08 Dec News Brief: A Review of ‘Hillbilly Elegy,’ Netflix’s Charles Murray-Themed Hallmark Film
Citations Needed | November 11, 2020 | Transcript
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Thank you everyone for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled episodes when the news is so hot that we need to deliver all the takes and also when there are movies coming out that we have to shit on.
Adam: Yeah, we wanted to get this News Brief in before Netflix’s Hillbilly Elegy comes out this Friday. Now this is what we call a movie review for a movie we haven’t seen, which I’m totally fine with since I’ve read the book, and I’ve read countless hours of writing and interviews of J.D. Vance so I think I got the basic gist. So if you’re somehow precious or offended by people doing movie reviews without actually seeing a movie, I don’t know, go listen to something else.
Nima: Or watch the movie and then tell us why we’re wrong except I don’t think we’re gonna be wrong.
Adam: Yeah. I don’t think we’re going to be wrong but we’re taking a gamble here. It’s possible that Ron Howard’s interpretation of Hillbilly Elegy is a Marxist critique of corporate power in Appalachia but I find that very, very unlikely. So we’re gonna go out on a limb here, we’re going to assume that the movie to some extent or another promotes the broad ideological aims of J.D. Vance and his American Enterprise Institute handlers and the broader Republican project in Appalachia and specifically Ohio, where J.D. Vance now runs a Peter Thiel backed venture capital fund for $93 million in Columbus, Ohio. So every single time we would talk about J.D. Vance, Nima, on Twitter or elsewhere, people would say you have to have the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast.
Nima: Exactly. Who better to talk about J.D. Vance and the absurdity of Hillbilly Elegy than the Trillbillies?
Adam: Because they’ve been on the J.D. Vance-hating bandwagon for many years now.
Nima: Since the pilot episode.
Adam: So I’m very excited to talk to them. They’re the resident J.D. Vance critics, again, they’ve been on this shtick, I don’t want to say it’s a grift — people call too many things grifts now — but it’s definitely a scam for many years and I’m excited to jump in and start talking about how they interpret this Charles Murray Hallmark film that Netflix is pushing out this week and what are some of the problems with it?
Nima: So without further ado, let’s bring on our guests. We are going to be joined in just a moment by Tarence Ray and Tom Sexton, who are the co-hosts alongside Tanya Turner, of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast based out of Whitesburg, Kentucky. Tom and Tarence will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Tom Sexton and Tarence Ray, co-hosts of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast. They are based out of Whitesburg, Kentucky. Tom and Tarence, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Tarence Ray: Thanks for having us, we’re happy to be here.
Adam: Anytime I critique J.D. Vance, I get 1,000 people on Twitter who are like, ‘You have to talk to the Trillbilly guys, they’re the resident experts on dunking on J.D. Vance,’ and I said, guys and ladies rather, and I said, well, then let’s just have them on the show because as we both know, Mr. Vance has his first major pop culture, non literary product premiering on Netflix this Friday and it seems like, we’re working under certain assumptions, you’d be shocked to learn as listeners that we did not get an advance copy, so we have not seen the movie.
Nima: (Laughing) They did not send it to the Citations Needed podcast for a comment.
Tarence Ray: Bummer.
Adam: No. Which we have read and we want to sort of make sense of what this sort of shtick is. This is a spiritual successor, I think, to our episode with Mike Rowe, because it’s the same basic scam.
Tarence Ray: Yeah.
Adam: But I want to begin by talking about, so we’re not bashing a strawman, I want you to sort of summarize for our audience, what the sort of primary argument J.D. Vance advances, what his sort of shtick is, you say, quote, “His whole thesis is that the white working class culture is in decay, and it’s not really the corporations’ fault, it’s really more the result of moral decay in white middle America.” I want to kind of lay out what you think his broader argument is and the argument, I think, which we can assume emerges in the film itself?
Tarence Ray: Well, so J.D. Vance’s whole shtick is he’s essentially telling a story about a region, he’s using the form of a memoir to do it, the moral decay that you mentioned, basically comes as a result of several different things. I mean, he mentions deindustrialization and the opioid epidemic, but they’re just these sort of things that exist in a vacuum, he doesn’t really pinpoint where they come from or why. I think one of the few systemic things he does try to get at, I mean, I’m calling it systemic because he thinks it’s systemic, I think that it’s a very sort of conservative way to look at it, but he’s trying to make sense of changes in the gender economy, as Marxists we would call it the gender economy. The fact that over the course of the last, I don’t know, four or five decades, there have been substantial changes in the workforce in Appalachia, you know, this massive region, stretching from Northern Alabama to New York and etcetera. In central Appalachia, where we live, most people were employed in the coal industry but, you know, over the course of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, the coal industry mechanized, and it put a lot of people out of work, a lot of men out of work. So just like everywhere else in America, the region became the sort of service industry and more women went to those industries and Vance doesn’t really, I mean, like I said, he notes these things, but he kind of puts them in the framework of like, emasculation, you know what I mean? Men are sort of emasculated and this is the reason why they turn to drugs and suicide.
