Reflections on Hillbilly Elegy

Two friends recommended J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy (Harper Collins).  One started an online group to discuss it.  The other left a copy in my car just to make sure I had it.  So I read it.  Here’s my short take.  The final chapters reveal it as an extended apology for and about “hillbilly” culture as the refiner’s cauldron from which some are able to emerge, bringing with them the gold and silver of individual fortitude without the dross of behaviors that are destructive of lives and societies. It’s an essay on learned helplessness and the ways, or at least his way, of unlearning it.  In it are echoes of behaviors many others have experienced in their own lives, regardless of where they grew up. Finally, it is a commentary on how cultural heritage is baggage, both good and bad, that is not easily discarded, no matter how far away one gets from its epicenter. 
Vance uses hillbilly as a label for the cultural attitudes and behaviors of the Kentucky town from which generations of his family came, and the cultural baggage they took with them when they migrated for a hoped for better life elsewhere.  Although he escaped the cycle of ignorance, abuse, poverty, and addiction that infected most of the people he knew, the culture that formed him came with him into his new life far away from Kentucky and Ohio.
His personal story aside, there are more than a few subtexts in the book.  Primary among them is his attempt to explain right wing populism as an extension of “hillbilly” culture that exists in many forms throughout industrial and rural America where decent job prospects are scarce and the people are deeply suspicious of those whom they identify as effete, yet powerful, upper class manipulators of their misfortunes.  Another is a predictable reverse snobbishness that celebrates the hardscrabble endurance of “hillbillies” who know how to survive under conditions that would kill upper class softies who have never had to do hard work with their hands.  It’s the subtexts that interest my friends, although both of them are familiar with life experiences that share similarities with his.  Most of us do, I suspect.  The subtexts offer attractive generalities because there is some truth in them, but like all generalities , they bite off too much.  They can only be tightly focussed beams illuminating a small portion of a more complex reality.  Anything more is too much, and I think Vance knows that.  The problem comes when readers have their “aha moment” and declare that it explains everything. 
The culture described in Hillbilly Elegy may honor family loyalty, hard work, and Jesus, but it’s also a culture that habitually undermines the foundations of family loyalty, works hard sporadically, and proclaims religion without practicing it.  It’s a culture that opens doors to addiction, tolerates abuse as normal, belittles higher education, and assumes a knowledge of how the world works that extends no farther than the next “holler.”  It despises government welfare, and takes every penny it can get.  It’s not a culture on which a successful democratic society could be built or sustained, but it is a culture that can be turned easily to fascism offered to them as a bulwark protecting their rights and freedom.  Vance, I think, would like to see a way for them to assimilate more successfully into an America that will never again provide the economic opportunity they imagined was theirs for the taking in the mines and mills.  It’s a more complicated America that requires different skill sets, but has yet to understand the economic value of critical jobs that are chronically underpaid.  The hillbilly culture he describes works against it, but there is alway hope.
It’s also important for readers of the book to remember that it is not the only culture around, nor is it the only one that burdens its people with baggage they haul with them into future generations and far away places.  We all carry something with us.  I’ve never lived in Kansas, and haven’t seen my Kansas relatives in almost fifty years, but there is something of the Kansas prairie that is an important part of who I am.  You have your own story too.  The old shibboleth that we were a melting pot nation was a sixth grade text book dream in which everyone eventually became a white middle class Protestant.  It gave way to being a stew pot nation, which is still not a very good metaphor, but at least it gets at an important point.  Assimilation of cultures into the American way of life means learning how to live together sharing important transcultural values while remembering and honoring the best of whence we came.  The dominant cultural standard has been the white suburban middle class, and it’s been a good one, but it cannot stand.  It’s evolving, as it always has been, into something less white and more colorful with norms that accommodate more than a suburban house and two children who grow up to go to college.  It will become a better thing, if we let it. 

Hey Jesus, let’s stop here. This looks like a good place to stay.

