Review Essay: White Like Them
Books Reviewed in this Essay:
Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York, NY: The New Press, 2016.
Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York, NY: Viking Press, 2016.
J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2016.
These three books all arrived about the same time that pollsters started to realize that the non-college educated white and mostly rural population might exert a strong influence on the 2016 Presidential election. Indeed, they delivered Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin in addition to the usual conservative Southern strongholds to Donald Trump, and in the process decided the election. Although none of the three are about the 2016 election specifically, all three speak to one crucial segment of Trump supporters—low-income and low-status white people. J.D. Vance gives us an insider’s perspective, having grown up in low-income Appalachian culture in Kentucky, and later transplanted to Middletown, Ohio, one of the many (now formerly) industrial-town destinations of the Appalachian diasporas of the 20th Century. We see these diasporas and much more in Nancy Isenberg’s journey through the historical making of a permanent “white trash” underclass. She frequently and fluently integrates primary sources into the narrative, which capture and convey a feel for the culture over the 400-year span indicated in the title. Isenberg shows us the changes and the remarkable consistencies since the first English settlements in North America. In contrast to both Isenberg and Vance, Arlie Hochschild is the outsider, a professor at (as she reminds us) an elite university (UC-Berkeley) who ventures out to understand the Tea Partiers and others in Louisiana who are seemingly so different and alien to her own experiences in the Berkeley enclave.
Despite her intentions, Strangers in Their Own Land is really about Hochschild’s personal journey into so-called ‘dark Africa’; like her 19th century forefathers from imperial Europe, she is the civilized scholar out to study the allegedly primitive savages. Like a 21st century white man’s burden, she nobly (at least in her mind) endeavors over and over to grasp the worldview of the local primitives—she is determined by gum, even if it takes her ten trips over five years. In the opening chapter, “Traveling to the Heart,” she compares student groups at UC-Berkeley to those at Louisiana State University. Guess which one is far more liberal (or conservative) than the other? She notes many contrasts between Berkeley and Louisiana, right down to the ingredients in the complimentary moisturizing lotion at Aunt Ruby’s Bed and Breakfast in Lake Charles, Louisiana (p. 22). My goodness, it has artificial ingredients that can also be found in manufactured plastics! I’m sure that’s true, but not everyone can afford the high-end organic fair-trade personal care products (like Hochschild and myself). As if that weren’t bad enough, one man fails to appreciate Berkeley’s proud academic standing or its seventy-two Nobel Laureates (by Jove, I didn’t know it was that many, and I’m an academic myself. Wow!). Then she wants to entice us with the example of Madonna Massey, a gospel singer who loves Rush Limbaugh and whom she dubs “kindly Madonna.” Reduced to a sweet but dim-witted yokel, this seems no less condescending than Donald Trump’s “little Marco” insult (Senator Marco Rubio is not very tall, which for Trump also indicates diminutive manhood), and much like Trump the exceptional billionaire, Hochschild is the exceptional Berkeley Scholar and not some LSU scrub (ironically, LSU is Isenberg’s home university). Hochschild tells us less about the people she encounters and more about her own prejudices of status and privilege that inhibit even a rudimentary understanding of the people in rural Louisiana. The central unifying question for Hochschild really is: why don’t the small-town people of Louisiana think and act more like my friends and colleagues in Berkeley?
She compiles the politics, attitudes, and cultural tastes in Louisiana into The Great Paradox. We learn that this Paradox has multiple dimensions: Why do poor whites vote for far-right politicians who institute policies that deny them access to education and pollute the environment? Why do poor whites vote against their own economic interest? Why are there no organic vegetarian restaurants in the Louisiana countryside? J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy answers these questions quite directly. Speaking about Middletown, Ohio, he says that
People didn’t leave because our downtown lacked trendy cultural amenities. The trendy cultural amenities left because there weren’t enough consumers in Middletown to support them. And why weren’t there enough well-paying consumers? Because there weren’t enough jobs to employ those consumers (p. 53).