Tom Sexton: And also but that whole thing is like a congenital condition of hillbillyism.
Tarence Ray: Yes. Yeah, that we’re lazy, you know, or all these sort of stereotypical tropes. That kind of writing goes back a long time, I mean, people have been writing about Appalachia since the 18th and 19th centuries, the kind of writing that J.D. Vance taps into was popular around the sort of second half of the 19th century and it coincided with this effort by, you know, northern industrialists to, you know, sort of civilize the region. I don’t know how else to put it, because they, you know, they came and they put these settlement schools and the whole idea was to get people here trained for the workforce and then soon those workforces in communities turned into company towns, but again, Vance doesn’t go through any of this really, I don’t even think he mentions company towns in the book, does he, Tom?
Tom Sexton: No, that’s to me, one of the things that stands out about Elegy is that there’s this glaring omission of coal, something that, you know, as an extractive resource has defined Appalachia as a region, I don’t know how you talk about the history of Appalachia, talk about the history of hillbillies, and you don’t mention coal at all and in particular, you know, if he’s the sort of stooge, it just seems like a curious omission to me, just to skirt around all that.
Nima: Or perhaps it’s not that curious.
Tom Sexton: Yeah, right.
Tarence Ray: Right.
Nima: I mean, it’s really like, you know, there’s this idea, not going to talk about coal, going to ascribe all the meaning in the world to something as amorphous as quote-unquote “culture,” right? So, it’s all about this “cultural” deficit or crisis, kind of wrapped up in, as you said, Tom, J.D. Vance is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and so, it’s really like the story of absolution, for capitalism and classism itself, because those things are never interrogated. It’s the system, to say nothing of the very predatory policies pushed by AEI itself.
Tarence Ray: Right.
Nima: That’s never the problem, it’s the dumb rednecks.
Tarence Ray: Yeah.
Nima: Right? ‘It’s their problem,’ and so this really aligns obviously very closely with AEI ideology. It’s never going to be the system’s fault, it’s not capitalism or extractive economies that are the issue. Rather, it’s that people aren’t bootstrapping enough. How much do you think this kind of shtick is part of the AEI songbook that basically like, ‘If you’re gonna be a fellow there this is what you need to push,’ and how much of it do you think is Vance’s own kind of like Silicon Valley, tech-bro, personal thoughts and professional ambition?
Tom Sexton: As far as the sort of political ambition piece? Yeah, I don’t know. I know that he flirted with a run for Ohio State Senate a little bit ago, maybe a year or two ago or something like that, I forget who he was running o replace, but that was his whole rationale for moving back to like Columbus, Ohio, which is also not for nothing, not Appalachia, right? When y’all said that question I’ve been mulling that trying to make some sense of that myself. When he was first sort of brought in he had sort of floated as the guy to lead a, I know that wasn’t there like some sort of push for AEI to make some inroads in the labor movement? Because I very specifically remember him sharing some stuff on Twitter about how the right needed to — I forget what it was that was shared around maybe it was like an article or something — but there was some literature I think that was AEI branded about they’re making a play to co opt the labor movement or something like that.
Adam: Yeah, so there is an AEI affiliated group called American Compass that J.D. Vance is associated with J.D. Vance is a well paid fellow at AEI, we won’t know how much he’s getting paid until probably a few years from now when the tax forms are public, but this was a new sort of play, presumably post-Trump angling, they released on Labor Day a statement called quote, “Conservatives Should Ensure Workers a Seat at the Table,” which kind of sounds warm and fuzzy, signed by J.D. Vance, Marco Rubio, Jeff Sessions, Oren Cass, who’s probably the sort of architect of this, who’s also affiliated with AEI, and other Republicans who were sort of vaguely worker, but all kind of right-wing “populism.” It’s astroturf bullshit. There’s no real meaningful pushback, it kind of leans on a lot of abstractions. I want to dive in a little bit about American Enterprise Institute because I think to some extent, what his memoir was, I think, what sort of caught people off guard that it was a very well written, self serving memoir, in the lead up to some kind of political career, whether it was a senate run in ‘18 or ‘20, or something like that and like all political careers, it usually has some type of large donor network and think tank affiliation, which in his case is American Enterprise Institute quite explicitly, he works for them, this is not mysterious. But with the absence of bad guys with regard to white poverty, one of the major bad guys in the opioid crisis that we know about, or abuse crisis or overdose crisis, whichever people are calling it, was the Sackler family who just settled a massive lawsuit for basically just pushing drugs on people. They own Purdue Pharma. Now, the Sackler family was a major donor to American Enterprise Institute, hundreds of thousands of dollars since 2003, which may be one of the reasons we didn’t hear about some of the corporate bad guys, and of course, AEI is funded also by extractivist, coal companies and other fossil fuel industry. So it seems like if I want to talk about rural white poverty, and I want to maintain my cash flow, I need to find another bad guy. So then the other bad guy becomes some moral failing on the part of the poor and I want to sort of talk about how this kind of pivot is done, where again, we talked about this a lot with Mike Rowe, and a lot of these other kind of astroturf working class aesthetics, where there’s a lot of kind of hand wringing, from what I gather from the film watching clips in the trailer, it is also sort of like a ‘Ho hum, what is to be done?’ And then it’s never really clear who the sort of bad guys are and who that moralism serves.
