By a coincidence of scheduling, Rod Dreher and J.D. Vance gave talks at Pepperdine within four days of each other. I was able to attend both presentations and took a few notes.
The subjects of the talks come from their recent books: Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) and Dreher’s The Benedict Option (2017). Both clock at exactly 272 pages and have received a lot of buzz, especially Vance’s. I hadn’t read them before the talks, and attending these talks were a nice substitute for reading them. (They also confirmed that I need not read them, but it’s a different matter.)
It’s clear from the talks that the motives of the authors for writing were very personal. Dreher said it was quite personal in a response to a question from the audience. And the subtitle of Vance’s book is A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. Both authors were driven by “crisis,” and both identified themselves as conservatives that had tended to vote Republican. Neither shows much regard to Donald Trump. In Dreher’s case, he doesn’t have much regard for presidential politics and presidents either and has probably given up voting on national elections.
Of the two talks, Dreher’s was the more interesting by a mile. Like most speakers giving the same talk again and over, he had a basic script and he was speedy in delivering it to a relatively small audience. Among his main points are the retreat of St. Benedict from the cultural collapse of the Roman Empire in the sixth century. He compares the state of Western culture today as an impending collapse of a similar magnitude, and he cited an example to be the prevalence of MTD, short for “Moralistic-Therapeutic Deism,” a concept proposed by the sociologist Christian Smith in 2005. He argues for a retreat to local communities and local politics as a way out of this cultural crisis. He offers the example of Václav Havel and other Czech dissidents of communist rule as a model of resistance. He corrects the popular (mis)perception that he advocates a withdrawal from politics. He stated several times during the talk that it is only from national politics that Christians should withdraw, not local politics.
I have at least some sympathy for Dreher’s advocacy on the local at the expense of the national. It was poignant to hear a story he told during Q&A about a fundamentalist Christian that farmed organic produce in Texas and got to know local hippies that did the same. The state of national politics is so ill, in Dreher’s view, that people of different political and cultural stripes are unable to communicate even on matters outside of politics. It took organic farming to facilitate an encounter in this case. I tend to agree with him that the current state of discourse is lousy, and not only on Twitter and Facebook.
I also found his perspectives inflated and analogies problematic. His analogy of Czech resistance to communism during the Cold War – American conservatives today retain a fondness for evoking anticommunist resistance – struck me as out-of-place. By leaping from Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century to Havel of Czechoslovakia in the twentieth century, he engages in mixed metaphors. He views culture in the West to be materialistic and permissive and inflates it to the level of communism and totalitarianism without considering that the latter was a modern phenomenon. (Or, to be precise, a twentieth-century phenomenon albeit with a small extension into the twenty-first century by way of North Korea.) I don’t think he needs to resort to such hyperboles before making his recommendations.
In the end, I think that Dreher, a self-professed “crunchy conservative,” turns reactionary with his “Benedict Option” proposal. It’s true that during the Q&A he spoke of “joy” found in small communities and gave a couple of examples from Italy. But his gloomy outlook overwhelms any such nuances, making the solution a lot more reactionary than it ought to be.
In any event, The Benedict Option has generated a host of responses and reactions. Ironically, some conservative Christians have found his take to be unoriginal. One finds it rather mundane in terms of Christian practice; another even calls it a hoax, figuratively speaking. There have been many responses from liberals and moderates too. Over at the Jesuit journal America, for example, are several responses, including one by my Pepperdine colleague Jason Blakely.
Still, it was a thoughtful talk in some respects and it was too bad that Dreher spoke on a Friday evening and Elkins Auditorium looked to be about one-quarter or, at most, one-third full. In comparison, the talk by J.D. Vance, whose best-seller is a lot better known, occurred on a Tuesday and drew almost a full house in the larger Smothers Theatre. In light of this larger reception, I regret to say that it wasn’t as thoughtful or energetic as Dreher’s. In fact it was disappointing.