Plain and simple. Hochschild laments the frequent meals at fast food restaurants, as if poor white people prefer that. Maybe they would try something more sophisticated and nutritious if they could afford some level of culinary adventure, that maybe if someone, anyone, at any point in the past 400 years could have afforded it? Eventually, the very notion of a good life ceases to exist. After Yale Law School, Vance developed tastes beyond The Cracker Barrel, his previous ideal of fine dining, because he could afford better food and to indulge more sophisticated tastes. He never knew, for example, that there was more than one kind of white wine.
Without delivering a literature review here, suffice to say that extensive research and theory looks into the very questions (perhaps not the dearth of vegetarian cuisine) that Hochschild seems to think are brand new—work that includes The Authoritarian Personality from 1950—ironically, part of the Berkeley Studies housed at Hochschild’s home institution. If she doesn’t like the Critical Theory approach, she could find many others, but that assumes her goal is to understand the people she meets and the culture she experiences.
Instead, she surmises as she goes, wondering if the key to understanding The Great Paradox might be in environmental issues such as exposure to pollution, which she says reveals the “Least Resistant Personality” (p. 80). This alleged personality consists of an eight-point profile, which in essence describe an uneducated, conservative, small-town person. One thing that apparently doesn’t matter is class, although she mentioned earlier that the poorer the state, the less regulated it was likely to be. Maybe the explanation is much simpler, that people in the poorest states are more desperate? J.D. Vance thinks so.
Without resolving The Great Paradox, Hochschild moves on to even more profound insight, “The Deep Story.” Beginning with chapter 8, she tells us that the locals are given to conspiracies, having noticed for example that President Obama’s flag pin was indeed a very small pin (p. 140) although she doesn’t attribute this to a real person. Following this sort of imaginative example, she presents a dramaturgical narrative of her own invention that leads us “behind the deep story” (p. 146) where she considers the issues of race, gender, and class, but only for five pages total for all three variables. How remarkably deep! Maybe the Deep Story and the Great Paradox are not so deep or great, or maybe the discussion is gratuitous and she has little to say?
From there, the book concludes with several social-psychological types, or I should say, stereotypes: the team player, the worshipper, the cowboy, and the rebel—stock characters from b-movies or mid-century westerns. Always sensitive to the people she studies, these somewhat more polite terms for the locals replace such terms as “crazy redneck,” “white trash,” and ignorant Southern Bible-thumper” (p. 144)—designations they resent (should we presume there are people somewhere who wouldn’t mind those monikers?). The “Cowboy,” for example, embodies stoicism, as she summarizes her archetype Donny McCorquodale: “I’m strong. You’re strong. Mother Nature is strong. We can take it” (p. 189). The Cowboy is the survivor who bears any burden and never complains. To find out more about this type, she might begin with Rupert Wilkinson’s American Tough, or J.A. Mangan’s Manufacturing Masculinity or something that speaks to the broader culture she witnessed, such as Dean Manders’ The Hegemony of Common Sense: Wisdom and Mystification in Everyday Life. I don’t expect that she would read everything that might be relevant, but she has apparently read almost nothing. Why research a topic when you can freely speculate? Throughout the book, Hochschild establishes categories, changes and reformulates them, adds to them, but in the end, her final text is more like a collection of field notes, or not even that—more like a personal travel journal. Not until Appendix A does she reveal the scholarly angle, what “research sociologists describe as ‘exploratory’ and ‘hypothesis generating’” research (p. 247). The “something” that she wants to hypothesize about is “the emotional draw of right-wing politics.” OK then. Why not consult at least some of the mountains of research on this topic? We are several decades past the “exploratory” stage (which started in the 1930s) with people like Erich Fromm, Wilhelm Reich, and Kurt Lewin, and extensive empirical research that culminated with the aforementioned Berkeley Studies. We are past an intermediate middle to late 20th century stage with the work of people like Richard Hofstadter, Richard Slotkin (who wrote three volumes on the Cowboy type) and well into the advanced stages with scholars such as Bob Altemeyer, Gerda Lederer, Charles Pierce, and Jonathan Haidt (whom in my view she misrepresents on page 15), or journalists and former political staffers such as Chris Hedges and Mike Lofgren. These few happen to be among my favorites, but there are many, many more, including hundreds of relevant empirical studies of all methodological varieties.
Hochschild closes the book with expressions of celebratory gratitude towards her rather extensive staff of graduate students, friends, colleagues and of course the people who opened their lives to her.
