2016-09-03 / Opinion

Only an elegy for hillbillies would please elites

By MEG HANSEN
In his bestselling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance brings to life vivid tales of love, loss, and revelation from his childhood in the working-class Scots-Irish community of Greater Appalachia. These hill people, we learn, have little in common with mythologized salt of the earth folks, say like Smallville’s Jonathan and Martha Kent. Rather, they tend to be violent lunatics whose promiscuity, moral hypocrisy, family dysfunction, and substance abuse troubles make the Kardashians seem wholesome.

To mark his escape from the hillbilly holler, Vance poignantly eulogizes the exceptions (his grandparents, sister, and math teacher) and elegizes the norm. The former makes for a good read; the latter has made the book the toast of the haut monde.

Vance is a gifted and original writer, no doubt, but one swallow does not a summer make. “Hillbilly Elegy” has succeeded phenomenally with the left and the GOP establishment because its motley cast (rage-filled white men, Led Zeppelin-fearing caricatured Christians, Obama conspiracy theorists, and dregs that use their fingers as a butter knife) affirms what elites imagine of Middle America.

In truth, numerous studies (including a recent major Gallup poll) demonstrate that low-income whites in Rust Belt cities do not constitute Trump’s voter base. The average Trump supporter is employed and has not suffered economically due to manufacturing decline and foreign trade.

The elites, however, have chosen the 2016 election narrative for their tribute: Trump gives voice to angry white masses whose frustrated masculinity, lurking Aryanism and racial fears will bring about Trump’s apocalyptic rise as the next Führer. Naturally, demographic reality shall not rain on the media’s parade.

In marked contrast to facts, Vance’s anecdotes of uneducated rednecks that need dole money because they are too lazy or high on heroin to hold down a job, but distrust the government and scorn its handouts out of false pride, offer immediacy to the Trump prophecy. No wonder the left wing media and thought leaders on the right (see New York Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, HuffPost, Slate, CNN, NPR and National Review) insist on reading Vance’s subjective account of Appalachian culture as a psycho-sociological study, which definitively explains Donald Trump’s appeal and ascendancy with poor whites.

For instance, Vance writes about the hillbilly community’s lack of trust in the President, describing an “industry of conspiracy-mongers and fringe lunatics” obsessed with Obama’s Islamic ties, foreign birth, and “all manner of idiocy.” Though he does not attribute the skeptical attitudes to racism, he prepares the ground for others to do so. And, others promptly oblige.

In his Washington Post column, Fareed Zakaria concludes that hillbillies display “pathological suspicion” for Obama because “he’s black,” (of course), thus pronouncing all hillbillies as innately racist. In this fashion, “Hillbilly Elegy” flatters the vanity of its core readership, enabling leftists like Zakaria and the GOP establishment to bask in intellectual and moral superiority over the white riffraff.

Further, to the particular pleasure of the left, Vance absolves the state of contributing to the decline of the industrial heartland – never mind that the labor laws and punitive tax policies implemented by the government have made manufacturing cheaper abroad, and that its moralizing of energy informs the disincentivization of ‘dirty’ fossil fuels mined by the Appalachian coal industry.

To the delight of right-wing elites, Vance blames the white underclass for having caused all its troubles, placing the onus on its members to change their fortune and fate. If he could bootstrap his way to the Marine Corps, graduate from Ohio State in twenty-three months (despite a bout of mononucleosis), and earn a law degree from the prestigious Yale University, then why can’t they?

By indicting a group for the wrongs of individuals (i.e. blurring the line between those that learn from failure and others that perpetually fail to learn) and not holding culpable external forces accountable, Vance wins the favor of the Acela Corridor crowd. But he does a great disservice to his kinsmen.

Indeed, these very elites deserve considerable blame for enforcing on society-at-large policies and values that suit their ends alone – including fetishizing green energy, secularism, sexual liberation, and indiscriminateness of thought and action. The ensuing erosion of moral and religious foundations, coupled with dismal economic prospects, has frayed the social fabric of the hill people and manifests in the despair and “learned helplessness” of drug addiction, alcoholism, and domestic strife.

Stating so, however, would have not earned the author critical acclaim. I say this not to cast aspersions but to indicate a simple truth: fashionable society is lavishing high praise on “Hillbilly Elegy” because the book sounds the death knell for a people it loves to hate. Had he penned an unapologetic battle hymn for poor whites, I doubt we would be talking about J.D. Vance.


Meg Hansen is a cultural critic based in Windsor, Vermont. The Vermont House Republican Caucus consults with her communications firm.

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