Nima: It’s definitely not DC think tanks like AEI.
Adam: It’s definitely not the Sackler family who pays J.D. Vance’s bills.
Tom Sexton: Yeah. Who also flooded West Virginia towns of 400 people with like millions and millions of oxycontin.
Tarence Ray: No, I mean, it’s like Tom said, it’s, he doesn’t even mention the company towns, because just to mention that you would have to mention the long legacy of the coal industry’s social control over the region. I mean, you know, back to the first question you asked, what is the sort of stick that he’s plugging into? Another thing that he does is he’s going into this tradition, this was popular in the ‘60s, it was part of the reason why the war on poverty was launched, but there was this big sociological debate in the ‘60s about what causes poverty and there were heavyweights such as DSA founder, Michael Harrington, wrote this book that talks about it a little bit, I think his is more of a sort of structural analysis, but you know, there are these sociologists, some of them were liberals trying to understand why people were impoverished without fully indicting capitalism and then there were conservatives who were also more or less trying to do the same. Vance is tapping into something similar here and I don’t know, I’m sort of the same with Tom on this as to his ambitions, I personally, I was just telling Tom this before we got on, I kind of see Hillbilly Elegy as very effective propaganda. It introduces a certain set of tropes and ideas and characters that you can become familiarized with and then from there, maybe you can graduate up to Charles Murray and AEI and some of the intellectual frameworks for this terrible worldview.
Adam: Right. Yeah, we have to talk about Charles Murray, because his presence looms large and all this. Vance is, again, he is also at the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Murray, sort of noted white nationalist or white nationalist light —
Nima: They are colleagues.
Adam: They are colleagues. They did a Q&A together a few weeks before Trump won the 2016 election about sort of one of those, you know, they both sort of played the role of white working class whisperer. Charles Murray, when he’s not doing race science has rebranded himself as a kind of white working class whisperer, although he again introduces a sort of new race science, but a sort of British occupation of Ireland, where he sort of almost tries to racialize poor whites as part of his framework. His influence seems pretty significant. Can we talk about Charles Murray for a second and how his worldview of kind of deterministic genetics, again, he has traffic quite a bit in race science, how that kind of factors into this moral framework with regard to white poverty.
Tarence Ray: Yeah, you know, before I guess I answer this, I just need to point out some of the plot points of Hillbilly Elegy itself.
Tarence Ray: J.D. Vance is the son of a drug addict and I think his father is absentee, right Tom? And he’s raised by his grandmother.
Tom Sexton: Right. Yeah.
Tarence Ray: He’s from Breathitt County, Kentucky, which is, you know, 30 minutes down the road from where we live, but I think for most of his life he was raised in Ohio, I think?
Tom Sexton: Yeah Middletown, Ohio. He was never from Breathitt County, he sort of had this pollyannaish view of the place and, you know, spend the summers there with his hillbilly family trotting in the meadow or whatever they do.
Tarence Ray: Right. So that’s an important plot point to understand where Vance is coming from and the sort of agenda that he’s trying to get across. It’s interesting, I wish I would have known this, when we first started this podcast, the very first episode we did was on this book and was on J.D. Vance and our take was on it was, you know, J.D. Vance is just a snitch. He’s telling everybody his family’s dirty laundry and all this in the worst way.
Adam: It seems kind of dickish to do.
Tarence Ray: Right. (Laughs.)
Tom Sexton: Yeah, he just paints his mother as just this barfly that just, you know, has this series of abusive boyfriends or whatever.
