On ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the wake of November 2016 and with a GOP-controlled federal government, many of us from the progressive movement—myself included—questioned how large swaths of the United States continue to elect officials who advance legislation that effectively harms those most in need. They appear to vote against their own self-interests. But, why and how?

JD Vance’s memoir allows a glimpse into the realities for those from the holler—Appalachia and the Rust Belt, regions which overwhelmingly supported the likes of Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

Vance’s tale is one of family, and one which left me muttering, ‘oh no’ and ‘oh dear’ again and again. It is not a rosy or happy tale for much of the book, and parts of his narrative are difficult to read given how utterly awful it is to imagine as a child’s life. Yet, Vance escaped a cycle of substance abuse, physical and emotional trauma and countless uncertainties commonplace within his community and family. His journey, by his own account, is unimaginably unlikely, and he considers himself unbelievably lucky to have not just graduated from a university (the first in his family to do so), but to also have been accepted to and excelled at a leading law school, Yale Law. It is an incredibly unlikely story of the American Dream fulfilled.

Yet, he also poignantly and carefully paints a reality for those of us unaware of the life of those in the holler, even those who left the hills and valleys of Appalachia for jobs in the Rust Belt. Jobs which now no longer exist and no longer guarantee hillbillies or the working class in general a life better than that of their parents. His own mother faired worse than his grandparents, a reality his grandparents apparently struggled with as well. For those like Vance, achieving the American Dream of upward mobility is less a dream than a drug-fuelled pipe dream. That understanding—that working hard increasingly means little towards escaping poverty—intertwines with the physical and emotional pain experienced by many amongst his social and cultural network both in Middletown, Ohio and the hills of Kentucky. Increasingly, dependency on opiates became the norm and the primary means of escape, a heart-breaking reality that becomes inescapable for many and has resulted in far too many overdose deaths to younger and younger cohorts. The life he now lives offered many opportunities to him, whilst simultaneously presenting so many unknowns and uncomfortable moments. He now occupies two social classes, separated worlds away from one another. He didn’t just receive an education in law; he survived an incredibly steep learning curve into the world of the those born to privilege.

I don’t share much of Vance’s world view nor can I really fully understand the life he has lived thus far. Yet, much of this book resonated with me. And, much of what he has to say about how to address the shrinking idealism of the American Dream and how we can recover some of the ideological distance that divides our discussions today made sense to me. Rather than focusing on what divides us, perhaps we can all retrain our lens on what unites us. It may be a seemingly insignificant or impossible task taken at the individual level. But, each individual action and reaction when taken collectively can affect change, at the personal, community and societal levels.

JD Vance’s memoir illustrates this rather nicely, whereby any one of the actions in his own life undoubtedly made a profound difference to where he is now and might have lead him on an entirely and far less hopeful path.

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If the people lead…

The Leaderless Revolution is one of the many books that sits in my to buy / to read list of books. It sits there largely because several folks I respect immensely rather simultaneously and independently posted their reviews of it, and how it has them thinking of what we could accomplish if only unconstrained by structures which inhibit us.

Colour me intrigued.

Last night, also rather randomly, The Cuban queued up for our nightly dose of television a BBC Storyville documentary featuring none other than Carne Ross, the author of this intriguing book. I finally bought the book after about 15 minutes into this documentary. And, I plan to read it immediately upon its arrival.

Communities can not just offer but provide solutions. But we overlook such opportunities because these solutions can’t possibly be that easy or can’t possibly work because no one has ever tried them. Communities often remain unconsidered or an after-thought by those who make decisions, decisions which profoundly affect them. And, by far more often than not, those decisions are made without representatives of specific communities in the sodding room.

No wonder so many projects fail to reach their achievements or to produce the results others have intended or to meet the needs of those they should be helping. As someone who worked in development aid for a number of years, this was and remains all too obvious and tragic. Yet, precious little appears to change.

By contrast, a few indefatigable individuals I am honoured to know have extolled the virtues of anarchist activism for years. They don’t just sing its praises; they are anarchist activists in action.

