Phony Nostalgia and Right Wing Bullshit


I feel like we're looking at poverty porn here, watching two of the most distinguished actors in cinematic history face off against one another with only a thin veneer of right wing bullshit to prop up the material. I don't fault Glenn Close or Amy Adams for wanting to have a job or make a movie. 

I get that there's a much larger issue here, which is the fact that nobody makes movies with adults in them for adults anymore, let alone movies that have women in them who don't talk about men. What I'm concerned about is the fact that J.D. Vance is going to get away with resurrecting the good old boy aspects of American literature and our share cultural history as a nation founded on white supremacy. His connections to the conservative movement would normally make him suspect anyway. 

The fact that this has all gone down the memory hole is troubling, and a much better writer named Kayla Rae Whitaker has taken note of this:

As the year wore on and the book maintained its float at the top of bestsellers lists, my amusement turned to anger, then sadness, and then, finally, exhaustion. The old story of America’s weird, craven Son of the Soil, was taking hold yet again, baggage and all, and within a demographic supposedly too discerning to fall for it.

It’s fitting, then, that Ron Howard’s film adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy was released in theaters just after the 2020 election, with a Netflix release slated for later this month. As in 2016, it is poised to serve as an explanation, of sorts, for the stubborn blush of Trumpist red evident across Appalachia, and the rest of the southeast. The story it offers is one of people who cannot help or save themselves—from laziness, from addiction, from a failure to develop the self-respect necessary to “pull themselves up” within an economy and social system that prevents them at every turn. The film is just another addition to a narrative that is managing to dig a trench between this region and the rest of the country, a divide that will continue to snarl elections and deal further damage to a population that has taken more than its fair share of abuse. And in a year that saw the Biden-Harris ticket win by thinner than anticipated margins, we need to take this opportunity to understand the region as more nuanced than the blighted backcountry that popular media pushes—and that liberal readers and viewers, amazingly, tend to believe.
Vance’s “hillbilly” is not a person so much as a cultural emblem used to sell things, from products to political and social ideologies. Understanding this distinction calls for a dissection of the emblem and its origins. Large corporate interests seized control of the Appalachian region’s natural resources just after the Civil War, generating huge profits from coal and timber while workers toiled in dangerous conditions for shoddy wages. These corporate forces fought unionization at every turn, with brutality and out-and-out murder. The area’s real history is defined by locals fighting these forces in organized, principled fashion, from the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 to late-20th century worker efforts to unionize against large interests like the Duke Power Company, detailed in the 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA. One of my fondest memories of growing up in east Kentucky is going to a punk show at an American Legion and hearing a band from New Jersey play songs about union life that made the audience, filled with rural kids, homemade mohawks, and unnervingly large ear gauges, go wild: never cross a fuckin’ picket line!

I come from a similar tradition, which was centered around the meatpacking plant in my town. It was the site of labor unrest and a false promise of a middle-class lifestyle. It crushed people, literally and figuratively, working them until they were disabled or worse. The town is full of small houses, built for the workers who left. The only people living in them now are fading away. The houses are falling down and the city is struggling to find a way to condemn them and remove them, sometimes with squatters and forgotten people inside.

The meatpacking plant they put up there was world famous for a while and then it wasn't. It was sold, and sold again, and jobs came and went. You could make eleven dollars an hour processing hogs slaughtered elsewhere into ham and bacon if your wrists could take the trauma of relentless movement. And then the plant unceremoniously burned to the ground at the turn of the century, never to be rebuilt. You can still see where it was because they can't put anything there. The ground is that polluted.

Vance's work is another form of cultural pollution. I am not buying his snake oil and I am not interested in the film. I can spot a fake from a long way off, and you can, too.

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