Dhaka, Bangladesh
Reading and Feeling "Hillbilly Elegy"

Reading and Feeling "Hillbilly Elegy"

(From previous issue) There is one moment where Vance weighs in on a policy matter, a single instance in Hillbilly Elegy where he is explicit about how he wants government to work. It comes as J. D. is making his way through Ohio State as quickly as possible. To pay the bills (and, he does not add, amplify his political credentials), he is working in the office of Cincinnati-area Republican State Senator Bob Schuler. Toward the end of his stint, the Senate takes up the problem of payday lenders. First deregulated in 1995, they routinely charged 400 percent interest and kept their customers in long cycles of debt. In 2005, the legislature attempted to rein things in by limiting loan amounts and capping rates at 36 percent, and Schuler opposed this modest bill. Vance touts his former boss's good heart, moving seamlessly between feeling and policy: "[P]ayday lenders could solve important financial problems" for folks with bad credit who wanted "to take a girl out to dinner" or who "needed a book for school." In reality, payday loans are not used for these things. They are used to make rent or car payments, to cover medical expenses or other emergencies. But that's the trick. Feelings accumulate anecdotes, and anecdotes shade silently into policy. From the inarguable base of feeling about "home and family," Vance advocates policies that harm poor people, and he can do it in their name because he is one of them - he can tell us how they "feel." Vance doesn't tell the rest of the legislative story, but it is a story that reflects well on no one. The bill stalled in the Ohio House because the majority leader, Democrat Joyce Beatty, instructed the caucus to block it. The Cleveland Plain Dealer then revealed that Beatty's husband was a registered lobbyist for CheckSmart, one of the largest payday lenders in the state. At once, the block disappeared and the Short-Term Loan Act sailed through. And then nothing happened. All the lenders that might have been covered by the act reclassified themselves and went on lending at outrageous rates. As Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer wrote when the court approved this loophole in 2014: "It was as if the STLA did not exist. Not a single lender in Ohio is subject to the law. How is this possible? How can the General Assembly set out to regulate a controversial industry and achieve absolutely nothing?" This is an awful story about the ways regulatory capture and cockroach capitalism screw poor people. It is also a story about how, through stupidity or canniness, the noble ideas of the regulatory state are rendered moot - that is, this could easily be spun as a conservative lesson about the wastefulness of regulation. What does Vance think about it all? Who knows? Well, we do. But he doesn't tell us. Instead, by spinning a tale of college romance and insisting that, in his case, the "few dollars interest" he spent on a payday loan spared him a $50 overdraft charge, Vance is able to portray payday lenders as the good guys. Given that payday lenders are, alongside cable companies, airlines, and big banks, some of the most hated corporations in the United States, Vance's refusal to score easy points by denouncing their predatory interest rates, deceptive documentation, and ludicrous fees speaks volumes. When he says they shouldn't be brought to heel, we should trust that he really means it. Reading about Hillbilly Elegy is not the same as reading it. What is Hillbilly Elegy teaching students in Wisconsin and elsewhere? We might take as guidance the scene in which Vance describes a moment from his own college years, the only point in the narrative where J. D. sounds as angry as Mamaw was at the recipients of Section 8. It is a moment, as he explains in the preferred diction of educated liberals, that "speaks to" how "the Marine Corps changed my perspective." He is sitting in a foreign policy class at Ohio State. "I listened," Vance explains, as a "nineteen-year-old classmate with a hideous beard spouted off about the Iraq war": He explained that those fighting the war were typically less intelligent than those (like him) who immediately went to college. It showed, he argued, in the wanton way soldiers butchered and disrespected Iraqi civilians. It was an objectively terrible opinion - my friends from the Marine Corps spanned the political spectrum and held nearly every conceivable opinion about the war. Many of my Marine Corps friends were staunch liberals who had no love for our commander in chief - then George W. Bush - and felt that we had sacrificed too much for too little gain. But none of them had ever uttered such unreflective tripe. The enemy is not Iraq. It's not George W. Bush. When we feel what it's like to be J. D., when we feel the esprit de corps among even men with different political positions, we understand that the enemy is undergraduates in American colleges with hideous beards. This student's liberal attitude "speaks to" collegiate privilege, whether he is a Pell Grant recipient or not. Over 100,000 casualties and $2.2 trillion spent: But Vance's account of Iraq includes no casualty counts and no cost figures. Instead, he wants us to feel how good it felt for him to be there with the Marines, as he and his unit "provided security" and "hung out with the schoolkids, playing soccer and passing out candy and school supplies." "One very shy boy approached me and held out his hand," J. D. explains. "When I gave him a small eraser, his face briefly lit up with joy before he ran away to his family, holding his two-cent prize aloft in triumph. I have never seen such excitement on a child's face." The boy makes J. D. begin "to appreciate how lucky I was." The reader's takeaway is in the framing. No matter the Iraqi casualties or the mendacious rationale for going to war in the first place, the Iraq War story is about playing soccer with Iraqi kids, becoming grateful, and learning from the Marine Corps "how to live like an adult" rather than like one of the "fuckers" next door. This is not a nice message, genteel as Vance's narrative may seem. When Vance calls his fellow student's comments "unreflective tripe" rather than "bullshit," he speaks in a hifalutin discourse of feeling, a language palatable to the liberal elite. We feel with J. D. that the bearded