Hillbilly Elegy (part 3)

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Subcultures as adaptations

J. D. Vance has vividly described the “hillbilly” culture into which he was born, but which he outgrew. He has also offered a critique of that culture, showing how its attitudes and behavioral norms can become obstacles to personal health, happiness and achievement.

As with much of the writing in the “culture of poverty” tradition, the critique can exaggerate how much the poor are responsible for their own way of life and all its problems. I fear that Vance is falling into this trap when he says that “these problems were not created by governments or corporations or anyone else. We created them, and only we can fix them.” But the cultures of “hillbillies” or inner-city blacks or Latino farmworkers are not self-contained worlds independent of the larger social environment. They are American subcultures that have always been shaped by the institutions of the dominant culture.

One does not have to be a strict social determinist to argue that subcultures adapt to the institutional realities of the surrounding society. People do create their own culture, often in surprisingly innovative ways. But they cannot do it in a social vacuum. People interact all the time with institutions like work organizations, schools, churches and governments, which provide both challenges and opportunities.  The lack of agency Vance complains about–the feeling that one lacks control over one’s life–arises especially because the poor and uneducated are in such a weak position in relation to such institutions. The poor don’t just need new attitudes and behaviors; they need empowerment.

At one point in his childhood, Vance was called upon to testify in court against his own mother, who had physically attacked him. That was when he noticed that “the social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courthouse were different from us. The people subjected to it were not.” On that occasion, Vance lied in order to protect his mother and keep those strange-talking outsiders from hurting his family. Vance describes his people as preferring their own form of justice. “My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something— defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes. The Blanton men, like the tomboy Blanton sister whom I called Mamaw, were enforcers of hillbilly justice, and to me, that was the very best kind.” He does not analyze this further, but an informal, homemade system of justice is a predictable adaptation for people who see the official justice system as not serving their class of people very well.

When Vance is exploring the psychology of work, he says, “When groups perceive that it’s in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group outperform other similarly situated individuals. It’s obvious why: If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?” I would add the sociological point that such beliefs are shaped over time by social experience. When opportunities are opening up, as they were in the heyday of manufacturing expansion, people become more optimistic. But when opportunities are shrinking, families with few generations of success to remember are easily discouraged.  Subcultures do change, but they change slowly, and mostly in response to changing conditions. Vance mentions that the emigrants from coal country who found manufacturing jobs “had largely caught up to the native population in terms of income and poverty level” within two generations. But the postwar economic progress was not sustained long enough to eradicate the culture of poverty. Generations of restricted opportunity had created it, and generations of expanded opportunity were required to repair it.

Women’s agency

Another example of how American social institutions help account for subcultural adaptations involves women and sexuality. One of the best examples of the lack of agency Vance deplores is unplanned teenage pregnancies. They figure prominently in his story, since his mother became pregnant at 18 and his grandmother at 14. If sociologists have learned anything about gender in the past half-century of intensive study, it is that the institutions of patriarchal society are largely responsible for limiting women’s agency in general, and women’s control over their own bodies specifically. A lot of early pregnancies and shaky marriages are what you get when the dominant culture glamorizes sexuality and portrays women primarily as sex objects; when schools fail to provide sex education or limit it to preaching abstinence; when churches teach that sex is too shameful to discuss and contraception is sinful; when the local economy provides few career opportunities for women, so they see no life for themselves except as mothers; when good jobs for men are also in short supply, so they express their masculinity by obtaining and controlling women, sometimes by force, but not so much by supporting their families. This is also a vicious circle, since early motherhood can offer an escape from the troubled homes created by the previous generation of young mothers.

Blaming families for their own problems is easy. No one denies that what girls and boys learn at home can shape their gender roles for a lifetime and affect whether they express their own sexuality responsibly. Parents are primary carriers of culture, to be sure, but they cannot be expected to transform their received culture singlehandedly. Expecting families to change the culture without supportive changes in other social institutions is not realistic.

The politics of pessimism

Vance concludes his book by saying, “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.” I imagine that few people will disagree with his call for more personal responsibility. I do note, however, that this is essentially the Ronald Reagan philosophy of government, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for yourselves.” Vance does not see much for government to do about the plight of the struggling working class, since “the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control.”

In truth, neither of the major political parties has been offering much hope to the white working class lately. Hillary Clinton does not seem to be connecting with them very well at all. Donald Trump is speaking to them directly, but appealing to their prejudices and false hopes. He encourages them to blame their problems on foreigners and immigrants, reject climate change as a hoax, and hope for a return of coal mining jobs.

But I think something is lost if citizens of a democracy become too pessimistic about their own government. Vance doesn’t want people to blame government for their problems, but he doesn’t want them to look to government for solutions either. In that respect, he can be accused of reinforcing the alienation from mainstream institutions that is a familiar trait of “hillbilly” culture. By focusing on agency as a psychological characteristic, he overlooks the value of the social agency that arises when citizens cooperate together in a common political cause.

One thing that government is going to have to do is increase support for higher education, so that students can go to college without accumulating massive debt. States have been cutting spending on education at the same time that the educational requirements of good jobs have been rising. (Vance should appreciate that need, since his own success story depended on a state-supported university and generous financial aid from a private law school.) Another thing for government to do is to promote industries that have realistic hopes of creating good jobs. The solar industry already employs a lot more people than the coal industry. Ironically, Hillary Clinton is the one calling for these things (when she can be heard over the clamor for her emails), but she is getting her least support from working-class whites who might benefit from them.

Assuming the Trump candidacy fails, as I hope it does, I would like to see the white working class join other disadvantaged groups in a progressive coalition for realistic socioeconomic change. If that seems improbable, we should remember that that’s what they did during the Roosevelt era.

 

 

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