De­cline and Fall

A win­dow to poor white Amer­i­can de­spair and the rise of the Trump phe­nom­e­non

India Today - - LEISURE BOOKS - By Vivek Oberoi Oberoi is a fi­nan­cial ser­vices pro­fes­sional


“If I were giv­ing a young man ad­vice as to how he might suc­ceed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good fa­ther and mother, and be­gin life in Ohio,” said Wil­bur Wright. As I read J.D. Vance’s fas­ci­nat­ing, if trou­bling, me­moir, Hill­billy El­egy, this quote came back to me. Hill­billy El­egy is a book ap­par­ently ev­ery­one in Amer­ica is talking about. It is sup­posed to ex­plain the Trump phe­nom­e­non to its out-of-touch elite.

Vance started his life in Mid­dle­ton, Ohio. Wright grew up just 25 miles north in Day­ton. But in the cen­tury that sep­a­rates these two gen­tle­men, Ohio so­ci­ety seems to have changed un­mis­tak­ably for the worse.

That there is a prob­lem in many white work­ing class com­mu­ni­ties is clear. An­gus Deaton showed ear­lier this year that life ex­pectancy among work­ing class whites has, for the first time in his­tory, de­creased due to a surge in sui­cides. Charles Mur­ray brought out that only 48 per cent of work­ing class men are mar­ried. Robert Put­nam cal­cu­lated that 65 per cent of chil­dren whose moth­ers never made it past high school spent part of their child­hood in a sin­gle par­ent home, up from 20 per cent in 1953.

I was fa­mil­iar with these num­bers. Yet Vance’s de­scrip­tion of his mother beg­ging him, just 13 then, for a urine sam­ple in or­der to clear her manda­tory drug test shocked me. That is the great virtue of the book. It tells the story be­hind the num­bers. To those of us priv­i­leged enough to not have known such fa­mil­ial dys­func­tion, the book is a win­dow into the lives of peo­ple who were hith­erto just a statis­tic. For Amer­ica’s coastal elite, it is a guide to un­der­stand the lives of the peo­ple they fly over, with whom they share a coun­try.

The strength of Hill­billy El­egy is the co­her­ence with which Vance mar­shals what must be painful mem­o­ries. Its weak­ness is its anal­y­sis of the causes of the so­cial breakdown among low-in­come whites. Vance, a third gen­er­a­tion im­mi­grant from Ken­tucky, at­tributes it to some­thing he calls ‘Hill­billy cul­ture’. He never de­fines it. But I un­der­stand it to be the cul­ture of south­ern share­crop­pers. That is fine, but it doesn’t ex­plain why the Yan­kee de­scen­dants of large parts of the old Mid­west and New Eng­land are af­flicted by a sim­i­lar dystopia. The Yan­kees were strange peo­ple. They chanced upon a rich land, but didn’t squan­der the bounty. So much of the tech­nol­ogy the world takes for granted to­day was de­vel­oped by Yan­kee in­dus­try and in­ge­nu­ity. ‘Protes­tant work ethic’ doesn’t cut it as an ex­pla­na­tion. For they didn’t just out­per­form their Catholic neigh­bours in South Amer­ica, they also lapped their protes­tant cousins in Canada, Aus­tralia and the Amer­i­can South.

The Wright Broth­ers per­son­ify that cul­ture. The sons of an itin­er­ant min­is­ter with no col­lege ed­u­ca­tion and with only mod­est sav­ings man­aged, through their ge­nius, in­dus­try and per­se­ver­ance, to give wing to mankind’s old­est fan­tasy—flight. As one reads Hill­billy El­egy, one won­ders what hap­pened to that cul­tural con­fi­dence, that op­ti­mism, that self-reliance? The idea that it col­lapsed in the face of glob­al­i­sa­tion seems woe­fully in­ad­e­quate. The de­scen­dants of hardy fron­tiers­men came apart be­cause the Chi­nese learnt how to make socks. Re­ally?

Nor is it true. Man­u­fac­tur­ing em­ploy­ment is in­deed down from 24 per cent of the labour force in 1964 to 9 per cent to­day. But as Pro­fes­sors Michelle Con­nolly, John Gil­bert and Ed­ward Tower point out, this is en­tirely due to im­proved pro­duc­tiv­ity. The steel in­dus­try—Mid­dle­town’s big­gest em­ployer—of­fers a prime ex­am­ple. The in­tro­duc­tion of the mini mill in­creased com­pe­ti­tion, led to a dra­matic im­prove­ment in pro­duc­tiv­ity and loss of em­ploy­ment. Just as the in­tro­duc­tion of com­mer­cial air­lines led to the de­struc­tion of rail­way jobs 70 years ago. The ques­tion then is why did Ohio’s so­ci­ety em­brace tech­no­log­i­cal dis­rup­tion back then and strug­gle with it so to­day? What has changed? As an In­dian, I ask, why were the Yan­kees, in Toc­queville’s words, so rest­less and my an­ces­tors so eas­ily sat­is­fied, and why are their de­scen­dants so eas­ily sat­is­fied and I so rest­less? These ques­tions are of ur­gent im­por­tance for Amer­ica and for the world. For no democ­racy can sur­vive a per­ma­nently seething un­der­class. Vance has, in the wake of the 2016 elec­tion, helped frame the ques­tion. Good books should al­ways leave you won­der­ing. Hill­billy El­egy most cer­tainly does that. Read it.

Hill­billy El­egy: A Me­moir of a Fam­ily and Cul­ture in Cri­sis by J.D. Vance Harper Pages: 272 Price: Rs 1,199

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