I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

I just finished J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. I am not interested in politically analyzing it, because that has been done. My political analysis of the book closely aligns with Bob Hutton’s article at Jacobin called Hillbilly Elitism. Please go and read that if you want a smart and thoughtful analysis of Vance and his complete disregard of poverty.

I want to talk about my emotional and mental response to reading this book. I was born in rural Ohio, not in the Appalachian part, but in the northwest corner. It’s the flattest part of world you will ever see. A mighty glacier flattened that area into the Lake Plains about 10,000 years ago.

I left Ohio when I was 19 years old. Less than 3 weeks after I graduated high school I boarded an international flight to Russia to study abroad for the summer. I spent a my graduation money on the trip and it was worth every penny. When I returned from that adventure, I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania two weeks later for college and I never lived in Ohio again. Was I running from Ohio or to a wider world? I don’t know the answer, but it is probably a little of both.


Camera: Rebel SL1 EF-S
Lens: 18-55mm
Camera firmware: Canon Hack Development Kit
Editing Software: Pixeluvo
Photographer: Joshua L. Ferris

There are parts of Hillbilly Elegy that forced a real emotional response from me. Many times, I knew the feeling he was talking about before the sentence would end. When he described the pervasive pessimism, the fear of imposition, or the frustration at people’s rigidity or lack of curiosity is something I think (probably obsess) about a lot.

Ohio is one of the few places in the world that make me want to respond like a conservative. When I am organizing anywhere else, I can apply a thoughtful power analysis to the situation. I try to consider the poverty, drug addiction, joblessness, and crime that many poor people battle. That analysis goes out the window when I think about rural Ohio. Unfortunately, I too often see folks in Ohio and think “turn off the TV and pick up a book,” or “you have nothing but farmland, grow food and stop with the fast food.” Those thoughts are unbelievably shitty and condescending and I try to keep unsolicited opinions to myself. They are very real and gross natural response I have to the “culture” of my home state.

I wanted to move out of my area for a very long time and a lot of that was centered around my sexuality, but not all of it. I wanted to be in a place that had things that interested me. I wanted to go to the orchestra and I wanted to see an opera. I wanted to try interesting foods. I thought the unpredictability of a city would lead to new adventures, and leaving a farm and moving to a city did allow for all of that and more. It was nice and it was what I wanted.

I struggle with other people’s pessimism. Vance talks about leaving Ohio and becoming and optimist, and I feel very similar to him on this issue. I was recently in Ohio and asked, “what is one thing we could do to really change the area for the better.” Someone said, “drop a bomb.” Everyone laughed, nodded in agreement, and offered no other solutions.

Vance discusses folk’s fear of imposition. This is very true and it drives me insane. People are really scared to express their opinion’s on anything. When my family from Ohio comes to visit, I’ll often say something like “would you like to do burgers or chicken for lunch?” The response is always, “Oh, we don’t care, whatever you want.” My husband tells a story from his childhood, where a relative offered to buy him ice cream and he chose the cheapest thing for fear of imposing. That adult had a conversation with him about how he would not have offered to buy him ice cream if he was unable to provide the ice cream my husband wanted. Sam knew from that day forward that if someone offers you something you accept it, be grateful for it, and to never feel bad for accepting it. No one taught me or any one I know that lesson in Ohio. It is an absolute crazy that accepting a gift causes more stress than giving a gift.

There are many reason why I do not return often. You probably think that homophobia is on the list, but there I have not experienced much as of late. That being said, my circles are limited to a loving family and friends when I visit, so there is not much of a chance to attack me or my husband. I don’t go back because of the fear and the pessimism. Vance captured that and those passages resonated with me, so I will give him credit on those merits.

The thing that bothers me more than Vance’s analysis is how his book became so popular. I am shocked that this was (and still is) on the best seller lists. If you don’t identify with or recognize parts of it, I’d think it is nothing more than navel-gazing blogging (I get the irony). It’s 250 pages of a guy working through his mom issues. It really grosses me out to think about a bunch of upper middle class people treating this book like a national geographic.

This book’s popularity is very unsettling.

If you think it is valuable to actually spend time on some of the issues mentioned here, than skip Vance and look up the Ohio Organizing Collaborative or Redneck Revolt. These people are working to make Ohio a better place and have the optimism and courage needed right now. I am unable to help with it, but maybe you can.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here

Now we have a vice presidential candidate. I am a little shocked that it was Joe Biden, and I admittedly do not understand the logic that made him the top choice. I really do not believe he brings anything to the table to win Presidency. Yes I keep hearing that he has Foreign Policy experience in spades, but I cannot imagine that it’ll help Obama win. Sure it will help him govern, but first we have to win.

