Hillbilly Elegy written by J.D Vance is an interesting story about the life of an individual living in a part of the world I know nothing about, the Appalachian region of the United States of America.
On the front cover of the book is a claim from a critics that the book is “profound… a great insight into Trump and Brexit.” While I have come away with a slightly deeper appreciation of why some people may have voted for Trump in the last presidential election, to suggest the experiences of a self-professed American hillbilly can be translated to our recent British political experience seems a little far-fetched. In fact it seems a little insulting when considering the very personally specific experience Vance shares with us about his Hillbilly identity and culture.
Improbable claims from reviewers aside, the story itself is an interesting and moving portrait of a man who faced a very difficult upbringing yet managed to find a ‘way out’ of the welfare dependency Vance sees around him. The love of his family, and the hard-work of Vance as an individual can only be applauded.
Welfare dependency is described by Vance as an objective fact, the reality of many, and often the fault of the individuals concerned. This is where I start to feel uncomfortable. Not only because the welfare dependency thesis is highly disputed, but because his opinion and experience conflicts with my academic understanding and if I’m really honest, left-wing bias. Am I being arrogant, to consider my own reading (and experience in a different culture and country) may give a more accurate picture of where to draw the line between personal responsibility and the efficacy public policy? Probably not, because I believe in pluralism and it’s interesting to read something that I disagree with, a chance to sharpen my critical analysis.
The source of my discomfort is more tied up with recent political debates around the role of expert knowledge (in itself something I find positive for bringing epistemology for the layman into public discourse) and a concern around the power of implicit ideology. Vance presents as a ‘normal bloke’, someone at the coalface, and that makes me and no doubt others want to truly believe his perspective on the world, not just on his life but as able to explain why so many people in the area he has lived and loves chose to vote for Trump. In terms of Trump specifically, this book did give me an insight into the deep love of country felt by some, and how the ‘make America great again’ campaign could play very nicely into this sentiment. Past that, and in terms of Brexit, nothing more.
Vance is just one man and this is not a political scientist account of voting behaviour. Yes, he has a unique insight I will never have because he is part of a particular group and deeply connected to others in it. Yet, Vance is speaking from a particular position of conservative ideology; he cites Charles Murray without question, a man famous for castigating many people as belonging to an ‘underclass’. This is a highly political view that clouded the entire book for me. This notion of people choosing a ‘lifestyle’ of welfare dependency is highly disputed, not just within academic circles but within UK popular culture, my personal favourite being Charlie Brooker and friends using satire to show just how hateful this view is.
My recommendation would be to enjoy this book as an interesting story about an individual living in a place different to where you live, while being aware that the views espoused about welfare dependency are just that, one mans view.