I’m part of a Tuesday morning ecumenical study group, and the other day we spent time with Isaiah 2.2-5: 
2:2    In days to come
the mountain of the LORD’S house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. 
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Laying plowshares and pruning hooks aside, what struck us were words like come and walk.  You can’t come to some place unless you leave the place you are in.  You can’t live in faith by resting in it.  You have to walk in it.  Walking always means leaving the place where you were as you go to the place at which you have not yet arrived.  Each step brings you to a new place along the way where you will remain for only a moment because it is not the place where you are going.  The psalmist begs us to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46).  In a curious way, we can be still only by walking – leaving, arriving, and leaving again – in the stillness of quiet confidence that we are waking in the way of the LORD. 

It’s frustrating.  My confidence that I am walking in the way of the LORD is not all that great.  For me, stillness is a call to stop walking.  Just sit and be.  Let the world go by.  Get out of the parade.  If I have to move, I want to look around for a moving sidewalk, escalator, taxi, whatever, anything to take the work out of it.  On the whole, I’d rather stay put.  I mean, it’s one thing to enjoy traveling to foreign lands and exotic places, always knowing that I will return home.  It’s another thing to walk in the way of the LORD knowing that I can’t stop walking, will never return to where I started, and have no idea when I will get to wherever I am going, which, I am told, is my true home, but I have to trust that it is so.  Prayerful meditation is not a big help.  It always ends up with me being somewhere other that where I started.  God, it seems, has a puckish sense of humor so that even when I remain anchored in the reading chair of my study, where I thought I was when I began prayerful meditation is not where I am when I rise to go out to the kitchen.  

When Jesus said “follow me,” he meant get up, start walking, and leave where you are behind.  A number of people I know don’t like that at all.  The world is unpredictable enough as it is.  They want a Christian faith that is set, doesn’t change, doesn’t further upset the tenuous balance of life they have to live with anyway.  If there is a difference, maybe it’s the difference between believers and disciples.  Believers are content to sit where they are, acknowledge Jesus as he passes by, and hope he comes back again soon.  In the meantime, they’re not moving.  Disciples follow Jesus, never staying in one place for long, unsure of where they are going, but certain that by following Jesus they are going in the right way.  Some days I’m a believer.  Some days I’m a disciple.  Mostly I wish Jesus had handed out AAA Triptiks.



Taking the country for Christ

A young man in our community said that he hoped we were going in a more conservative direction, and that we would see the nation reflect more of our Christian values.  I wonder.  I would rather see Christians offer words and live lives more reflective of Christian values without suggesting that they should be imposed on civil society.  It would be something to witness millions who claim to be Christian proclaim by word and deed what it means to follow Jesus by being like Jesus in their daily lives.  Of course it would be imperfect, but the intentionality of loving one’s neighbors in healing ways would be dramatic, particularly if one’s neighbor is whoever one encounters no matter where or how.

Think of it.  Millions of people would go through the day making decisions prefaced by questions.  How will this affect the poor, both spiritually and physically?  How will this affect those mourning, or rejoicing?  How will this affect those burdened by oppressive conditions?  How will this affect those struggling for justice?  How will this affect the balance between justice and mercy?  How will this affect standards of integrity and honesty?  How will this resolve conflict and deescalate violence in constructive ways?  How courageous can I be in the face of evil?

I don’t think they would be conscious of asking questions like these of themselves.  They would be habits of the heart, just the ordinary way of going through the day doing things. No doubt some would snicker at all those goody-two-shoes whom they would suspect of having no backbone.  They would be wrong.  Living that kind of life would require strong determination, an ability to know the difference between sentimentality and reality, and the maturity to live with others without being superior or subordinate.  It would recognize the dignity of differing gifts, and highly value each of them.  It would require tremendous courage in the face of the greater number intent on manipulation of conditions in pursuit of power, prestige, and wealth.  It would require perseverance in the face of those who just don’t care.  It would require patience with those whose habits of the heart were destructive of life.  Their normal way of things would accommodate imperfection in self and others with honesty, and without excuse.  It would tolerate differences between persons and peoples without trying to force uniformity.  Christian tradition has name for that kind of life.  It’s called the way of the cross, which is none other than the way of life and peace for those who follow Jesus.

You might rightfully ask if it is the kind of life I lead?  Let’s just say that I’m a beginner.  Some days I get it right.  Many days I don’t.  Most days are a bit of each.  However, if you are among those who call themselves Christian, why not walk along with me and we’ll figure it out together.

How to Play Trump the Game

A new president puts lobbying interests into supercharged four wheel wheel drive.  What are those interests?  Congressional leadership, corporate lobbyists, unions, public interest groups, egos angling for high office appointments, other egos desiring a plumb ambassadorship.  You name it.  The process is more or less the same with each new president regardless of party.  Who do they know that has access?  What is the best way  to approach new White House staff, and through them, the president?  How well do they know cabinet designees?  What are their most important issues?  How will they make decisions?  Where will they connect with Congress?  What do they like to eat and drink?  Where did they play golf?  What old school connections might lend a hand?  Then comes the hard work of making opening moves, establishing relationships, making or faking friendships.  It’s all about getting one’s pound, or ounce, of influence, and maybe a little direct access.  It’s a power game where egos are made and broken by how well the game is played.  It’s always worked in some fashion because no matter who the president elect might be, it was understood that ‘he’ knew how all of this worked, and, at some level, really did intend to be a good president for the nation.  The unwritten norms of D.C. politics could be relied on to function the way they usually did.  Of course there were winners and losers, but the rules of the game were reasonably well known to the pros that run things.

We have a new president elect.  Following the normal pattern, supplicants crowd the escalators and elevators of Trump Tower, each fawning in the usual way over the newly elected, and those closest to him, in hopes of establishing a little traction.  What’s different is that Trump doesn’t play by the usual rules.  He doesn’t doesn’t know what they are, and doesn’t care.  The old game is not his game.  He has his own.  For him, it’s one enormous, endless episode of The Apprentice.  He’s lapping up all the attention, loves every minute of it, and has no intention of honoring anything that is not in whatever he thinks is his best interest, which can change from moment to moment.  To him, whatever is on a supplicant’s agenda has no intrinsic value in itself.  It has value only if it benefits him.  He may have paid to have someone write The Art of the Deal in his name, but he’s not a good faith negotiator, he’s a sociopathic manipulator.  Each supplicant will go away thinking they have gained a foothold, that he is someone they can work with.  They will be wrong.  If they presume say out loud that they have an in with Trump, the only words from him they will hear is “You’re Fired!”

Trump doesn’t play the traditional game by the traditional rules.  We learned that in the campaign.  Business partners learned it years ago, and tried to tell us.  He plays his own game by his own rules, making them up as he goes along.  If he wants something, he uses every juvenile trick of manipulation to get it.  What other people want or need is of little interest to him, unless he can use it to his own advantage.  Otherwise, who cares?  To what might we compare him?  Not to other presidents, though Nixon might come close.  Perhaps Henry VIII of England, or maybe Louis XIV of France, as they might have been portrayed in a Mel Brooks movie.  That would have been funny, but this is real life, and it’s not funny.

What is a workable way to engage with him and his staff?  Stick to the issues.  Use only verifiable information.  Avoid the usual exaggeration of facts to suit political ends.  Avoid all contests of wit or personality caricatures.  In fact, ignore him altogether.  Deal with the office of the president as a thing, not a person.  If he wants to play his game, let him come to you.  Let him play it with zeal.  But do not respond.  Stick to the issues.  One of Clinton’s mistakes was to play his game with him by continually comparing herself to him by name while criticizing his positions.  All it did was give him added publicity on her dime, raising his name as one worthy of validity by virtue of frequent mention.  Let he who must not be named, not be named.

