Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Hillbillies Need No Elegy (bittersoutherner.com)
129 points by zigzaggy on July 3, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 113 comments

These sorts of elaborate rebuttals, like the article or the art project it references, aren't that different from the works of outsiders that they seek to prove wrong. It seemingly is the case that Appalachia attracts a kind of journalist-meets-artist who finds plenty of material for a culture-tinged exposé of somewhat-thoughtful poverty and hardship porn, but a curated photoset of Sides of Appalachia You May Not Know is aimed at the level of The New Yorker, and not something relatable to everyday folk in the suburbs or the Midwest. It does little to dissuade the notion that Appalachia still has an odd mystique, which is a disservice to region.

The fact is, Appalachia is largely "just" economically depressed region like Northwest Kansas or the Mississippi Floodplain or the drive from Tucson to El Paso, where most jobs are retail and government and the best jobs are in mineral extraction or transportation or industry, but far fewer than in times past. Transportation is a pain but yet it's crisscrossed by critical routes, and life there is pretty normal for rural America. Really, there's only a handful of areas in the US where you can ride the a boom if you time it right, everywhere else things are just okay. In some places you have fewer options. People try to get by, or try to leave. It's odd how much Appalachia has gripped the popular imagination, and how outsiders and a few well-positioned insiders perpetuate it.

I grew up in the Deep South, a related cousin to Appalachia. I spent more than 30 years in the south. I have spent a lot of time in Appalachia, hiking, meeting locals. It isn’t a stretch to say “I get it”. I read Hillbily Elegy. This piece does little to change my mind about my own view point. There are parts of the culture that are worthwhile and valuable (to me) and parts I can leave quite easily. For me it is the almost resentful pride in their own ignorance of the rest of the country, and even the world, that was so hard to accept. You can paste over that, all these layers of complexity and beautiful mountain vignettes, but under that there are elements that are difficult to accept for me. There is a lot of stubborn pride for heritage that does the culture no good and I never understood it. Also, Appalachia is not unique to most other rural areas, they just have nicer scenery. Poverty is what it is and it does what it does to people. You either get out of it or it eats you. There is nothing romantic about it. There is no great stoic philosophy providing Appalachian poverty with any special resistance to poverty and being mostly ignored by the rest of the country. I don’t know, it isn’t some terrible reality to suffer through, but it is more tragic than anything else. Maybe this is the inevitable view point I have adopted as I have become more outsider to the culture I was raised in over the years. It isn’t all bad, I will still visit, hike, and enjoy the natural beauty there, but the people suffer like any other under-educated poor people do. There is no number of voices and view points that can change that. I appreciate what the author is trying to do, they must surely understand the culture well, but it is a big miss for me.

> Poverty is what it is and it does what it does to people. You either get out of it or it eats you.

Perhaps the people with the compulsion to leave have already done so? Kind of what is being call "The Big Sort", where (politically) like-minded people seem to be congregating to the same neighborhoods:

* https://www.citylab.com/equity/2016/10/the-big-sort-revisite...

* https://www.economist.com/united-states/2008/06/19/the-big-s...

Something similar happening to the ambition-minded?

(Someone once remarked / joked that perhaps America is so stereotypically optimistic is perhaps all the people who left the Old Country for the New World were probably the more adventurous, go-go types, and those that stayed behind were more chill.)

This is my take. For all the talk of international brain drain, we don't have a narrative for the more local equivalent.

Similarly, we worry about disrupting natural biomes through deforestation or overfishing, but we don't think about sustainability applied to human communities, with a few exceptions (reservations get some attention, though not sufficient attention).

What do we do? For one, I don't think it's hard to make an ethical case for remote first workplaces.

More remote work isn't going to make a significant number of people want to stay in these uneducated, economically-depressed locales. They aren't just leaving for the work, they're leaving to get away from the local culture.

There are generally some more educated pockets within these regions that are actually quite desirable, but lack economic development. These spots, like Asheville NC (the place I ultimately would like to settle down in) are unfortunately quite expensive due to low housing supply and people from out-of-state moving in. But I've got a remote gig now, so I just need to save up more. Personally, I will be happy to be part of a culture that values friendliness, ingenuity, sweet tea and banjo music.