Maybe it was a result of age and experience. Without prompting from anyone, Dreher stated twice or thrice that he is fifty years old while Vance said that he was thirty-two when his book came out last year. Maybe the thirty-something memoirist isn’t as seasoned as the older author when it comes to speaking. I don’t mean “seasoned” in mien, manner, delivery, etc. Vance stood tall, literally, and spoke clearly. But the contents of his talk were not well put together. He spoke as if people in the audience have already read the book. He read a couple of long passages the book, which is fine when speaking in front of a small audience (such as at a bookstore reading), but not a good idea before a big crowd. Perhaps Vance couldn’t wait to get to the Q&A, when he did better. I had to leave for a meeting after his long responses to the first two questions. But I found them more substantial, if not always convincing.
In comparison to Dreher’s talk, Vance’s was consisted mostly of different episodes that did not really add to a whole. He told a story about his grandparents and their young son (Vance’s uncle) at a toy store. He then told a mildly amusing story about his own experience at a fancy restaurant during the process of a job interview. He followed it with several pointers – they didn’t add up to a story – including one about observations of his girlfriend, who came from a different background, on his cultural baggage in the elite environment of Yale Law and, more generally, upper-middle-class American culture. They culminated in a rather vague plea for understanding America’s working poor.
In short, I learned little about Vance’s book from his talk, and had to read a bunch of reviews and interviews, including an interview conducted by Dreher last year. But talks of this kind are meant to present main points as much as examples, and I found Vance failing this fundamental task.
Reactions and responses to his memoir have been all over the place, and here are a few instances. From Kentucky, my friend David Swartz offered a short take after reading the book, including a personal experience:
I live two miles from the Kentucky River, which is the unofficial border between Appalachia and the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. But I don’t cross the river much. My children go to elementary school with some very enthusiastic Trump supporters. But their parents are not in my social circles. I read J.D. Vance, Robert Putnam, and Charles Murray. But I don’t know the characters in their books.
Betsy Rader saw herself to have come from the same background as Vance’s, but the Democrat thought his analysis of the working poor stereotypical and mistaken:
With lines like “We choose not to work when we should be looking for jobs,” Vance’s sweeping stereotypes are shark bait for conservative policymakers. They feed into the mythology that the undeserving poor make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty, so taxpayer money should not be wasted on programs to help lift people out of poverty. Now these inaccurate and dangerous generalizations have been made required college reading.
From a review entitled “Lies, Damn Lies, and HILLBILLY ELEGY,” which states,
In reality, Hillbilly Elegy is two books: one is an incredibly compelling memoir about family and addiction, and the other is a clumsy social commentary that cherry-picks its sources and presents anecdotal evidence as a revelatory peek behind the curtain of the rust belt’s and Appalachia’s economic decline.
At the start of the talk, Vance mentioned that social commentary is only about 20% of the book. Contents aside, the 80-20 ratio may be problematic in itself.
For my part, I think Vance was very lucky to publish his memoir during Trump’s successful presidential campaign. I wish he also acknowledged his fortune in timing. Vance’s perspectives may not be unworthy of attention. But they appear to be limited: partially because he wrote it as a memoir, and partially because he wrote from the perspective of an insider. Being an insider may be an advantage in some respects, but not always.
If his talk were any indication (as are some of the reviews), the book is favorably impressionistic enough and, again, lucky enough, to generate a national discussion. But it probably does not stand inspection and scrutiny a few years from now. On the other hand, it’s going to get a new life by then because Ron Howard is slated to direct a movie version. Maybe it’s a good thing that the movie will likely focus on personal drama without offering sweeping and impressionistic generalizations.
Anyway, the best kind of analysis tends not to be the most popular. I think a more substantial perspective is the study Strangers in Their Own Land by the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild. Here are an interview of her, and an article by her. This semester I’ve read portions of Hochschild’s book, on and off, and so far I’ve been quite impressed by her examples and analysis about the complex and even contradictory attitudes among working poor whites, this time in Louisiana, regarding the federal government, the economy, and corporations. Hopefully I’ll finish reading it before the beginning of the spring semester.
May 2019: I’ve finished reading the book; click here for my post about it.