Perspective from poor, rural and mostly white America

November 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

Seeing this reminded me again of what JD Vance wrote in Hillbilly Elegy. Poor whites in rural America are the sons and daughters of the people who rose into middle class by working in the manufacturing industry.

This social mobility entrenched the belief that diligence and hard work will bring wealth. However, Vance observes that this belief has persisted even as people stopped working hard. Instead of recognising their lack of diligence (or poor life choices), poor whites believe that the reason they’re not getting rich is because of immigration, or globalisation.

But that of course, doesn’t mean these people aren’t victims. Better tax and welfare policies for example would have all lessened wealth inequality. As I said before, poverty seems to be a complicated mix of poor life choices and factors outside of an individual’s control.


Hillbilly Elegy

November 9, 2016 § Leave a comment

I just finished J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy and have three thoughts to offer.

1. There is a strong connection between privilege and social mobility

Social mobility is an equaliser. If it’s easy to move from one social class to another then we might conclude that a society is fairly equal and meritocratic.

However, there is a strong connection between privilege and social mobility, and I mean all kinds of privilege: wealth, educated parents, a loving and stable family and a safe neighbourhood. I identify with Vance on some level because I’m also a child of poor migrants. But I’m incredibly luckier because the statistics were on my side. My parents, though poor migrants initially, are both tertiary educated. They value education and provided a caring and secure family home. Vance on the  other hand is the first person in his family to go to college; his father gave him up for adoption and his mother is a drug addict. He attributes much of his success to the love of his sister and grandmother and the fact that his grandmother (and when she was sober, his mother) cared about his education.

He admits that this is probably the only thing that changed his life’s trajectory. Otherwise he went to the same school, grew up in the same neighbourhood, witnessed the same fights and crises that other kids in his town saw.

Parents should love their kids, but I’m beginning to see that a loving and caring family is almost a privilege in those areas, because when everyone’s parents are poor and uneducated, kids with parents who are still willing to invest in them the only way they can (i.e. by providing a loving family home) will probably go furthest.

The problem is this: can you provide a stable home for your child when you’re a single-teenage parent? Will you love your kids if you’ve never known love from your own parents? Poverty is like a disease in these families; it gets passed down through generations.

2. Pessimism among poor, working class whites results from a complicated mix of poor life choices and factors outside of their control

Vance is still figuring out whether the balance is in favour of the individual or forces outside of their control. He blames his mother for not being able to quit drugs but at the same time he admits that she grew up in a violent household. A lot of people he knew who failed did so because of their own choices, and he cites a guy he used to work with in a tile factory who eventually lost his job because he was always late to work and would take 1 hr toilet breaks. When he lost the job he turned against the boss and said he couldn’t be fired because he had a pregnant girlfriend to look after.

Yet at the same time Vance recognises that there are rarely any examples of happy families to look up to, and rarely anyone in the community to show a kid that if you study hard you will get somewhere. People are disillusioned with hard work because they don’t see the rewards, and they don’t feel like they can control their own lives. This leads to a high level of pessimism among working class whites. For example, working class whites are more likely to believe that their children will do worse than them, compared to African-American and Hispanic parents.

In the end, Vance says that a community can either empower people with a sense that they can control their own destiny or encourage them to take refuge in resentment at forces beyond their control.

3. Politicians have capitalised on this resentment

Politicians like Trump, Farage and Le Pen tap into this resentment and blame the white-working-class-plight on immigration, globalisation and a corrupt political establishment. People are call this the rise of populism, perhaps best defined as a type of politics that

scorns elites and experts. It supposes that the purpose of politics is to act on the will of the people, and it proposes simple solutions to complex problems that require serious and effective policy responses

In the end, these simple solutions are not going to help poor working class whites. We need to communicate that, instead of ignoring their problems because we disagree with its political manifestation. Schemes like vote trading undermine democracy and further belittles the political voice of what is already one of the most disempowered groups in America. We label them stupid, racist, sexist and homophobic. But we don’t recognise that they are just very poor, and no one has done anything about it for too long.

Currently reading…

February 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

Reading My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst. Here’s her wikipedia one-liner: ‘Emmeline Pankhurst was a British political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement who helped women win the right to vote.’

A book that appeals to my conventional socialist sensibilities, and my conventional reading habits, in general. Sometimes I feel that my book taste could be a bit more adventurous rather than a human interest story whenever I’m not stuck in fiction (rarely). Not to devalue the significant achievements of Emmeline Pankhurst, but I always read books, whether biography or history, that have an emotional focus, or which tells a well-known story from a very personal side. For some reason, I don’t tend to pick up books that are more abstract and that are more about ideas. Big-thinking books tend to escape my shelf.