Fwiw, I tried moving away to Seattle, but despite my educational attainment and liberal leanings, I found that I just prefer NC. There's something to be said for living somewhere you don't feel like an outsider. After 5 years in Seattle, I still couldn't lose that feeling.

> life there is pretty normal for rural America

I've lived in Appalachia my entire life (West Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and New York).

Although I can't generalize about the people of either the Midwest or Appalachia, there are some big differences between rural Appalachia and some other rural places.

1) Landscape. Due to the difficulty of building roads, some Appalachian places (closer to WV and KY) were extremely isolated until the 20th century. This affected culture, education, wealth, and industry. It's a huge factor in the region even today.

2) Agriculture. In most of Appalachia, you can't have a massive corn plantation. You rarely see a large field of anything at all. Most of the exports are capital-intensive and extractive (mining or timber), and the result is that there's a pattern of wealthy outsiders plundering the resources and leaving locals with little of the gain.

3) Stereotypes. A strong Midwestern accent (from, let's say, rural MI or PA) does not have the same connotation as a strong Appalachian accent (from KY or WV). The stereotypes of the regions just aren't the same, and they do affect people applying for jobs.

> The stereotypes of the regions just aren't the same, and they do affect people applying for jobs.

I've been around motorsports most of my life and I used to see this all the time at racetracks in America. Even in NASCAR country, lots of people assume the "good ol' boy" accent means a person is just a shade-tree mechanic even if they're the most well-educated person in the garage.

Heh, funnily enough, a few years ago I was at a rodeo with some friends, and this was in rural Oregon. One of the announcers was a radio personality on some country station in the Portland area (I think -- something like that, at least).

For most of the rodeo he spoke with a thick drawl, obviously going for the "good ol' boy" vibe.

A few times, he slipped up and spoke with a very plain Portland/PNW accent. It was jarring when I heard it but he went right back to the good ol' boy accent and I don't know how much anyone else noticed. But it came across like it was all an affectation, for the reasons you described.

Honestly, I do this a lot when I'm back visiting relatives who live in the southern US; my neutral accent goes out the window and I add a little twang, speak more slowly, and say things like "thank you ma'am" a lot. It's kinda second nature since I went to school in a rural-ish area (University of Florida) and it makes a shockingly big difference in how people treat you sometimes.

Grew up in WV and return all the time to visit family. This is 100% true. I have vivid childhood memories of being on my grandfather's tractor on a hillside & being terrified that the contraption would roll over.

(He also occasionally herded his cattle by sticking his head through the roof of an ancient VW Beetle. But that's another story.)

There is seriously not that big a difference between the reading level of random comments on the internet and the reading level of the New Yorker, or of the average thinkpiece. Self-styled intellectuals love to pretend that they are writing in a sophisticated secret code language, but that hasn't been true since they quit Latin.

The New Yorker is a classic example of higher level English that is far above the level of “random comments on the internet”.

The typical New Yorker article is CEFRL C2 [1] or ILR 3/3+ [2]. Most internet comments are at CEFRL A2 or so, with some (often faulty) more thoughtful responses at B1 or B2.

Said another way, your median high schooler can read and understand a typical internet comment, but the median high school student cannot read and comprehend a typical New Yorker article.

There are three aspects of writing in the New Yorker that elevates the level:

1. Vocabulary level. Often this is used to add color, and it typically does so well.

2. Complex structure at passage level with appropriate cohesive devices. This loses a lot of people, but makes the article linguistically rich.

3. There can be a great deal of inference and/or tone in New Yorker articles that some folks just don’t get. It will sometimes cause less proficient readers to take away substantial misunderstandings about the contents of the article.

If you try to talk about a New Yorker article in detail with most people, it is not that tough to reach linguistic breakdown.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of...

[2] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ILR_scale

The CEFR is intended to measure the proficiency of foreign language learners and not measure the sophistication of native language speakers. Everyone that speaks English as a first language would pass a C2 level examination very easily.

The standard ways to measure text complexity in English for native speakers are the Flesch-Kincaid readability and grade level tests. These depend on the length of words and on the number of words in sentences so they're obviously not perfect, in particular they do not measure the use of rare vocabulary or references nor of difficult content.

