By Joyce Pines
Among the many responses to the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, one that grabbed my attention was a Facebook friend who decided to start a reading group concentrating on books that provide some understanding about what is going on in this country.
|Nice cover, interesting story.|
I wasn’t able to make it to the most recent conversation about “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” by J.D. Vance, so I’m sharing my thoughts here.
J.D. Vance has been making the media rounds. Just Friday, NPR released a TED Talk where Mr. Vance discusses his life and his views. If you have about 15 minutes, it is worth a listen.
I am still struggling with my thoughts about his memoir. In the preface, Mr. Vance writes the book is about “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”
But it is also his own story and I sense an unreliable narrator at many points throughout the text.
After 30 years in journalism and another seven as a therapist, I have had to develop a decent awareness about when someone is giving me a line of b.s.
Throughout the first three quarters of this book, my b.s. detector was going off frequently:
Title: He’s actually two generations removed from the hills of eastern Kentucky.
Poverty: He reports that his mother and stepfather made $100,000 but spent it as fast as they made it. So, not poor, just not good with finances. Also, grandfather retired well from a factory job - well enough to apparently afford two homes, one for himself and one for his ex-wife.
Addiction: Recognizes it but doesn’t understand it as a disease.
Tried and true conservative trope: The author resents working hard at the grocery store and eating hamburger while the no-goods on welfare are talking on their cell phones while buying steaks with his tax money.
But then Mr. Vance surprised me.
He takes time to reflect on his own good fortune and give consideration and understanding to those who don’t have the resilience he needed to overcome a drug-addicted mother, multiple father figures and chaos at home to eventually wind up at Yale Law School.
He writes about Adverse Childhood Experiences and recognizes the problems in our “safety net” of child welfare services.
In the New Republic, Sarah Jones writes that Mr. Vance’s book is “little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.” She also notes that he has emerged as one of the media’s favorite “Trump explainers.”
What his book does right and Mr. Vance's TED Talk does even more succinctly, is highlight what happens when people lose hope - how that tears apart the social fabric.
Democrats and Republicans have done a large swath of this country a great disservice over the past 20 years. Politicians and the professional class have worked together to deregulate industry and encourage globalization.
Financial insecurity is incredibly destructive. Add in addiction and families crumble. The political response has been to make things even worse by punishing people for their struggles. In our rush to cut taxes, we have instead increased fines and penalties for every infraction. A person struggling who loses their driver’s license can end up never getting it back as fines and penalties pile up.
Bridge magazine just wrote a story highlighting this issues with the number of counties in Michigan who charge individuals for every day they are incarcerated. That is how you destroy hope.
Treat people as less than human and then wonder why there is so much addiction and violence. Or why they might vote for someone who promises to tear the country apart.
That’s what J.D. Vance appears to understand. We just haven’t figured out how to fix it. I think it will require government involvement, I’m not sure Mr. Vance would agree.
Several events are taking place in the Kalamazoo area over the coming months to create a better understanding around the state of our nation. Here is a list:
- Eleven Works of Midwestern Fiction For the Trump Era
- Lecture series at Lee Honors College: Fulfilling America's Promise: Racial Equality and Justice
- Arcus Center: Understanding Identity and Power Workshop
- Reading Group: Next discussion is The Unwinding by George Packer
- Transformations Spirituality Center: Healing the Heart of Democracy
Read, attend a lecture, explore options and help create a better country.