state university student is the real elitist, guiltily agreeing at our own expense that Vance is a good guy. Turn your attention, he says, from wanton butchering in Mukaradeeb, Haditha, Balad - and toward this white boy's American Dream. And Vance hits Ivy Leaguers with the same force: "I know Mamaw was good for me not because some Harvard psychologist says so," he says, "but because I felt it." Though Vance himself attended both a state university and an Ivy, in his narrative he remains a hillbilly. Or, rather, his narrative is about reclaiming a hillbilly-ness that was always his. Only at college does Vance begin "to think a bit more deeply about [his] own identity." By way of explanation for his university-based embrace of the term "hillbilly," Vance mentions that country star Hank Williams Jr. uses it too: "My family, from the hills of eastern Kentucky, describe themselves as hillbillies, but Hank Williams, Jr. - born in Louisiana and an Alabama resident - also identified himself as one in his rural white anthem, 'A Country Boy Can Survive.'" The 1981 song to which Vance refers contains a verse about a rich New Yorker who ends up getting killed over $40 in a mugging. The moral of the story is that privileged rich urbanites can't defend themselves, but a "a country boy can survive." "My grandpa taught me how to live off the land," croons Bocephus, "And his taught him to be a businessman." By comparing Hillbilly Elegy to this song, Vance both makes his readers feel culturally connected to Trump voters and produces an ethical loophole for himself. After Yale Law, Vance became successful working for billionaire and noted Trump supporter Peter Thiel in Silicon Valley. Vance is a rich businessman, yes, but unlike the New Yorker in Hank Jr.'s song - or like the bearded college kid uttering "tripe" at OSU - Vance's money is all right. He is the venture capitalist who can survive. The emphasis on feelings distracts us, makes it seem like who Vance is - a hillbilly - is more important than what he became - an educated, wealthy, and very familiar version of a political conservative who advances policies that promote class inequity. [1] This, ultimately, is Hillbilly Elegy's achievement after a year-and-a-half in print: to reinforce a right-wing political agenda by making it sound like a left-liberal feeling about identity. These days, you can readily catch Vance feeling on television. He contributes to CNN. He wanders horse trails with Megyn Kelly, tearing up when she asks him questions about Mamaw and home. And he appears on mainstream news shows to provide answers to questions about what is going on with poor white people (or middle-class white people, or, frankly, any white people). His pundit turn illuminates the core of a project for which Hillbilly Elegy is instrumental, but for which it is only the beginning of the story. To catch Vance in pundit mode is to see - and, more importantly, hear - a very different voice from that of the book's author. As he opined on the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville to CBS This Morning, for example, he delivered more complex answers in a diction that veered far from the easy-reader prose of Hillbilly Elegy. (His answers begin with filler and usually a stutter before he catches; as he becomes more practiced, this will pass. Senator Vance's handlers will see to that.) This is not simply an impression. We ran a transcription of that appearance through a standard set of reading-level metrics and compared it with an equivalent length passage from Hillbilly Elegy - the portion when he decides to join the Marines rather than go directly to college. The book is written at an 8th-grade level; his answers more than 12th. He is, in short, writing downward. At the same time, he cannot bring himself to condemn white supremacy as such. Whenever a word like "racism" would be appropriate, he ratchets down and says, "this stuff." This coached reflex becomes almost ridiculous, but still he forces himself to say "this stuff" eight times in five minutes. The ironies are rich. Vance is arguing that as unfortunate as it might be that Trump was unwilling to "name this particular phenomenon," we ought to remember that President Obama could not bring himself to say "radical Islamic terrorism." But Obama was perfectly at ease explaining the strategy behind his phrase of choice, "violent extremism." Vance is far less forthcoming about why he prefers to talk about "this stuff." That blockage at the heart of Vance's aw-shucks punditry will assure that his political ascension is swift. No figure looms larger in that rise than Yale Law professor and "Tiger Mom" Amy Chua. Chua's controversial 2011 memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, famously describes pushing her children toward excellence, and it was Chua who first encouraged Vance to write Hillbilly Elegy. Just as Vance responded to Mamaw's relentless pushing in Middletown and the Marines' in Iraq, so he responds to Chua at Yale. Chua gave Vance a key piece of advice. At the end of Hillbilly Elegy he is struggling to decide whether to continue pursuing the highest levels of prestige in his field, in this instance, chasing an influential clerkship. When he asks Chua for her thoughts, she does not give him the "value of excellence" talk she gave her own children. Instead, she talks him down: I don't think you're doing this for the right reasons. I think you're doing this for the credential, which is fine, but the credential doesn't actually serve your career goals. If you don't want to be a high-powered Supreme Court litigator, you shouldn't care that much about this job […] This clerkship is the type of thing that destroys relationships. If you want my advice, I think you should prioritize [your girlfriend] and figure out a career move that actually suits you. Chua's words, as reported in Vance's memoir, reveal more than he knows. Perhaps she is giving tailored advice here, showing more nuance than in her own manifesto. Perhaps she is warning this white boy away from a gig she doesn't think he is good enough for. But whatever she's doing, she's pegged him as a sentimental careerist with no interest in justice in the abstract or the majesty of the law. "It was the best advice anyone has ever given me," Vance writes, thrilled to be so known, so read - so utterly felt. We agree: she reads him right.

Share |