An elegy, in English literature, is poem of serious reflection mourning the dead. J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) is a deeply personal account of how one man’s family dealt with and profoundly felt the tidal wave of socioeconomic changes engulfing America. A friend told me he thought the book was depressing; but it’s beautifully moving at the same time – like well composed melancholy music. It’s a riveting piece of literature, widely acclaimed by critics.
Vance opines plenty about the politics and economics of what’s going on but he understands, like his feisty and wise grandmother, that there is no single correct political position or solution to these troublesome times. There has been a very sad economic death for millions of Americans. But things aren’t as bleak as that may sound. We, the fortunate non-hillbillies and those like Vance who climb out of the grave as dirt is being shoveled down, thrive economically and culturally. It’s just that there are fewer and fewer of us and there are more and more resentful people who don’t like us. It’s a war; wars aren’t nice; there are casualties in war; don’t let your family be one of the casualties.
Our tribe will continue to do the things that we do and have done to keep our wealth demographic (the top 20% or so) in a continuously fortified position. There is a quiet rising of the American upper-middle class. We will be criticized, vilified and attacked by politicians and writers like Richard V. Reeves in his book Dream Hoarders: How The American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That’s A Problem, and What to Do About It (2017). The burning question is what can and will policy makers do about “the problem” (us)? The answer, from my intellectual and economic battle bunker, is very little. We are armed with a War Chest of defensive weapons and awareness that can be deployed to defend our families from attack.
We are not evil hoarders. On the contrary, we are virtuous, hard-working, honest and perhaps lucky humans who carefully avoid the learned helplessness that Vance writes of for the learned willfulness and personal discipline he developed as a U.S. Marine. The virtue of will comes from harnessing attention, which can be wandering and unfixed (as it is in the poor and not voluntarily so). In the words of Williams James (1842-1910): “Whether attention comes by grace of genius or by dint of will, the longer one does attend to a topic the more mastery of it one has. And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character and will.” See y’all next Tuesday.