Liminal Lives: Just Mercy and Hillbilly Elegy
I’m teaching a class about how to teach writing, and the students just turned in their “Critical Comparison” essays, in which we (the class is team-taught) ask them to put two articles about writing “into conversation” with each other.
That made me think about how, in the wake of the recent presidential election, I should deal with two of the books on my tall “read but not written about” stack–one is Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, published in 2016 and reviewed in the New Yorker and at The American Conservative,* where you’ll also find an interview with the author. The other one is Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, published in 2014 and reviewed in the New York Times. I went to hear Stevenson speak this fall at Kenyon, where he told a few of the stories from his book.
What do these two books have in common? Their focus is on people who are on the margins of American society–the “hillbillies” and the incarcerated. In the past few decades, the lives of such people have become increasingly fragile, sometimes breaking on the rocks of one car accident, one company closing down, or one family member getting sick.
Stevenson tells us that “the prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. There are nearly six million people on probation or on parole. One in every fifteen people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison; one in every three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated.” His book is about “our system’s disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions.” I don’t see any of that getting better in the next four years unless all the people I know who are not indifferent can manage to work towards making everyone else in this country less comfortable and less tolerant of injustice towards the lives of people they mostly never see, or never realize they are seeing.
In Just Mercy, Stevenson also relates a number of disturbing stories about women being sent to jail because someone suspected they were pregnant and later asked where their babies were—one woman had suffered a traumatic miscarriage at home, while another, it turned out, “had a tubal ligation five years prior to her arrest.” In Alabama, he says, in 2006, they passed a law that made it a felony to expose a child to a “dangerous environment,” subsequently interpreting “the term environment to include the womb and the term child to include a fetus,” so that “pregnant women could now be criminally prosecuted and sent to prison for decades if there was any evidence that they had used drugs at any point during their pregnancy,” presumably including the first two months, when a woman doesn’t always know she is pregnant (although Arizona law currently says that pregnancy starts two weeks before conception).
Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy gives us a look at “the way our government encouraged social decay through the welfare state” and the effect this had on the “psychology and community and culture and faith” of people left in small towns where factories have shut down. He quotes from The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson, saying that while Wilson was writing about black people in the inner city, the description “struck a nerve” because it also describes the places Vance grew up:
“the people left behind were trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could—generally the well educated, wealthy, or well connected—left, leaving behind communities of poor people. These remaining folks were the ‘truly disadvantaged,’—unable to find good jobs on their own and surrounded by communities that offered little in the way of connections or social support.”
Vance argues that “what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault.” He says, “my dad, for example, has never disparaged hard work, but he mistrusts some of the most obvious paths to upward mobility. When he found out that I had decided to go to Yale Law, he asked whether, on my applications, I had ‘pretended to be black or liberal.’ This is how low the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen.”
At one point, Vance describes his experience as a military veteran sitting in a college class (at OSU, in Columbus, Ohio) and having to listen “as a nineteen-year-old classmate…spouted off about the Iraq war. He explained that those fighting the war were typically less intelligent than those (like him) who immediately went to college.” At another point he tells about “the first (and last) time I took a Yale friend to Cracker Barrel. In my youth, it was the height of fine dining—my grandma’s and my favorite restaurant. With Yale friends, it was a greasy public health crisis.” For many people reading this book, those are familiar attitudes.
Most of us don’t think about such attitudes as smug, although they are. I’ve been realizing, after reading “The Smug Style in American Liberalism,” how smug I have been, and how smug most of the people who surround me are. I’m working on trying to change.
The list of things that Vance says he didn’t know when he got to law school is sobering:
“That you needed to wear a suit to a job interview.
That wearing a suit large enough to fit a silverback gorilla was inappropriate.
That a butter knife wasn’t just decorative (after all, anything that requires a butter knife can be done better with a spoon or an index finger).
That pleather and leather were different substances.
That your shoes and belt should match.
That certain cities and states had better job prospects.
That going to a nicer college brought benefits outside of bragging rights.
That finance was an industry that people worked in.”
How can anyone who works in higher education fail to be concerned? We don’t realize how small a fraction of the population of our own country we are reaching in the classes we teach, and so we have created an academic elite that is nearly as ignorant about the lives of people like Vance as he was about the lives of his classmates in law school, and almost entirely untouched by the lives of people behind bars–unless we read a book about them, like Stevenson’s, or have a friend who volunteers in a prison (and my friend who volunteers says that watching Orange is the New Black doesn’t really count).
Since Stevenson’s book was published, I think more Americans have become aware that “black and brown boys routinely have multiple encounters with the police. Even though many of these children have done nothing wrong, they are targeted by police, presumed guilty, and suspected by law enforcement of being dangerous or engaged in criminal activity. The random stops, questioning, and harassment dramatically increase the risk of arrest for petty crimes. Many of these children develop criminal records for behavior that more affluent children engage in with impunity.”
But unless you put a face on this, the face of a child you are personally fond of, you’ll continue to see this as a political problem, rather than a personal one, and you’ll continue to think of helping people who aren’t like you as charity, rather than necessity.
Stevenson points out that “we’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak–not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken.” And because so many of us don’t know anyone like these people we’re imprisoning. Actually, in his speech at Kenyon, Stevenson emphasized that it’s important for Americans to get to know some people they wouldn’t ordinarily encounter–he calls it “getting proximate.”
In light of the election results (and some of the seriously comic takes on it, like Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock’s brilliant SNL sketch), I think we’re each going to have to expand our thinking in order to find ways to invite the fragile people on the margins farther in, to become a more cohesive society. And if we’re serious about it, we’re each going to have to either invest a lot of our time or a lot more of our money.
Many of my friends are deeply invested in their careers, and most of them are inside the ivory tower, so they will have to choose the money option. But that’s not going to be enough. It’s time for more of us to realize that we have to find new ways of thinking about others—for one thing, we have to stop making our smug liberal jokes, both because it’s time to break the habit and because we can’t talk on the one hand about how we value “first generation” college students and on the other hand make jokes that belittle their families and ways of life right in front of them (they don’t look different–I’ve heard liberals on my campus make smug liberal jokes in front of first-gen students without a clue that not everyone in their audience was brought up exactly as they were). And on social media, as Emmitt Rensin points out (in “The Smug Style in American Liberalism,” link above),”The rubes have seen your videos. You posted it on their wall.” Those of us in the “academic elite” need to become more aware of the ways we are displaying blatant lack of respect for other people.
It’s not enough for any of us to wear a “Black Lives Matter” button or a safety pin and go about our usual business. It’s not enough for an academic to put a sign advertising her support for minority students on her office door. I’m not sure what will be enough, but what is required of us in the future that will begin unfolding now is a lot more than many of us have been willing to give before.
*In case you’re wondering whether I read The American Conservative, the answer is that I do read it occasionally, mostly because I consider Rod Dreher–whose opinions don’t often agree with my own–a friend. We agree about loving the books of Walker Percy; he is the prime organizer of the annual Walker Percy festival in St. Francisville, LA each June.