Tarence Ray: Well, so that’s a crucial plot point to understanding the Murray connection. So, I didn’t know this until very recently, but I was kind of doing some research for this episode and I was reading Barbara and Karen Fields’ book Racecraft, and they talk a little bit about Charles Murray in there, but they pointed out this article that Charles Murray wrote in 1993 for the Wall Street Journal, it’s entitled, “The Coming White Underclass.” I mean, it seems like Murray has sort of pivoted to the white working class whisperer in recent years, but he has been on this tip since at least 1993 it looks like. I really encourage everyone to go read this, I mean, it’s truly sickening. I feel like you’ll be sort of physically ill after you read it, because it’s almost like something out of the Third Reich and it’s right in the pages of one of the most widely read outlets in American media, but in this article, Murray states, and I’m going to read from this, in this article Charles Murray States that quote, “Illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time.” And he’s referring to single motherhood, lack of strong male role models and father figures. He wasn’t referring to illegitimacy in the African American community, I mean, by this point he had already beat that horse dead throughout the 1980s. He was talking about the white community and, you know, he was saying that this is going to be a growing problem, and this is going to reap chaos on society and will essentially just rip it apart and turn it into this tyrannical authoritarian wasteland. So how does he propose you fix that? Well, with a lot of authoritarian and tyrannical policy. So I was reading this and I was shocked because, I mean, it’s almost like J.D. Vance took this, it’s almost like the seed of Hillbilly Elegy. So what he proposes is a set of policies that would ensure white women would no longer raise children on their own, but instead be essentially coerced into marriage and if they did insist on raising a kid alone, they should be shunned from society and have their kid literally taken from them and he actually proposed cutting welfare and using the money saved from it to build orphanages to put these illegitimate kids in and all of this was in order to maintain a social fabric, woven together by not just quote “babies of all colors and conditions” end quote, but by quote, “flawless, blue-eyed blonde infants.”
Tom Sexton: Whoa.
Tarence Ray: I mean, it’s always been up right up front with this stuff, right? And this is in the Wall Street Journal!
Tom Sexton: So you say that the J.D. Vance tweet the other day that was talking about —
Nima: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tom Sexton: It was concerned with birth rights.
Adam: Yeah, I want to talk about this tweet, I want to read it real quick. So he said, quote, “As a parent of young children, and a nationalist who worries,” I guess, as long as you don’t put white in front of it, it’s fine.
Nima, Tarence Ray, Tom Sexton: (Laughing.)
Adam: “As a parent of young children and a nationalist who worries about America’s low fertility I can say with confidence that daylight savings time reduces fertility by at least 10 percent.” I assume that Netflix and Ron Howard’s lawyers and PR people did not let him know not to tweet out the white genocide tweet before the movie premieres. So this was criticized. Talk about the tweet —
Nima: It wasn’t part of the social media toolkit.
Adam: And the sort of Tucker Carlson-esque obsession with fertility rates with respect to presumably some sort of foreign horde who’s taking over, “as a nationalist,” I think we kind of know what that means. So let’s dissect that tweet, if you will.
Tarence Ray: Well, okay. The first dissection of that tweet is that it’s a really bad attempt at humor, you know what I’m saying?
Tom Sexton: It’s like, wife humor, you know what I mean?
Tarence Ray: Yeah, but it’s white genocide.
Tom Sexton: (Laughing) Yeah but making it white nationalist.
Adam: Right. Well, he clearly had a ghostwriter and I suspect I know who it is, but I can’t speculate on here, but I’m pretty sure he had a ghostwriter, but go ahead.
Tarence Ray: Interesting. So I mean, I think the thing to understand about J.D. Vance and about Charles Murray, is that they are essentially social Darwinists, right? That is their message. People have roles and stations in society, they should not contest those in any way or try to leap out of them. They’re obsessed with this idea that the white family is the, like Charles Murray says in this literal essay — you can go find it in the Wall Street Journal “The Coming White Underclass” — they’re obsessed with the idea that the disruption of that would lead to the unraveling of society. So when you transfer that to Hillbilly Elegy, it’s really bleak and, I don’t know, it’s even darker in a way because I think he’s essentially saying that his own mother is unfit for society, that she is, in fact, excess waste on society, and she should, you know, basically just be exterminated if you follow that logic to its sort of terminal point. I mean, you mentioned it earlier Adam, they took the sort of black welfare queen trope that had been popularized in the ’80s and then transferred it to poor whites. I mean, this isn’t really new in America, there were people proposing eugenics on poor whites in the late 19th century in the earlier Gilded Age, but I think what’s so sinister about J.D. Vance’s book is that he turned it into a sort of memoir form, into a narrative memoir form, and then he just sort of does Murray’s work by getting you invested in the characters and like I said earlier, then you can graduate up to reading about the actual intellectual framework behind it. I don’t know, it’s really scary when you look at it from that direction.
Tom Sexton: The memoir piece sort of insulates it from the same criticism as some sort of dense theory thing would incur.
Tarence Ray: Yeah, exactly.
Nima: It’s just his own personal journey.
Tarence Ray: Exactly.
Nima: Right? ‘I’m just writing what I know.’
Tom Sexton: Also, the thing that drives me nuts, the guy just became a lawyer (laughs) it’s not like a fucking incredible trajectory.