Currently, through their efforts aimed at reducing opioid overdose deaths in their communities (in this case, Toronto), they are demonstrating just how incredible community-level activism alongside a little anarchism can effect change, hugely and positively impact local-level communities, and confront power structures we typically cower to or eventually relent to.

Briefly, as city-level structures (pardon the pun) drug their feet to implement any action as overdose deaths continued to not just occur but increase, these harm reduction policy activists sprung into action and opened a pop-up injection site in a community park. This action resulted from inaction and in part out of desperation. They were tired of seeing their friends and community members die. And, they knew definitively what to offer the community in order to prevent further deaths. By supervising injecting drug use, they can help prevent deadly overdoses immediately and call for medical assistance if necessary or needed. An added bonus is the on-the-spot outreach to those who may otherwise exist beyond the reach of health and social services. Services and the space are provided without judgement and without conditions placed on those seeking them, all within the community where it is most needed.

Within one week of opening up the pop-up site, they had reversed five likely fatal overdoses. They had also distributed overdose prevention kits to many, many, many others.

This may seem rather small-scale. But, imagine: within a single week, five of your friends died. And, you had the tools to help prevent those deaths but they were locked away by someone beyond your own community.

What would you do? Would you wait for public (e.g., city, state or national level governmental) action? Or would you do what you could to prevent any further deaths?

I’m not necessarily convinced that government is entirely bad. Indeed, I still believe in public institutions on various levels. But, clearly, we—all of us—face some serious obstacles given how power structures currently overwhelmingly favour those with power and money. Those who are already in the room. Given that so many decisions are made which impact those of us not in various rooms, something clearly needs to change. Perhaps we need different rooms with fewer ‘big men’ and ‘important women’ standing at the front.

Perhaps, if the people lead, the leaders will follow.

 

Let’s not talk about politics

A friend of mine just shared this particular comic with me, and it could not have been more appropriate.

politics

©Emily McGovern. Brilliant image capturing how I suspect many are feeling at this particular moment. For more, visit http://emilymcgovern.com/category/comics/.

Feel familiar?

So far today, I’ve read more about the President’s damn tweets, more on potential collusion between Russian hackers and various Trump campaign officials, the assault on access to healthcare that is the GOP/Trump plan to reverse Obamacare, the completely unstaffed Science Division of the White House as of yesterday,  and the rather bizarre request for voter registration information from each state based on misinformation non-existent evidence of ‘widespread’ voter fraud within the US voting system.

I’m exhausted and it’s not even 9.00 on Saturday. And, we’re not even six months into this administration’s first term?

There’s too much. Too much noise and nonsense news and misdirection. As disgusting and demeaning as our current President’s tweets are, the agendas being pushed through as we’re all distracted by his unbecoming behaviour are even more infuriating. For instance, one little tidbit buried in news headlines is a lovely provision in a spending bill currently in the House. This provision would eliminate funding to the IRS to enforce a law prohibiting churches and other non-profits which are tax exempt from endorsing specific candidates for public office. (The law is known as the Johnson Amendment and was signed into law by President Eisenhower.) I don’t mind if churches and other non-profits want to enter the political fray; many already have. I do mind if they want to continue to claim their tax-exempt status.

And, down the political news rabbit hole I go…

My husband and I try to step away from our computers and work and other nonsense each day. On our peripatetic bonding time-out each evening, we typically experience a moment eerily akin to that captured in the image above. Particularly that last panel.

We support evidence-based policies.

We support policies which uphold and respect the human rights and dignity of all rather than a select few.

We support funding for the arts and sciences because they typically assist, benefit and enlighten more than a few, if not today then in future.

And, more than that, we support respectful, open and fact-based discussions on how to move forward on any particular issue.

I don’t for a moment believe that all those with opposing views to my own are idiots. I just wish the discussions about various policies wouldn’t assume that all of us are idiots.

Forget the bloody tweets. Let’s get back to what’s happening with and on specific policies. Precisely because it is so damn infuriating and exhausting.

Our loss of compassion

This. This article hit home.

I’ve lost count of the number of people I know who have put up a GoFundMe or other fundraising effort to help subsidise their or their family member’s life-threatening illnesses. And, like many, I’m bloody tired of having endless discussions about the politics of fear and greed.

