Book Review: What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When you see headlines that begin "In the heart of Trump Country" chances are, you're reading an article about Appalachia written by a journalist who isn’t from there. This often repeated Trump Country narrative, to put it reductively, is usually one of poor uneducated racists with no ambition lashing out in anger against coastal elites, but this, as Elizabeth Catte has said, is, "a bad-faith sleight of hand that displaces the reality that the average Trump voter is a college-educated white individual of some means, not a ‘hillbilly.’”
People often look at Appalachia not as a place but often as a problem needing to be solved. Or worse, a place one can feel superior to. The Appalachia that everybody knows, outside the region anyway, is really an elitist fantasy constructed to perpetuate a narrative that allows for economic and political exploitation. But those same outside interests, in their endless quest to discover how and why poor people swung an election, have only succeeded in raising a far more complex question: why so many Americans needed this Appalachian myth to be true when it wasn’t. Perhaps it’s because Appalachia has long been a place that, as historian Ron Eller described, convinces comfortable, distant white Americans of the “righteousness” of their own lives. In other words it absolves them of any personal responsibility for anything that goes on here. People in regions such as Appalachia have in general always received a type of projected angst from their more comfortable and stable American counterparts.
What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia is an impudent assessment of this more recent fascination with the people and problems of my region. It also analyzes certain trends in contemporary writing on Appalachia before finally presenting a brief history of the region with an eye toward unpacking some of those same monolithic Appalachian stereotypes that have always seemed to be with us. But what this book really is, is an ill conceived, and critically withering response, to J.D. Vance’s 2016 book Hillbilly Elegy.
Catte writes that, “For many conservatives, the beauty of Hillbilly Elegy was not just what it said about the lot of poor white Americans, but what it implied about black Americans as well. Conservatives believed that Hillbilly Elegy would make their intellectual platforming about the moral failures of the poor colorblind in a way that would retroactively vindicate them for viciously deploying the same stereotypes against nonwhite people for decades.” She adds, “In his willingness to present white Appalachians as a distinct ethnic entity, Vance has placed himself in a disturbing lineage of intellectuals who relished what they presumed to be the malleable whiteness of Appalachia for its ability to either prove or disprove cultural beliefs about race. This belief manifests in two ways. The first is the modern conservative impulse to discount the links between structural racism and inequality. Why can’t poor black people get ahead? It’s not racism or the structural inequality caused by racism, many conservatives argue, because then what would explain the realities of poor white people?”
Joshua Rothman, writing in the New Yorker shortly after publication of Vance’s book wrote, “It’s true that, by criticizing “hillbilly culture,” “Hillbilly Elegy” reverses the racial polarity in our debate about poverty; it's also true that, by arguing that the problems of the white working class are partly “cultural,” the book strikes a blow against Trumpism. And yet it would be wrong to see Vance’s book as yet another entry in our endless argument about whether this or that group’s poverty is caused by “economic” or “cultural” factors.”
I myself was born and raised deep within the Appalachian mountains and I can tell you from personal experience, even within my own family, that there are still strong cultural links to a past that does, sometimes at least, hold us back.
What Hillbilly Elegy did was to highlight certain aspects of our way of life that, as Kelli Haywood says, “allow these problems to be ongoing,” adding, “ask the unwed or wedded woman in her 30’s living in the region how many times she’s been asked when she’s going to have a baby whether or not she’s healthy or financially secure. Ask the churchgoer how much their church serves the community and how. While at it, ask them how much they hear politics preached from the pulpit. Ask anyone middle aged or under how many times that they’ve been told by their parents and other elders that if they want to do anything with their life they should leave the mountains. Ask how many feel they have to change the way they speak depending upon who it is they’re speaking to. But, the most troubling of cultural drawbacks we face is the way we deal with problems that cause us to seem weak, embarrassed, or by some standards immoral. We pretend they don’t exist, at least in public. Vance by airing our dirty laundry has triggered the response of people scrambling to show that these problems do not define us. Yet, to those in the thick of these realities, they often do.”
Returning to Joshua Rothman again, “It’s one thing to criticize a culture. It’s another to see that the culture being criticized is formed partly in response to other cultures, and that those cultures are, in turn, worth criticizing. This is why explaining human behavior is so difficult: the buck never stops. The explanations don’t come to an obvious, final resting place. Because it’s honest about this problem, “Hillbilly Elegy” is only partially polemical.”
Of course J.D. Vance doesn’t speak for all of Appalachia and no serious person believes that he does. Those that took a strong offense to his book are those who feel like Vance was telling the wrong story of Appalachia, or not an Appalachian story at all. The more sophisticated writers and activists in the region, Catte included, have attempted to feature some of the more progressive stories of life living in the mountains. But these too are disingenuous and only serves to paint yet another inaccurate portrait of the place that so many call home. No one has the authority to define any region or place and anyone who tries does so based on ideological reasons. That’s how ideologies work. They function by identifying some people as powerless and others as powerful and whoever gets to define what those terms mean gets to control the narrative.
In my view there’s room for Catte and Vance to both be correct. Outside interests have taken advantage of Appalachia and not left much behind. Some families are dysfunctional and some people do mooch off the system in ways that cause resentment in others. But it’s up to readers to compare and contrast these two books and then draw their own conclusions. However this “economics vs. culture” divide needs to be seen for what it is, a dead metaphor, akin to an insidious form of manipulation rather than explanation that’s more likely to conceal the truth than to reveal it. I think Vance’s book is an understated scream of protest against the racialized blame game that has, for decades, powered American politics and confounded our attempts to talk about poverty in any meaningful way.
At least since the Moynihan Report, in 1965, Americans have tended to answer the question “Why are people poor?” either one of two ways. They either blame economic factors or they blame cultural factors. These may seem like two social science theories of poverty but when they are put into practice, they become more like political fairy tales. These two theories may be useful for politicians to peddle during election cycles, but the truth is that the “culture vs. economics” dyad is largely a fantasy. We are neither prisoners of our economic circumstances nor lords of our cultures, able to reshape them at will. It would be more accurate to say that cultural and economic forces act, with entwined and equal power, on and through all of us and that we all have an ability, limited but real, to harness or resist them. When we pursue education, we improve ourselves both “economically” and “culturally.” There’s nothing distinctly and intrinsically “economic” or “cultural” about the problems that afflict poor communities, such as widespread drug addiction or divorce. For example, if you lose your job, get divorced, and become an addict, is your addiction “economic” or “cultural” in nature? When we debate whether such problems have a fundamentally “economic” or “cultural” cause, we aren’t saying anything meaningful about the problems. We’re just arguing, incoherently, about whether or not people who suffer from them deserve to be blamed for them.
The problems facing Appalachia are not endemic to our region alone. Economic decline, generational poverty, an inability to find steady employment, low educational attainment, and interpersonal violence, are all issues that seem to plague lower income communities all across the country and the solutions that would help our region are the same as those that would help any other. Solutions which should include raising the minimum wage for workers regardless of what industry they’re in, separating health insurance from employment, and implementing a universal basic income for people who are facing long term unemployment. But we should also keep in mind that the solutions to our problems are not going to be exclusively “economic” or “cultural” either. People are complex, history is complex, regions and politics are complex, and you really need to be on guard for any narrative that offers you all of the answers in a one size fits all, bite-sized, single serve package.