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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On ‘Strength to Love’

Strength To LoveStrength To Love by Martin Luther King Jr.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’.

This quote more than any other moves me, and serves as a reminder that tolerating injustices of any kind, whether directed at me or at others, represents an incredibly slippery slope.

Nearly 50 years after his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr remains a voice of strength and love and compassion aimed at shattering the hatred that justifies racial injustice. Sadly, nearly 50 years later, much of his writings and reflections related to his faith in a loving and just god and the reality of being black in the 1950s and 1960s America ring true today. As a diverse nation, we’ve come some way from the dark days of the civil rights era; but, if the last year has provided me with any sort of measuring stick on where we as a nation now stand, we still have much further to go.

I do not share MLK’s faith. Despite being raised in a Southern Baptist family, their god and the stories in The Bible never really made sense to me. Their god was one to fear, whose wrath was fierce. And, much of the rhetoric I heard justified the supremacy of those like us — white, middle class, privileged. In Strength to Love, MLK uses his faith and scripture to justify justice. To justify love rather than hatred. To justify compassion and inclusion.

So much of this collection of sermons and reflections remain relevant in these times. In a chapter entitled, ‘The man who was a fool’, he states, ‘The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live.’ I couldn’t help but wonder what he would think of our world today, where technology has boomed. I wondered if he would be demonised as a ‘fake news pundit’ or a antifada anarchist. But, I also wondered how powerful these tools could be when coupled with his various messages and teachings, particularly amongst those who share his faith. And, particularly when addressing the various unarmed shootings of young black men by police officers.

He closes this chapter with these words: ‘What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world of externals—airplanes, electric lights, automobiles, and color television—and lose the internal—his own soul?’ I’m not sure where I lie on the existence of a soul, but whilst we in the United States possess so much stuff, I wonder if we haven’t lost which makes us truly rich beyond wealth. More than anything, I can only imagine how much more fortunate (and happier) we’d be if we would only view our fellow citizens as worthy rather than as ideological or racial enemies.

Strength to Love may represent a piece of our past and a long ago moment in our young nation’s history. But, to my mind, it serves as a powerful guide for what we still need to accomplish as individuals and as a nation.

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On a free press

It’s astounding to me that the current President of the United States continues to wage his one-man (or one-party?) war on the press after any and all criticism or negative press is lobbed his way.

Given that a free press is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, I wonder if our Commander in Chief’s attention waned given that it extends beyond 140 characters:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I’ve emphasised the text he might be most interested in. He’s a busy guy, you know. I’ll also give him the benefit of the doubt. It takes a huge amount of time to tweet his own discontent with Senator Corker, various football players and members of the NFL as well as Kim Jong-Un. But, perhaps he’d like to know the thoughts of a few others regarding a free and independent press uninfluenced or uncontrolled by the state.

Perhaps the words of Thomas Jefferson might resonate with him, since they’ve shared the same job title albeit at very different times in our short history:

‘If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe. ― from The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, Volume 9: 1 September 1815 to 30 April 1816

If Mr Jefferson doesn’t help, perhaps he assumes that this is something that can be simply reversed by whomever at a later date:

A freedom given up is not so easily regained.’ ― Rivera Sun, Steam Drills, Treadmills and Shooting Stars – a story of our times

Perhaps he doesn’t understand the potential power of fact-checking or allowing individuals to decide which writers to trust:

‘Let every writer tell his own lies. That’s freedom of the press.’ ― Norman Mailer, Deaths For The Ladies

Or, perhaps he simply can’t tolerate criticism or opposition:

‘Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose’ ― George Orwell

We’re hurtling down an incredibly slippery slope it would seem. And, whilst comparisons to Hitler are insanely cliche, the reality of that slope becomes increasingly chilling:

‘It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.’ ― Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

More than anything, someone needs a reality check. If only the current reality wasn’t quite so terrifying for the rest of us.

Is America great again?

The covers of this week’s Economist, New Yorker, and Time magazines all should give us pause.

The US was great. Despite it’s flaws and oddities and decisions with which I disagree. And, there are more Americans who are truly amazing individuals compared to the vile vermin who’d prefer we all be white and Christian.