I’m beyond enraged that individuals who have dedicated their time to work for employers who tell them they need to go on disability (at which point they lose their benefits and income) because of a chronic condition. I’m beyond incredulous how an employer can simply fire individuals because they are sick—too sick—to work, thus eliminating their benefits entirely (in one case, whilst the woman, who worked for corporate giant Radio Shack for 30 years, was on life support fighting for her own life).

I am beyond enraged when ‘leaders’ like Speaker Paul Ryan say that these same people simply don’t want to buy insurance. Never mind these people whom I know and care about deeply made every effort to ensure they have the coverage they need. What does Speaker Ryan think my beloved mother-in-law, well into her 80s, should do? What about an individual with dementia? What about a child born with a congenital birth defect?

There’s an element of American society that I don’t remember after living abroad for nearly 20 years. Not everyone mind, but a healthy enough proportion of us have become unimaginably cruel. Unless and until it happens to them, certain individuals seem to delight in the pain and suffering and hardships faced by others. It’d be bad enough if we simply turned a blind eye to that suffering. But, even within political discussions these days, the level of delight in watching others fail or flounder astounds me. It’s sad—so incredibly sad. For all of us.

I don’t have my own children, but I want all children to have equitable access to quality education without putting themselves or their families in debt. Why? Because I want those children to grow up equipped to become productive and engaged members of society.

I am healthy and have (touch wood) never really experienced any dire or life-threatening issues. But, I also want universal healthcare for all of my fellow Americans because I understand that ill-health and unfortunate accidents can happen to anyone. Accessing treatment shouldn’t be a privilege for those fortunate enough to have money or a privileged position within society. Like it or not, we all get sick or can. And, no-one should be forced to choose between food or shelter or health care for their loved one. Everyone’s life is priceless to someone else.

People matter. Individuals matter. Any one individual may not matter to me personally, but that isn’t what’s important. Understanding that we all have some worth or merit or characteristic which makes us priceless to others is what drives my own compassion and empathy. And, understanding that my own happiness does not come from ignoring my compassion for others guides my support for particular policies and practices. I want others to be happy just as I want to be happy myself.

To me, sitting over here in my socialist, high-tax, high-quality life in Finland where kids are exceptionally educated and health care is available to all for pennies, the US looks a lot less compassionate than I remember.  As angry as I am, I am far, far sadder. And I suspect, I am far from alone in this sadness.

Compassion_FuneralCall

What have we become?

I’ve long been a political junkie and intrigued by current events. Even as a child, I loved watching the news and programmes like MacNeil/Lehrer Report, News Hour and 60 Minutes (when Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, Diane Sawyer and Morley Safer graced the screen) were the highlights of my weeks and treats after finishing my homework and chores. NPR remains both a trusted friend and guilty pleasure, depending upon my to-do lists and the time of day I’m tuning in.

Most likely, even before I understood the divisions between political parties, I leaned left. As a lone liberal in a family of conservatives, I learned early to expect heated discussions when it came to things like public education and social services; health care; interventionist wars and the US’s place and role within the United Nations; women’s rights; LGBTQ rights; guns and gun regulations; and, everyone’s favourite, taxes. Little did I know our discussions of immigration would become so personal later in life. But, that’s a separate issue entirely.

I’ve always been and probably always will be left of centre—to some, far, far left of centre. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the necessity of healthy opposition. Nor does it mean that I have no respect for certain historical members of the Grand Old Party—I greatly admire figures like Presidents Lincoln and Eisenhower, and more recently Senator Olivia Snowe and at one point Senator John McCain. But, finding any member of the GOP today with whom I can agree is increasingly difficult if not altogether impossible. Not just because of their policies. Because of their complicity. Because of their insistence on putting party over principle or integrity or country. Because of a basic lack of decency. Because of their silence in the face of absurdity.

What happened to the GOP? At what point did punching a journalist who asked a policy-related question that affects voters become ‘okay’? And, why did no other member of the GOP immediately and quite clearly condemn this act of violence?

