One of the unforgivable travesties wrought upon America by the election of Donald Trump was the ensuing liberal fascination with impoverished white people and the rise of J.D. Vance as the book-readin’ elite’s window into the soul of Real America. If I’ve said it once, I’ll say it forever: J.D. Vance is a Republican hack who’s done tremendous damage to not just Appalachia, but Americans of all races who suffer from institutionalized and generational poverty.
That said, J.D. Vance’s mediocre, Columbus Cousin, Yale-going ass just scored a fat check from Ron Howard and Netflix:
Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment obtained the film rights to the memoir in 2017, and Netflix has come out on top to finance it after a competitive bidding war. The $45 million Netflix will pay to make the movie is almost double any other offer Imagine got, according to Deadline.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is a garbage book that pathologizes poverty, substance abuse, and being from Appalachia. I have no doubt that Ron Howard and crew think Vance’s memoir is Bildungsroman of a plucky young kid, born into a family of poor means, who overcame his upbringing to earn a law degree from Yale after valiantly serving in the Marines. Even more assuredly, the film adaption will overlook the most insidious aspects of Vance’s book.
If you aren’t familiar with why the future Senator from Ohio’s memoir is garbage, you should check out the excellent work Elizabeth Catte has done to push back against Vance’s portrayal of 25 million Appalachians as hopelessly poor and lazy waste people. Her book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is excellent, as are her incisive yet largely ignored criticisms of Vance and the media’s post-2016 parachute journalism into the heart of “Trump Country” to figure out what’s wrong with the white working class. To quote Catte:
There’s a projection of his realities onto the lives of everybody in the region, and it’s not in my mind accidental. It’s right there in the subtitle of the book. It’s a memoir of a family, but is also a memoir of a culture in crisis. The universalizing that is done in the book is something that’s become a trademark of J.D. Vance’s engagement as a pundit and a political up-and-comer. And so my book is certainly a criticism of “Hillbilly Elegy,” but I’d also like it to be read as an interruption to a claim of ownership about my life and the people around me.
Vance’s book and the prestige he’s gained from it is more than a work of bad sociology (much of his “scientific” attempts to understand why Appalachia is a culture in crisis is based on debunked and bigoted research by figures including Charles Murray). It’s also a personal attack on generations upon generations of people who have struggled against the insidious effects of government corruption and corporate malfeasance. Vance also legitimizes a tendency to view the region, and ultimately poverty, as a foreign place and an endemic regional problem.
Why is Appalachia/the Mississippi Delta/the Ozarks/urban America/the barrios poor and crime-ridden? Vance and his fans would argue it’s because the people and culture of those places are rotten, strange, complicated, and hopelessly broken.
There’s an idea that Appalachia is not fundamentally part of the United States, that it’s a place within a place, and it’s not a place but a problem. I would like people to understand that Appalachia is very much part of the wider United States. There’s no mysterious culture here that explains the – you know, the realities. And our stories – the story of Appalachia cannot be separated from the story of the United States and the historical forces that have shaped us.
The popular tendency to view poverty and crime objectively and scientifically is a major problem in America. Rather than spending time in the “strange” places in our midst, most college-educated and affluent Americans would rather read or learn about them in books, magazines, and documentaries. This explains why Vance is so popular among elites on both sides of political spectrum: he’s a son of Appalachia who went to Yale and can explain Trump Country to affluent people in their own language. His role is that the Wild Man who was discovered by imperial explorers, cleaned up, taught to speak the Queen’s English, and talk about life in the Dark Heart of Africa to gawping audiences of civilized and respectable white audiences. Per Catte:
Appalachia has a long history of absorbing people in my book I call strangers with cameras, people who come to the region maybe not to see just poverty but a particular kind of poverty that they need and want to find. . . .
When I talk about Appalachia and I say that I think that there should be better coverage about Appalachia, I certainly don’t mean that there should be more flattering coverage of Appalachia. . . .
. . . so we just want more nuance I think. We need to kind of diversify the narrative of the region and acknowledge that it can’t be contained in a single election or a single person’s life. And I think one of the things I see now when I read comments on news articles and kind of engage with people online is that they want stories about how people who are vulnerable are weathering this administration – like, people of color, members of the LGBT community, new immigrants. My basic point is that Appalachia has those stories, too.
To make matters worse, most of the people who will watch this trip will be the same people who loved the Vance’s book and couldn’t wait to schedule him to speak at the innumerable “ideas festival” lefty elites love to attend. Or as Eric Loomis at LGM wrote today:
The entire audience for this movie–and while I guess you could create a movie plot for this thing that is something other than The Fountainhead set in Appalachia but it probably won’t be anything other than this–is going to be white liberals who just don’t understand why THOSE WHITE PEOPLE voted for Donald Trump but don’t actually want to talk to them to find out. My favorite part of Hillbilly Elegy was being in a small disastrous town of 6,000 right in the middle of Pennsylvania’s part of Appalachia for the first half of 2018 and all my wife’s colleagues reading the book for this reason when all they had to do to understand the area was to walk outside and look around, maybe go to Walmart. J.D. Vance is a huge grifter with absolutely nothing to offer except right-wing pablum about bootstraps and cultural decline with all the authenticity for the region of a guy who grew up in the Cincinnati suburbs. . . .
I just hope there is footage of Vance personally delivering human blood to his vampire boss. Because what better describes what Appalachians should aspire to than working for psychopathic billionaires?
My family’s got some Appalachian roots. A couple generations back, my dad’s side lived in the foothills between Wytheville, VA, and Bristol, TN. While I can still go back to West Virginia and hang with kin, I’d never presume to pretend to be the authoritative voice on what life is like in the region.
It’s important to note that Vance has more in common with me than he has with actual Appalachians. He is the true embodiment of a “Columbus Cousin”—that relative who grew up in Ohio but uses his connection with Appalachia for personal gain.
This isn’t to say Vance didn’t suffer during his childhood. It’s only to say that life in Trump Country isn’t defined by the pathological laziness, substance abuse, and trashiness Vance wants us to think it is.
Will I be watching Ron Howard’s movie on Netflix. Again I defer to Catte:
No, I wouldn’t go see it. Unless I was very drunk.
Yeah, so fuck that guy.
Also, the fact that Vance has a law degree from Yale is another argument against law schools and its associated profession.