JD Vance’s 2016 bestselling book, Hillbilly Elegy, has been made into a movie. Vance tells his own story, how he survived poverty, with a family history of dysfunction and addiction, and then graduated from Yale Law School. Both the book and the movie have been roundly criticized for their portrayal of generational poverty. Vance’s family and neighbors are seen as irresponsible, lazy, and morally deficient. They are, in fact, responsible for their plight.
This is not a new idea. Think of Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens”. Then there are “crackheads”, “thugs”, “super predators” and the like. These ideas reference people who are said to choose to buy expensive cars or iPhones before they pay the rent. They have children without forethought, and are innately prone to violence. They lack the individual responsibility and the moral fortitude to change their circumstances.
After all, we are a country where anyone can “make it” if they try.
So. All righty then. These critiques of poor people are nothing new. What’s new is that, in my lifetime, I have never heard them leveled against poor White people. They are always and solely reserved for Black people. All of the words used to describe poor people as slovenly are really code for poor Black people. More recently, they have been called out as racist dog whistles. Not quite apropos, however, because while only dogs can hear dog whistles, all of us, White and Black can hear the denigration going on here.
This reminds me of the recent shift in how we view addiction in this country. Back when (Reagan again) initiated the “War on Drugs” it involved crack cocaine and marijuana, both available and affordable in poor communities of color. The only solution was said to be incarceration. Now that heroin, oxycontin & other opioids are ravaging white communities we’re starting to talk about treatment.
Psychologists say that maintaining these sorts of distortions creates “cognitive dissonance”. A steady diet of cognitive dissonance is upsetting and destabilizing to the human psyche. Rather than resolving the conflictual ideas and facing the truth, we may up the ante with heightened emotional cathexis and even more distortions. This is why you can’t have a rational disagreement with a racist.
Toxic individualism has achieved a cult-like status in the United States. The ridiculous notion that we all create our own destiny, that in success we are beholden to no one – this idea is necessary to maintain the contemptible myth that failure or misfortune is solely the fault of the unfortunate individual. Yes, I can make bad choices, and most definitely should take responsibility for them. But the notion that one’s station in life is exclusively a function of choice is a malevolent and, for some, self-serving fiction.