Monday, September 05, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance

Jd vance hillbilly elegy life in holler

You’d have to have been living on the moon all summer (or at least, completely detached from the growing resurgence of Scotch-Irish awareness in the USA as the election looms) to have missed the excitement that has followed the release of this new book - already a New York Times bestseller, topping the sales charts. (conversely, I noticed that when visiting July, Ulster-Scots / Scotch-Irishness seemed to be less visible - in bookstores, museums and heritage centres - than on previous trips in 1997 and 2002)

The timing has been impeccable, picking up on the Trump question, and all of the political head-scratching as to how Trump could have happened as a phenomenon. This book predates Trump, and his name doesnt appear once in its pages. Yet the smart commentators see a deeper cultural underbelly, one which has been brewing for decades.

In a later post I am going to suggest that this has in fact been growing for at least a century as can be seen through publications pleading with the Scotch-Irish Society of the USA and the Presbyterian church to launch a massive aid and education programme into Appalachia. There is no evidence that they ever did so. More to follow. Meanwhile here are author JD Vance’s own words :

"Two generations ago my grandparents were dirt-poor and in love. They got married and moved north to Ohio from the Appalachian hills of eastern Kentucky in the hope of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. Their grandchild (me) graduated from one of the finest educational institutions in the world, Yale Law School. But to understand me, you must understand thatI am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.

“I may be white, but I do not identify with the WASPs of the Northeast. Instead, I identify with the millions of working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, poverty is the family tradition — their ancestors were day laborers in the Southern slave economy, sharecroppers after that, coal miners after that, and machinists and mill workers during more recent times. Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash. I call them neighbors, friends and family.

The Scots-Irish are one of the most distinctive subgroups in America. As one observer noted, “In traveling across America, the Scots-Irish have consistently blown my mind as far and away the most persistent and unchanging regional subculture in the country. Their family structures, religion and politics, and social lives all remain unchanged compared to the wholesale abandonment of tradition that’s occurred nearly everywhere else.”1 This distinctive embrace of cultural tradition comes along with many good traits—an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country—but also many bad ones. We do not like outsiders or people who are different from us, whether the difference lies in how they look, how they act, or, most important, how they talk. To understand me, you must understand that I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.

If ethnicity is one side of the coin, then geography is the other. When the first wave of Scots-Irish immigrants landed in the New World in the eighteenth century, they were deeply attracted to the Appalachian Mountains. This region is admittedly huge—stretching from Alabama to Georgia in the South to Ohio to parts of New York in the North—but the culture of Greater Appalachia is remarkably cohesive. My family, from the hills of eastern Kentucky, describe themselves as hillbillies, but Hank Williams, Jr.—born in Louisiana and an Alabama resident—also identified himself as one in his rural white anthem “A Country Boy Can Survive.” It was Greater Appalachia’s political reorientation from Democrat to Republican that redefined American politics after Nixon. And it is in Greater Appalachia where the fortunes of working-class whites seem dimmest. From low social mobility to poverty to divorce and drug addiction, my home is a hub of misery.”

I am fortunate to have travelled through Appalachia three times. When the kids are grown up and moved out I might even relocate there for a time. These people are not just JD Vance's people, they are our people too.


I don’t buy into the Trump = Scotch-Irish theory. No ‘people group’ behaves in a single way. There are plenty of Scotch-Irish who oppose him, indeed the whole point of President Barack Obama’s recent speech was that Trump does not exhibit classic Scotch-Irish values. So, American commentators need to learn some nuance. But the rise of Scotch-Irishness as a concept, representing a set of values, is what is so interesting here.