Nima: I think this idea that it’s clearly pushing this race theory, but tries to duck race, throughout the book, but also explicitly at the beginning. So, close to the beginning of Hillbilly Elegy, Vance writes this: “I do hope that readers of this book will be able to take from it an appreciation of how class and family affect the poor without filtering their views through a racial prism.” He explicitly doesn’t want to talk about race, even though the entire thing is set up to be, as you were saying earlier, this, Scots-Irish tendency of culture to be lazy and fight all the time and drink and do drugs and not be productive, that everything is a moral failing based on genetics effectively, and this quote-unquote “culture” but never wanting to actually investigate how, again, extractive policies have everything to do with this, deliberate economic oppression and just reckoning with why poverty exists, it just sort of exists, right? You pull the curtain back on the play and it’s just like, “and…poverty.” There’s no investigation of the why and as a result, there’s no investigation of really, how the fuck to get out of it, other than again, this Horatio Alger bootstrapping shit. So, have you kind of thought about this grift in terms of what he is deliberately not endorsing? He never talks about raising wages or strengthening unions or providing universal healthcare, good public schools, it’s all this vague, kind of conservative ‘Oh, I think there should be vouchers maybe?’ What is really going on here? I guess my question is this, as the Trump administration wanes, and as Trumpism strengthens, you know, Vance has been kind of seen to be, as we’ve been saying, this whisperer or, you know, translating Trump’s appeal to poor rural white people to DC elite, effectively, right? Or business elites. This isn’t a book written for people in Kentucky, it’s written for his book club in the Beltway. This is Dupont Circle shit. So, what do you think this will then be kind of further weaponized to explain in the wake of this election?
Tarence Ray: It’s a great question. Well, going back to what I said earlier, I think the fundamental thing you have to understand about Vance and Charles Murray is that they are social Darwinists and what I mean by that is that they see poverty, you know, all of us do that, well not all of us, if you’re rich enough, you can, you know, insulate yourself from it, but impoverished people exist in society and, you know, you don’t want to disrupt that because that would mean that you will go down on the sort of social ladder, right? So you have to come up with the narrative to explain why that exists and why it can’t be changed. Again, I was telling Tom, we were talking about this before we came on, if you open up The Bell Curve, it opens up with a quote from Edmund Burke, The Bell Curve was written by Charles Murray. Their outright goal is to counteract the perversions of the egalitarian idea that began with the French Revolution. So, they’re up front with this idea that society should not, you know, you should stay within your station, you should not challenge power or anything like that.
Adam: You should be a good little coal miner, you should just suck it up and go fucking mine coal, and get black lung and —
Nima: And take drugs and smoke.
Adam: And fucking watch Leno and die.
Tarence Ray: That’s exactly right, but the thing is, is that we’re now at a point where liberals just drink this up too at this point, just uncritically. So I can see a situation and it’s funny, you asked how will it be weaponized after this election? The funny thing is, is that it’s going to be the exact same thing that it was in 2016, people will say the exact same thing that they said about these areas that they did after the last election and they’ll use this book to explain it, which is essentially, ‘That’s just how people are there, they are intrinsically a certain way, that’s red America for you,’ you know, I don’t know, it’s a complete lack of any kind of power analysis.
Tom Sexton: And another way, it’s not hard to see how Vance has sort of allowed groups, you know, just by setting the example sort of allowed groups like Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump to sort of, you know, do the same trick that he did sort of slip through that filter of liberal censure independent of any sort of ideological thing. I think that, you know, some of these, these people, because Vance did it first sort of slipped under the radar.
Tarence Ray: Actually Nima, now that I think about it a little bit more, this kind of gets at something we mentioned earlier, I can easily see this being weaponized to, again, we mentioned it earlier, kind of carve out the space within the Republican Party for a pro worker block. I know it sounds really stupid, but you know, they’re trying to appeal to a certain kind of worker and I think that this is the kind of stuff that they’re using to do that, like, Fox is starting to say that the GOP is the party of the working class or the working man or whatever terms they use. This is a goal that they’ve sort of aimed for the last couple of decades, but they’ve been unable to fully pull it off. Now that they look at these electoral maps, they see this massive sea of red between the coasts they say, all right, well, that’s, you know, so working people in the heartland and then Appalachia and so I guess they think that, ‘Well, we got to understand these people,’ and then they look to a guy like J.D. Vance. But the weird thing about it is that, you know, we were talking about this earlier, they don’t actually care about workers, right? They wouldn’t be caught dead with a service worker or anything like that. They’re talking about coal miners, you know?
Adam: Yeah, it’s the certain racialized aesthetic of workers.
Nima: Yeah, it’s like the prop worker behind the politician who has the dirty face and the hard hat.
Tarence Ray: In Hillbilly Elegy, I think J.D. Vance even mentions how he had a job at a grocery store and just, you know, absolutely belittles everybody that works there. You know what I mean? He talks about it’s a job that nobody would want, of course, nobody would want it, but you know, I think his point is that that’s not noble work.