What will be the result?  You will lose most of the time.  You might win a few.  You will retain your dignity.  You will not fall victim to his game playing, looking like a fool in the end.  You might even gain his grudging respect as someone he will give into when it won’t cost him too much, and otherwise avoid as too dangerous to play with because you know the game.  The most important thing you will gain is public trust in what you have to say when the next election rolls around.  Not the public at large, they will remain as ignorantly uninvolved as usual.  I mean the public that has influence and actually votes.

Home invading illegal immigrants and racism

A recent internet posting declared that it’s not about being against immigrants.  It is about doing things legally.  Illegal immigrants are as if someone sneaked into your house through a basement window, crept up the stairs into the kitchen, and yelled FEED ME!  It went on to demand that others stop distorting the facts.  All the writer wanted is for the government to enforce existing laws.
It sounds perfectly reasonable to some, and racist to others.  Why?  The key is in its construction.  It’s a parable bracketed by two reasonable statements: Do things legally; Enforce existing laws.  That makes a lot of sense, and all the more to those who believe that law and order, as a fundament condition of a stable prosperous society, has been severely weakened.  In between is the parable about a home invader sneaking up on a home owner and demanding loudly to be fed.  The request to stop distorting facts implies that the parable accurately describes what the facts are.  Does it?  In certain places and circumstances it might, but not in the full scheme of things where study after study demonstrates that immigrants, legal and illegal, add to the economy without burdening it. Those macro findings are not believable to people living in communities where immediate conditions say otherwise.  Nor are they believable to a large number of the population who choose to disbelieve them because they have heard stories about the hordes of illegals filling hospitals, schools, and jails, demanding welfare, not paying taxes, and they believe them to be the greater truth.  No amount of proving otherwise is likely to change their minds.
Is the post racist?  The parable sounds very racist to many of us.  Why?  It shows no regard for circumstances and conditions that lead people to escape in hope of a better life elsewhere.  It shows no regard for the complicated, nearly unworkable, processes for legal immigration.  It shows no awareness of the reality of undocumented family members for whom this is the only homeland they have every known.  It shows no awareness that undocumented immigrants are not eligible for government aid programs, yet are required to pay income and social security taxes – unless they work for unscrupulous employers who keep them off the books.  In that case it is the employer cheating all of us.  It shows no attempt at any humanitarian compassion. It appears to open the door to indiscriminate acts of discrimination against anyone suspected of having the wrong name, wrong color, wrong accent.
Is it racist to agree with the post?  Not necessarily.  But it does indicate a blindness to the systemic racism tightly woven into the fabric of American life.  The immigration issue gets further complicated by the violent corruption infecting too many of the nations to our south.  Our temptation is to want to address complicated problems with overly simple explanations of them.  That doesn’t mean simple solutions are not in order, only that simple explanations lead to wrong solutions.   However, I’m digressing.  There is something in us that resists charges of personal racism, and that does not want to face the reality of systemic racism.  In the first instance, unless one is an unrepentant supremacist proud of one’s racism, even the suggestion that one might be racist be is like being scolded by some self righteous jerk demanding confession of a guilt that can never be forgiven or erased.  Who wants that?  In the second instance, an examination of systemic racism forces us to exam the uncomfortable historical truths of a system rigged in favor of white people (men in particular) over all others.  It’s a truth that has been hidden behind treasured myths about who we are as Americans, and some of us don’t want to give up those myths.  It’s painful to admit that our ancestors were wrong in some of what they did.  It isn’t helped by those who appear to want the current generation to magically change the past.  We certainly don’t want to repeat the past, but neither can we change it.  Confronting it with honesty is important, but we can only go forward, we can’t go backward.