As it turns out, Hochschild’s equally well-educated but differently experienced counterpart in the form of J.D. Vance relied on no support staff, and feels no particular sense of celebration. Although he worked his way out of the backwoods poverty and culture that so fascinates Hochschild, he presents himself far more humbly than The Berkeley Scholar:
…I’ve accomplished nothing great in my life, certainly nothing that would justify a complete stranger paying money to read about it. The coolest thing I’ve done, at least on paper, is graduate from Yale Law School…But about two hundred people do the same thing every year…I am not a Senator, a governor, or a former cabinet secretary. I haven’t started a billion-dollar company or a world-changing non-profit. I have a nice job, a happy marriage, a comfortable home, and two lively dogs (p. 1).
Vance realizes the tragic irony—“I write this book because I’ve achieved something quite ordinary, which doesn’t happen to most kids who grew up like me (p. 1). Born into the poverty of Appalachian Kentucky, later transplanted to an Ohio rust-belt town, Vance vaguely fits Hochschild’s Cowboy category, stoic in a way, but her limited conceptualizations cannot contain the exuberance that Vance and everyone else we see in his life express.
Among the many exuberant and, in Vance’s words, deeply flawed characters that shaped his upbringing, his Mamaw (Bonnie Vance) shaped him the most. She taught young J.D. about his people, their sense of honor, and like any honor code, the need to maintain a personal reputation of toughness. Examples abound, most of which no one regards as abusive or improper. On the contrary, Mamaw emphasized early on that sometimes you need to fight, and not just in self-defense but because it is the right thing to do (p. 68). In elementary school, J.D. decided to stand up to Chris, the school bully, who was tormenting an awkward little kid and making him cry every day. Mamaw taught J.D. to hit him right in the gut, right on the belly button, and remember to turn your hips into it. Chris went down with one shot and spit up blood. J.D. got a good talking to and had to practice writing instead of going out to the playground, but apparently, the school felt, like Mamaw, that Chris the bully got what he deserved.
Violence permeates life in Appalachian culture. Vance recounts numerous cases of drunken fights, and some particular cases when Mamaw and Papaw (who also fought in WWII) tried to kill someone who insulted the family honor. In one particularly vivid example, a truck driver named Big Red once told J.D.’s Uncle Pet, who owned a lumber mill, to hurry and load the truck, ‘you son of a bitch.’ Uncle Pet asked the man to speak more kindly about his mother. When Big Red refused, Uncle Pet beat him unconscious and then ran an electric saw over his body (p. 14-15). Big Red nearly bled to death, but he refused to cooperate with police. As a mountain man himself, he also lived by the honor code.
In mountain culture, family means “a chaotic life in big groups of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins” (p. 69). J.D.’s mom married a guy named Bob, her third husband, who was not a mountain man, and Mamaw disliked him. He saw Mamaw and Papaw as scary hillbillies, and in some ways, they were: they carried a loaded gun always, and both had tried to kill more than one person (apparently true) rather than seek justice through the law. In their domestic fights, Bob often used Mom’s background against her, but Mom never became the victim, either. J.D. witnessed most of the fights, and learned that slapping and punching was OK as long as the man didn’t hit first. This all seemed typical growing up, because all the households seemed to be this way. Such confrontations took their toll in his family just like in all the others—Mom started to party to escape her ugly marriage, and partying led to constant drinking, which led to a suicide attempt. Later, a guy named Chip replaced Bob, then Steve moved in, and then mom and J.D. moved in with Matt, and then with Ken and his three kids. In J.D.’s view, Mamaw instilled some of the better qualities from the mountains, such as loyalty and self-reliance, while protecting him from substance abuse and bad influences. When he moved in with her (and no one else) in the tenth grade, the sanctuary she provided saved his life. From then on, he could focus on schoolwork and make some decent friends. She forbade him to hang out with any of the pot-smokers, and if she ever caught one of them hanging around the house, she threatened to run him over with her car. “No one would ever find out who did it,” she stated menacingly (p. 154). Not surprisingly, J.D. lost interests in drugs, and no longer feared going home at the end of the school day. Yet Mamaw’s love superseded her menace; she fiercely protected J.D., encouraged him, comforted him, and unlike many others from places like Jackson, KY, lived up to her values.
