CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith and Life for the Years of Winter…
[Caveat lector: this is twice as long as a blog post should be and does not conclude very satisfactorily, but at least there is a “nice” photo from my hillbilly farm boy days.]
Helen says that one of the advantages of raising smart kids is that they give you good books at Christmas. So smart daughter Mary Beth gave me this Christmas J.D. Vance’s, HILLBILLY ELEGY: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It is a fascinating book, a well-written story that is hard to put down.
Vance grew up in a culture of family violence, of poverty, of close-mindedness, without models of achievement. Yet he achieved, through the Marines and an Ohio State U and Yale Law School.
Although separated by fifty years or so in age, JD Vance and I grew up in a very similar culture, the hillbilly culture, because that culture never changes through the years. Nonetheless, Vance became a hillbilly conservative and I became a hillbilly liberal. 
There was one major difference in our formative lives: our families. Mine was no picnic, and in later life my father told me I wasn’t actually his child . Compared to Vance’s family, however, mine was “Ozzie & Harriet.”
JD’s family was a mess. His father walked out. His mother was a narcissistic alcoholic and drug addict who brought man after man into their ever-shifting houses, some trying to be a father to JD and his sister, some just to be there for a while. None lasted long. They were always on the edge of poverty.
It is said that a child can survive a tumultuous childhood if there is one dependable adult in its life. JD had that, his mamaw, Bonnie Vance, a gun-wielding foul-mouthed nasty woman who scorned everyone and everything, except her grandson.
Vance and I even share some common ground, SW Ohio. My family had roots in both SW Indiana and SW Ohio, starting in the late 19th century in Cedarville and Dayton and extending later down to Oxford and Hamilton. During the industrial expansion after WWII, the companies there, in places like Middletown, where Vance grew up off and on, recruited workers from Kentucky. They were smart enough to recruit whole families, thus creating a more stable work force.
Their culture, however, remained hillbilly. It was linked inexorably to “home,” the hill county of the Hatfields and McCoys in Kentucky. Every weekend there were long lines of cars going to and from “home.” When you asked them where they were from, they named their county in Kentucky. The SW OH industrial area was never “home,” but just where they resided and worked.
Here is basically what Vance says about hillbillies, and I think he’s right. Hillbillies are tribalistic. They are pugnacious. They value toughness—they fight hard and drink hard. They also work hard if it’s something they’ve chosen to do, but if they’re working for someone else, the main point is to get paid without working. They are patriotic, in a tribalistic nationalistic sense. They are identified not by what they trust but by what they distrust. They distrust outsiders. They distrust the Law. They distrust education and educated people. They assume they are stuck in poverty. They deplore government welfare but depend upon it. They are gullible. They think they are smarter than educated people, “pointy headed intellectuals,” as my father called them. They live by a misogynistic “honor” code, in which a man is allowed to abuse “his” women freely but is honor-found to avenge them if some other man mistreats them.
Once again, a major difference between his hillbilly culture and mine. My extended family and the people around me were patriotic and proud of military service but deplored stupid violence, especially in the family. They honored education and achievement. Their honor code was “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” You were to respect others, even if you disagreed with them.
Vance does not say, “I made it on my own.” He is much too smart for that. He knows it he made it with a lot of help. He deplores the close-mindedness of his own people who believe things like Barak Obama was born in Kenya and is not a Christian. He says that good social policy is better than bad social policy.
I say that Vance “became” a hillbilly conservative. That’s both true and false. He started out conservative, because that is part of hillbilly culture. He became one by choice as an adult. He is a thoughtful and responsible conservative, but I still have trouble understanding it.
He says that government help won’t make a difference, that people will have to be responsible for themselves. That’s the part conservatives like. But he also says that hillbilly culture is so depressed that nobody sees a way out of it. There are no models of how to achieve or incentives to do so. There are no models of good marriages. He himself went to the Marines instead of trying for college when he graduated high school because he and his mamaw together couldn’t even figure out how to fill out the application forms and knew no one who could help them.
His is a fascinating story of personal achievement. But it stops there. With being a hillbilly conservative. My own growing-up story is much like his, except I am a hillbilly liberal. I agree that good social policy is better than bad social policy. There is always going to be a social policy of some sort, and I don’t think “I made it and you’re on your own” is very good social policy.
1] Both Vance and I use “hillbilly” only as a descriptive term, not a derogatory word, and we both use it with a certain amount of pride, the way Jim Webb does in Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America.]
2] I don’t believe it, and, anyway, I don’t care.
3] I remember once my Uncle Randall, who worked at Fisher Body in Hamilton, telling how a fellow worker asked him what county he was from. He was surprised. “Butler,” he said. The man looked puzzled. “Where’s that?” “Right here,” Uncle Randall said. The man looked more puzzled. “No, I mean your county in Kentucky,”
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