Hillbilly Elegy premiered November 24 on NETFLIX. I won’t be watching it.
Just as I refused to buy JD Vance’s New York Times best-selling book that the film is based upon, I refuse to support the arrogant defamation of the way of life and values of people living outside of the mansions and gated communities of privilege. Vance, growing up in a mill town in Ohio, no doubt knew some hardships and witnessed dysfunctionality. Who among us that grew up in working class neighborhoods in the Middle West didn’t see, and sometimes suffer, some hardship.
Vance’s book came out at a convenient time– 2016– when East and West Coast elites sought explanations for Donald Trump’s success in the Midwest. The corporate Democrats had long taken these Midwesterners for granted, Obama calling them gun-toting religious zealots and Hillary Clinton famously describing them as “deplorables.” It was left to a “survivor”– JD Vance– to expose the pathologies and missteps of these flawed creatures. Vance had– himself– found the grit to escape the working class ghetto of Middletown, Ohio and parlay an elite law school degree into the riches of high finance.
While he acknowledges the hardships, he congratulates himself and some others for what he sees as their ‘by-the-bootstraps’ success. Rather than seeing a quagmire too deep for all but the tallest boots to negotiate, Vance perceives character flaws– a lack of self-discipline and ambition, as well as a propensity to make bad choices. Vance expects “people to hold themselves responsible for their own conduct and choices. ‘Those of us who weren’t given every advantage can make better choices, and those choices do have the power to affect our lives…’”
If this sounds eerily familiar, it’s probably because it echoes the smug, insensitive message often offered to Black people who are mired in poverty and neglect by the privileged.
I once wrote of Vance: “Feeding the stereotypes [of Midwestern workers], Vance exposes a dysfunctional childhood spared from ruin by an enlistment in the Marine Corps, a stint at Ohio State University, and a climb to the summit, Yale Law School. Looking down from the rarified air of Yale, he feels qualified to speak of ‘the anger and frustration of the white working class’ and the hunger to ‘have someone tell their story’.”
But the story he tells is one of blaming the victims for the violence, drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide that followed in the wake of the historically unprecedented deindustrialization that swept the Midwest beginning in the late 1970s. Literally millions of decent industrial jobs were lost in this period as capital shifted from US production to expansion overseas. The fall of Eastern European socialism and the expanding Asian engagement with export production opened the spigots of low-wage labor, an attraction that capital could not and would not fail to exploit.
The effects of this shift devastated communities in the US, especially the Midwest.
Growing up in the Midwest before this demographic disaster, I lived on the edge of a small town bordering on corn and soybean fields. On my street and surrounding streets, every household depended on employment in a factory or mine. From the disabled miner on the corner that we called “Bootsaw” because of his unpronounceable Eastern European name, to the African American who lived on the street behind us who worked in the mines with my uncle who raised me, people knew each other by where they or their parents worked: the GM foundry, Hyster, Lauhoff, GE, and the mines. All of these could be and often were long term, if not lifelong, decent paying jobs with decent benefits. Children knew that if they were not struck with wanderlust, there would be a job available where their parent, relative, or friend worked.
All that changed.
Today, employment is limited to a penitentiary, a casino, retail chains, services, and a few small, specialty manufacturers. Where factories employing thousands dotted the landscape, tattoo parlors, massage parlors, and slot parlors are now ubiquitous. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, my hometown and its environs lost more population (percentage-wise) from 1990 to 2015 than any area in the US with over 50,000 population, except the Youngstown and Weirton/Steubenville areas (near where I live now).
Friends and relatives lament the rise in alcoholism, drug use, crime, and violence that were foreign to the area when we grew up. They search for explanations– television, sex, poor parenting, etc.– but seldom, if ever, blame the multi-national corporations that abandoned the Midwest for cheap labor elsewhere. Nor are there any local leaders making that connection.
Like the crack epidemic that struck Black neighborhoods in the same era and led to violence, criminalization, and mass incarceration, Midwestern towns and cities similarly suffered from the effects of what appear to be mysterious, insidious outside forces that destroyed whatever stability both groups formerly enjoyed. Politicians, pundits, and the powerful show no interest in probing those mysteries. They simply ignore them and continue to pay obeisance to their corporate supporters.
Rather than shedding light, JD Vance’s book (and the subsequent film) help to obfuscate and deflect from a catastrophe that shattered the lives of millions. Vance only serves to reinforce the class arrogance that forecloses solidarity with those suffering under the weight of capitalist oppression.
Likewise, Vance and his ilk are unhelpful in revealing the appeal of Trump in many of these former Democratic Party strongholds. They see no connection between the signs of desperation and hopelessness and the turn to an outlier, even an outlier as ridiculous as Donald Trump. Those harmed search in vain for a palliative within the empty two-party pantry. Even a snakeskin-oil salesman is appealing when no one else offers help.
Political operatives, the media, and think tanks absurdly assume that the casualties of deindustrialization, urban neglect, and austerity– both Black and white– have no other place to go, that they live with a vivid memory of and unshakeable loyalty to the Democratic Party of the New Deal and the Great Society. That’s not the Democratic Party of today. And that’s not a promising bet for the future.
If the celebration of Biden’s victory is founded upon a return to some mythical idea of normalcy, it will surely be short-lived. With nearly one in eight US citizens experiencing hunger over the Thanksgiving weekend, with jobless claims increasing and at levels unseen even in the 2007-2009 crisis, with 21% of small businesses closed, ‘normal’ is not in sight.
What is in sight is nearly six million people facing eviction in January and another 12 million renters in arrears (Census Bureau).
A pathetic, condescending rags-to-riches tale is of no solace to those betrayed by profit-obsessed capitalists.