Beyond personal anecdotes, Vance places his life in the context of the larger culture and its rife contradictions. No one likes to admit that they don’t regularly attend church, but the region has among the lowest church attendance in the nation and among the highest rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, interpersonal violence, and poverty. J.D. says that childhood was often enjoyable, but he makes no attempt to glorify his culture, a world of “truly irrational behavior. …Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans. …Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other…at least one member of the family uses drugs—sometimes the mother, sometimes the father, sometimes both…At especially stressful times we hit and punch each other, all in front of the rest of the family” (p. 146-147). Most of the time, they express some sort of remorse, “but then we act just as mean a few days later” (p. 147). He further explains that most people preach personal responsibility and the value of hard work, but then don’t practice it. If they get fired for tardiness or stealing, it’s the supervisor’s fault for being an asshole. Obama or some other hated politician closed the mines (it could never be that coal is no longer economically viable). “These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance” (p. 149) Vance writes, the difference between profession of religious faith and actual practice, the difference between professions of hard work and the personal choices necessary to hold a good job, the willingness to fight for family honor and at the same time break the family apart with drugs and violence. There is no Great Paradox or Deep Story, but instead a very manifest social dysfunction that creates a disempowering and brutal ambivalence towards life.
Whereas Vance recounts the history of the region from time to time as a backdrop for his personal story, Nancy Isenberg focuses directly on the history of the underclass, a history of disempowerment—something more profound than poverty or any one or several social problems. After 400 years, the people of the underclass envision their tough existence as legitimate, even desirable, to the extent that hillbillies attach “a remarkable stigma to people who have left the hills of Kentucky for a better life” (p. 30). The cognitive dissonance that Vance recognized is not really dissonant if contradictions are the normative standard. The culture of disempowerment teaches its victims not only to accept that life is hard, but that life is contradictory, meaningless, and ultimately hopeless. As Isenberg shows, the “white trash” of today descended from a wide assortment of people all looking for a better life in the colonies, and then in the wilderness as the country pushed westward. Forced from the land through enclosure movements of the 1600 and 1700s, then forced to pay for their Atlantic passage through indentured servitude, migrant peasant farmers either remained indentured the rest of their life or fled into the Appalachians, the forests of the Midwest, and later, across the Mississippi, always towards the wilderness beyond the reach of the law. Without legal title, these wilderness people could rely only on themselves to survive against nature, hostile Native-Americans, and wealthy landowners with title in hand and the force of law. Low social status and suspicious hostility toward government started with the first colonies. Called crackers and squatters, landless migrants became synonymous with ignorance and mindless brawn whose “only real gift he received from his country was the liberty to keep moving” (p. 107) and stay one step ahead of the law.
The distance between town and the backwoods became a measure of class, education, and stability. Some notable figures arose from the impoverished backwoods, such as Davey Crockett and Andrew Jackson, men who made their reputations through personal toughness and killing. After election to the House of Representatives, Crockett became an ardent opponent of the land speculators and plantation masters (whose interests Jackson championed) and who routinely drove off the squatters. Despite the class conflict that Crockett exposed, his vernacular speeches in the House and elsewhere became the fodder of satirists and an excuse to intensify prosecution of squatters; Crockett became living proof of the uncultured cracker who could not be trusted to own a homestead. Andrew Jackson embodied many of the same characteristics, but unlike Crockett the hunter and trapper, Jackson preferred to kill people. As President, the Indian Removal Bill forced the relocation of the Cherokee and other ‘civilized’ tribes which produced the Trail of Tears and various other slaughters of Native-Americans and later, of Spanish settlers in Florida. Jackson executed his own men whenever he felt like it (p. 123), and maintained authority through terror. In the political realm, he managed to sell acts of genocide and terror as virtuous backwoods toughness and patriotism, and at the same time support the speculators and other big money interests which achieved two goals of the landed class—removal of Native-Americans and squatters, and property requirements in order to vote (which lasted until 1857). By the time their hero died in 1845, Andrew Jackson had turned the squatters into settled tenant farmers to generate revenue for the landlords. With the legal right to work the land they rented but with no greater prosperity, the veneer of the tenant farmer quickly wore away in favor of the contemporary term—white trash (p. 135).
