Hillbilly Elegy

Wayne and my young, thoughtful correspondent,

I have read Hillbilly Elegy, by J. D. Vance, as both of you recommended it. Here are some of my thoughts.

This link is to a friendly NYT review. This one is to a NYT podcast interview with J. D. Vance that attempts to understand the Trump voter. Here’s a David Brooks column in which he recommends Hillbilly Elegy and draws lessons for our politics. This is a NYT review of three memoirs, including Hillbilly Elegy, that arise from the same social group as Vance’s family:

I enjoyed Vance’s memoir, which I think is a useful and reflective account of him life and his milieu. He criticizes some government programs that try to assist his hillbillies because those programs cannot solve their problems. He proposes a few tweaks to these programs, but none of those programs’ advocates believe that they can solve all the problems of the people they help. That is, I felt his criticism of those programs was a strawman argument, but his suggestions are fine.

He gives credit to two major tax-payer funded government programs for helping him: Ohio State University and the U. S. Marines.

He says that the deep solution to the troubles of his hillbillies must come from within themselves. They must find social support from their extended families, just as his Mamaw and Papaw (maternal grandparents) helped him to deal with his troubled and unstable mother. I agree with him, and I suspect that most thoughtful and humane people agree too. Indeed, his proposals reminded me of another person’s book that urged similar ideas upon us: It Takes a Village.

I found it hard to see why the reviewers and commenters found in this book an explanation for why a few tens of thousands of people in a few mid-Western states threw the Electoral College to Donald Trump. Perhaps Vance means to say that these hillbillies are in despair, the result of a history of bad life choices, and voting for Trump was just one more bad decision. I’d agree with that. Of course, I know that’s not why he thinks they voted for Trump.

To thank you both for recommending this memoir, I have a memoir recommendation for you: Dreams from My Father: A story of race and inheritance.
As for Obama’s book, I’m reminded of a witty exchange between Sarah Palin and internet wags during the 2008 election campaign. Palin said that Obama wasn’t qualified or experienced for the job, as the only real job he’d had was as a community organizer, while she was an actual governor. Someone pointed out that Jesus was a community organizer, and Pontius Pilate was a governor.

 

Here are two more items related to Hillbilly Elegy, from a year ago. This one is a NYT op-ed essay by David Leonhardt. The second is an op-ed in NYT  by J D Vance.

What struck me about the first essay was that the Republican health care plans will make dealing with the opioid epidemic harder. This opioid epidemic is among the key crises afflicting J. D. Vance’s hillbilly community, and it brought down his mother. The Republicans have long been clear about their intentions for health care, which are to cut the cost to the government for Americans’ health care and to shift that cost onto sick people.

As for Vance’s essay, I was struck by the similarity with his thoughts in its penultimate paragraph and those of Hillary Clinton from her book, It Takes a Village. Many readers say that his book helps us to understand why working class white men voted for Trump. I’d like to know who Vance voted for considering that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats advocate pretty much the same policies as he recommends, while it is certain that Trump and the Republicans will be working hard to dismantle any programs that accord with Vance’s ideas.

One policy advocated by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats and opposed by Republicans that Vance doesn’t mention is to increase the minimum wage. I wonder why he doesn’t mention it.

Bernard

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