Hillbilly Elegy and Cultural Identity

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Yesterday I nursed a cold and finished the audiobook of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. My husband walked in on occasion during the course of the book, and he often punctuated  the narration with a loud “yup.” As somebody who came from a culturally working-class background and found himself at Yale getting an advanced degree, they have a lot in common, and Vance’s experiences often rang true to him. I feel the cultural distance myself, too, within the Yale social circle, though I’m not immersed in it at work like he is. I remember being at a professor’s (insanely nice) house once and overhearing him ask another student, “Do you have any working-class friends?” I wanted to wave my hand frantically and point to myself and my husband.

Like Vance, my husband and I can also point to potentially traumatic experiences that affect more children with limited economic means than children in middle-class and higher families. I can easily check off at least three of those ACEs about maybe four, and I think Vance checked off six.

I was hoping that Vance would spend a lot more time talking about how his identity changed because of Yale, if he had to give up parts of his hillbilly identity in order to advance himself, consciously or unconsciously. He did tell how he lied about his Yale enrollment to a woman in Ohio with a Yale sweatshirt because he didn’t want to identify with her presumed class, and about how he learned to navigate the hiring process and how it’s structured in a way that it screens out those who aren’t already part of upper middle class culture. And how he would get calls from home about his drug-addicted mom, reminders of where he came from. And how he realized he had a quick, violent temper and an inability to express his emotions due to his volatile home life, and he worked to change that. But I want to know if he stuffed the more inconsequential parts of his origins down, like his personal tastes. Did he unabashedly talked about country music, or Cracker Barrel, or ask Yale friends if they wanted to shoot at beer cans on the weekend? Did he intentionally turn that part of himself off and shed it from his identity, or reserve it for trips back to Ohio and Kentucky? How aware was he of his cultural markers? He doesn’t indicate if he gave any of these parts of himself up, or what it felt like to decide to shed them or keep them. More on that in a minute.

Many of his phrases – skewering “lazy” people who took advantage of government assistance, defaulting to church as a force of social organization, talking about the decay of tradition without defining “tradition” – show that he remains entrenched in politically conservative modes, presumably which he got from his conservative relatives.* I found myself wondering if his harsh criticism of welfare recipients or a coworker who was taking 40-minute bathroom breaks (which to me is an indication that somebody is shooting up) was misdirected anger from his own opiate-addicted mother, or if it’s willful blindness to the way that addictions affect the addicts’ behavior and ability to function. He acknowledged that current psychological thought views addiction as a mental illness, but he doesn’t seem to extend his own personal sympathy toward addicts. Moreover, I don’t think that widespread addiction is something that you fix by giving people more church. I say that as a churchgoer.

He opines that we use government to fix issues that it can’t resolve, that it increases learned helplessness among groups like the working-class whites of his childhood. In his mind, hillbilly culture itself, its violent tendencies and family instability, is something that has to be fixed from the inside by hillbillies themselves. I admit that I have a tendency nowadays to look at governmental solutions. And it’s true that some people take advantage of the safety nets that government provides. But I think the stakes are too high for us to remove those nets and hope that our economically disadvantaged populations are going to toughen up and straighten out their cultures on their own.

Payday loans might have helped Vance pay his rent on time and avoid late fees that one time that he used it, but overall, I think payday loans do more harm to our society than good when low-income families get into the habit of using them. People are going to abuse WIC, but if abolishing WIC means there are kids that go hungry, I’d rather accept the abuse. Some people are doing a terrible job of parenting due to ignorance or drug abuse or other reasons, but if the schools ignore the shortcomings of those families and push their scheduled curriculum forward without trying to take up the slack, then those kids fail, and the school has failed those kids just as badly as their parents. It’s not right. And it would be great if we had social institutions instead of government institutions that would take up the slack, but we don’t, and it’s going to hurt a lot of people if we just take those government institutions away before the social ones are strong enough, or varied enough, or can survive, let alone thrive, in the mobile population we currently have.

