D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy joins the ranks of several works that explore many of the challenges facing today’s white working class. The book shines a light on Vance’s Scots-Irish hillbilly heritage in Greater Appalachia, one of the most forlorn economic regions in the country.
Vance not only offers readers a timely, first-person perspective on Rust Belt America, but he also brings the cultural politics of an important segment of white America to the forefront. For many minorities, white culture itself has been historically presented as the standard bearer of privilege, but Vance tells a fuller story. One part of that story is that white mainstream culture shouldn’t be conflated with the trailer parks of southeastern Ohio.
It wasn’t long before I realized that some of the traditions and vices Vance grew up with would seem very familiar to other minorities, whether on the southside of Chicago, the Pine Ridge Reservation in Nebraska, or South Boston. But his story doesn’t succeed because it exposes the detrimental norms foisted on many who live in ethnic enclaves. Instead, it takes aim at something more injurious: the tremendous burden of upholding group identity.
The Narcotic Pleasure of Being the Underdog
In his article “Revolt of the Masses,” David Brooks highlighted Vance’s honest and blunt portrayal of hillbilly life. Brooks describes it as a loyalty culture: “Families might be messed up in a million ways, but any act of disloyalty – like sharing personal secrets with outsiders – is felt acutely.”
Advancement is about speaking to the greater capacities people have beyond alcoholism, criminality, and other self-destructive tendencies.This is a twisted situation where, by virtue of constructs like class, race, or colloquial street name, fidelity to the group is demanded and freedom of thought curtailed. John McWhorter has remarked that there is a “narcotic pleasure” in the underdog-ism and victimology that plagues groups who see individual effort to pull oneself out of dismal circumstances as betrayal. In this context, social stagnation and failure become legitimate options. McWhorther’s views are similar to Vance’s own convictions that hillbilly culture might be its own worst enemy when it comes to socioeconomic progress.
Over 20 years ago, Thomas Sowell articulated the costs of being beholden to group identity. “Among its more serious social consequences are (1) putting a dangerous leverage in the hands of extremist fringes within each group, and (2) stifling the cultural advancement of lagging groups by sealing them off from the cultural advantages of the larger society around them,” Sowell said.
This is why cultural advancement should be a mainstay in conversations about Americans who have been sidelined economically and nearly hollowed out socially.
But advancement needn’t be about moralizing or federal intervention. In fact, its best incarnation is practical guidance. It’s about helping people recognize existing opportunities, about speaking to the greater capacities people have beyond alcoholism, criminality, family disintegration, and other self-destructive tendencies. On the one hand, some people sense that mobility is possible even within the lowest social strata. On the other hand, in a group context, convenient excuses are abundant (the system, the elites, outsiders, disadvantage) and need to be unveiled for what they are.
The point is that until the stranglehold of group identity can be broken, a paradigm shift, enabling people to get beyond the very real and perceived obstacles, can’t happen.
Even as Vance expresses his love for the Appalachian experience that shaped and molded him – for the family, friends, and homesteads that make up his fondest memories – he doesn’t paper over the domestic chaos. Instead, Vance acknowledges the intense sense of parochialism that’s rife in Appalachia. And he takes a bold step in placing the burden of resolving a myriad of problems on the shoulders of “the broad community of hillbillies.”
This is laudable because it means that Vance isn’t acting in the service of group protectionism. But, why not? Why not completely slime public policy and corporate greed? Why not cite job loss as the culprit? The truth is there’s something more important at stake than the misplaced pride that leaves people self-conscious about being culturally authentic and loyal.
Curtail Liberty to Help the Worse-Off?
Even though authenticity is an age-old sham, there are status points and street cred to be earned by adhering to the neglected group script. Mostly the concept of authenticity rests on the specious notion that some groups experience America as a monolith, without variation. Oddly, there is also the tacit acknowledgment that certain groups, over time, have simply come to demonstrate particular mores – many of which are embraced and celebrated in-group.
This contradiction is what leads so-called underdog groups to brazenly demand acceptance and intervention at the same time.
Americans everywhere should reject burdensome group identities.For example, Linda Tirado, who is well-known for “explaining” to America what it means to be poor and make questionable decisions, offered this opinion: “Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive.” In the article, Tirado cataloged several unhelpful habits and then ended by saying that sympathy wasn’t the goal and that she merely wanted to explain.
But the message that everything from healthcare to decent food to condoms is inaccessible to people because they are not rich prioritizes a false group narrative (in this case about working-class people) over individual experience. The implication is that society should act collectively to meet the needs of this segment of the population rather than hold intact a free society for all. This is the fallacious thinking that cuts across far too many demographics.
Americans everywhere should reject burdensome group identities. Some identities are unfortunately shaped by demanding more accountability from those outside the group than those within it. Others may be even worse because they are overly nationalist and represent what Benedict Anderson called imagined communities.
Let’s hope that one day when the specter of group restraint dissipates and the individual is front and center, Americans will gain not only more liberty, but also clarity about the challenges we face as a nation.