As a twenty-year non-native resident of Appalachia who is about to go on hiatus outside the region, I’m happy to find a robust riposte to J.D. Vance’s unctuous Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis which unfairly takes to task some of the kindest, most welcoming people I have ever known. Mr. Vance wants you to know he followed the approved neo-lib wealth-acquiring path to its venture capitalist reward, and that the hillbilly people he grew up with can count filth, sloth and lack of couth as reasons they’ll never fill his wing-tips. It’s unkind and makes for a mean book. And personal. May I say, I didn’t much like it. Unfortunately, when it came out I’m afraid it ratified the coastal media’s self-esteem and they ate it up on the left, right and center.
The reply comes in the form of Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll. I’ve yet to read the book. I just became aware of it today, here. But I’m happy the West Virginia University Press has put it together, if for this quote alone, from Dwight B. Billings, a professor emeritus of sociology and Appalachian studies at the University of Kentucky: “It is one thing to write a personal memoir extolling the wisdom of one’s personal choices but quite something else — something extraordinarily audacious — to presume to write the ‘memoir’ of a culture.”
I’d like to think that in the three years since Hillbilly Elegy appeared we’ve begun to collectively reexamine some of the naked striving for unaccountable wealth that has marked the last thirty years.
Appalachia has its challenges. We’ll talk about that later. We’re about to take to the road again for a while and I’ll have valedictory remarks, but I’ll say for now that our home for the last twenty years is a beautiful place, full of wealth of the natural kind, and if my wife, dogs, cat, horses and I ran into a problem here on the farm, I promise I’d trust my neighbors the retired builder, the loggers or the guy who hustles a living with his Bobcat and gravel truck for their help way before a disdainful venture capitalist.
Here’s a little of our Appalachia for you:
Umair Haque has a question:
“Is freedom being murdered at school, but never having healthcare or retirement, even if you’re not (murdered) — just so the economy can keep growing, as the profits of the people who sell the guns and the medicine rise ever higher? If that’s all freedom is, why should anyone want it? But if freedom’s something more than that, what is it, really?”
For a long time after the fall of the Soviet Union, all of us (other than Francis Fukuyama) waited for a new order to take shape that we could label with a term more descriptive than the “Post-Cold War Period.” And waited, and waited.
Nowadays though, with the rise of “populism,” however you define it, the general disillusionment with “neo-liberalism,” however you define it, global austerity-fatigue and the arrival of what increasingly looks like late-stage capitalism, we’re clearly no longer in the Post-Cold War Period. But where are we?
When we’ve begun to question the very nature of work, when “what is freedom” sounds like a reasonable question for Americans to ask, wherever we are, it’s a crossroads.
And that’s the post as I published it. But I revise it here, to pull a comment up into the body of the post so that people will be sure to see it. This is from the author of the blog WheatyPete’sWorld:
“Well I am a teacher and I became a teacher because I was not happy just making money for someone else, or even just for myself-me-me-me. I wanted to give something rather than be a taker. I had my tyre slashed on my pride and joy VW camper by a parent whose child told him a lie about me last week. I work evenings and weekends. I am in debt and can not afford to replace the tyre so am driving on the spare which is bald, nor have I money to get new lenses for my glasses which are too scratched to see through. But I am still a teacher because I believe in what I am doing. It is a poorly paid vocation, but I still believe in what I am doing. OK I drive for 45 minutes with minimal vision to get to work every day, but if any a-hole told me I need to carry a gun to do this… well that would be time to look for a new planet to live on. How could anyone believe that the answer to young people who are so disillusioned that they shoot people is to get their teachers to shoot them first? What sort of planet/society is this? I have many American friends and respect so many things about the country, but this president is … well words fail me. I am very sad for all those who lost sons/daughters/loved ones this week … but someone needs to take the guns away from people who think that freedom is the right to shoot anyone else. It is really quite simple, why can’t Trump or the NRA see that: if people don’t have guns then they won’t shoot each other. Do I need to draw a picture for Trump and his supporters in the NRA? No guns = no shootings. That’s all.”
The world has been waiting for Donald Trump since 9 November, 1989. It’s not often we can calculate the end of a political era to the exact day, but the breach of the Berlin Wall on that date set off a dénouement to the Cold War, a 776 day countdown to the final dissolution of the authoritarian model represented by the Soviet Union.
The ensuing interregnum had its own name, the Post Cold War period, highlighted but not defined by the 9/11 attacks. Its defining events were the Yugoslav wars, the GWOT and the continued strong dominance of neo-liberalism in the United States, which many believe led to the other defining event of the period, the 2008 financial crisis.
During the Post Cold War period political scientists grew impatient for the world to get on with things, to get past this pause in history. Now the new era is well and truly here; out with the old, a half century’s balance of power between representative government and authoritarianism, in with the new populism.
Few get to watch an inchoate new era take form, and that is our great good fortune. I look forward to reading future writing about the underlying dynamics that set this unnamed new era in motion. It will earn its own name in due time, but whatever we call it, who on earth would have thought one of its founding fathers would be Donald Trump?
Berlin Wall photo from EarthPhotos.com. Other photo from Wikimedia Commons.