But, the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

So, to those 6 in 10 Trump supporters who say they will never disapprove of him, I ask you: Are we great now?

Addendum: Der Spiegel‘s cover this week deserves a place in this post as well. Sigh….

 

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On ‘I Am Not Your Negro’

I Am Not Your NegroI Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ during its only showing in Helsinki a few months ago at a film festival. I knew it would be a powerful documentary and commentary on race in America, both historically during the civil rights era and given contemporary events. I had no idea I’d still be so affected by some of those words and images today.

Given current happenings in the US, and specifically the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, I keep returning to various scenes from the film and the eloquent anger and pain carried through Baldwin’s words, whether calmly spoken and delivered by himself decades ago or narrated by Samuel L Jackson. Medgar, Malcom and Martin were silenced, but Baldwin almost seems alive in the theatre or in the words printed in this book. I can only image how incredibly powerful his planned book would have been. In its absence, I’m grateful to at least have ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, along with all of his other works.

In a fevered state this afternoon, I came across this excerpt, and it seems so appropriate in this moment:

‘You never had to look at me.
I had to look at you.
I know more about you than you know about me.
Not everything that is faced can be changed;
but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

Nothing can be changed until it is faced.

Nearly 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr was shot and killed, we appear to have regressed in our attempts in the US to face the brutal reality in the history of our nation. Until we face that reality—openly and honestly and completely—how many more Charlottesvilles will we witness?

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Lady Liberty

I’m all out of words. So, I’ll borrow a few from the base of Lady Liberty.

The New Colossus

By Emma Lazarus, 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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On ‘Nobody Speak’

It’s rather fitting that my husband chose yesterday to suggest we watch the Netflix documentary, ‘Nobody Speak‘.

It’s frightening to me that large swaths of the United States simply don’t think about the news that they consume. Or demonise all news and media outlets as biased and therefore not worthy of their attention. To my mind, this results in an electorate largely ignorant of what is happening in their own country let alone the world, let alone the complexity of various policy issues affecting their own communities and beyond.

Forget Gawker. What about other media outlets? And, what does the Gawker case tell us about the position of the freedom of the press in the era of Trump?

And, it’s unconscionable that our current president has such a flagrant disdain for the media, and is not only hostile towards specific journalists but actively harasses them. We have a sitting president who actively and as recently as this weekend publicly vilifies journalists who dare question him, never mind any sort of criticism. Parallels to Nixon aside, I find it chilling to witness and more than a little frightening having lived in a country where freedom of the press wasn’t exactly acceptable.

Journalists’ jobs require them to ask questions, even if the individual being questioned doesn’t like it. We, who cherish our first amendment, now have billionaires either bankrolling lawsuits to bankrupt media outlets that write stories they don’t like (e.g., the role of Peter Thiel in Gawker’s demise) or purchasing newspapers and pressuring journalists and reports to not write stories that may put the owners in a less favourable light (Sheldon Adelson’s purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal).

Gawker was annoying at times, and could be completely disgusting, if you ask me. But, in a free society, I had the option to not click on their links. And, most of the time, I didn’t. (I honestly didn’t know there was a Hulk Hogan sex tape—it’s not really something I’d care about at all.) Regardless of my personal opinion as a consumer of news of Gawker , I defend their right to publish stories. I find their intended and orchestrated demise not only tragic but dangerous. Furthermore, I find the pigeon-holing of ‘all who disagree with me as fake news’ trend gut-wrenching, and potentially destructive of that sacred First Amendment I personally feel trumps all others. I have the option to not tune in to sources like Fox News and InfoWars. I’d like that option to remain.

Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the champion of the freedom of the press, clearly understood the importance of a well-informed electorate. As infuriating as it can be to read or consume the news on any one day in this current climate, freedom of the press and its independence from the government as well as its ability to continue asking questions that matter and reporting on stories that we need to know remain paramount. Because, as Jefferson stated,

‘Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.’

NB: For a list of media outlets which focus on news rather than peddling ‘alternative facts’, Forbes put out this list, which I find rather balanced and reliable.