Hillbilly memoir with lessons for post-Brexit Britain

Published by the ipaper (3rd October, 2016)

JD Vance was 31 years old when he published his biography and admits his accomplishments do not add up to anything remarkable on the surface. He is white, male and heterosexual. He has two dogs, a happy marriage and a nice home near his investment job in Silicon Valley, which he took after graduating from Yale law school. Yet he is author of one of the most influential books of the year, one that topped best-seller lists in the United States.

His account of escaping harsh poverty in the Appalachian Mountains is, in many ways, just another twist on the American Dream. Yet with exquisite timing, Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy offers something far more profound at this time of political populism. For it offers a glimpse into the social dislocations bubbling beneath the surface of broken white communities, exploring forces that have erupted with such strength Donald Trump stands just one step from the White House.

Although rooted in Kentucky and Ohio, Vance’s life story has resonance beyond American borders. Issues of addiction and alienation, fecklessness and family breakdown, intolerance and intense patriotism, mistrust and misogyny, are among causes of cracks also opening in countries on this side of the Atlantic. They lie beneath the struggles of many traditional and underclass communities. They fuelled the fears and fury that led to Brexit, and the rise of populist politicians on the left and right who are ready to exploit such anger.

Vance gives voice to poor white people, depicting lives in the decaying rust belt as families and communities fall apart. He hails from tough Scots-Irish heritage – seen as societal dregs dismissed as trailer trash, the sorts of folk I have come across in courts and prisons covering criminal justice in the States. His family is loving and loyal yet filled with self-destructive characters; even his beloved grandmother once set her drink-sodden husband on fire. His mother is a forlorn figure, a nurse destroyed by addiction. ‘Dad candidates’ flit in and out of his life, while he hates being asked about siblings since the answer is so complicated.

This is “a world of truly irrational behaviour” where homes are chaotic, violence endemic, spending uncontrolled, jobs abandoned on whims, children never encouraged to study, healthy food never consumed. Yet the book is a sympathetic chronicle, not cruel sneering portrayal of people left behind by a smart man on the make. He talks of two struggling groups: ‘My grandparents embodied one type: old-fashioned, quietly faithful, self-reliant, hardworking. My mother – and increasingly the entire neighbourhood – embodied another: consumerist, isolated, angry, distrustful.’

Vance was saved by moving in with his grandmother, who encouraged him to study hard. He admits a sociologist and a psychologist could explain why he lost interest in drugs, his school grades improved and he started listening to teachers. Yet, tellingly, he says what he remembers most was a sudden feeling of contentment, born from a sense of stability. He was not scared of going home when the school bell rang and knew where he would be living next month. The legacy was a stint in the Marines, then winning a place at perhaps the nation’s most prestigious law school.

Although Vance is conservative, he is not a tribal figure backing Trump. He has little time for the left’s sole focus on economic security and jobs, nor for the right endlessly blaming government and fanning anti-elitism. He is brutal about benefits that assist those not wanting to work when observing addicts buying T-bone steaks he could never afford. At Yale, he sees how upper-class networks shore up inequality. He admires hillbilly traditions of loyalty and patriotism, but offers scathing analysis of their parochialism, self-destruction, sexism and resistance to change. He sees similarities with some inner-city communities.

His tale – with its message of tough love – offers fresh insight into the rise of populism, after all those words struggling to explain it on glib grounds of globalisation or ‘neo-liberalism’. It exposes an insular world of despair and cultural detachment, one in which people lack confidence or control over lives – yet Vance argues hillbilly children are failed in homes and not by bad schools, snobbish colleges or distant politicians. He uses the term ‘learned helplessness’ to describe the corrosive cynicism engulfing shattered societies, which he only lost when he entered the Marines and discovered his own decisions made a difference.

These are valuable lessons at this time of rising resentment. In Vance’s book, one acquaintance quits work from dislike of waking early, then goes on social media to attack the ‘Obama economy’ for his misfortune. Similar blame games lie behind Brexit. Meanwhile, studies here show white working-class children falling behind in schools and when it comes to getting into university; one recent report blamed lack of parental support for problems exposed when pupils reach their GCSE exams. We hear the same echoes across Europe. The danger is politicians fuel fires by blaming migrants rather than resolving more fundamental issues to reconnect societies and restore self-worth.

Western democracies are divided to alarming degree, straining core national values. I travel the world as a foreign reporter, yet there are areas of my own country as alien to me as any I might find in more far-flung parts. The Vance book reminded Americans about a forgotten slice of their core population. But this affectionate saga of surviving a chaotic childhood among Appalachian hillbillies is ultimately an uplifting tale of hope and survival, not a misery memoir. And that triumph over defeatism and pain is what gives the timely work its power, one that deserves a wide audience on this side of the Atlantic also.

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