A salient and disturbing feature of the election cycle now winding down is the amount of anger circulating. Some exploit being angry for political gain, but others are much more convincing. According to the Pew Economic Mobility Project, the most pessimistic group in America is working-class white people. For many, expectations are so low that they’ve simply quit trying.
To grasp what this means, look at J.D. Vance’s best-seller story, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Harper Press. Vance no longer lives in the Kentucky ghost towns where he was raised. He attended college and law school only to become the principal at a respected global investment firm. Why write his memoir? Because escaping his highly dispirited and even dysfunctional subculture is so rare that it evokes both amazement and deep concern.
The book has stereotypes like family feuds with distant cousins. The same uncles he adored for defending family honor weren’t averse to pulling a switchblade or gun at a moment’s whim. His grandmother (“Mamaw”) taught him how to punch another person with maximum impact. He knew instability with father gone and his mother itinerating from relationship to relationship. Finally ending up with Mamaw, she took him in because Vance was at risk. Forcing him to work, she also bought him a graphing calculator for $180 when she had no idea what that really was. Vance also learned discipline through the Army which is treated “like a religion” in those circles. Boot camp taught him that he could endure and was capable of much more than he’d realized.
I relate in a personal way to this book and Vance’s journey. I’ve shared before that my mother was a coal miner’s daughter, one of 12 children in a shanty town that no longer exists. I recall traveling to West Virginia as a boy to see my grandma. My older brother and I couldn’t believe what we saw, very similar to what shocked John F. Kennedy as a candidate in the 1960 election.
Who knew that such grinding poverty existed in the USA, and we were barely removed from it? My older brother and I were flummoxed. My little brother later said if I hadn’t gone to college, he never would have, maybe becoming an angry white man, feeling left behind. He is now an executive at Toyota and my older brother is a chemical engineer. Somehow all of my mom’s siblings “found a way out.” I ask mom why she never goes back. It’s too depressing, is her reply.
Like me, J. D. Vance attended a Midwestern university and then did his graduate work at Yale. Of the latter, he says, “I have never felt out of place in my entire life. But I did at Yale.” One can convince oneself that one does not belong in subtle ways that others never detect. I remember, for example, waiting in a long line for drinks during intermission at the Yale Repertory Theater. A handsome, glossy and well-heeled prepster cut in just as I was finally about to order my drink.
How to respond? I intuitively grasped pulling a switchblade was not my best move. But neither was passively enduring trust-fund boys abusing perceived inferiors. My mom is nothing if not feisty and defiant, clearly not a woman to be trifled with. So I tapped Prepster on the back and said he was obviously unaware of the long line. He smiled genially and told the bartender to put whatever I wanted on his tab. Oh, I thought, that is how the rich do it…We can get angry, if we like. Or we can learn and cope on life’s tough terms. Fortunately, my family taught the latter.