I tested the OP and found: Flesch reading ease 53.2 (fairly difficult)

Gunning Fog 11 (hard to read)

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 10.1 grade

Coleman-Liau 10th grade

SMOG Index 9.6 grade

ARI 9.5 grade

Linsear Write Formula 11.4 grade

Where the references to grade are to American school grades. In other words this text can be read by average American 10th graders without difficulty.

I ran an article from the current New Yorker through as well (the one on Basquiat) and that came out as 11th grade reading level.

> Everyone that speaks English as a first language would pass a C2 level examination very easily.

This is almost exactly equivalent to saying that an average ten year old can read the New Yorker. A ten year old already has their native language down, the rules of grammar and syntax, the accent, the vocabulary, the capacity to discriminate between words with the same denotation but different connotations. There are ten year olds who can profitably read the New Yorker but very few. At least 10% of the adult population will have an absolute score on an IQ test similar to the average ten year old’s.

There are undoubtedly New Yorker articles that a ten year old could completely understand with sufficient exegesis but it’s the US’ premier literary journal and has been for decades. If they haven’t published articles with the depth and complexity of a Supreme Court judgment on some level I will be greatly surprised.

Most people are literally incapable of passing a law degree just as they are of learning calculus. You can write formal logic in English prose instead of using the symbols. The English prose version will be no more comprehensible to an average native English speaker than the one with mathematical symbols.

>This is almost exactly equivalent to saying that an average ten year old can read the New Yorker.

It is not because it is fundamentally incorrect to say that the New Yorker is a C2 level text.

The CEFR is not intended as a scale to measure the complexity of written text for native speakers and/or readers of a language, it is intended as a four part (listening, reading, speaking, writing) assessment scale of the overall language abilities of people. At most, one could say that a text was consistent with what would be expected of a successful CEFR C2 candidate in the reading portion of the test.

One of the reasons that you cannot use the CEFR to characterise the proficiency of native speakers is that it assumes that you can understand texts of a similar complexity in your native language. Most such assessments are given to educated people, usually adults, so the texts reflect that.

Yes, there are people who are not highly proficient by the standards of a native speaker at reading and particularly writing in their native language. Who knows, I may be wrong to think that they would easily pass the written portion of a CEFR test, certainly they would smash the oral portions.

However the CEFR tests are fundamentally not designed to assess quality of education for native speakers. You could shoehorn them into that role but we already have other measures of language ability (in the US often calibrated to grade level) that are specifically designed to measure this.

> exegesis

That's a ten dolla word if I ever saw one.


There are a lot of problems with the way you approach this.

19% of Americans cannot read well enough to fill out a job application correctly.

The organization for economic cooperation and development found that 50% of U.S. adults can't read a book written at an 8th grade level, which is a statistic which obviously requires the estimate of "average American reading at a 7th or 8th grade level" be questioned heavily.

I've seen many estimates that the average high school student reads at a 6th grade level, and only 15% of the country is at an undergraduate level despite 30% of people having a degree.

I don't know where you get the idea that "grade level" relates to grades completed, but the average American is likely at a 5th grade reading level.

Well, I'll admit to not being an expert on the American school system with which I only had a few years of contact. If that really is the case, that grade level of reading ability and number of grades completed is not linked then that is certainly an indictment of the American system of education. I'm happy to amend my claim that 10th graders can read the New Yorker to say that by American academic standards, they should be able to but often are not.

It doesn't change the fact that the CEFR framework is not intended either to measure native proficiency nor to assess the difficulty of a written text.

I'm not disputing that the New Yorker is written at a higher level than the average American cares to read, just disputing the use of CEFR framework to assess the text.

> The CEFR is intended to measure the proficiency of foreign language learners and not measure the sophistication of native language speakers.

You’re right about this, but these are the systems I know, and they are arguably more useful in this context that most of the grade-level models you listed (very abstract, and most folks don’t really understand the level they are based on).

> Everyone that speaks English as a first language would pass a C2 level examination very easily.

C2 is the equivalent of a highly educated native speaker. This does not describe most Americans, even ones with seemingly appropriate credentials.

