Hillbilly Elegy on NetFlix

I’m a little disappointed in Ron Howard for taking this project on. The parts of this book that I’ve read have all been in the vein of “these people are poor because they’re lazy. Be smart like me and lift yourself out of poverty.” There’s a lot more going on in these communities than laziness.

Maybe the movie will have the nuance that the book lacked. One can hope.

You could hope, but… Ron Howard.

Yes, J.D. Vance is a conservative, so it’s no wonder he blames people’s misfortunes on them being lazy, and it’s likewise no wonder he found an audience among well to do liberals who are all too eager for someone to tell them they are better than those lazy, stupid white poors.

As a transplant into Appalachia approximately 20 years ago, I experienced quite a bit of culture shock. But the one thing that gets me to this day is the attitude that people in this area have towards the poor or less fortunate. It is seen as a sign of weakness; it is spoken about as if folks are just lazy; it’s met with a roll of the eyes and a condescending attitude. And most of the people who feel this way are one paycheck away (or less) from being there themselves. It’s crazy.

That certainly isn’t unique to the area; it’s a very widespread attitude across America.

But it strikes me as odd that in a rural area – where anyone could be unemployed or in a bad situation in the blink of an eye – that there isn’t a greater sense of empathy towards those less fortunate, or at least that empathy comes with conditions. There’s a perverse sense of community here. Someone has a stroke or cancer and there will be spaghetti dinners, hoagie sales (or subs, as I call them. damn rednecks…), tip jars, etc. But need to be on welfare because you lost a job? Or had an accident and got hooked on painkillers and now your life is totally fucked? Forget it.

I had a very modestly similar life’s trajectory to Vance, though A) I never made it quite as far as he did, and B) my immediate family unit was less fucked-up than most other branches of it. Nonetheless, raised by fairly racist, extremely conservative traditionalist Catholics to believe evolution was a lie, abortion was murder, and gay people were all going to Hell, initially in one of the poorer, shittier counties in Tennessee, then eventually the insane tourist-trap/hillbilly-glorification-depot that is the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area. I went to shitty schools, drug use and unemployment were rife among my social circles’ families, and as a half-Latinx person, I was the most “diverse” guy in the room in 90% of my classes growing up.

And, you know, I emerged a raging radically left-wing, tear-down-the-churches, abort-the-straight-babies godless communist working for peanuts at an education nonprofit and yelling about Trump on the internet :)

So, there’s this part of me, that I recognize isn’t the kind of view I hope to espouse when I try to live up to my stated ideals, that wants to just say “fuck 'em all” to the folks back home who never learned any better. I was smart enough to be labeled academically gifted and my parents had the spare money to send me off to nerd camp for a couple of summers, but I don’t see myself as especially more able to develop, you know, a functional sense of empathy than anyone else I knew back then. If I could grow up in a devoutly anti-science household where TV shows and movies were carefully screened to ensure I didn’t consume anything outside of that view (thank fuck for books is all I can say), and figure out that stuff was archaic, hate-fueled garbage, why can’t so many others?

On the other hand, I mean, yeah. I am able to recognize the corrosive effects of poverty – the continuous fight-or-flight stress response from the brain crippling executive function; the dissolution of stable family structures; the inevitability of crime; the grotesque downward spiral-cycle of poverty begetting worse schools begetting yet more poverty – and a concerted, multi-decade effort to distort reality and radicalize certain sectors of the populace engaged by right-wing AM radio personalities and the Murdoch Empire’s daily propaganda broadcasts, all coordinated carefully with the efforts of Reagonomics and Gingrich’s Contract and Bush-era neoconservative warmongering and Trumpian ignorance-glorification.

These people are beaten down from the moment they’re born (hell, earlier, given the effects of maternal nutrition + drug-and-alcohol usage during pregnancy), and there’s a vast and powerful network of wealthy elites selling them a vision of a perfect panacea to all their ills, a chance at feeling superior and successful and worthwhile for once. Their faith has been twisted by preachers and priests bent by hatred, their social circles have been warped by traditions meant to keep the “right” folks down and in their place, and most of them are stuck in an area of the nation that did more than any other to cripple the prospects of and actively demonize black people post-Civil War, steeping an entire culture in outright, open racism (which isn’t to say the North and West don’t have it; it just tends to be quieter).

Is it so unexpected, then, that these communities have turned out the way that they have? Probably not, depressingly.

But still. That urge. . . I got better – why can’t you, you fucking bigot! – is stronger by the day :)

It’s a vile little screed and yes, I think less of Ron Howard for getting anywhere near it. It’s rightfully generated some significant pushback:


@ArmandoPenblade’s elegy is enough for me any day!

What’s scary is to think that what’s Armando’s and other people’s pasts are what the same elites envision for the future of nearly everyone. Cyberpunk gets more and more real with each passing day.

Also, Armando, dude - I love reading what you write. ;)

Is there a potentially interesting perspective to be told here? Sure. Is Ron Howard, based on this book, the right man for the job? I’m not so sure.

As mentioned above, it is a complex topic with a lot of baggage and issues to cover. It is also one where there is no easy or clear answer on how to get from where we are to somewhere better. Why is this area facing the difficulties it has, and how can this be improved? And what answers are there that would be accepted by those living there?

Based on the trailer, this seems to be one that focuses on the small scale, the individual. But does not address the larger community there.

At first I thought this was going to be a documentary. Because that thumbnail looks just like what the family I have living there looks like. I legitimately did not recognize Adams and Close. But for a hot minute I wondered if those were, perhaps, my aunt and cousin, since they look just like I expect they would these days (having been 20 years since I saw them last).

I think this is so key. Wherever it sprang from – the socioeconomic factors talked about above or maybe just a magical mineral found in Appalachian mountain water that makes you into a racist shitbag – the sense of what I’d call fatalistic individualism that @138 talked about seeing in their time in Appalachia makes climbing out of this hole so much more difficult. These people resent the idea that help might be necessary and especially if that help comes in the form of changing anything, because they now cling to everything as some integral part of their tragic regional identity.

See: coal mining. My girlfriend’s family comes from old coal mining country. Some real Panopticon - Kentucky/Storming Heaven shitholes. Back in the day, The Man was the enemy. Revolution and rebellion were inherent in the culture, and rising up against those greedy mine owners choking the life out of your town was seen as aspirational. Nowadays, communities are desperate to hang onto the mines as some imaginary lifeline to prosperity and a fever dream sense of heritage, even as employment and opportunity diminish year by year as technology improves and more profitable locations are favored. If a Democrat walks in promising job training programs to help people move into the modern workforce, they’re demonized, but if a Republican promises to “bring back the coal,” they’re heralded as saviors.

Strongly disagree, the author was honest about his upbringing and the social issues that he left behind. I found the story moving.

I agree that the story was moving. And it makes a great case for how joining the military is a fantastic option for a lot of people whose lives would be otherwise fucked up and hopeless. But the conclusions Vance drew from his story were the garden variety bootstrappery conservatives have been selling for decades. And frankly kind of obnoxious in the context of the story.

That said, I do enjoy Amy Adams playing against her princess stereotype! See also, Sharp Objects.


I would not have recognized Amy Adams in a billion years. Amazing!

I recognized her (took a little bit, sure, but just a little bit). And Glenn Close, too. But I’m a huge fan of both, so there’s that.

Run-of-the-mill survivorship bias, basically. An entire political philosophy built on a dirt-simple logical fallacy.

I smell Emmys!

Who can we get to film Armando’s elegy? Is Chloe Zhao done with that Marvel movie yet?