A culture of honor, violence and poverty

Ex-Senator James Webb wrote a book, Born Fighting, (which I haven’t read) about the Scots-Irish settlers of the Appalachia plateau.  If it hadn’t been taken, it would have made a good title for C.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Trouble.

Appalachian mountaineers were the product of a culture of honor which also was a culture of violence.   They believed in standing by their word and by family friends and family; they believed in never showing fear, never backing down and always avenging in any insult or injury.

These values enabled them to survive in the lawless Kentucky wilderness frontier.   Vance in his book argues that this same heritage is inadequate to help them survive in a declining industrial America.

The book is worth reading because his experiences and family history show how patterns of behavior that can trap people in poverty and misery, and also ways of breaking out of of those patterns.

He grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but his family roots are in Jackson, Kentucky—in “bloody Breathitt” county, known for its feuds.  His maternal grandparents, Jim Vance, then aged 16, and Bonnie Blanton, then 13 and pregnant, fled Kentucky for Ohio in 1950, and eventually settled down in Middletown.

At the age of 12, his grandmother shot a cattle thief and would have finished him off if somebody hadn’t stopped her.

Once she told C.D.’s grandfather that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him.  He did come home drunk once again, and, a woman of her word, she doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.  Remarkably he escaped with only minor injuries and this did not destroy their relationship.

She once warned C.D. that if he continued to hang out with a classmate who smoked marijuana, she would run over the classmate with her car.  He found that a credible threat.

His grandmother and her husband, who never went anywhere without loaded guns in their pockets or under their car seats, flouted conventions of middle-class behavior.  But they were honest, hard-working and self-reliant; they were able to look out for themselves and their loved ones.

Not so C.D.’s drug-addicted mother.  His life with her and a succession of men in her life was one of unremitting emotional violence.  Here’s what he said he learned at home about marital relationships:

Never speak in a reasonable volume when screaming will do.  If the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first.  Always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner.  If all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you.

His childhood left him with permanent scars.  He said he still has to struggle to escape the conditioning to immediately retaliate for any affront, no matter what the consequences.   He reminds me of the black writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his accounts of growing up in violent inner-city Baltimore.

Vance’s family were attracted to Middletown by Armco Steel, a paternalistic company that treated his workers well, made a quality product and supported community institutions, much like Eastman Kodak Co. here in Rochester, N.Y., in its glory days.

Armco recruited from small towns in the Kentucky hills and from family members of existing employees.   Today such a policy would be considered a form of racial discrimination, but I’m sure it built up a feeling of unity and pride among workers.

But, like Kodak, Armco in the 1980s started to decline, and the community went downhill along with it  A 1989 merger with Kawasaki Steel in Japan didn’t save it.

Click to enlarge [1]

Many people who got along all right in a full-employment economy were unable to cope with decline.   Unemployment rose.  Families broke up.   Small businesses closed.   Drug addiction rose.   Some people left.   Many who stayed behind lost hope.

What saved Vance was, first of all, the strength of the women in his family—notably his older sister, Lindsay, who was burdened from a young age with being the adult of the family, and then of his fierce, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking grandmother, who always gave refuge to him and any other child within her reach who needed it.

His blood relatives were deeply religious, but they rejected organized religion.  His grandmother thought most preachers were crooks, just like most politicians.   The family lacked a religious community to which they could turn for moral and material support.   In religion and in life, they were on their own.

Vance learned a new way of life when he went to live with his birth father, who years before had divorced his mother, remarried and joined a Pentecostal church.   He learned from them that it was possible for married couples to live together peacefully and lovingly, without ongoing emotional warfare.

J.D. Vance

Even so, it helped its members when in difficulty, whether they were struggling with addiction or looking for work or some other difficulty.  It gave them a purpose above and beyond acquiring material possessions and living for the pleasures of the moment.

Vance found another community by enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school.   The Marine Corps was also a culture of honor, but within a rigid code of discipline.

Basic training was a transformative experience.   In a way, he was born again.   He was pushed to his physical and mental limits, and did things he never thought he could do.  His past life didn’t matter, only being worthy of being a Marine.

Nobody in the Marine Corps was on their own.   Superior officers made sure that he not only carried out his assignments, but that he cleaned his room, pressed his pants and kept his hair cut short.

The Corps had a policy of assuming recruits needed to be instructed in every detail of life, including diet, hygiene and personal finance.

When he went to buy a car, he was tempted to buy a BMW and finance it at 21 percent interest through the dealer.   An older Marine was assigned to go with him, and make sure he bought an affordable car, such as a Honda Civic, and financed it at a reasonable rate through the Navy Federal credit union.

On the other hand, he was given challenging responsibilities in which it was up to him to fail or succeeed.

He came out of his four-year experience (he did not go into direct combat) a healthy, disciplined and confident young man.

Vance graduated from Ohio State University and then Yale Law School, from which he graduated in 2013.   He had moved not only from the world of poverty to the world of the middle class, but to the world of wealth.

