Reviews by Daniel Adkins
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.
J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a top-10 best seller. The book gives a snapshot of a part of the white working class that has been in revolt. His view is autobiographical and timely. The “hillbilly” culture is primary in Appalachia and neighboring states and as such does not necessarily reflect the situation beyond that. It may reflect the situation of people living in poverty who are unable to get out of it and have found their resources diminished often by the effects of neoliberal economic theory implemented as policy by the Republicans and Democrats over the last 40 years.
J. D. Vance’s family migrated from Kentucky to southwest Ohio but kept its Kentucky roots. He was able to eventually able to pull himself out of poverty after his grandmother provided a stable household for him. One of the things holding him back was the volatility of his nuclear family, meaning the difficulties of his mother had establishing stable relationships and a stable family. While J. D. was with his mother, loud family disputes were the norm and created an environment of stress that diminished his learning ability. I can sympathize with that in that as a preteen I was also hounded with that environment. The main point is that learning to relate using conversation and compromise is a challenge for many and conflict can interfere with learning.
Another feature of the culture Vance describes is using direct action in interpersonal conflicts, according to Vance. A perceived personal slight can lead to violence. In addition to death, this solution can lead to incarceration and certainly does not aid inter-personal communication. It is not clear that solving disputes using lawyers is always progress, but it is tied to social development. Societal and personal development seems to move from individual direct actions to more formal negotiations. One example is that early trade union disputes also led to immediate direct action, such as a strike. As U.S. labor relations became formalized across companies and industries, bureaucratic methods were developed. In Europe the labor process has often lead to a national board of unions and companies to resolve issues and to set pay. This is not to say that direct action is never needed.
This culture also seems by Vance’s account to be characterized by a lack of personal accountability by the poor. It is difficult for me to understand how people who had stable jobs at one point lost their discipline, but many who lost good-paying jobs seem to have less respect for a job when their new job pays poorly. Thus the very poor and very rich often do not claim responsibility for their actions.
Nevertheless some features of the Appalachian culture gained traction in some workplaces, as Tom Wolfe recounted. The West Virginia accent of test pilot Chuck Yeager was adopted by airline pilots, he said, to show they had “The Right Stuff” in his eponymous book about the space program.
Drug use and theft also plague this “hillbilly” community. It is not clear from the book if this is just a current issue or one that has lasted for decades. During World War II the majority of Americans, including women, blacks, and Appalachian whites, had access to good-paying jobs. After the war much of the working class, but not blacks, continued to have good jobs until the neo-liberal polices concentrated wealth with the 1%. It is true that many people assume that the good job they got would last forever. It did not occur to them that the owners would throw them under the bus in pursuit of profits.
A question for the left is how to transform those left out of our society into a modern working class. Raising the minimum wage to $15 is only a start. Overcoming society’s individualist ideology to have meaningful education for all is another good step, but we are only at the beginning of needed transformations.
Westworld: Our Neoliberal Cultural Future
estworld on HBO is a program that is part shoot-em-up western, part psychological drama, and part software/hardware development cycle. The plot is a future where the rich can vacation and do anything they want with cowboy and cowgirl robots. That includes rape and murder. In this drama series the robots may be on the verge of self-awareness and the project management is being stressed by the profit motive drive and production schedules. The results will be interesting!
Westworld suggests that there will be ethical and moral issues that arise and that our younger generations will likely have to deal with these contradictions as the robots become human-like. In humans we experience muscle memory as we learn how to dance, walk, and other actions. We also experience mental and emotional trends or bad habits that seem to take forever to unlearn in therapy. The question that Westworld explores is the boundary between free speech and action and criminality. Our law limits speech minimally and our actions have specific limits – except, it seems, in banking. The question I see is the appropriateness of allowing citizens to engage in “criminal” activity where our minds may not be able to tell the difference between robots and people. Would people develop habitual psychological drives that are criminal? Millennials may live long enough to have to deal with these issues. The 1% and the banking industry may be already telling us the result.
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