Even as a leftist snowflake, I assure you, had a Democrat or Green or beloved leftist liberal slammed a reporter to the ground, punched him/her and then lied about it, I’d certainly never support said candidate. I’d demand those in leadership positions within that party immediately and unequivocally condemn such acts and force said individual to resign. A person who resorts to violence in the face of opposition has no business serving as an elected official nor does s/he belong in public service.

We need healthy discussions. We need healthy debate. Asking a candidate his/her position on a bill—any bill—that affects those they’re ‘representing’ is not beyond reasonable nor does it come close to being antagonistic or harassing. Yet, increasingly, conservative officials, elected and appointed, are doing exactly what the leader of the GOP has encouraged its members to do: attack or arrest journalists who ask questions they simply don’t like.

Greg Gianforte

By Adam Zyglis: Greg Gianforte. From The Buffalo News, published 26 May 2017.

This is not the Grand Old Party I admire and respect, nor is it the Grand Old Party we as a country need.

President Eisenhower, the last Republican President I truly admire (despite disagreeing with him on various issues), had this to say about leadership:

You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.

Indeed.

When the leaders of one party let alone the leader of our country dismiss such acts of violence, people listen and individuals act.

Whilst not necessarily directly related, events in Oregon last night are far more troubling. Two men lost their lives simply for standing up and defending fellow passengers enduring racists slurs from a man empowered to voice his hate-filled vile.

What happened to us? At what point did we decide that we can end disagreements with and through violence and that this was now an acceptable option? And, at what point will we wake up and demand better for ourselves and those who ‘represent’ us?

Where an ‘I love you’ text is a crime

A week ago, a man in Cameroon died. Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, who was only 34 years young, died of complications and lack of treatment for a hernia. As if this wasn’t tragic enough, Roger died needlessly and senselessly after having to live in hiding and knowing that his family wanted to remove the ‘curse’ which plagued him. Why?

Because he was gay.

Roger was jailed under Cameroon’s anti-gay legislation in 2011 for sending a text message to a man which read, ‘I’m very much in love with you’. He was sentenced to three years in prison, and later released on medical grounds. He lived in hiding upon release and some reports suggest he was barred from receiving medical treatment. Even his family said that it would be better to just let him die.

Because he was gay. Because he loved a man and declared that love.

There are far, far too many countries in which individuals who do not fit the ‘norm’ face criminal charges for simply declaring an emotion which should bring joy, happiness and hope. Depending upon how you classify both country and legislation, a total of 83 countries (84 if you count Russia) have laws which place strict limitations on the human rights freedoms to those citizens who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender. That’s 84 too many. Imagine living in a place where you cannot declare your love for another human being. Where you cannot show your love for another human being. Where you are not free to love and show that love for whom you wish.

With all of the attention Russia and President Putin have been quite rightly getting given the upcoming Olympic games, perhaps we can also shine a spotlight on all those other countries in which LGBT men and women face prison, discrimination and stigma on a daily basis simply for being who they are. This includes Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda and 35 other African nations (although the Ugandan law has not been signed by the president as of this morning). These are only the countries from one continent in which laws exist making it a crime to be gay. Let’s not forget the Americas, Asia, and, yes, Europe. As we in the developed North applaud the steady march towards marriage equality in the United States, the spread of laws which criminalise homosexuality continue and with them stigma, discrimination and hatred become more common and, in a way, legally sanctioned and institutionalised.

Despite Putin’s claims that the Sochi games will be welcoming to all athletes and free of discrimination in any form, what about the remainder of Russia outside the Olympic bubble? Actions, and in this particular case, legislation speak infinitely louder than words. So loud in fact that 27 Nobel laureates and Sir Ian McKellen (aka Gandalf) have penned a letter asking President Putin to reconsider the anti-gay propaganda law. Once the Olympic torch is extinguished, I’m dubious that anything will change, and suspect that things for Russia’s LGBT community may in fact become more grim.

But, what of those other countries in which the laws are even harsher? What of those countries who punish their LGBT citizens with decades long or even life prison sentences? What of those countries where being gay carries the death penalty? Where is the outrage? Where is the international support? Where are the protest letters from those 27 Nobel laureates and knighted actors?

