subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

What J.D. Vance should tell his hillbilly friends (but won’t)



I finally finished reading “Hillbilly Elegy,” J.D. Vance’s memoir of growing up in a hillbilly culture in Kentucky. It’s not the sort of book I usually spend time on, but I really want to understand, as much as I can, what makes these poor, white, rural, Christian, under-educated people tick. From the inter-mountain West through the Bible Belt of the Midwest, the Rust Belt of the Ohio Valley, the hollers and tiny towns of Appalachia to the Deep South and even the Central Valley farm communities of California, these hillbillies elected Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America a year ago last November, so as much as I might want to dismiss them from my thoughts (and there are no hillbillies in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live), they are impacting my life in profoundly bad ways. Which makes learning about them as mandatory as learning about the foods I need to eat (and not eat) in order to control my cholesterol.

It’s an instructive book, and Vance, a Yale-educated lawyer, tells his tale with considerable insight. He also loves the people he describes: his grandparents, his parents, his cousins, siblings and childhood friends, many of them trapped into lives of drug addiction, alcoholism, violence, anger, out-of-wedlock children, obesity, disease and hopelessness–a life from which he miraculously escaped. But at the end of the book, I wanted to track Vance down and throttle him.

He did his best—in his own mind—to be fair; I’ll grant him that. He assigns considerable blame to the hillbillies for creating their own problems. He tells them bluntly they can’t blame Bush, or Obama, or some giant corporation for their failures: they should look in the mirror and see their own limitations, which are usually self-imposed. He understands that no government anti-poverty program, no matter how well-funded, can lift people up, if they refuse to be uplifted. He knows how destructive their hillbilly culture is, both to themselves and to America.

Yet he can’t quite bring himself to condemn them. Even as he wags one finger at them, with the other hand he’s giving them signals that they’re really okay—that while their behavior may be atrocious, it’s understandable in terms of the way they grew up, and so they don’t really have to come to grips with themselves. They can kinda, sorta admit that they’ve blown their own lives up into pieces, but they can also kinda, sorta continue to believe that it’s someone else’s fault (and that someone else is usually a Democrat).

Well, it’s understandable that J.D. Vance doesn’t want to give really tough love to his own people. But what’s the point of writing a best-selling book that purports to describe Trump voters when, in the end, the author doesn’t have the cojones to tell them the truth? Here’s what J.D. should have written.

Dear hillbilly friends and family, especially those who voted for Trump: You people are really, truly fucked up. I can’t even begin to put into words what massive failures you are, or how much you piss me off. You’ve been given every opportunity, in the greatest country in the world, to climb out of your hillbilly gutter, and yet you refuse to do so. You continue to believe in an evangelical form of a religion, Christianity, that anyone with an I.Q. above 50 knows is bullshit, with its “creationism” and denial of science in general. You let these preachers con you out of what little money you have so they can bring prostitutes to motels. You birth kids out of wedlock, whom you can’t afford to raise, thereby guaranteeing that they’ll be as screwed up as you—and then you have the nerve to criticize Democrats like Bill Clinton for having a consensual affair with an adult. And you insult a good, fine man, Barack Obama, who has more decency in his little finger than generations of your own family ever had.

You let hypocritical politicians tell blatant lies to your face and then you forgive them because Sean Hannity, a cynical multi-millionaire who’s gotten filthy rich from pandering to your ignorance, tells you to. You vote for a Roy Moore, knowing full well in your heart that he’s guilty as hell, because another adulterer and sexual predator, Donald J. Trump, tells you that electing a God-fearing, faithful man who happens to be a Democrat is worse than electing a child abuser. You celebrate being ignorant; you accuse men who do well in school of being fags, and then resent them when they are successful in life in ways you never will be because of your own willful stubbornness. You say that radical Islamic terrorists pose a danger to America, but, my friends, the greatest danger to our great country is you and people like you. George Washington, Ben Franklin, Tom Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers must wish they’d never founded the United States of America when they see you.

But J.D. Vance will never speak these words of truth to his people. Despite everything he’s seen and knows, he remains a conservative Republican, a Bible-thumping Christian, an anti-government zealot. Some part of him—the part that was smart enough to get into Yale Law School—surely knows better. But another part of him—the hillbilly who can’t think clearly, who makes apologies for the complete failure of his culture, who’s still too angry to be rational—eventually trumps his native intelligence. Look: there’s no way to legitimize this hillbilly culture, no way to romanticize it, as Vance tries to. It’s toxic. It’s killing America, and its most virulent symptom is Trump. It needs to be confronted, not consoled, and then excised. Unfortunately, J.D. Vance is not up to the task.

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts