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The Mamaw of All Elegies

After reading an excellent essay about “Two Underclasses” in the current issue of “National Review” by J. J. Vance, who also is author of the applauded new book “Hillbilly Elegy,” one of my first thoughts was that as important conservative voices go, his was certainly emerging.  But I quickly corrected myself, recognizing that he and his voice already were fully emerged, and vitally so.

Vance and his remarkable background are coming to be well known in select quarters.  A son of Appalachia and the Rust Belt, he managed to escape disorganization and dysfunction (as sociologists might put it) by way of the Marines, Ohio State, Yale Law School, and now a Silicon Valley investment firm.  His powerful resilience and brilliance also had something to do with it, though he likely would cite foremost his maternal grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, for their support and rescue.

As just used, though, the word “escape,” is not exactly the right one, as his love for where he grew up remains clear-cut, notwithstanding the enervation of his corners of Kentucky and Ohio.  With the same holding true for his immediate and extended family, as self-defeating and exasperating as many members historically have been and stay.

“Hillbilly Elegy,” whose subtitle is “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” is one of several books in recent years from the right side of the aisle which recognize that acutely difficult problems such as entrenched poverty and epidemic drug use and death, of course, are often entwined with closed-down steel mills and other depleting economic facts of life.  But such books also argue that matters of culture are crucial too, usually even more so.  Here, for instance, is Vance, early in “Hillbilly Elegy,” writing about a job he had in the summer before entering law school.

The problems that I saw at the tile warehouse run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policy.  Too many young men immune to hard work.  Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time.  And a young man with every reason to work – a wife-to-be to support and baby on the way – carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance.  More troublingly, when it was all over, he thought something had been done to him.  There is a lack of agency here – a feeling that you have little control over your life and a willingness to blame everyone but yourself.  This is distinct from the larger economic landscape of modern America.

Two other books making similar points in the last few years are Charles Murray’s instant classic, “Coming Apart: The State of White America,” 1960-2010 (released in 2012), and Yuval Levin’s seminal “The Fractured Republic: Restoring America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism” (released a few months ago).

Murray argues how the “top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures,” with those at the top lacking the confidence to “preach what they practice.”

Levin also talks about a weakening of confidence: “The right sees cultural disintegration and polarization – marked by dysfunction at the bottom and reinforced by a loss of cultural self-confidence at the top – as the source of entrenched poverty in America.”

Both scholars, each of whom is a broadly gauged political scientist with an exceptional talent for writing clearly about complicated issues in the English tongue, have a fair amount more to say in their combined 669 pages.  For present purposes, however, a main takeaway from all three books, beyond insights about failed confidence, is that government can only do so much when problems are rooted in injurious cultures.  Which is say grounded in perverse beliefs and undermining behaviors.

Vance closes off “Hillbilly Elegy” by credibly contending that “we hillbillies are the toughest [censored] people on this earth.”  But “are we tough enough to look ourselves in the mirror and admit that our conduct harms our children?  Public policy can help, but there is no government that can fix these problems for us.”

A moment later he writes, “I don’t know what the answer is, precisely, but I know it starts when we stop blaming Obama or Bush or faceless companies and ask ourselves what we can do to make things better.”

But enough with all this personal and cultural stuff, which some people (I’ve heard it whispered) think I over exaggerate.  Think instead about issues where what government does or doesn’t do is unquestionably pivotal, yet about which campaigners frequently need boosted courage and thicker skins to address.

Consider, for example, the ceaselessly exploding national debt with its potential for eventually locking up the United States like a virus-addled device.  Do you expect to hear anything realistic about ameliorating it, along with big attendant sacrifices and tradeoffs, in the next 70-plus, unusually odd days?  Didn’t think so.

(On the chance it crosses your mind, building a HUGE wall around the beast while finagling another country to pay it down is not an acceptable answer.)

Dr. Pearlstein’s most recent publication is a symposium with 36 writers, “Specifically, What Can We Do to Repair Our Culture of Family Fragmentation.”

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