Anyway, as I recently moved, I decided to join my local library, and this book was the first that I picked up. Not because I am a feminist and respect the suffragettes (I mean, I do, but that wasn’t why I picked up the book), but because of this slightly haunting passage that I read when I flicked through the book (and which then stayed with me):

Mrs Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ was so great a favourite with my mother that she used it continually as a source of bedtime stories for our fascinated ears…[a] thrilling tale was the story of a negro boy’s flight from the plantation of his cruel master. The boy had never seen a railroad train, and when, staggering along the unfamiliar railroad track, he heard the roar of an approaching train, the clattering car-wheels seemed to his strained imagination to be repeating over and over again the awful words, ‘Catch a nigger – catch a nigger – catch a nigger -‘ This was a terrible story, and throughout my childhood, whenever I rode in a train, I thought of that poor runaway slave escaping from the pursuing monster.

Recent reads

October 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I haven’t seen Blade Runner and I had no idea it was based on this book. But the book is fantastic, so I may watch the movie too. What I like most is that we are gradually fed more information about the nature of the world that Rick inhabits, and this is done cleverly by using two different narratives (of two characters that occupy very different positions in the society) which in a way, come together at the end. Mercerism, I still don’t entirely understand, but this is the kind of book where your understanding (and appreciation) is a work-in-progress. My favourite scene was the Police Station scene.

An Abundance of Katherines

I also finally read a John Green novel, An Abundance of Katherines, which I did not like (unfortunately). Perhaps I should have started with Green’s best work – The Fault in Our Stars, but what if it was really good and left me with the disappointing realisation that no other Green book will be as good? Such are the dilemmas that I face. What I didn’t like most was the character of Hassan, which I thought lacked depth and was only used to provide a contrast point to Colin, the protagonist. I also didn’t like the pace of the story – there was no real plot, which is usually fine in books like these because they tend to focus more on character development. However, I felt like there was not enough genuine character development, a series of incidents occur and Colin makes changes to his relationship equation and we are lead to believe that Colin has grown up a bit. But I didn’t feel any organic change, I felt like I was being told that Colin had come of age, but I didn’t see it.

The Latest from my Reading List

October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve recently finished reading 3 books (I have a voracious appetite for fiction after reading so many case judgments), and I recommend all of them. Here are my thoughts (spoiler alert!) –

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro said that he had the theme for the book (making young people understand old people) before he had a vehicle to express it through. His chosen vehicle is human clones. Clones are produced in this alternate universe in order for their organs to be harvested; these clones typically have a life span of 20-30 years. Because of this, Never Let Me Go has often been categorised as a sci-fi book, but the emphasis of the book is on its thematic issues rather than its setting. These young people are passively resigned to their fate and it’s very depressing. Dreams and loves aren’t pursued, but they still salvage ways of adding meaning to their life. Ishiguro writes in a plain way but the story creeps up on you; just like the characters in the book I was ‘told and not told’ that something very wrong was going on.

Eleanor & Park – Rainbow Rowell

I have been looking forward to reading this one! I first encountered Rainbow Rowell when I read Fangirl (more lighthearted than Eleanor & Park but very entertaining and satisfying for those looking for a coming-of-age-type story) which I enjoyed immensely, and not just because I used to write a bit of fanfiction. Eleanor & Park is darker and more tragic and reminds me of a John Green paperback (even though I haven’t read a John Green paperback – although according to the cover of my copy John Green does say that Eleanor & Park reminded him of what it was like to be young and in love with a girl, as well as a book). I like that it talks about domestic abuse, it makes you question, ‘why doesn’t Eleanor just run away?’ but then you realise, where would she go and how will she get there? Domestic abuse isn’t something you can just walk out of and I think novels like Eleanor & Park can start to dispel that myth.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

This book was somewhat harrowing, and because I read it very soon after Never Let Me Go I began thinking of this book in terms of its similarities with Ishiguro’s book. Ishiguro writes about clones, Fowler writes about animals. Both make me question how we (humans) treat other species. Do animals and clones have less claim to humanity then we do? What makes us more deserving of love and humane treatment? The book is narrated from Rosie’s point of view and expertly weaves the past and present together with a bit of textbook psychology. Rosie’s perspective is unique because she doesn’t see herself superior to Fern, the cross-fostered chimpanzee she was brought up with – whether this is because of guilt, because Rosie is an animal rights activist (which seems unlikely when juxtaposed with her brother, Lowell) or whether she really has internalised Fern as a sister.

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