Vance seemed to think that churches would be the best social organization structure, pointing to studies that regular attendees report higher levels of happiness than non-attendees. But Vance himself pointed out that the teachings of some churches can be destructive and turn people inward, and I don’t think that theological agreement with a group of other people should be a prerequisite for inclusion in social safety nets. It’s awesome if you can find that group, but I wouldn’t want to force people into a box. Political parties could be a better organizing structure, or looser community action groups centered around certain broad principles and ideas. Maybe it’s a relatively new, or American, or even individually-focused or selfish, idea that the beliefs and practices of faiths matter more than the benefits of social organization, but I’m okay with that being the new status quo if it means we have more sincere expressions of faith. (Similarly, I think that extending marriage to gay couples revitalizes the institution. If marriage is truly a special union that commits two people to each other, then straight couples have been diminishing its significance for decades by marrying because of unplanned pregnancies, because it seems like the thing to do in their long-term relationship, or for any other number of wrong reasons.)

 


 

And now for something completely different. Like Vance, I come from a rural, working-class background, and I have moved up in the socioeconomic ladder. Though my current income level and most of my cultural affiliations mark me as securely middle class, I do actively reject some markers that, to me, signify the middle class and upper middle class. I am well aware of them. Here’s a partial list:

  • Apple products. I have a Samsung Galaxy phone, no tablet, and a Chromebook.
  • Lululemon. I do spend money on Nike activewear because I find it comfortable, and sometimes on sale items at Athleta, a lesser-known activewear brand under the Gap umbrella.
  • Home ownership.
  • Buying brand new cars.
  • Urban Outfitters. (More a rejection of hipster culture than anything.)
  • Victoria’s Secret, PINK, Abercrombie. The exception: VS has awesome pantyhose.
  • Starbucks. I make 96% of my coffee at home, and sometimes I go to Dunkin Donuts.
  • “Fancy” restaurants. I prefer pub settings, and I tend to balk at the price of restaurant entrees when I can make something delicious at home for a fraction of the cost.
  • Brunch. See above re: cost.
  • Purebred dogs from a breeder. Shelter mutts are my go-to.
  • Skiing. Always seemed so expensive, and what rich kids did on break.
  • Country clubs. See above re: rich kids.

There are middle- and upper middle-class things that I do embrace, though:

  • Consumer Reports. They helped me pick my coffee maker as well as my…
  • Toyota Prius. Reliable, not wasteful of fossil fuels, and affordable to maintain.
  • News sources: New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR, Slate
  • Podcasts. Goes hand in hand with the news.
  • Audiobooks. Goes hand in hand with podcasts, but it really took off because my job gives me access.
  • Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, J. Crew. With blessings from my mom, the cast of What Not to Wear, numerous fashion bloggers, and my employee discount when I worked at BR, I happily spent money on building a good quality wardrobe.
  • Craft breweries and local breweries. My husband and I got married at a brewery.
  • Art films and foreign films.
  • HBO Now, Netflix, Amazon Prime. Cheaper than cable.
  • Travel abroad. My husband is way more into it than I am, but I’ve visited five countries aside from the U.S., none of which had English as an official language.
  • Whole Foods. They have good quality products that are oftentimes cheaper than regular stores. For example, house brand organic yogurt is $3.39 per 32 oz tub at WF, and it’s $4.39 for Stonyfield at Stop & Shop.
  • Organic products, to an extent. Processed organic products often have less  ingredients and taste better, and I notice a taste difference with some produce.
  • CSA membership.

Of course, I could do the same with rural Pennsylvania / working-class things. I’ve sort of done that before in my Raised Rural posts, without collecting them together in a list.

It’s pretty telling what I reject and embrace. Intellectually, I identify way more with populations that are more educated. It isn’t a surprise given my education level, my social circles, and my job, which encourages and rewards curiosity. Economically, though, I appear to be frugal and concerned with my bottom line and balancing quality and cost – maybe even too preoccupied with it. Without a doubt, this comes from growing up with little to no disposable income. I don’t stress about it like I used to, when I would create spreadsheets with store brand prices between several stores and think about how my mom’s grocery shopping involved both Giant and Shop-Rite. But it’s not something I want to totally give up. Besides, the more money I save on yogurt, the more there is for travel and books.

 

*ADDITION 2/8: I encountered that, too, and 2017-Lauren doesn’t believe in them. 2003-Lauren was hearing a lot of outrage in rural Pennsylvania about “welfare queens” and abuse of the system and was more bothered by it, and 2007-Lauren believed that America was a true meritocracy and that social, cultural, and economic issues could be overcome. 2017-Lauren knows more about how the decks are stacked and is also much more compassionate. No version of Lauren believed in the virtue of  old “tradition,” seeing it as way too constraining to historically marginalized populations.

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