3.4.17

UNDERSTAND DYSFUNCTION, OR REVEL IN IT?

I'll be combining Book Reviews No. 5 and No. 6 to illustrate two ways of coping with the Dispossessed Americans who may have come out to vote in the states that put Mr Trump in the White House.  The attempt to understand is J. D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.  The revelry comes from Dana Loesch's Flyover Nation: You Can't Run a Country You've Never Been To.

The "understand" part of Elegy permeates the book.  It is a memoir, written by a veteran who earned a law degree and currently works in finance.  But getting there was not half the fun.  Mr Vance grew up in an environment of "truly irrational behavior," summarized at pages 146-147 as people spending their way into the poorhouse, not studying as children and not pushing their spawn (and the spawn show up, early and often) to study, choose not to work, or to shirk whilst temporarily in work, or to get by in the food stamp economy, buying cases of pop to resell at a discount to get money for the stuff Uncle Sugar doesn't provide.  But he spent some of his childhood and adolescence in the care of his grandparents, his mother and her serial husbands being messed up even by hillbilly standards, and those grandparents ("Mamaw" rhymes with "gramma," that's easy enough to work out, I leave "Papaw" to others more conversant with Appalachian-speak to supply the etymology) gave him enough of a sense that it doesn't always have to be that way, and the Marine Corps subsequently taught him "how to live like an adult."

The world Mr Vance grew up in is one that would likely have been unhealthy for young people to come of age in, even if the heavy industries of the Arsenal of Democracy (much of this autobiography takes place in and around Middletown, Ohio, the site of a major Armco Steel works that, like so much of the legacy steel business, featured an inefficiently located suboptimal scale integrated mill) weren't coming undone.  And thus the social science interest in Elegy, summarized here by The American Conservative's Rod Dreher.
What he’s talking about is social capital, and how critically important it is to success. Poor white kids don’t have it (neither do poor black or Hispanic kids). You’re never going to teach a kid from the trailer park or the housing project the secrets of the upper middle class, but you can give them what kids like me had: a basic understanding of work, discipline, confidence, good manners, and an eagerness to learn. A big part of the problem for his people, says Vance, is the shocking degree of family instability among the American poor. “Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.”

Vance is admirably humble about how the only reason he got out was because key people along the way helped him climb out of the hole his culture dug for him. When Vance talks about how to fix these problems, he strikes a strong skeptical note. The worst problems of his culture, the things that held kids like him back, are not things a government program can fix. For example, as a child, his culture taught him that doing well in school made you a “sissy.” Vance says the home is the source of the worst of these problems. There simply is not a policy fix for families and family systems that have collapsed.
Yes, and the affirmation of dysfunctional habits in the name of authenticity doesn't help.  Mr Vance at one point revels in the "toughness" of his clan, responding forcefully to slights.  When people are triggered in the hollers, duck!  And be careful who you crack wise to, you might have to eat more than your words.  But perhaps that toughness comes off as a**holery (if that's not a word, deal with it!) to others, particularly others with more social capital.

That noted, there has to be an anthropology project, somewhere, on the evolutionary advantages of redneck honor culture, whether in the Highlands form that migrated to the United States, the Balkan form that's pretty much tamed in the Rust Belt, but erupted violently in former Yugoslavia after the end of Communism, or the Islamic form that blends both pouring tea for travellers and chopping heads off infidels.

But we won't find that explanation in Flyover Nation.  Author Dana Loesch has an interesting back story, exploring young adulthood as the Very Model of a Transgressive Third Wave Feminist, including but not limited to the aggressive attitude and bad haircut.  Then she became mother to a boy.  (Many a cultural conservative emerged as a dad with a daughter in middle school.  The argument appears to generalize.)  But she seems to be more interested in settling scores and making mock of coastal gentry types, particularly those who seem determined to atone for their inherited privilege by going social justice warrior.  There was enough low-hanging that she could spare Chelsea Clinton.  Flyover Nation also offers its own version of the "bubble quiz" (most recently made famous by Charles Murray, but there have been others.)  And the bubble quiz she offers might be her own brand of virtue signalling, only it's about stock car racin' and eatin' grits (memo to Yankees passing through: season it like you'd season Cream of Wheat) and shoppin' on the cheap and churchgoin'!  She raises an interesting question, though: before video cassette recorders, how could the devout Christian stay current with what Lawrence Spivak or Edgar R. Murrow brought before the Secular Wise Men?  Just one more way the people on the coasts have no understanding of life as lived in Flyover.

OK, fine, the Wise Experts have messed up, and it is in the nature of Complex Adaptive Systems to Do What They D**n Well Please.  But why the rediscovery of Blue Collar White Americans now?

And yes, it is a rediscovery.  In the course of thinning the research library, I glanced through Rusted Dreams: Hard Times in a Steel Community, part of my institutional material for those steel research projects over the years.  The community in question is on the east side of Chicago, near International Harvester's doomed Wisconsin Steel works.  The book came into my library late in 1989.  Let me quote from page 206.
The result of this loss of stature, income, and opportunity for middle- and lower-income Americans has been a sharp increase in social instability as well as a growing disillusionment with American ideals: "I'm 54 years old, and until 1982, I was a proud man," wrote a former auto worker to his union newspaper.  Now I have become a beggar with no dignity or pride .... Today I go to county welfare to beg for assistance ... Does anyone honestly care that people are losing everything they worked years to get?  That they are attempting to sell their homes for almost nothing on a depressed market?  Or that families are breaking up?  I swear to God, no one cares."

This letter suggests the social cost of the dislocation that has occurred as a result of plant closures and industrial job loss.  One study of displaced workers, by Sidney Cobb and Stanislav Karl, found a suicide rate "thirty times the expected number."  Using national data from the years 1940-1973, Dr. Harvey Brenner of Johns Hopkins University calculated that every 1 percent increase in the total unemployment rate sustained over a six year period was associated with 37,000 more deaths (including 20,000 cardiovascular deaths, 650 homicide deaths, and 500 deaths from cirrhosis of the liver), as well as 4000 admissions to state mental hospitals and 3300 admissions to state prisons.  The effect on families has already been documented in Chapter 4 -- violence, divorce, and trauma.
Put another way, the reduced life expectancies Anne Case and Angus Deaton recently documented (and the policy class have exploited, or not, for their own purposes) among white blue-collar workers were with us in the shakeout of the Rust Belt, going on forty years ago.  Was there enough economic recovery from 1984 to 2007 to make the pain go away?  Or was it there, all along, only now to be rediscovered?

For completeness, Rusted Dreams ended making the case for industrial policy, including trade protection.  That was the nostrum back in the day, perhaps it's still buried in Trumpism.  But it wasn't Third World steel that creatively destroyed Wisconsin Steel back in the day, and it isn't Third World steel creatively destroying Armco more recently.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

No comments: