but there are internal contradictions. Consider, for example, the following excerpt:

Of course, the reasons poor people aren’t working as much as others are complicated, and it’s too easy to blame the problem on laziness. For many, part-time work is all they have access to, because the Armcos of the world are going out of business and their skill sets don’t fit well in the modern economy.

The more telling contradictions are found in Vance’s personal story. His climb from Appalachian poverty began with a stint in the Marine Corps — a government program. After that, he acknowledges, “the GI Bill [another government program] paid for a significant chunk of my education” at Ohio State. When he was accepted by the Yale Law School, he found that “the financial aid package Yale offered exceeded my wildest dreams. In my first year, it was nearly a full ride. That wasn’t because of anything I’d done or earned — it was because I was one of the poorest kids in school.”

Vance may have “risen out of chaos to the heights of stability, success, and happiness,” as Mona Charen put it, but his talent and industriousness had plenty of government and institutional support. As Vance finally acknowledges:

I had Pell Grants and government-subsidized low-interest student loans that made college affordable, and need-based scholarships for law school. I never went hungry, thanks at least in part to the old-age benefits that Mamaw generously shared with me.

Hillbilly Elegy also notes that Appalachia’s economic woes may not be the result of government programs. For example:

Efforts to reinvent downtown Middletown always struck me as futile. People didn’t leave because our downtown lacked trendy cultural amenities. The trendy cultural amenities left because there weren’t enough consumers in Middletown to support them. And why weren’t there enough well-paying consumers? Because there weren’t enough jobs to employ those consumers. Downtown Middletown’s struggles were a symptom of everything else happening to Middletown’s people, especially the collapsing importance of Armco Kawasaki Steel.

Hillbilly Elegy paints an accurate picture of hopelessness and despair in Appalachia but fails in its attempt to blame that on a culture of dependency created by government programs. It relies on tales of welfare recipients unwilling to work and users of food stamps who have phones that the young Vance cannot afford, an argument that is not unlike Reagan’s citation of “welfare queens” as evidence that abuses by some beneficiaries of a program justify its elimination.

Some reviews of Hillbilly Elegy have been neutral about its message. For example, Jennifer Senior in The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the conversation.” I have found only two reviews in major publications that were hostile to the message — one by Sarah Jones in The New Republic and another by Alec MacGillis in The Atlantic. Jones wrote that the book “is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles.” Jones asked, “How do you get off the dole when there’s not enough work to go around? Frequently, you don’t.”

MacGillis was more illuminating, writing that Vance is wrong

that the burden of fixing things falls entirely on his people. The problems he describes—the reasons life in Middletown got tougher for his mom’s generation than it was for Mamaw and Papaw when they came north for work—have plenty to do with decisions by “governments or corporations.” The government and corporations have presided over the rise of new monopolies, the effect of which has been to concentrate wealth in a handful of companies and regions. The government and corporations welcomed China into the World Trade Organization; more and more economists now believe that move hastened the erosion of American manufacturing, by encouraging U.S. companies to shift operations offshore.

The government and corporations each did their part to weaken organized labor, which once boosted wages and strengthened the social fabric in places like Middletown. More recently, the government has accelerated the decline of the coal industry, on environmentally defensible grounds but with awfully little in the way of remedies for those affected.

I agree with Vance that there is a sense of despair in Appalachia, but I vehemently disagree with his diagnosis that government programs are the cause and his implied prescription that government withdrawal would enable Appalachians to throw off their dependency and recover a mythical past of prosperity and happiness.

I wonder whether my disagreements with Vance may be related to another difference in our profiles. I grew up when Roosevelt’s New Deal was lifting the prosperity, spirits and aspirations of my family and our neighbors. Vance experienced the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years when government became “the problem, not the solution.”

Like Vance, I rose from poverty to success and relative affluence. Unlike Vance, I want the ladders he and I used to remain available, and I would provide more assistance to those whose circumstances or condition prevent their using any ladder.

More articles by:

Jack Justice is a retired lawyer living in Santa Fe.

October 15, 2018
Dean Baker
Corporate Debt Scares
Gary Leupp
The Khashoggi Affair and and the Anti-Iran Axis
Russell Mokhiber
Sarah Chayes Calls on West Virginians to Write In No More Manchins
Clark T. Scott
Acclimated Behaviorisms
Kary Love
Evolution of Religion
Colin Todhunter
From GM Potatoes to Glyphosate: Regulatory Delinquency and Toxic Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
Evacuating Nauru: Médecins Sans Frontières and Australia’s Refugee Dilemma
Marvin Kitman
The Kitman Plan for Peace in the Middle East: Two Proposals
Weekend Edition
October 12, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
My History with Alexander Cockburn and The Financial Future of CounterPunch
Paul Street
For Popular Sovereignty, Beyond Absurdity
Nick Pemberton
The Colonial Pantsuit: What We Didn’t Want to Know About Africa
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Summer of No Return
Jeff Halper
Choices Made: From Zionist Settler Colonialism to Decolonization
Gary Leupp
The Khashoggi Incident: Trump’s Special Relationship With the Saudi Monarchy
Andrew Levine
Democrats: Boost, Knock, Enthuse
Barbara Kantz
The Deportation Crisis: Report From Long Island
Doug Johnson
Nate Silver and 538’s Measurable 3.5% Democratic Bias and the 2018 House Race
Gwen Carr
This Stops Today: Seeking Justice for My Son Eric Garner
Robert Hunziker
Peak Carbon Emissions By 2020, or Else!
Arshad Khan
Is There Hope on a World Warming at 1.5 Degrees Celsius?
David Rosen
Packing the Supreme Court in the 21stCentury
Brian Cloughley
Trump’s Threats of Death and Destruction
Joel A. Harrison
The Case for a Non-Profit Single-Payer Healthcare System
Ramzy Baroud
That Single Line of Blood: Nassir al-Mosabeh and Mohammed al-Durrah
Zhivko Illeieff
Addiction and Microtargeting: How “Social” Networks Expose us to Manipulation
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
What is Truth?
Michael Doliner
Were the Constitution and the Bill of Rights a Mistake?
Victor Grossman
Cassandra Calls
Ralph E. Shaffer
Could Kavanaugh’s Confirmation Hearing Ended Differently?
Vanessa Cid
Our Everyday Family Separations
Walaa Al Ghussein
The Risks of Being a Journalist in Gaza
Ron Jacobs
Betrayal and Treachery—The Extremism of Moderates
James Munson
Identity Politics and the Ruling Class
P. Sainath
The Floods of Kerala: the Bank That Went Under…Almost
Ariel Dorfman
How We Roasted Donald Duck, Disney’s Agent of Imperialism
Joe Emersberger
Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno’s Assault on Human Rights and Judicial Independence
Ed Meek
White Victimhood: Brett Kavanaugh and the New GOP Brand
Andrew McLean, MD
A Call for “Open Space”
Jim Goodman
Do Republicans Hate All Protesters ?
James Rothenberg
Propaganda’s Long Shadow
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Menace of Leafblowers: a Careless Technology in Our Own Backyard
Dana E. Abizaid
The Triumph of Words Over Actions
Brett Wilkins
Pope to Declare Slain Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero a Saint
Ralph Nader
Let’s Start a Kavanaugh Watch to Check All Five Corporate Judges
Christopher Brauchli
Air Conditioned Nightmare: Just Another Immigration Story (With Kids)
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail