The first time I ever heard of the new young author, J.D. Vance, I was listening to National Public Radio (NPR) sometime during the 2016 presidential campaign, and he was the subject of an interview. The NPR interviewer seemed to love the guy and his message. The subject at hand was his newly published book at the time, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. To say that the book has received a great deal of media attention and that it has been wildly popular is almost an understatement. As of this writing it has received 11,692 customer reviews on Amazon, with an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars. It has also received generally favorable reviews across the mainstream political spectrum, such as that spectrum may be.
Presented as a straightforward memoir of the grandson of migrants from coal country in the heart of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains, the little town of Parker, to the steel town of Middletown, Ohio, so named because it is about halfway between Cincinnati and Dayton, the book is also heavily political, which largely explains its popularity, either real or ginned up. Lots of people like J.D.’s grandparents have moved out of their home region to industrial cities in the Rust Bowl area from the Great Depression on, and the lesson we are to draw from the book is that J.D.’s pretty thoroughly messed up family is representative of not just the ones who have moved, but also the ones who were left behind.
Vance represents himself at this stage of his life as very much a conservative Republican, and that should not be very surprising, because the message that comes across in his book is one that we have heard from conservative Republicans for as long as I can remember. It is a message that irritated my liberal Democratic father no end. It is that poor down and out people are generally in that condition because of their own many shortcomings. In a land of opportunity such as ours everyone should be able to make it, and those who don’t shouldn’t be pointing the finger of blame at other people and always expecting the government to come to their rescue.
Searching the Web I find that Vance first attained a degree of prominence all the way back in the summer of 2013 as a regular columnist for the conservative National Review. (For some reason, that part of his budding career is not mentioned on his Wikipedia page.) Considering the content of his famous book we should not be at all surprised to see him being embraced by the National Review crowd.
In normal times, though, Vance would not be getting the warm embrace of the left-wing NPR and others of its persuasion, but in normal times professed liberals would not be all up and arms over the announced withdrawal of troops from Syria and the shrinking of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. It’s all about the Trump phenomenon. The white working class has deserted the Democratic Party and all of a sudden the limousine liberals have discovered that the country club and chamber of commerce folks were right all along. Poor people are just no damned good, that is to say, poor white people are no damned good. Books with the same subtitle as Vance’s could be turned out by the bushel concerning the black community in America, but as long as that group stays in its place, the authors of such books would hardly be given the mainstream embrace that Vance has had.
We suspect that the embrace of Vance by the NOMA (national opinion-molding apparatus) goes a bit deeper than a reaction against Trump, though. Some clues may be found by looking more closely at his career trajectory and at some key passages in his book. Concerning the former, the first thing that should catch anyone’s eye is that this newfound spokesperson for Appalachia is a Yale product, like, say, Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Bob Woodward, Brett Kavanaugh, and the current Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, for starters. It is a well-known fact that there is no bigger feeder school for the CIA, and thence, the NOMA, than Yale. We might also be reminded that National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr., was a Yale and CIA man.
How did Vance get there? Here’s the story from his book. J.D. was always a smart kid, but he didn’t do well in school for the longest time because his home life was a wreck. His mother was a drug addict, and what his family name ought to be was always an iffy matter because his parents split up early in his life and his mother had a whole series of husbands and boyfriends. Not until he was well into high school did his grandmother take him in more or less full time and administer quite a heavy dose of tough love, putting his nose to the grindstone. He finally took his maternal grandparents’ family name as his own, “Vance.”
The Few, the Proud, the Ticket to Success
With good grades and SAT scores out of high school, he easily qualified for a good college, but he couldn’t afford it. Upon the recommendation of a female Marine veteran relative, he tells us, he joined the Marine Corps, where he completed a 4-year tour. His description of basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, and his tour in the Marines in general, which included time in Iraq, sounds like it might have been prepared at Marine Recruitment Central. To hear Vance tell it, they finished the job that his grandmother started. Not only did they further straighten him out, but they also toughened him up physically and more or less turned him into a real man. But then, why wouldn’t he sound like a flack for the Marines? That was what he did for the Marines while working for them. Apparently, the only work that Vance did in the service after basic training was as a specialist in public relations. One might well say that now he is just continuing on the career path that began practically the day he left Parris Island.
Have the Marines and its training facility at Parris Island taking a real plunge downward since Vance’s experience there, which would have been around 2002? Here are a couple of recent news items about the goings on at Parris Island:
Updated on: September 8, 2016 / 10:26 PM / CBS/AP
COLUMBIA, S.C. — A Marine recruit committed suicide in March amid a widespread culture of hazing and abuse in his battalion at Parris Island that could lead to punishments for as many as 20 officers and enlisted leaders, the Marine Corps said Thursday.
Some of those 20 commanders and senior enlisted leaders have already been fired, including the three most senior Marines in charge of the recruit’s unit. The Marines also ordered that the rest be temporarily relieved, according to a statement sent to The Associated Press. Their punishments could range from administrative punishments, such as counseling, to the most severe action of military charges and a court-martial.
That’s how the article begins. Was this just some aberration, something that only went on in this one training battalion? The next article appeared in early 2017:
All four training battalions at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island have been investigated for hazing during the past three years, according to documents obtained through an open-records request by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette.
Since Jan. 1, 2014, there have been 24 hazing investigations at the depot, half of which were substantiated, according to depot officials, though they didn’t identify them.
Such stories, in fact, have been coming out of Parris Island periodically for as long as I can remember, and I have been on the planet more than twice as long as Vance has. Yes, I know, war is not beanbag, and there has to be a certain amount of severity in basic training if you want to produce capable and valiant battlefield combatants. But the sort of abuses described in those two articles go well beyond such necessity. Vance had to have either experienced, witnessed, or gotten wind of such goings on during his Marine Corps stint. The point is that his writing has a tendentious quality and the memories that he draws upon appear to this reviewer to be highly selective, chosen for steering readers to the conclusion that he (or his handlers) wants them to reach. Had he painted the life of his family and his blue collar hillbilly culture with the same high gloss paint that he obviously applied to the Marines, his book would have been very short and very boring, and not even the full court press of publicity that our NOMA has given it could have made it popular.
You’d hardly realize it from reading Vance, but the United States Marine Corps does not exist for the purpose of improving young people. My time in the military was spent mainly in Korea during the height of the Vietnam War, but my later friendship with Marine veteran cohorts in the North Carolina Veterans for Peace at the University of North Carolina brought the Vietnam Marine experience home. One friend had been a lieutenant leading a combat platoon in Vietnam. One night I was studying at a table in an area of the undergraduate library where magazines were housed. The lieutenant came over to my table with the January 27, 1969, issue of Life magazine in his hand. That was the one that had photographs of all 242 American soldiers killed in Vietnam in one week. He began to thumb through it, picking out photographs and telling me in excruciating detail how each of the ones he had pointed out had “bought the farm,” as a popular euphemism of the time and place had it. He had picked out several guys that he knew, and that was just from that one week of his Vietnam experience!
The other friend was a Navy corpsman attached to the Marines in Vietnam. One of his many experiences was handling graves registration at a protracted siege that for tactical stupidity on the American’s part rivaled almost anything in World War I. That is the Battle of Khe Sanh. One hardly comes out of a thing like that as exactly a war lover. Some of the young Marines depicted in “Kadena, Farewell,” written from one episode of mine while flying military space-available around the Orient during my mid-tour leave, might well have made it to Vietnam in time to get in on the Khe Sanh excitement. They all looked so very young and clueless to me.
I am also reminded of a wedding that I attended in 2010. Marriage is generally a safer way to move up in the world than the method that Vance used. The groom was the well-off son of some similarly well-off parents who are among my wife’s many friends. The bride was gorgeous, a lot better looking than the groom. She and her family are immigrants from Ecuador, and I gathered from their dress and overall appearance that they hardly come from that country’s upper crust. One young male member of their contingent was almost as good looking as the bride. He was particularly striking in his Marine dress uniform. I would say that he was tall, dark, and handsome, but I couldn’t be sure about his height. He was confined to a wheel chair. He would have been a good one to include in the montage of photographs that we see near the end of the video, “At What a Cost?”
The Propaganda Press’s Favorite Hillbilly
Meanwhile, one of Vance’s close associates could well be pictured among the villains in the first part of the video. He is one of the biggest war-cheerleading people in the country. This quote is from the bottom of Vance’s page 220: “My education in social capital continues. For a time, I contributed to the website of David Frum, the journalist and opinion leader who now writes for The Atlantic. When I was ready to commit to one DC law firm, he suggested another firm where two of his friends from the Bush administration had recently taken senior partnerships. One of those friends interviewed me and, when I joined his firm, became an important mentor.”
Vance’s list of people in his acknowledgments section is extensive. He has apparently nailed the art of networking (what he calls accumulating “social capital”). We find Frum’s name there among a sub-list of twelve names of “mentors and friends of incredible ability.” That list follows hard on the heels of a list of eight. “I consider each of them more brother than friend,” he gushes about that first bunch. “Many of these folks,” he tells us, “read versions of the manuscript and provided critical feedback.” Just thinking of the sort of people to whom Vance will kowtow for career advancement purposes makes me slightly nauseous.
In case the name “David Frum” does not ring a bell with you, check out this opening sally from Alex Nichols in his 2017 article entitled, “Things are bad and David Frum makes them worse.”
The warhawks who drove the Republicans rightward in the early 2000s likely bear more responsibility for Donald Trump’s ascendancy than all the Russian hackers and “fake news” websites put together, but liberals are more than willing to let them off the hook if they provide limp critiques of their own party as penance. Naturally, many of them are doing just that. The neocons’ strategic retreat from the smoldering wreckage they created was a clever gambit, in many ways reminiscent of a classic insurance scam. Like an insurance scam, it can be wildly successful when carried out with adequate skill and commitment — and no one is more committed than David Frum, the George W. Bush speechwriter who introduced America to the “axis of evil.”
CNN. MSNBC. CNBC. CBS. ABC. Newsweek. The Daily Beast. New York Magazine. Vox. The New Yorker. NPR. The Atlantic. They all either have David Frum as an editor, grant him bylines, or allow him to flap his enormous jowls about Trump and Russia live on the air. In the last year, Frum has appeared 40 times on MSNBC and 10 times on CNN to talk about Trump, a hectic schedule that often leaves him no time to shave. If you count the networks’ websites, where Frum writes vital commentary like “Marijuana use is too risky a choice,” the number of Frum appearances is far higher. The Atlantic made him a senior editor in 2014, and in return, he writes them four or five columns a week about how Trump is an affront to political decency. While Frum is certainly given a platform disproportionate to his skill as a writer, he isn’t terrible on a technical level. He can write a column without including too many mixed metaphors and bizarre anecdotes, a rare skill among center-right commentators. He knows how to provide exactly what his audience wants, whoever they may be at the time. But overall, Frum is nothing more than a mediocre man with bad opinions, which makes it all the more puzzling how much personal history his benefactors are willing to overlook.
And wouldn’t you know? Precisely the same supposedly liberal media crowd who are embracing the execrable younger version of Bill Kristol, Frum, are also gushing over our new self-appointed hillbilly spokesman, this Yalie who cut his media teeth with National Review and David Frum’s blog. It is only natural, just from his associations, that one should be suspicious of the man. We have also suggested that this press embrace of Vance has a lot to do with his message as well. Let’s take a closer look. The following is from pp. 191-193:
President Obama came on the scene right as so many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. We know we’re not doing well. We see it every day: in the obituaries for teenage kids that conspicuously omit the cause of death (reading between the lines: overdose), in the deadbeats we watch our daughters waste their time with. Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deeper insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong, but because we know she’s right.