Today the polls are saying Obama has 269 electoral votes and McCain has 256 (there are 13 Ties sitting in Virginia.) This time last year Kerry had 286 and Bush had 233. What does that tell me? We are losing, woe is me, we are losing. Admittedly I am doing nothing to fight the big fight. I am school teaching in South American, while my comrades struggle with this election. Do I want pity? No, I do not, but I am feeling a bit of remorse for stepping out of politics before this season.

I am not giving up, not by any means, but this election is ours to lose, and I feel we are getting very close to that outcome.

Lyra Silvertongue

I just finished reading the His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman this weekend. I had never heard of the books until the film came out this December.   I really enjoyed the read.   Pullman is an amazing storyteller who kept me locked into these books for entire trilogy over the past few weeks.

Many of you know the story, and if you do not, then go and pick up the Golden Compass and start reading.  They are books written for children so the reading is fairly simple, and if you do no want to engage in the philosophically minded afterthought than you can choose not to.  

Stopping Dan

Today I officially start my campaign against Dan Brown. Brown, as I am sure many of you know, is the author of the now extremely famous Da Vinci Code (which has Tom Hanks slated to play the hero in the upcoming film.) The book is a fun airport read, and you will enjoy it while you are reading it, but the reality is Dan Brown sucks as an author. Though his story is fun, it is ages old and I cannot figure out why intelligent people are eating this shit up.

Let’s do a quick synopsis. There is an age-old story that Mary Magdalene carried the child of Jesus of Nazareth. The story then takes a couple turns, but the bloodline turns out to have produced the Merovingian family. They were French rulers who sucked at their job. A guy by the name of Pippin takes over and becomes the new king. How did he get to be king you ask? Well, the pope gave him the authority to do so, because Pippin protected the Pope from some Germans. Conspiracy theorists would say papal authority ended the Jesus bloodline, because it would infringe on their own power.

Anyways, the Knights Templar, for some reason came upon this information about the bloodline and preserved it in their ranks (there is a 300 year gap here, but just roll with me), and eventually took the Holy Grail to England. Though according to Brown, and the old legend, there is no actual cup, the grail is a symbol for the bloodline. As you may know, the Templars were extinguished by Rome, which causes every conspiracy theorist great delight, because now there is a primeval secret society one can trace all secret societies back to.

Where were we? Oh yes, the story. Well, the main character is caught in the midst of a plot that would finally open all of this secret information to the public. Chaos ensues, love finds a caller, and all ends well. Here is my problem with Brown. First, he ties many loose tales together to create a grand narrative that provokes many readers. He uses a lot of literature, history, and artistic examples as proofs in his story. Though interesting reflections, Brown alone can tie all of this together. Real scholars have as much ease at proving all of this, as they do in proving the recognized biblical story.

I think the reason Brown’s books are such a sell is that they provoke people to question authority. Though Catholicism is not in a majority in America, the typical American I believe, still recognizes the pope as a very high religious official. Since most Americans aren’t catholic it is perfectly acceptable to question the Pope’s authority, and make wild assumptions that he and his running dogs have spent vast amounts of energy to hide the truth.

The other selling point is that people believe that they have learned something from this book. Brown is very good at using many examples, and he explains his logic, so the average reader buys into his wild and unprovable story. If you read it, it does sound very good. However, the reality is that there are holes in his argument big enough for a truck to drive through.

What frustrates me the most is the legitimacy people give this book. If it sold itself as a cheesy thriller, than I would be completely fine with it. The media really took to this work. The history channel has taken some of the 18 hours a day they dedicate to Hitler and World War II and have started running shows like “The Truth about the Da Vinci Code.” Dan Brown is not a religious scholar, he is an art historian who has figured out how to sell his discipline to the lowest common denominator.

I do not believe Brown has presented this text as non-fiction, but as an almost journalistic look at contemporary religion. The book comes at a perfect time, when people have become interested in Gnostic gospels, and other secondary early Christian texts. There is so much to know about these texts and many people seem to think Brown has summarized them all quite nicely Far too many readers believe this book is academically sound. I beg to differ.

I am fine with reading this trite, but if I hear one more TV show, university lecture, or secondary text on the Da Vinci Code I am going to scream.

Oh yeah, and by the way; Dan Brown’s writing is not that great either. It is short, basic, and lacks eloquence.