As I have a large number of relatives living in the area, I made them aware of the region’s dental health. Instead of sparking interest, I sparked anger. Instead of gratitude for the information, I received indignation. I didn’t understand! Do you think the people of Flint, Michigan, were angry at the messenger when they learned life-saving information about their water supply? Why were the people of Appalachia not relieved to know what sugary drinks were doing to them? If I could keep some over-paid dentist from sticking sharp needles into my gums and rattling my head with a drill, why would I not want that information? Why does additional information produce anger?
J.D. Vance is a successful investment banker living in California, who just penned his analysis of growing up poor in Appalachia, entitled Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Many people of that region trace their ancestry to the Scots and Irish who originally pioneered there. Their values reflect that heritage. They value loyalty above all else. The logic is that I may fight and squabble with my family, but nobody else can — without a punch in the nose. If I cannot punch them in the nose, it is then obligatory that I disbelieve whatever I am told. Truth is optional. Loyalty is not!
Well, the same “logic” applies to the region. Because I am a “city-slicker,” I am authorized to criticize only the city. It is an affront to the people of Appalachia if I “criticize” their area. To simply present critical information made by others is just as disloyal as making the criticism myself. Truth is optional. Loyalty is not! By repeating what I heard on ABC News, I was criticizing all my relatives who lived there, as well as their region. It was something they did not want to hear. Truth is neither convenient nor inconvenient. It is simply optional.
J.D. Vance describes this culture fondly but worries that it is crumbling, which is sad for anyone like myself with roots in “the country.” He compares the slow death of the “country culture” to losing a religion, which came complete with a standard of values and perspectives. Stung by globalization, the culture is becoming a “hollowed-out” society. (I guess that also explains why the region is so enthusiastic about Donald Trump as President.)
This sensitive and exceptionally well-written book is required reading. Take the time to understand a region of the country that has increasing poverty and declining church attendance, a region that doesn’t trust “outsiders” . . . or their facts. A people hurt by the continuing out-migration of young people, feeling their class is being betrayed by their own kids. Deeply insulted by the stereotype of “ignorant hillbillies,” they will not open up and discuss this culture with you, but it has a beauty and symmetry that is well-worth knowing.