Here are two suggestions.  First, stop scolding.  It doesn’t do any good.  It just makes stubborn people more stubborn, malleable people more malleable, and the rest of us angrily muddled.  Second, let the marginalized and losers in history books correct the record without half of us taking umbrage and the other half moralizing with finger pointing contempt.  Then we have a chance to set a new course together.  No doubt future generations will chastise us for getting it wrong, but it will be the best we can do with what we have. 


Oh to be in Lake Wobegon

It’s been a tough week.  I really want to write about something else, but the election has me tied up.  A quiet week in Lake Wobegon looks pretty good about now.  I confess to having avoided reading or listening to the news, except for snippets here and there.  I’ll get back to something more like normal next week.  In the meantime, I picked up a snippet about Speaker Ryan explaining how his plan to dismantle Obamacare would help prolong the financial stability of Medicare.  Knowledgable people were driven up the wall rebutting his math, noting that his plans would do just the opposite.   Knowledgable people did not get it. 
Look, Ryan may not be able to add, but he’s no dummy.  This is not about protecting Medicare, it’s not about balancing the budget, it’s not about paying down on the debt.  He knows that.  It’s about dismembering the federal government, and putting it back together again as a new and smaller creature.  Think of it as taking a fully loaded Lincoln and rebuilding it as a Yugo (if you don’t remember the Yugo, look it up).  What do you do with the left over parts?  Toss them out.  A Yugo doesn’t need them.  The idea is that our modern “welfare state” is a wasteful bureaucracy encouraging slothful dependency among people who should be out there working hard and taking care of themselves.  It stifles the American entrepreneurial spirit, and discourages investment in new jobs by big business.  On top of that, America is surrounded by well armed enemies and must rebuild its weakened military.  And, oh yes, let us not forget the infrastructure.  Whatever it is, it needs to be rebuilt.  
In the new America people will regain their native work ethic, live simple lives of contented, but competitive, enjoyment of all that an honest day’s work can provide.  New small businesses will sprout everywhere.  Industries will invest again.  The factories will return.  The ladder to middle class success be restored to it’s rightful place.  The poor will work their way out of it.  The destitute will be cared for through private charity.  It may be hard on some, but a little tough love to break the habit of dependency will turn out to be the best thing for everyone, especially those on the bottom rung.  Some may not do well, and let that be a lesson to the youth.  It is God, not the government, who helps those who help themselves.  It is not the government’s role to make life easy for those who wont work.  
You can come back with all the rebuttal data you want, it means nothing because it’s not about the data.  It’s about wanting a different kind of federal government than the one we have.  It doesn’t matter that we have had the longest span of uninterrupted, albeit slow, growth in our history.  It doesn’t matter that the deficit has been going down. It doesn’t matter than unemployment is low.  It doesn’t matter that tens of thousands have health insurance for the first time.  It doesn’t matter that Ryan’s budgets make no fiscal sense.  It is all about creating a smaller federal government with only four basic jobs: defense, foreign relations, minimal regulation of interstate commerce, and maintenance of the (privately owned where possible) interstate transportation system.  None of this social welfare stuff.  Leave that to states, localities, and charity.  What about all the other things the federal government does?  Let the private sector do it.  Let someone else do it.  Let it go.  
Are there holes in this utopian vision of a simpler America?  Like Swiss cheese, there are.  You can probably name many of them.  It doesn’t matter.  The ardent believers are still ardent believers.  What gives them hope is that there are real problems with the way our federal government has evolved.  It is a rat’s nest of undecipherable rules and procedures.  Highly competent staffers don’t know that they are in the business of customer service.  The corporate tax structure invites squirreling away retained earnings both here and overseas.  Unrestrained flows of cash into campaigns and lobbying distorts elections and the legislative process.  And let’s face it, the Constitution crafted the distribution of power between branches of the national government, and among quasi-independent states, each with its own way of doing things, so that competition, conflict, and confusion was inevitable.  Some fixing is in order.  Many of us would like to see it fixed.  They don’t want it fixed.  They want it replaced.

