Too big for their britches


I join the chorus (here are just two examples) of those recommending J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It has a voice and message so strong that I worry about diluting and trivializing it by even discussing it. It’s good enough to resist commentary a bit.

More than that, even, I’m a bit embarrassed to pull only politics from a rich and interesting memoir. But, like so many others, I have politics on the brain at the moment (also, shout out to the new show BrainDead!), and I can’t help myself, so here we go.

There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.

Here is where the rhetoric of modern conservatives (and I say this as one of them) fails to meet the real challenges of their biggest constituents. Instead of encouraging engagement, conservatives increasingly foment the kind of detachment that has sapped the ambition of so many of my peers. I have watched some friends blossom into successful adults and others fall victim to the worst of Middletown’s temptations—premature parenthood, drugs, incarceration. What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser, it’s the government’s fault.

A recurring theme in the book is mistrust and alienation of those who “get out”. Vance talks about this in his interview with Rod Dreher:

Nearly everyone in my family who has achieved some financial success for themselves, from Mamaw to me, has been told that they’ve become “too big for their britches.”  I don’t think this value is all bad.  It forces us to stay grounded, reminds us that money and education are no substitute for common sense and humility.  But, it does create a lot of pressure not to make a better life for yourself, and let’s face it: when you grow up in a dying steel town with very few middle class job prospects, making a better life for yourself is often a binary proposition: if you don’t get a good job, you may be stuck on welfare for the rest of your life.

A few years back I saw Craig Ferguson do a standup show in Toronto. He did a bit—partly tongue-in-cheek of course, it’s comedy after all—about how the Scottish temperament had influenced the Canadian temperament. He joked about passive-aggressiveness from people back home when he had news: got a new car, did you? Good for you. Moving to America, are you? Good for you. Got a nightly TV show on national television, did you? Good for you.

Vance is getting at exactly the same social pressure when he talks about the town he grew up in and the influence of Scots-Irish hillbilly culture. Ultimately he makes a forceful case about how, in this context, role models, family stability, and personal responsibility are irreplaceable and impossible to replicate with policies or programs. He describes how “upward mobility” is a million miles away from the reality of living in a community and a culture that provides no clue and few examples of how to achieve it.

Is it possible to have a workable social contract when there is a combination of detachment and mistrust of those who “make it”? What on earth does “equality of opportunity” mean? These are questions that I find harder to answer now than I did one book ago.

But, at least, first do no harm, right? Whatever you think about the chances of political platforms to convince anyone of anything inside a culture of world-champion cynics of success, one thing seems clear to me. If resentment and pessimism are the context, formalized resentment and weaponized pessimism are worse than the disease. Isn’t that just enabling?

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