Saturday, January 26, 2019

Battling Hillbillies


By Ray Jones

Hillbilly Elegy – a memoir of a family and culture in crisis by JD Vance (2016). William Collins, paperback, 264pp. ISBN: 879-0-00-822056-3, £9.99.

JD Vance is still in his 30s, a Yale Law School graduate, a venture capitalist and a self-confessed conservative Republican in the USA. So why should his story be of interest to us? Because, as he says, he “grew up poor” in the Rust Belt in an Ohio steel town from a family that has its roots in the south eastern Kentucky coal country.
The fact that the US steel and coal workforce have been devastated in modern times forms the backdrop to Vance’s early life. It has helped to form the culture that he describes in his fascinating, if not always pleasant, story.
Violence, drugs, unemployment and family turmoil are prominent in Vance’s account of Hillbilly culture; along with a sense of ‘honour’ that reminds one irresistibly of {The Godfather} and the Mafia.
Vance tells an anecdote of what happened when his Uncle Pet, who owned several small businesses, was called a “son-of-bitch” by a delivery driver. Pet took the insult literally as an insult to his beloved mother. When it was repeated he dragged the driver from his truck and beat him unconscious before taking an electric saw and running it up and down his body.
Uncle Pet never went to jail because the driver, who survived, was a Hillbilly too and refused to talk to the police or press charges.
Vance’s grandfather (Papaw) and particularly his grandmother (Mamaw) loomed large in his early life and came from Hillbilly ‘royalty’. This seems to mean that they were famous for resorting to extreme violence in what was seen in the community as a good cause.
Even in a violent society they were called “crazy” – a term that seems to have had an element of admiration attached.
Mamaw routinely carried a gun around and nobody messed with her. When she banned Vance from seeing “unsuitable” friends she reinforced the order by threatening to run them over in a car if he did, saying: “No-one would ever find out.”
Whilst one is reading this book you have to remind yourself sometimes that he is talking about the 1980s and ‘90s not the 1880s or even the 1930s. The adult Vance seems to reject all this of course but sometimes you wonder…
Vance claims that Mamaw and Papaw saved him from fully accepting the feeling of apathy and worthlessness that he thinks is the main reason why Hillbillies so rarely realise the ‘American Dream’ (even when he defines that only as having a nice house, a secure job and a steady family). They gave him, he thinks, some security in a family where his mother was a drug abuser with a string of partners.
The Marine Corps, he says, carried the work of his grandparents further by showing him he could achieve things he had thought impossible for him.
From his time in the Marines, where he served time in Iraq (although never at the really sharp end), he went to college with Government assistance and then to the prestigious Yale Law School to become a successful lawyer.
Sadly Vance concludes that poor whites basically just need to have the confidence to pull themselves up by their boot straps. He rejects the evidence of the economic and class roots of the problems that he himself presents. He forgets, as a previous reviewer has said, that to pull yourself up by your boot straps one must first have boots.
Because a few individuals, like Vance, with luck, talent and determination can ‘make it’ does not mean most people can. History proves otherwise.
As you may imagine, this book went down a storm with the mass media and the ruling class. It reinforces their class prejudices and never mentions the real solutions of revolution and socialism.
For others it may expose the American nightmare that workers and the Left in the USA face, and which we have echoes of in Britain.
I came across this book in my local library; perhaps it’s worth looking in yours.

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