A discussion I’ve heard about native speakers of English expected to pass a C1 test in a foreign language: “Can they pass C1 in English?” The answer was not always so clear.

> In other words this text can be read by average American 10th graders without difficulty.

These are more like ideal goals for a high-performing Xth grader. I have worked with the vocab lists that textbooks writers are supposed to use — the expectations are very high.

Anyway, thank you for your response.

While it sounds like your measurements are more attuned to native speakers, I am not so sure that any high schooler could easily pass a C2 exam. Here is an example C2 practice exercise that doesn't seem all that far off from something you might see in the SAT: https://www.examenglish.com/cpe/cpe_reading_part1.htm

I doubt that the average native English speaker would pass a C2 level exam (even if you only consider the US and UK, as there are many other countries that speak English (for example India). While they probably won't have any problems with the grammar, C2 uses a lot of vocabularity that you won't be familiar with if you don't read much.

> It will sometimes cause less proficient readers to take away substantial misunderstandings about the contents of the article.

The most prolific example of the reading level mismatches causing trouble is Paul Krugman's August 2002 column: Dubya's Double Dip? https://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/02/opinion/dubya-s-double-di...?

The famous sentence from the article:

> To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.

If you read the whole article and think that Krugman says this housing bubble is a good idea your reading level can't be that good. Too many people did read the whole article and failed to grasp the tone and nuance. Even Arnold Kling had to point out this to his readers http://www.econlib.org/archives/2009/06/defending_what.html

Maybe Krugman’s writing is just actually very unclear. “Difficult” writing is to be avoided, not praised.

One of the marks of a good writer is how they uncomplicate the writing without watering it down. Krugman is really good writer in that regard. His writing skill was probably a big reason why he became regular columnist in NYT.

That kind of writing can still be inaccessible to lower reading comprehension levels. If you are uncertain of his writing skills, I don't know what to say.

This is only true if you aim to reach as wide an audience as possible. If you are writing for a specialist audience making the reader work to connect the dots themselves has an extremely long history.


> This article is a republication, by permission, of a chapter of the author’s book Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (University of Chicago Press, 2014). The piece provides a beginner’s guide to techniques and devices used in esoteric writing. Among the techniques and devices described are the following: dissembling the true message (sometimes by presenting it as from a disputant, beggar, or buffoon, sometimes by arguing against it in ways that enhance awareness of its truth); dissembling the true target (exoterically speaking of Y when the real target is some other thing Z); developing a compelling argument and then taking it back; textual incongruity (for example, departing from a declared plan); conspicuous inconsistency or self-contradiction; the commission of errors that the author’s demonstrated competence and mastery would not allow (for example, altering a quotation in a significant way); dispersal (dispersing argumentation for a tacit viewpoint throughout the text); expressing very striking or intense thoughts in an oblique or ancillary fashion, such as in a meandering digression or in the notes; meaningful silence or conspicuous omission (as when the text creates expectations of coming to something that then remains unaddressed or unstated); alluding subtly to the writings or opinions of a significant figure; and placing thoughts of particular significance in middle of the text or in the exact center of a list or sequence.

>has an extremely long history.

That's really not a meaningful argument as to its merit. In fact, it's so famously not a meaningful argument that it has its own fancy name: argumentum ad antiquitatem.

I don't believe they were making a case that it has merit, only that it a long history and is a specific writing conceit for its audience...which I suppose gives it merit as being appropriate for its audience.

Not to mention that the typical New Yorker article is looong. Way longer than the typical random internet comment. This puts some demands on the reader as well. :-)


I wonder if there is a similar scale for cartoons, and if (inscrutable) New Yorker cartoons are at D1 or higher.

From all the US satirical cartoons I have seem they seem rather crude and tame compared to the UK and still rely rather old tropes that always seem to require labelling "oh look its the cat with $ signs for eyes and labelled "wall street"

whereas in the UK a cartoon might make a reference to a cartoon from 50-60-70 years ago and you would be expected to understand the reference with out labelling

New Yorker cartoons are not political cartoons. They are general humour, albeit of a sort that might strike most readers as highbrow.

