27 September 2016

The Hillbilly Elegy Take Three

Discrimination is real. But, so is the fact that in any given context, some cultural norms and practices are more functional than others.

The Appalachian Hillbilly culture J.D. Vance examines in "The Hillbilly Elegy" is valuable, in part, because it provides an opportunity to look at the consequences of "a culture in crisis" that is no longer functional in most of the world where it finds itself, disentangled from the confound of the often more overt discrimination that comes up in other contexts.

But, a recurring theme in the book is the extent to which the issues faced by members of this culture in crisis mirror those of our nation's African-American communities, a culture in crisis in the United States that is in many respects dysfunctional in many of the same respects as white Appalachian culture, white Southern culture and rural Western and Great Plains whites are, but with the added kickers of ongoing discrimination and more meager community economic wealth to build upon.

In the larger scheme of things, the crises that are facing the several cultures of honor in the United States, shows strong parallels to those faced by the Muslim world, in dysfunctional regimes in many countries where they are dominant, in violent conflicts where it cohabits with other faiths in places from the African Sahel to Malaysia to the Philippines, to tensions and discrimination faced by Muslim immigrants to the West.

In each of these cases, men are struggling more to adapt to modernity than women. In each of these cases, escalation to violence is triggered more easily than in the dominant culture and both public and private violence are less unequivocally taboo, in each of these cultures men tend to be more often resistant to the dominant cultures style of providing an education, and in each of these cultures "normal behavior" often equates to lacking the "soft skills" needed to hold down a job like expected etiquette and punctuality.

There is ripe irony in the fact that demagogues like Donald Trump, his running mate Governor Mike Pence, conservative talk radio hosts, and Evangelical Christian clergy aim their fear and hatred so strongly at the African-American community and Muslims, with whom they have so much in common and who face so many of the same struggles, rather than the dominant American culture that is strongest in the Northeast and Pacific states of the United States.

Discrimination is a tricky thing. Part of it flows from ignorance, but it is more complex than that. When a culture is dysfunctional in a given context, this gives rise to stereotypes and those stereotypes are then applied indiscriminately to the detriment of everyone in the stereotyped group. And, once someone is discriminated against based on such a stereotype, whether or not its basis is actually applicable to them individually, the incentive to function well in a given context fighting the pulls of culture and expectations from insiders and outsiders alike can prove to be not worth it leading people to embrace the stereotype and give justification to further discrimination. In the absence of strong prohibitions against discrimination, it can be difficult or impossible for an individual to overcome this vicious cycle.

But, the opposite can be true as well. If a culture reforms itself, or if some subset of the stereotyped group finds a way to visibly set itself apart and defy the expectations society has of them (one of the most notable historical efforts along these lines was Malcolm X's effort to create a culturally distinct community of African-American Muslims), discriminatory perceptions can shift as well.

The point is not to somehow deflect blame for the circumstances that got us where we are, to be frank and recognize how complex a task it is to find solutions.

Ultimately, framed as a clash of cultures, in each case there are three possible solutions: reform of the aspects of the culture in question that make it dysfunctional from within, conversion to a more functional culture, or perpetuation of the status quo even though this leaves members of this culture at a disadvantage in modern society - respecting tradition and providing a hedge through societal diversity against the possibility that the context may change and with it the relative functionality of the cultures that exist.

Reform from within does happen.  Southern Baptists and Mormons have disavowed past overtly racist doctrines. Young Evangelical Christians are far less concerned about homosexuality than their parents and their grandparents generations. Turkey, under the guidance of Ataturk went from having values and norms typical of their Arab Muslim neighbors to the South to having one of the oldest and most secular Islamic democracies in the world with a population whose views are among the most moderate in the Muslim world.  Similarly, the Iran of today, while not a liberal as it was in the several years before the Shah fell in the Islamic Revolution, is also much less conservative and fundamentalist religiously than it was in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution. The ancestors of the people whose culture now seems perfectly suited to modernity in places from New York to Munich to London to Stockholm ended up with the culture they have through painful transitions now forgotten by almost everyone but cultural and economic historians.

Conversion happens too. J.D. Vance, himself, is a classic convert from his own culture to dominant American culture. Another high profile convert is Taylor Swift who started as a country singer from Nashville but transitioned to become a pop singer based in New York City who embraces her new culture's values. Southerners who go to colleges in the North usually try to shed their accents. Most of the non-white and first generation college students displayed in the view books of selective colleges and universities have chosen the path of conversion, even if that conversion is never total in the first generation. National media and the Internet and economic migration of Northerners to parts of the South like North Carolina's research triangle, suburban D.C. in Virginia, Atlanta, and oil boom towns in Texas all create pressure for dilution of local culture, ultimately leading to assimilation into the national culture. Conversion is the norm among immigrant populations - with those parts of the culture that do not convert often omitting reforms that happen in the old country after the main wave of migration.

And, certainly, some people stick stubbornly to their traditional unreformed cultures, but as often as not, this is an ugly story of despair and cultural crisis, as much as it is something to celebrate.

Bringing about these changes is not a straight forward matter, and lead to a lot of political and social strife. But, some choice has to be made, and these are pretty much the only options.

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