My own guess?  If Ryan, and Trump, are able to have their way, the nation will plummet into depression, not recession but depression, from which recovery would be very difficult.   Ryanists and Trumpeters don’t believe it.  What does Trump believe?  He believes he will help himself.  All three are sure it would lead to prosperity.  Only one might be right.


The Election Makes More Sense Than You Might Want To Admit

Several friends who voted for Trump have reacted to my short Morning After Thoughts article.  They are among those who agree with the woman who wrote about being shoved around and ignored for the last eight years.  They have lamented the wrong direction in which the nation has been going, and are hopeful that Trump might get it going in the right direction.  
What is the right direction?  Well, they protest, it certainly isn’t about making America white again.  Despite their earnest protest, I think it is, at least in part.  I’ve talked with them.  They don’t mean to exclude others exactly.  They do mean that the standards of the white middle class culture should again, and always be, the standards by which America is defined.  To put it bluntly, working middle class white people have been the center of political attention since FDR’s New Deal.  Every national campaign catered to their interests in the pursuit of votes.  Genuine or not, campaign promises were crafted to appeal to them.  That’s eighty-four years of concentrated attention from which flowed significant benefits: Social Security, wage and labor laws, FHA and VA housing loans, paved highways, rural electrification, and all the others were designed and delivered with white working middle class people in mind.  The emphasis on the white middle class was often enforced through Jim Crow laws, “red lining”, and other practices that prevented others from having equal access, or any access at all.
Eighty-four years were not without change.  I need not remind you of the cultural earthquakes that accompanied integration of the armed forces, school integration, civil rights and voting laws, nor of the social upheaval experienced through anti-war protests and the rise of feminism that coincided with the Viet Nam War.  Amidst it all, we continued to identify America with the white working middle class, the standard bearers of what it meant to be American.  Assimilation meant to become like them, even if you didn’t look like them.  It couldn’t last.
While my friends vehemently deny that they are racists, and I think they are being as honest as they can about that, everything changed in 2008.  Parenthetically, our acquaintances (not friends) who have always been full blown racists now feel free to let it all out, while disingenuously denying that they are.  It’s a little scary.  It was’t just that a black man was elected president, although they can’t say it wasn’t important.  What happened over the next eight years, and was seen to continue into the 2016 election, is that the white working middle class was no longer the center of political attention.  National candidates, except for Trump, and sometimes Sanders, did not cater to them.  They weren’t ignored, but neither were they catered to; they were not the center of attention, nor were they acknowledged as the authentic bearers of what it is to be American.  Like an only child who has been thrust into a blended family and expected to take a place, not as first among equals, but as just another family member among new siblings they don’t know, don’t like, and who define what it is to be family in alien ways, they rebelled.  They saw the new siblings as elbowing their way into getting benefits they had never worked for and didn’t deserve.  Freeloaders who upset the stable patterns that had assured them that everything was in its right place.  Divisiveness of the worst kind. 
Their candidate, odious as he is, won the electoral votes needed, even as he lost the popular vote.  He did it by appealing to their anxieties and fears, and by naming the upsetting changes out loud.  It helped that almost half the electorate stayed home, did not vote.  It’s the old story of getting the government you deserve.  Post election riotous protests against Trump have simply proved to his supporters how right they were.  It’s opened the gates for them to express their deepest fears and imagined grievances in ways that many progressives find appallingly ignorant and prejudiced, which, when we smugly say so, further fuel the divide.  What are we to do?

My guess is that four years of the incoming administration will be a bitter disappointment to his supporters.  They honestly believe the man is on their side.  So did the students at his fake university.  My hope is that he will do as little damage as possible to the fabric of American life.  A younger generation, four years older, will exert more political influence.  All those step siblings who used to know their places will continue to confound the old order as they establish their own places on their own terms.  Some of the nearly fifty percent of eligible voters who did not vote may come to their senses and cast their ballots.  As for me, if his tax plans see the light of day, I will do quite well, thank you very much.  Most working class Americans will not.