Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Hillbilly Elegy - gripping, yet facile

Bowling Alone was a famous study of changes in American (and hence Western) society – why would anyone bowl by themselves? I approached Hillbilly Elegy with high hopes, since it had been bracketed with Bowling Alone as a key text to understand the American white underclass. Said the Wall Street Journal: “A beautiful memoir but equally a work of cultural criticism about white working-class America”.  That’s quite an achievement! Did it live up to expectations?

Hillbilly Elegy was certainly very believable, and very readable. It described a life that was astonishing perhaps because not usually described in such detail by an insider. But ultimately, it was unsatisfying as a study of white working-class America, for a number of reasons:

·        One person’s opinion does not equate to a sociological argument. J D Vance certainly lived through a challenging childhood and upbringing. A father he hardly ever lived with, a mother who became an addict, and a succession of stepfathers was not a recipe for a peaceful childhood, certainly. But experiencing the childhood does not automatically mean that the author is able to analyze what was wrong with it.
·        Using academic studies to assess your own life is not so simple. Clearly, J D Vance has read widely around social deprivation in the US and one of the reasons his book is so fascinating is because he has read around the subject. It is remarkable, perhaps unique, to have this double perspective. But somehow using academic data to prove the personal details of his childhood does not quite ring true. For example, he notes how his natural father turned to religion and seemed to change for the better: “In this, dad embodied a phenomenon social scientists have observed for decades: religious folks are much happier. Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, have better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently...” (and the author dutifully provides a citation to an academic article). It’s as if all that was needed for his community to live better lives was to read a few relevant academic journal articles, and act on them. And why wasn’t everyone in his community religious, as a result?
·        In contrast, J D Vance displays all the evangelism of the new convert – at various times, to Christianity, to becoming an academic success, to the US Marines, to the right wing. With him it was never half measures; it was all or nothing. He gleefully describes how during his college days he had not one but two jobs, which means he got almost no sleep: “During a particularly terrible February, I sat down with my calendar and counted the numbe r of days since I’d slept more than four hours in a day. The tally was thirty-nine.” He doesn’t just join the Marines, he subscribes wholeheartedly to their values. “The Marine Corps taught me how to live like an adult.” Yet from his description of what happened, it sounds like the Marine Corps provided him with the parenting he lacked at home. That isn’t much of a recipe for the entire white underclass to follow (at least, it would be a mighty expensive form of social service).
·        As a story, Hillbilly Elegy starts to lose interest for the reader about half way through when the author begins to switch from victim to hero. Heroes simply aren’t interesting, not when they write their autobiography and tell you the story of their success.   
·        Vance’s story illustrates the remarkable propaganda achievement of the US military. By the time recruits have finished training, they have become convinced they are fighting for the right side – even when they are stationed in Iraq.

As a result, while I greatly enjoyed his memoir, I don’t entirely trust his analysis of the white underclass. As a conservative, he seemed very critical of handing out welfare payments to what he stated were often the wrong recipients. Yet at the same time he states candidly how beneficial to him were the concessions he received as a poor student at Yale. Because some of the welfare was misused, he seems to argue for not having welfare at all. I escaped, he tells us, and it was really bad. And of course, the worse the background, the more impressive his escape. 

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