Many try to blame the anger and cynicism of working-class whites on misinformation. Admittedly, there is an industry of conspiracy-mongers and fringe lunatics writing about all manner of idiocy, from Obama’s alleged religious leanings to his ancestry. But every major news organization, even the oft-maligned Fox News, has always told the truth about Obama’s citizenship status and religious views. The people I know are well aware of what the major news organizations have to say about the issue; they simply don’t believe them. Only 6 percent of American voters believe that the media is “very trustworthy.” To many of us, the free press—that bulwark of American democracy—is simply full of shit.
With little trust in the press, there’s no check on the Internet conspiracy theories that rule the digital world. Barack Obama is a foreign alien actively trying to destroy the country. Everything the media tells us is a lie. Many in the white working class believe the worst about their society. Here’s a small sample of emails or messages I’ve seen from friends and family:
· From right-wing radio talker Alex Jones on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, a documentary about the “unanswered question” of the terrorist attacks, suggesting that the U.S. government played a role in the massacre of its own people.
· From an email chain, a story that the Obamacare legislation requires microchip implantation in new health care patients. This story carries extra bite because of the religious implication: Many believe that the End Times “mark of the beast” foretold in biblical prophecy will be an electronic device. Multiple friends warned others about this threat via social media.
· From the popular sebsite WorldNetDaily, an editorial suggesting that the Newtown gun massacre was engineered by the federal government to turn public opinion on gun control measures.
· From multiple Internet sources, suggestions that Obama will soon implement martial law in order to secure power for a third presidential term.
The list goes on. It’s impossible to know how many people believe one or many of these stories. But if a third of our community questions the president’s origin—despite all evidence to the contrary—it’s a good bet that the other conspiracies have broader currency than we’d like. This isn’t some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy. This is deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society. And it’s becoming more and more mainstream.
We can’t trust the evening news. We can’t trust our politicians. Our universities, the gateway to a better life, are rigged against us. We can’t get jobs. You can’t believe these things and participate meaningfully in society. Social psychologists have shown that group belief is a powerful motivator in performance. When groups perceive that it’s in their interest to work hard and achieve things, members of that group outperform other similarly situated individuals. It’s obvious why: If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all?
Now are you suspicious of this climber who went right over most of us in his vault from the working class right up to our rotten ruling class? In my previous article, I noted that Robert David Steele’s résumé shows that he was a Marine Corps officer and an employee of the CIA at the same time. In fact, if the résumé is to be believed, his nine-year CIA career both began and ended while he was in the Marines. Consider as well the work that Vance did for the Marines and the quote that I am fond of using from Gregory Treverton’s book, Covert Action: “Propaganda is the bread and butter of covert action.”
I began my article, “How to Become a ‘Made Man’ in the Media,” this way:
A late uncle of mine who flew a spotter plane for the Air Force during the height of the Vietnam War once told me that during his stint there one of our “intelligence services” tried to recruit him. He declined the offer, he told me, but only after he had gone so far as to take a required “psychological evaluation” for them. The experience, he told me, appalled him. “I could tell from the questions,” he said, “that they were looking for someone who was immoral.”
Many years later I told that story to a small group at a party in the Washington, DC, area. Among the group was a young man whose friends strongly suspect of being in the CIA. Unable to restrain himself he blurted out, “I took that test.”
The ambitious Vance, with his fixation on building up “social capital,” strikes me as the sort who would have maxed that test out.
So if it’s a memoir your want to read, take my previous word for it, you can spend your time and money much more productively with Patrick Knowlton’s unsung As If It Never Happened: Stories of a Young Boy’s Secrets, Fears, Love, and Loss. It is a poignant, gripping page-turner, and unlike Vance, Knowlton has no hidden agenda for manipulating your thinking. There is nothing the least bit political about the honest Knowlton’s book, either overt or covert.
As for describing and evaluating the Southern Appalachian culture, it’s probably better not to poison your mind by reading the biggest protracted hit piece on these people since the fraud James Dickey’s Deliverance. On that subject, I can’t imagine how Horace Kephart’s classic Our Southern Highlanders: A Narrative of Adventure in the Southern Appalachians and a Study of Life Among the Mountaineers could be improved upon. Hillbilly Elegy might well be worse than nothing for that purpose.