In some parts of the world, undoubtedly we’ve come a long, long way towards making it safe and legal for all to love whom they love, openly and without fear (or, as it should be). But, as the senseless and tragic case of Roger Jean-Claude Mbede illustrates all too cruelly, we still have a very long way to go.

The Anti-Gay World (pinched from Buzzfeed)

The Anti-Gay World
(pinched from Buzzfeed)

Come on, Texas. Really?

I’ve written before about my connection to that most unique state, Texas. Today’s post sadly isn’t one which fills me with state pride.

Since seeing the tragic news a few days ago about Marlise Munoz, a 33-year-old brain dead woman who is forcibly being kept alive to serve, quite bluntly, as an incubator, has me speechless. Ms Munoz by all accounts is unable to live without full life support and will not recover. Her husband and parents want to take her off of life support and have wished to do so since learning that there is no brain stem activity. She herself had previously said that she did not want to be kept alive in a vegetative state. So, why is she now on life support against the wishes of her family and her own living will?

She was 14-weeks pregnant when she collapsed.

In Texas, life-sustaining treatment can not be withdrawn or withheld from a pregnant woman regardless of how far along she is in her pregnancy. As of 2012, similar strict laws surrounding end-of-life care for pregnant women existed in 12 states in the US, according to a 2012 study by the Centre for Women Policy Studies. (These states are Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.) Thus, even if an advance directive exists stipulating that a woman does not wish to remain on life support if she is considered brain dead, the state has the right to keep her on life-sustaining support if she is pregnant. Her wishes for a dignified death are unimportant and she is essentially rendered an incubator. This is precisely what has happened to Ms Munoz.

Had she been further along in her pregnancy, I might find this more understandable. But, she was still in her first trimester when she was classified as ‘legally’ dead. She suffered from a lack of oxygen for an extended period of time, which most likely also affected the foetus. But, nevermind that.

What really gets me is the medical bills. Since it is the hospital’s decision to keep Ms Munoz on life support , you would think that the costs would fall on the administration. No. The bills will ultimately go to her family. With an average cost of US$4004 per day, already the bill is quite steep (~US$170 000 already at least). And, that’s just for the intensive care unit bill. But, this does not necessarily include the costs of the ambulance, emergency room and other various services and service providers, specialists, etc. undoubtedly used since she first collapsed on 26 November. All of these add to that already hefty bill and in the absence of a national healthcare system. For what?

My understanding is that, currently, the hospital is waiting until the foetus has developed further to determine if they will keep Ms Munoz on life support further and what additional actions they will take. Should tests reveal that the foetus is brain dead, what next? Who will be responsible for providing long-term care to that foetus/infant? The family? Or the hospital? Or the state of Texas?

Without delving into the pro-life / pro-choice debate, this case in particular fills me with sadness for the family of Ms Munoz, but also for Ms Munoz herself. Her dignity as a human and as a woman specifically has been diminished so greatly. She expressed her wishes to not be put on life support should she lose brain function. Her wishes have been ignored completely all for the sake of a foetus which may or may not survive to birth, and may or may not itself be brain dead.

In the words of her father, she is a ‘host’ at this point, not a woman or a mother. In cases like this, it’s hard to see that women are valued within society as anything but incubators when the rights of a foetus are placed so clearly above those of the mother. And, if we can fight so fiercely for the well-being of a foetus before it enters the world, why do we not then provide that same level of care and concern for the child it becomes?

Clearly, medical technology has advanced at an amazing rate, so much so that the ethics of our options have not completely sunk in and we have yet to philosophically ponder let alone come up with solutions / answers which work for all of us given our varied beliefs and moral compasses. Yet, I would hope that we would at the very least put the dignity of an individual, especially when spelled out when one is capable of still making such decisions, above all else.

For now, my thoughts are with the Munoz family. Suffering such a loss is bad enough. Having to relive it each and every day in such a viscous, callous and myopic way is unthinkable. May they be able to finally and definitively grieve sooner rather than later.