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Self-Pitying Pessimism Is Personally And Politically Crippling

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Self-Pitying Pessimism Is Personally And Politically Crippling

Trump, J.D. Vance

Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got runned over by a damned old train
–David Alan Coe

Anybody who can sing the lyrics to what country bad boy David Alan Coe called “the perfect country song” probably won’t find a whole lot in J.D. Vance’s hotly-debated, best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” that’s real surprising.

Fans of Jeff Foxworthy’s painfully funny “You might be a redneck” comedy act will also find Vance’s action-packed childhood familiar. Like this: “If your grandma poured gasoline on grandpa, and lit him on fire for coming home drunk…you might be a redneck.”

“If your momma brought home twelve ‘stepfathers’ in fifteen years…”

These things actually happened. Early in life, Vance writes, “I recognized that though many of my peers lacked the traditional American family, mine was more non-traditional than most.”

No kidding. That said, Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road” covered much of the same territory in the 1930s, along with William Faulkner’s “Snopes Trilogy,” Larry Brown’s “Joe,” and a host of Southern novelists and memoirists too numerous to list. The inexhaustible Joyce Carol Oates has chronicled the stunted lives of Yankee hillbillies for decades.

None of which is to diminish Vance’s achievement, nor to minimize his success in focusing affectionate, yet unsparing attention on the ongoing plight of the poor white Appalachian emigrants he calls his people. American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher has written that “Hillbilly Elegy” “does for poor white people what Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book (“Between the World and Me”) did for poor black people: give them voice and presence in the public square.”

Some even think Vance helps explain the election of Donald Trump, although his political message is distinctly mixed. Either way, “Hillbilly Elegy” is deservedly number two on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.

Born in rural eastern Kentucky, Vance was mostly raised by his doting, albeit violent grandparents in the decaying mill town of Middletown, Ohio—one of those “rust-belt” communities that lured Southern country folk to factory jobs that have since moved away—often to non-union Southern states like Arkansas. I kept thinking of Bobby Bare’s homesick lament “Detroit City”: “I think I’ll take my foolish pride/and put it on a southbound freight and ride.”

Vance took a less sentimental escape route: the US Marines, Ohio State University, and Yale Law School. Today he lives in San Francisco with his Asian-American wife and works at a Silicon Valley investment firm. His memoir shows him to be the king of mixed feelings: proud and relieved to have escaped the drug- and booze-addicted turmoil of his youth, yet determined to evoke respect for the “loyalty, honor, toughness” and fierce patriotism of the hillbilly culture back home.

Like many cross-cultural migrants, Vance has a thin skin—seeing condescension everywhere he looks. Of course nobody with a Southern accent needs to search hard in New Haven. Back in the day, my wife got patronized to her face in academic New England. After she visited her Arkansas parents, one haughty colleague asked if she was an anthropologist.

She kept a lot of it from me for fear I might do something crazy.

In the long run, it’s best to laugh these things off. The world is full of fools. At thirty-one, Vance isn’t there yet. Even so, the portrait he draws of his people is frequently less than admiring. What they hate about President Obama, he writes, isn’t his race as much as the perception that “Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening.”

As such, Obama’s a standing rebuke to people like Vance’s hometown friend who bragged that he quit his job “because he was sick of waking up early,” but spends time bashing the “Obama economy” on Facebook. Hence too “birtherism,” a mythological construct explaining away the unacceptable truth: maybe a lot of your problems are your own damn fault.

Vance thinks that hillbilly clannishness and self-pitying pessimism are personally and politically crippling. “We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs. You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society.”

Exactly. Having spent the last decade living on a gravel road in a backwoods Arkansas County with even more cows than hillbillies, I can affirm that at their best, there are no finer neighbors.

That said, not getting wasted every day definitely helps. However, Vance’s mother was an addict. “An important question for hillbillies like me,” he writes, is “How much is Mom’s life her own fault? Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?”

Good question.

IMAGE: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump supporters yell at a protesters as Trump speaks at campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio March 12, 2016. REUTERS/Aaron Josefczyk

Gene Lyons

Gene Lyons is a political columnist and author. Lyons writes a column for the Arkansas Times that is nationally syndicated by United Media. He was previously a general editor at Newsweek as wells an associate editor at Texas Monthly where he won a National Magazine Award in 1980. He contributes to Salon.com and has written for such magazines as Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Esquire, and Slate.

A graduate of Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, Lyons taught at the Universities of Massachusetts, Arkansas and Texas before becoming a full-time writer in 1976. A native of New Jersey, Lyons has lived in Arkansas with his wife Diane since 1972. The Lyons live on a cattle farm near Houston, Ark., with a half-dozen dogs, several cats, three horses, and a growing herd of Fleckvieh Simmental cows.

Lyons has written several books including The Higher Illiteracy (University of Arkansas, 1988), Widow's Web (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Fools for Scandal (Franklin Square, 1996) as well as The Hunting Of The President: The 10 Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, which he co-authored with National Memo Editor-in-Chief Joe Conason.

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  1. nicole.davis January 11, 2017

    Read following report to understand how an individual mommy was able to make $89,844/year in her spare time on her computer or laptop without selling anything>>>

  2. Carolyn Kay January 11, 2017

    It’s not the fault of pointy headed liberals that:

    1. The family farm has gone the way of the dinosaur.

    2. Local, family owned retailers have been put out of business by big box stores.

    3. Robotics and corporate big boys moving factories to foreign countries have destroyed the factory jobs that supported many rural and small communities.

    But they blame us because that’s what the media they watch and listen to tell them to believe. They will only believe people who are well paid to lie to them.

    I grew up among these people, but I’m having a hard time conjuring up any sympathy for them. They just won’t do anything for themselves, they’d rather nurse imaginary grievances.

  3. MissNomer January 11, 2017

    You Never Even Called Me by My Name was written by Steve Goodman and John Prine.

    1. cynthia.choy January 11, 2017

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    2. cynthia.choy January 11, 2017

      Analyse following information to determine how a single mother was able to generate $89,844/year in her spare time on her computer or laptop without selling anything>>>


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