Adam: Yeah, he’s the worst kind of class traitor. I want to talk a bit about the ways in which liberal media kind of uncritically gobbled up the book, just looking at contemporaneous coverage of it back in 2016, with the exception of outlets like Jacobin and y’all and others, there was sort of a very typical liberal media credulity and it was similar to me about how NPR and New York Times covered the Tea Party in 2009 and ‘10, where it was, ‘Oh, it’s just economic populism. They just they want they don’t like high taxes,’ and everyone who has sort of been around the block was like, ‘Well, no, they’re clearly just largely informed by racism and they’re astroturf by the Koch brothers,’ and, lo and behold, they get in power in 2010 and they pass a bunch of anti-abortion laws and don’t really talk about economics ever and by the way, just supported Trump’s deficit encuring tax cuts — the remaining Tea Party caucus huge fans of those tax cuts. So that was obviously all bullshit and the ways in which people use this book, because of course, he was fortunate to publish during the rise of Trumpism and there was this sense of like, ‘Ooh, we need to find out what these people think’ and he was the he was the ambassador of hillbilly country and we were going to talk to him.
Nima: And then once we find out what they think we realize we don’t have to do anything about it, because it’s their own fault. Thank god, literally.
Adam: In a weird way, his project in this book is extremely neoliberal. It reminds me a lot of Waiting for Superman where aside from being very astroturfed it’s pushing privitization schemes to fix social problems and there’s this weird overlap where determinist liberals and liberals contemptuous of the poor and Vance are both kind of pushing the same narrative in a sense that poor whites and Appalachia are unmovable, fixed, static, racist forever and that’s like the thing they are essentially, and it’s a thing of always be, we just tell them to fuck off and die, which strikes me as extremely convenientbecause it doesn’t require any political work at all. I want to talk about that kind of liberal acceptance and the permission of J.D. Vance, who’s despite his, I think, obviously, eugenicist impulses, remarkably uncancellable and how that kind of fits in even to a kind of deterministic neoliberal model of poverty.
Tom Sexton: Yes, I mean, I was thinking earlier, when we were talking about how The Bell Curve starts with Edmund Burke, and kind of talking a little bit how, you know, at a certain point, the sort of neoliberal project and this ideological tradition that kind of starts with Burke and carries on to all these guys, they sort of run off in the woods together at a certain point because their aims are similar.
Tarence Ray: No, I think that that’s exactly the right direction, because at the end of the day, their aims are more or less the same. The difference is that the Democrats are saying, ‘We hear you,’ whereas the Republicans are saying, ‘Get back to work.’ I mean, it’s essentially just two different ways of saying the same thing. You know, if the Democratic Party, if liberals were actually committed to what liberals were committed to, I don’t know, in like the 1930s or ’40s, or whatever, then I don’t know if they would have been able to digest this as easily. I don’t know. Maybe they would. I don’t know.
Adam: Well, I mean, you know, Bill Clinton, famously, in an interview, he credited Charles Murray with really informing his positions on welfare. He cites favorably Charles Murray, and Charles Murray reflects on this in an interview and says that was when he knew he had won. He had won over the most powerful Democrat in the country into his bootstrap, victim blaming ethos. So in an interview, then President Clinton gave NBC News on December 3, 1993, he said, “[Charles Murray] did the country a great service. I mean, he and I have often disagreed, but I think his analysis is essentially right. Now, whether his prescription is right, I question… I once polled 100 children in an alternative school in Atlanta,” read black, “ — many of whom had had babies out of wedlock — and I said, ‘If we didn’t give any AFDC to people after they had their first child; how many of you think it would reduce the number of out-of-wedlock’ births?’” That’s welfare. “Over 80 percent of the kids raised their hands. There’s no question that that would work. But the question is… ls it morally right? …There is no question that… if we reduced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, it would be some incentive for people not to have dependent children out of wedlock … [O]nce a really poor woman has a child out of wedlock, it almost locks her and that child into the cycle of poverty which then spins out of control further.” And then he went on to say that his analysis was quote, “essentially right.”
Nima: “She needs a man in her life.”
Nima: That’ll do it.
Adam: And this strikes me as remarkable because it’s, again, this is almost a sort of bipartisan consensus and in many ways we’re kind of debating this style of poverty shaming.
Tom Sexton: In a way, it’s no accident that when you circle back around, when I think about the Appalachian community that I came out of, of anything in the sort of fortress liberalism project that had the most devastating consequences, it is Clinton’s gutting welfare moving from entitlements to block grants and those kinds of things that we’re still reeling from today.
Adam: Another class traitor.
Tom Sexton: Yeah, that’s interesting that Clinton was sympathetic to him.
Nima: Well, yeah, and that the argument is effectively what we now hear with family separation at the border, right? That it’s all about incentive and that it’s, you know, if we just give them all these things, then they won’t work hard enough to do it themselves. It’s also what Jared Kushner — Jesus Christ — but Jared Kushner said recently about Black people, right? ‘Look, we can’t want them to succeed more than they want to succeed.’ It’s like, what the fuck is going on here?