In order to function in that world, he had to master social graces and networking skills that people born into that world knew from childhood.   He moved to San Francisco and joined the venture capital firm of Mithril Capital Management, founded by the right-wing multi-billionaire Peter Thiel.

Again, he didn’t do it all by himself.    Vance was mentored by one of his professors, Amy Chua, author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and his future wife, Usha, a California girl from a South Asian family.   But a part of him is still in Jackson, Kentucky, and Middletown, Ohio.


J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is an honest and revealing account of himself and his family, and of how people undermine their chances of success in life.

Vance’s book contains a Bill Cosby-like rant about how his people don’t hold steady jobs, don’t save their money, don’t plan ahead, eat unhealthy food, have poor dental hygiene and uncritically believe conspiracy theories on the Internet.

He says poor people in Appalachia and elsewhere should stop blaming George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Wall Street for their problems, and start thinking about what they can do to help themselves.

I don’t doubt the truth of what he wrote.  What I’m not sure about is how much of it also is true of Appalachian people as a group or of poor rural white people generally.

Nor am I sure about how much of what’s wrong with the culture of Appalachia is due specifically to the Appalachian heritage and how much is typical of poor, uneducated Americans who get their values from television, advertising and the Internet.

I agree that people should do what they can to help themselves.  But I don’t think that’s a reason for letting Bush, Obama and Wall Street off the hook for the harm they’ve done to working people.

Vance says that welfare is not a solution to poverty.   I agree.  But neither is kicking people off welfare a solution to poverty.   Vance’s grandmother was able to help him because she had an old age pension.  Later on he took advantage of Pell grants and the G.I. bill.   I don’t think he would want to abolish these programs.

The problem with welfare is that you can’t help all the people who deserve help without helping some people who don’t deserve help, and that you can’t withhold help from all the people who don’t deserve it without withholding it from some of the people who deserve it.  I don’t have a good answer to this problem.

No welfare program is a substitute for individual character, a strong family and a religious or other community.  But it does no good for an outsider like me to preach self-reliance to poor people, whether white or black.   All it would do is to confirm my peers in their prejudices against “those people”.

I agree with Vance that there is no substitute for community, family and individual character.   In the past, social disintegration has been reversed by religious revival.  I’m thinking of the origins of Methodism in 18th century England, and the Great Awakenings in U.S. history.  Maybe this will happen again.

In the meantime, I think community, family and character would be easier to maintain in a high-wage, full-employment economy, and I don’t think such an economy would be out of reach.


An interview of J.D. Vance by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.   This received so many hits that they crashed the American Conservative web site.

The Lives of Poor White People by Joshua Rothman for The New Yorker.

J.D. Vance, the  False Prophet of Blue America by Sarah Jones for The New Republic.

No Sympathy for the Hillbilly by Frank Rich for New York magazine.

Liberal shaming of Appalachia: inside the media elite’s obsession with the “hillbilly problem” by Elizabeth Catte for Salon.


[1]  A note about the map.   The Appalachian Regional Commission rates a  county as “distressed” if it is among the bottom 10 percent of American counties in a ranking that includes poverty, unemployment and median income.   The ARC says 98 of the 420 counties in Appalachia are distressed by that measure.

I couldn’t find a nationwide figure for distressed counties, but there are 3,007 U.S. counties overall (2,587 outside Appalachia) and 307 county equivalents (such as municipalities not in a county).   Based on the 10 percent figure, there would be  301 to 314 distressed counties, of which 203 to 216 counties would be outside Appalachia.

So 23 percent of the Appalachian counties, but only about 7 or 8 percent of non-Appalachian U.S. counties, are in economic distress.



One of the drawbacks of a culture based on a sense of honor, as described in C.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, is that it can make you feel ashamed to admit mistakes.

If you take any criticism as an insult, it’s hard to improve and maybe impossible to improve.   It’s admirable to refuse to admit failure, but not if you keep failing because you keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.

Appalachian mountaineers refuse to tolerate criticism, especially by outsiders, and that holds them back.

One of the admirable things about the Silicon Valley culture is that entrepreneurs there celebrate the willingness to try and fail, and to learn from their mistakes.   Andrew Keen ridiculed this in his book, The Internet Is Not the Answer, but he was wrong.

The person who has never failed is a person who has never attempted anything.   Eric Berne, the founder of the Transactional Analysis school of psychiatry, said that a winner is not a person who never loses.  Rather a winner is a person whose losses are signposts on the road to eventual victory.

When I was in the Army decades ago, I had a bunk-mate from Oklahoma.  He thought John Steinbeck was paid by Wall Street bankers to write The Grapes of Wrath in order to shame the poor Okie migrants; this was based on certain passages describing desperate measures to which they were driven in order to survive.

I am not arguing for the accuracy of The Grapes of Wrath as social history, although I have no specific reason to doubt it.   I am arguing against refusing to consider inconvenient assertions, not on the grounds that they are false, but that they are shameful

Admitting you’re wrong is not shameful.  It only means you are wiser today than you were yesterday.

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