When I read Mitch Dunier’s Sidewalk I am filled with empathy for black men, often drug users, living on the street. When I read The New Jim Crow, I seethe over the injustice of systematically containing their imprisoned brothers. When I read Evicted, I ache for the poor women struggling to raise their children against all odds. When I read Rachel Aviv’s “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights, “I root for the victims. When I read Hillbilly Elegy, my heart turns cold.
When I absorb, second hand, the consequences of being black or brown, a woman, even an old person, the foundational source of his or her disadvantage is clear to see: skin color, gender, wrinkles. I’ve spent considerable time contemplating why, when I seek complementary sympathy for Appalachian folks, I fail.
First. I find is easier to be empathetic toward someone whose life circumstances are remote from mine. Since I have no perspective from which to judge their disadvantage, I take others’ struggle at face value. However, the more someone seems like me, the less empathy their plight evokes. The characters in Hillbilly Elegy look too much like the people in power—angry white males—and too much like me, to merit special consideration. The fact that these folks fail to create viable lives, whether measured by economic success or personal satisfaction, doesn’t move me because, frankly, blue collar Middletown Ohio is not all that different from blue collar Toms River, New Jersey. J.D. Vance’s family and neighbors are too much like the people I grew up with: loud, labile, and distrustful of anything beyond their circle; quick to damn a changing world, resistant to change with it. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for a narrow, gloomy worldview I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to escape.
Second. Hillbilly Elegy draws parallels between the people of Appalachia and other disenfranchised groups in our nation. However, there’s a big difference between a woman or person of color struggling against a system that oppresses them, and someone who is simply too tribal and fear-driven to act as his own change agent. Suggesting the equivalence piles undeserved credence on Appalachian complaints, and undermines the plight of those whose disadvantages are externally imposed.
Third. What is the author’s responsibility in all of this? We applaud people who rise above the difficulties of their youth, and we don’t expect everyone who moves up to return to his roots. My time in Haiti taught me not think ill of capable, educated Haitians who stay in the US rather than plough their talent back into the Magic Island. Each person gets to determine his own balance of personal opportunity and cultural reinvestment. But there’s something disingenuous about a man who escapes Appalachia, goes to Yale, becomes a West Coast lawyer, and then writes a book about how we’ve failed his people. That’s a level of guilt I refuse to shoulder, from a guy who’s pretty much shirking it himself.
Reading Hillbilly Elergy was like cycling down a long, unmarked, dead end road. These folks don’t have any good way to move forward, and an awful lot of backtracking just to get on the main road. It also brought me to my personal limits of empathy. Not a comfortable place to be. It also signifies another similarity between the titled hillbilly’s and me. We are imperfect human beings, every one of us.