‘Hillbilly Elegy’ recalls a childhood where poverty was ‘the family tradition’

Fresh Air podcast:

My guest, J.D. Vance, is the author of the new best-seller “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir Of A Family And Culture In Crisis.” He says the book is about what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. He writes about the social isolation, poverty, drug use and the religious and political changes in his family and in greater Appalachia. He grew up in a Rust Belt town in Ohio in a family from the hills of eastern Kentucky. Until the age of 12, he spent summers in Jackson, Ky., with his grandmother and great-grandmother. Vance joined the Marines, which helped him afford college. After attending Ohio State University, he went to Yale Law School where he initially felt completely out of place. He has contributed to the National Review and is now a principal at a Silicon Valley investment firm.

J.D. Vance, welcome to FRESH AIR. There’s a paragraph from your new book that I want you to read. It’s on Page 2.

J D VANCE: There is an ethnic component lurking in the background of my story. In our race-conscious society, our vocabulary often extends no further than the color of someone’s skin – black people, Asians, white privilege. Sometimes these broad categories are useful. But to understand my story, you have to delve into the details.

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’s 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.

Working poor whites have been a neglected minority in the US: Exploited by the religious right and populists like Donald Trump, and scorned and ridiculed by small-government conservatives and liberals.

No, Rudy Giuliani Did Not “Forget 9/11.” He Messed Something Else Up, Though.

Jeremy Stahl, Slate:

Rudy Giuliani got a lot of grief on Monday for having supposedly forgotten about the Sept. 11 attacks that took place when he was mayor of New York City and formed a not insignificant portion of the basis for his national political career.

During a speech introducing Donald Trump’s vice presidential nominee Mike Pence in Youngstown, Ohio, Giuliani said: “Under those eight years, before Obama came along, we didn’t have any successful radical Islamic terrorist attack in the United States. They all started when [Hillary] Clinton and Obama got into office.”

This led to some hyperventilating on Twitter from outlets saying that Giuliani was ignoring 9/11 (something Giuliani is normally not accused of doing).

This whole story has been a series of embarrassments. Several media outlets, including CNN, inaccurately reported that Giuliani said the US had never been attacked by Islamic fanatics before Obama, which would be an absurd thing to say. But Giuliani doesn’t seem to have said that.

What Giuliani seems to have actually said was that the US wasn’t successfully attacked in eight years prior to Obama taking office. Which is technically untrue — 9/11 was about eight months short of eight years.

But the real problem is that Giuliani is promulgating the bullshit Republican narrative, also promoted by Jeb Bush during the primary, that somehow 9/11 doesn’t count against Bush or the Republicans, while the attacks on American soil since 9/11 completely discredit Obama and the Democrats.

Movie reviews: Belle and 22 Jump Street

While we were visiting Ohio, we went to see two movies with my sister- and brother-in-law Ann and Ken. Ann picked the movies. Ann likes highbrow movies and lowbrow movies, but not middlebrow movies. She’ll watch an arthouse movie, and that was one of the ones we picked. She’ll also watch a dumb comedy, and that was the other movie we picked.

belle

Belle is set in the 18th Century in England. It’s about a mixed-race woman with a black African mother and white English Naval officer for a father. The woman, whose name was Dido, was raised as an English aristocrat. Her uncle and foster father was the highest judge in England, and ruled on a case that significantly weakened the English slave trade of the era.

Pretty good movie, although a bit predictable. Dido’s foster father’s law clerk is handsome and passionately principled and is the only man Dido meets who is a match for her intellect (other than her foster father). The clerk is also the only man who considers her mixed-race heritage to be nothing to be ashamed of. They hate each other at first. Will they fall in love by the end of the movie?

After the movie, I enjoyed leafing through Wikipedia to learn the real-life history behind it. The main characters of the movie did exist, more-or-less as portrayed in the movie, although the movie played fast and loose with historical facts. Which is fine — the purpose of the movie is not to be a history book.

Dido Elizabeth Belle died in her 40s in real life. She lived most of her life on her foster father’s estate, and managed the dairy and poultry yards, helping him out with his correspondence. Those were positions of great responsibility. We don’t know a lot about her life, but evidence suggests she was treated as a family member rather than a servant.