In New England and the Midwest, the squatter either morphed into or was replaced by the family farmer who owned the land and the business. ‘White trash’ tenant farmers lived mostly in the South, but the social role and the term would later spread along the frontier and in the mountains where subsistence farming also continued. For Isenberg, the Civil War was equally about race and class. Would poor Southern whites support the wealthy plantation owners? Isenberg answers that Jefferson Davis and other Southern patricians invoked honor and manhood to rally poor whites to the Southern cause. This created a dilemma, because backcountry types seemed to have more in common with other landless and uneducated people, namely poor Yankees, Native-Americans, and even African slaves. The dilemma became more acute when the backwoods Abraham Lincoln became President, a man born in Kentucky very close to his eventual political rival Jefferson Davis. Southern aristocrats feared that Northern economic opportunity might win over poor whites, so they employed newspapers and orators to depict Lincoln as a poor man born in a slave state, and alluded to his allegedly questionable parentage with epithets such as the “Illinois Ape” and a “mudsill spawned in prairie mud,” someone born to serve and inherently unfit to lead. In contrast, Jefferson Davis was high-born, a West Pointer from a patrician family, a man born to rule over people like Lincoln (p. 167). The Civil War united race and class, but in the process race effectively eclipsed class in American culture, and this legacy continues today.
Isenberg thus sees an intersection that both conceals class beneath race but also exalts whiteness as superior and legitimates patrician wealth and power, an intersection that simultaneously condemns blackness and white trash failure, but also dismisses any level of success they manage to achieve as dumb luck or as perversion above their station. If the contemporary American worldview insists that anyone can prosper and become rich if they are willing to work for it, Isenberg sees this as an American adaptation of early British colonialism, that while everyone can allegedly become whatever they want in life, some will naturally be more successful than others because breeding counts. As late Nineteenth and early twentieth century eugenics claimed, everyone has a ‘natural’ place in the magical meritocracy of the American Promised Land. Mythical science and economics reinvented class distinctions into a new type of American aristocracy—“the Democrats swooned over Kennedy’s Camelot, and Republicans ennobled the Hollywood court of Ronald Reagan” (p. 310).
In her own way, Arlie Hochschild embodies the academic aristocrat, and she writes for others of her class, whether in or out of the academy. In contrast, Nancy Isenberg writes for the activist scholar and looks to fire up anyone concerned about contemporary politics and culture. When Hochschild concludes that people living on contaminated land become the “least resistant personality,” she pledges her allegiance to the long lineage of aristocrats who condemned “the clay-eaters” with “sunburned necks” for making bad choices and who “are blamed for living on bad land, as if they had other choices” as Isenberg retorts (p. 320). Vance has no pretentions of profound insight and leaves the poignancy of luck and love to speak for itself. Cloaked in the regalia of the elite institution, Hochschild’s book remains a desultory anecdotal treatise. Even if she assigned the relevant literature to her graduate students, she would still need to think about it and engage with the commoners of tier II institutions and lower. Much easier to speculate. Apparently, LSU’s status confers no such right of speculation and instead requires that Nancy Isenberg assemble and critically evaluate factual knowledge about Hochschild’s bayou people and everywhere else the impoverished underclass carries on with fatalistic perseverance.
Beside the exploitation as cheap labor, expendable soldiers in the service of empire, the targets of predatory mortgages and payday loans, and the votes for politicians who legislate against their interests, the people of the hollers and swamps, of the mountains and the woods have survived it all. They have also created some uniquely American music. Folk, country, jazz, blues, bluegrass, gospel, rockabilly and rock’n’roll all hail from the downtrodden and oppressed people of North America. The musical stories of joy, tragedy, and survival may be small recompense, but if nothing else, many of us look to their words and music for comfort and hope. All three of these books are bestsellers, so maybe interest can lead to understanding, maybe to mobilization, and even to unity among everyone who ever has to worry about employment, healthcare, education, and a decent place to call home.
George Lundskow teaches in the Department of Sociology at Grand Valley State University.