Tarence Ray: Yeah.
Tom Sexton: Yeah.
Nima: It’s all this victim blaming shit without any sort of interest in examining the systems that are at work, because those systems are deliberately constructed by the people who are saying these quotes. So obviously, they want them to stick around. That’s the incentive for them. They’re like, ‘We’re not going to interrogate the why because that means we have to change if we care about changing it, so we’re just going to write these folks off.’
Tom Sexton: Yeah.
Nima: Which I really do think, you know, is something we’re going to still see. The fact that this movie is now coming out at this time, a week after this election, whereas the book came out right around Trump’s first election, right? It’s just gonna bring this back up in the ‘How can we understand this entire swath of our population, not our neighbors, god forbid, but like that population over there?’ And the result is going to be like, ‘Oh, well, yeah, I guess it’s a lost cause, we don’t need to do anything, so let’s go after the #NeverTrumpers and the Cuban exiles in Miami.’
Adam: Yeah, the 15 #NeverTrumpers and a bunch of Cuban exiles. Who’s racism is somehow okay. Before you go, do want to talk about your show, what y’all are up to, what do you have on the horizon? A little self promotion here.
Tom Sexton: Well, I would just say that we’ve got a miniseries that Tarence are sort of spearheading called Year Zero, it’s really taking a long view and studying political economy in a more expansive way than what we get to do, you know, sort of the more decidedly jokey style of our regular show. So I think that’s pretty exciting. And we just added a new cast member, Mr. Aaron Thorpe, from Atlanta, Georgia. We’re excited about having him on board to sort of, you know, get out of our own little corner of Appalachia a little more and talk about the South more broadly. And people can find us and all the usual places.
Tarence Ray: Yeah and, you know, Tom and I write for if we can get published anywhere. That’s not easy these days, but I recently wrote something for Verso, a Verso blog about, you know, living where I live and I think a lot of the things that Tom and I write, just try to explore the world through the lens of where we live. So I guess at the end of the day, we basically do the same thing J.D. Vance does. (Laughing.)
Tom Sexton: (Laughing.)
Adam: Not for evil.
Tarence Ray: We’re not for evil.
Adam: Not for evil. When you start taking money from the Sackler family and petrochemical companies that tell poor people to fuck off and die then we’ll —
Tarence Ray: That’s true.
Tom Sexton: Yeah, we don’t need to take money from stamps.com.
Adam: That works. There’s no shame in pushing some razor blades or mattresses. I don’t judge.
Nima: I think that’s a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking, of course, with Tom Sexton and Tarence Ray, co-hosts of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast. They’re based out of Whitesburg, Kentucky. Tarence, Tom, it really has been such a pleasure talking to you today on Citations Needed.
Tarence Ray: Thanks so much for having us.
Tom Sexton: Thanks y’all for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I think the sort of the various ways in which people write off entire sections of the country by coming up with kind of totalizing, intractable conditions is super easy and of course, racism and whiteness and those factors are central to some of that susceptibility to these kinds of pitches by people like Trump or J.D. Vance or Hawley or Rubio and that just can’t be denied. There’s going to be some fixed percent for whom their white identity regardless of their condition is going to be unchanged, right? But presumably, there’s some percentage for whom that’s not the case. And therein lies why we do politics and I think that podcasts like the Trillbilly Worker’s Party, of course, is a Marxist Appalachian podcast and there are countless organizers and countless chapters of the IWW and union workers and people who sue these coal companies, there are countless people in these areas, you know, just to name a few and forgive me for this list being horrifically incomplete, who are kind of trying to build more structural progressive movements and it’s such a shame that we have this liberal establishment media, who in the run up to the last election, and they needed to turn to a sort of Appalachia understander routinely over and over again, whether it was in the New York Times, NPR, Newsweek, would turn to J.D. Vance to explain the condition of the poor whites because he had some kind of street cred and I think that it’s very convenient that he and the American Enterprise Institute were sort of in the wings to fill that void for superficial media types who really just wanted to kind of check a box and engage in this kind of totalizing exercise. Like we said, you know, the difference between some of this totalizing from the Charles Murray crowd and liberals is not much different, because they both end up in the same end place, which is, nothing can be done about it, ‘Nothing can be done to alleviate that poverty. So let’s just write them off and worry about X, Y and Z.’ Now of course, Charles Murray is coming from a specific eugenicist place and that’s more sinister, but a lot of the same, the end result is not really much different.
