A few years ago, when J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy came out, a number of readers here reached out to me and suggested I should read it because they saw some parallels with the way that Vance grew up and my own upbringing. It took me a while, but I eventually caved, and to be honest, I didn’t care for it. I am typically very hard on memoirs, but I found Hillbilly Elegy to be unusually dull.
That said, Vance — who pulled himself out of poverty and eventually got a law degree from Yale — espoused a perspective that I found difficult not to occasionally empathize with, and it’s interesting how these sociopolitical currents can often crash against each other, and how two people of a similar background could run in completely different directions politically.
Readers will probably pick up on different themes in Hillbilly Elegy, but here’s my takeaway, as applied to my own upbringing. I grew up with a single, gay, drug-addicted father with two jobs who worked from 2 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day and earned about $9,000 a year, with which he supported three kids. For better or worse, my father also refused to accept government assistance, though he could have easily qualified (I appreciated his pride, but I also would have appreciated regular meals and clothes). I was also surrounded by poverty — nearly everyone on my street was on welfare and food stamps, and many of the stereotypes people have about those on food stamps and welfare applied to them. They were racist, homophobic, horrible people, most of whom flat-out refused to work, arguing that the government owed them these benefits, but it was the other people (read: black people) who were the deadbeats. They felt entitled to government benefits, and as long as they continued to receive them, they had no incentive to work, while the government also picked up the tab on their insane medical bills, and every damn one of them felt it was owed to them.
When I got out and left for college, my perspective on poor people was largely shaped by my neighbors — drug addicted, wife-beating, child-abusing, lazy-ass, racist, gay-bashing horrible human beings who sat in front of their televisions all goddamn day smoking packs of cigarettes, drinking cheap beer, and — very often — engaging in drug use. This was not just my neighbors — it was my family.
As someone who made it out, it was hard not to feel some resentment toward these people. And to choose a political party? A nightmare. Basically, I was being asked to decide between a party that helps to provide a source of income for the very people who beat and abused me or a political party that hates Black people and gay people. J.D. Vance chose to become a Republican. I chose to become a Democrat, but to be honest, I got lucky, because I came of age as Bill Clinton, a guy who grew up under similar circumstances, was running for President. He believed in social justice (or at least, what passed for social justice in the ’90s), but also in welfare reform.
I’ve obviously evolved to the left since because I understand that the people I grew up around do not represent the vast majority of government assistance recipients, but while Hillbilly Elegy was kind of a crap story, it did bring back a lot of those feelings I used to have. I don’t agree with Vance’s political ideology, obviously, but I understand where it’s coming from, at least for him, because there absolutely was the feeling that the only way those people I grew up around were ever going to succeed was if the government stopped providing for them, but it would also mean not providing for their children, but also, by providing for those children, it often extended the poverty (and bigotry and abuse) into another generation. And the thing about most of those white-trash Arkansans is that they are Republican, but it’s not because they don’t believe in welfare and food stamps; they just believe that only white people are owed them.
You see the dilemma, right? We saw it again during the Republicans attempts to eliminated Obamacare. There were a lot of Democrats, even on super liberal sites like this one, who were like, “F**ck ‘em. Those racist white assholes are only hurting themselves. Make them suffer for voting for Trump.” That’s not far from the way that Vance felt when he got out. You see what’s happening in Arkansas now, right? Thousands are being kicked off the Medicaid rolls because of back-to-work requirements, and there’s one part of me that’s like, “Oh, that’s f**ked up and evil,” and another part of me that’s like, “Serves them right for voting for Trump and other Republicans in the first place. They brought it on themselves.”
Anyway, Netflix just paid $45 million for the rights to a Ron Howard-directed film version of Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which will be adapted to the screen (laptops and mobile devices) by The Shape Of Water co-writer Vanessa Taylor. If Ron Howard sticks to the narrative, it’ll probably be kind of dull. If he tries to highlight the politics of Hillbilly Elegy, it’s going to be a political sh*t-show when it comes out.