Dido’s foster father, William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield, was an important figure in English history. He advanced commercial law in ways that helped established Britain as a leader in world commerce. He actually ruled on two slave cases; the movie conflates them both into one. He didn’t end slave trafficking, but he took a big step in that direction.

The second movie was 22 Jump Street, featuring muscular Channing Tatum, who took off his shirt a lot, and chubby Jonah Hill, who left his shirt on. 22 Jump Street was a broad, dumb comedy, and I enjoyed it a good deal.

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Here’s one of my favorite stories about Roger Ebert: A reader called him on giving a dumb fraternity comedy a higher rating than a fine French art movie. The way I heard the story, Ebert paused in thought after being challenged, then said he stood by his rating. Ebert loved all genres of movies and (he said) the dumb fraternity comedy was better as a dumb frat-com then French art film was as a French art film.

In that spirit, I give 22 Jump Street a higher rating than Belle. Jump Street was a better dumb comedy than Belle was as a political historical drama. Belle was mostly predictable. You could tell what every character was going to do as soon as they came onscreen. 22 Jump Street is also predictable, but that’s not a flaw in a dumb comedy. The jokes are broad and coarse — and funny.

The casting was oddly and refreshingly multicultural and diverse. In a movie that sets its sights as low as this one, I wouldn’t have even noticed if they went with an all-white cast. But instead we’ve got a racially diverse cast. Likewise, the movie is filled with gay jokes, but they are all good-natured. I can only assume this is due to the zeitgeist.

What I mean to say is this: Stephen King has noted that monster movies of the 1950s featured creatures created by nuclear explosions. This is not because the makers of low-budget monster movies wanted to make a statement about the dangers of nuclear weapons. It’s just that nuclear anxiety was in the air — it was part of the zeitgesit — so if you were looking to make a movie about a giant lizard that destroyed a city, and you needed a reason why this giant lizard existed, well, why not just handwave about nuclear explosion and move on?

Similarly, I don’t think the makers of 22 Jump Street wanted to make a movie celebrating ethnic diversity. But we live in a diverse world, and when they were looking for talented comedy actors of course they’d have no reason to overlook black and mixed-race actors. Why should they? In some ways, a movie like this is more refreshing than one that consciously tries to make a point about racial equality like, for example, Belle.

Home again home again

I’m headed home after 10 days on the road, which is I think the longest I’ve been away in 10 years since my father passed. I spent four days in Chicago for Light Reading’s Big Telecom Event. Then I spent another day in Chicago for staff meetings. Then Julie joined me for five five days in Columbus and Athens, Ohio, visiting her family, whom we hadn’t seen for three years. And now I’m on a plane back home.

It was an eventful trip. The conference was a success, with much good insight and connecting with peers. I’ll post links here later to the articles I wrote from the conference. I got to meet a few colleagues face-to-face whom I haven’t met before. We’re a very 21st-Century organization, with about 50 employees spread across the US, Canada, and in Britain. My boss is based in a suburb of London, eight hours ahead of me.

After work, we went to dinner. I did karaoke for the first time ever in my life. Rumor has it there is video. I think its safe to say that as a singer I am very enthusiastic.

I ate and ate and ate this trip. I have a bet with myself how much weight I gained over the 10 days. I’m thinking 12 pounds. I am not disciplined controlling eating while I’m traveling. That wasn’t a big deal during most of my weight loss and maintenance, when I was traveling just a couple of times a year. Now that I’m on the road for about 20-25% of the time, it’s becoming a problem. I need to work on it.

Still, I enjoyed every bite. Such a lot of good food.

I’ve become an enthusiast for nondescript hole-in-the-wall places that serve great food. I found a beaut in Columbus: Pho Asian Noodle House and Grill on West Lane Avenue. It’s a Pan-Asian place, which is a highfalultin way of saying the menu has Chinese food and Japanese food and Thai and Vietnamese and maybe other ethnicities I couldn’t identify. I had the kung pao chicken with fried rice, which is a safe choice, and it was delicious. The restaurant is obviously in a converted Taco Bell, with minimal redecoration, which adds to its charm.

Another big highlight of this trip is going to meet our financial planner in Marion, Ohio, about 75 minute out of Columbus. Until now, I’ve left financial planning to Julie. I make the money, she manages it. But this is a bad idea, and so I’m getting up to speed myself. I am impressed by how on top of things both Ron and Julie are. Ron seems very competent — and I liked him personally too.