Nima: Well, right. So I think you see this when there is talk about a politician say — I don’t know, like Bernie Sanders — who talks about class, who talks about economics so much and there’s this automatic sort of liberal reaction to say, ‘Oh, but you can’t just talk about class because you have to talk about all these other things, too,’ as a way to write off Sanders, but not to actually talk about the things that they say need to be talked about, because actually, there is so much intersectional economic and racial policies wrapped up into politicians like — I’m not, it’s not about fucking Bernie, I don’t care about Bernie — but that kind of conversation gets shunted to the side because it’s like, ‘Oh, no, because rednecks are just racist,’ and so don’t even worry about that and write off that entire portion of the country without trying to understand anything more than what you learn in a book like Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance, who then goes on speaking tours, and you get your information that way, and therefore, you don’t actually have to change or adapt the way you’re talking, let alone the actual policies that you’re trying to push.
Adam: Yeah, I mean, you know, there’s this tedious constant debate: Is it class or is it race? And of course, everyone, I think, who looks at this honestly, who isn’t some class reductionist weirdo or totally being bad faith would say, well, obviously, it’s both and finding those differences and finding that balance of a is it sort of intractable racism, or are there legitimate class interests at stake that Democrats could do to win over some of these voters is the conversation to have and there is incentive to have extremes both ways. The incentive to say it’s just class is sort of a way that I think some Sanders people can kind of glibly dismiss the need to talk about race.
Adam: And at the same time, there was a lot of money to be had and a lot of careers to be made off saying, ‘Oh, it’s just race, we need to move on.’ Because if it’s just racism, and nothing can be done, then that means nothing can be done. Nothing can materially be offered, universalist programs have no point, it’s just an intractable moral failing and there’s nothing we can really do about it, and again, I think that’s probably true for a large percentage, if not a majority.
Nima: And then you don’t have to talk about economics either, but it’s a way to then not talk about that.
Adam: It’s the easiest way to get a show on MSNBC, because it doesn’t require Comcast, whose market cap is $200 billion to have any existential questions about redistributive politics, you know, and I think that in the absence of a meaningful, broad left-wing conversation about the class reasons for Appalachian support for Trump, and to be clear, a lot of whites in Appalachia did vote for Biden, that is, it is not a uniform thing. I think in the absence that void will be filled by these right-wing hucksters, like Vance and Charles Murray and Oren Cass and Josh Hawley, and Donald Trump do to large extent, although, you know, he’s not very thoughtful about it, he just plays pure to the id, but these more sophisticated kind of Trump light types you see emerging, like the American Compass Project, are deliberately designed to address these neurosis from the right and if the left doesn’t make an effort to do so they’re going to cede the ground to these people, because they’re at least sort of talking about it.
Adam: And these people are deeply, deeply sinister. They do not care about poor whites, they don’t care about poor anyone and they largely traffic in race science and they’re almost to the person a racist, but they’re the ones who will occupy that space and this is I think, why cultural products like Hillbilly Elegy can be pretty sinister, because they suck up, I mean, again, imagine if there was a popular Netflix show about Appalachia that was critical of large coal companies, or was a kind of like a John Sayles worker union movie about cross racial unionization or something of that effect. I mean, first that would never get produced.
Nima: Or if it did, it would be like niche, and it wouldn’t be like Glenn Close and Amy Adams on Netflix in a Ron Howard/Brian Grazer movie.
Adam: Yeah, it wouldn’t be one of these sort of prestige pictures where beautiful actors put on a bunch of makeup to look ugly which is how you win an Oscar, not coincidentally, and so I think that that space is filled up by this shit and it’s just depressing and I think to some extent it is a failure of left-wing propagandists to adequately occupy that space.
Nima: Yeah, well, I mean, I guess the last thing I’ll say is when you don’t speak a certain kind of language, and something is foreign to you, you need to rely on translators, right? And the power of those translators is going to then be reflected in what you understand about what you don’t understand. So, if the translator for Appalachia is J.D. Vance, as opposed to, say, Tom and Tarence of Trillbilly Worker’s Party, you’re gonna come away with a certain kind of analysis, because that’s the whisperer that you’re listening to, as opposed to other voices that have a very different perspective and a very different lived experience and so, you know, it makes those translations so powerful and also, when they come in the form of something like Hillbilly Elegy, really sinister.
Adam: Yeah. Which is, again, why this film is getting a Hollywood treatment, because it serves up a certain narrative to the wealthy, that offends neither liberal or conservative. It’s just kind of insipid, again, to the extent to which poverty is discussed, and this is purely based on the book, I’ve not seen the movie, but the extent to which poverty is discussed, it’s this moral condition that we need to sort of escape, it’s very David Brooks, and it’s not a form of violence imposed by the ruling class on the poor and if we’re not having that conversation, then we’re not really having any conversation. We’re just wasting our fucking time.
Nima: Well, I think that’s the right place to leave it. You have been listening to a Citations Needed News Brief. Thank you, everyone for your ongoing support. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work if you are so inclined through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We will be back very soon with another full length episode, but that will do it for this time. Thanks again for listening everyone. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks everyone, we’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, November 11, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.