Saturday, December 31, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy, or, But for the Grace of God Go I

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"People sometimes ask whether I think there's anything we can do to 'solve' the problems of my community," writes J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of A family and Culture in Crisis. "I know what they're looking for: a magical public policy solution or an innovative government program. But these problems of family, faith, and culture, aren't like a Rubik's Cube, and I don't think that solutions (as most understand the term) really exist. A good friend, who worked for a time in the White House and cares deeply about the plight of the working class, once told me, 'The best way to look at this might be to recognize that you probably can't fix these things. They'll always be around. But maybe you can put your thumb on the scale a little for the people at the margins.'"

I think Vance hits on part of a solution: Empathy. He mentions in the book that he'd tried every kind of feeling from love to rage to hopelessness to fear with his own mother, a drug addict who never was able to form a stable relationship -- he tried them all but empathy. And I think that's what this nation as a whole lacks in solving any problem faced by any class of people. There's not enough empathy any more.

And I don't mean the Myrna Minkoff kind of empathy, where those "better off" descend on Appalachia or the inner city or wherever these crises occur and chant folk songs at people. It's combining public policy and education and faith in ways that address the principal challenges Vance and others have identified as being faced by any marginalized group. There are already plenty of outsiders willing to tell any group what they're doing wrong. And as is typical, those groups won't listen anyway. What they might need is people who'll actually listen and do little things to help.

There's the opposite side of the coin going on right now, with Donald Trump being the president-elect. The elites and even the haves -- compared to the have-nots -- are doing what Vance himself did: Fleeing from trouble, rather than facing it. Just as much as the right is feeding people bilge-oil on government being the problem, the left is offering the snake oil of upturned noses and platitudes and government programs that do more to deepen the problems of broken homes, drug addiction, and learned helplessness that Vance sees. No pure ideology is going to fix these problems.

If you think you or your political party have "the" solution to these problems, read this book. Chances are if you're honest with yourself, you'll see the problems are bigger than any one party or government can fix, unless that party or that government wants to listen to those struggling, rather than launching edicts from the coasts or lying about the government being the problem.

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