Do you have examples of these sorts of cartoons? I've never seen one so I can't imagine what they're like.

So here's an example of a Steve Bell editorial cartoon. He's a leftwinger, in the fairly angry and vicious tradition of British satire, but this is a fairly restrained one:


It's a comment on the pageantry around the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and directly refers to a famous cartoon from WW2, which was published on VE Day by the (also socialist) cartoonist Philip Zec:


The whole genre isn't self-referential, but it's not unusual for leader cartoons to refer to other cartoons, famous paintings, television, or other things.

Anything by Ben Garrison https://grrrgraphics.com/cartoons

1. I don’t think that there is a D1 on the scale.

2. A scale for cartoons would be interesting. The top level would probably require something like awareness of current events, knowledge of one or more complex/academic theoretical concepts, and deep cultural embeddedness and awareness of cultural trends.

"On a scale of Marmaduke to the New Yorker, how complex is this comic strip"

Slight mistake that I can’t edit — New Yorker articles can range from C1-C2... maybe even down to B2 at times.

Regardless, all of the main points still hold.

Do you have some examples here?

And, to be fair, English is a vastly more sophisticated language with layers of nuance that constitute codes than Latin.


The Romances can have hugely brutal nested sentences as nothing.

Would you dare to read Don Quixote in the original and non-modernized Spanish? I think not.

That book mixed a parody of Medieval Spanish and the pre-Enlightentment era one.

The discovering of America put the Church on a lower-closer to the Earth place and became the roots of modern Humanism.

Don Quixote is a pun on the Dark Ages, myth and religion, compared it to Sancho Panza who is a metaphor of the almost Enlightened humanistic/pragmatic folk who doesn't believe on myths and doesn't have crazy religious-like hallucinations on giants.

Trust me, a lot of grammar from the crazy knight is stilL¡l valid today even if looks outdated.

Heck, it already was outdated, as I said Don Quixote was the old fart pun from the 1600s.

English' grammar is a joke compared to the versatibility of Romances. And, even forther back in time, Latin used similar traits.

> Trust me

No, thank you. I studied Italian and French (old, middle, and modern), Latin, and Ancient Greek, though most of that has vanished from disuse.

I'm not talking about the grammar (which is simply different in English despite a couple centuries of attempts to make it fit into Latin), or the degree of nuance Cervantes or Rabelais can extract from their linguistic milieu. I'm talking about the range of nuance that a educated, contemporary speaker of the language has available to them. It is simply vastly greater in English than in, say, modern French.

English more sophisticated than Latin? At nuance?

Did you ever study Latin?

Yes. My parents taught me. They studied it at Cambridge.

I'm not talking about inflection. English doesn't use inflection except vestigially, though our grammar is every bit as subtle (compare English verb tenses to those of a Romance language). I'm talking about the employment of reference, accent, dialect...

>but a curated photoset of Sides of Appalachia You May Not Know is aimed at the level of The New Yorker, and not something relatable to everyday folk in the suburbs or the Midwest

FYI I'm a Midwesterner and problems relating to pictures isn't a regional trait that I'm aware of. A picture of X is in pretty direct correspondence to the visual experience of X itself, so it turns out pictures are pretty easy to digest! If you're a Midwesterner, you should definitely give pictures a try. If you're not a Midwesterner, it's possible that meeting a few more of them would change your idea of what they can relate to.

> It's odd how much Appalachia has gripped the popular imagination, and how outsiders and a few well-positioned insiders perpetuate it.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina are key swing states. That's the primary reason Appalachia gets so much attention. This electoral reality goes all the way back to the war on poverty.

Yes, but the Appalacian contingent is not a majority in any of those states. They just are historically less anti-union than other rural areas (while still socially conservative) so they can swing a bit. Overall the big cities and suburbs are usually the deciding factor there.

If anything, Appalachian are uniquely under-represented nationally. While the region as a whole contains nearly 25 million people, WV is the only state to have two Appalacian senators. I think TN has one as well, but, overall the political power of Appalachia does not at all seem sufficient to warrant extra attention.

>If anything, Appalachian are uniquely under-represented nationally. While the region as a whole contains nearly 25 million people, WV is the only state to have two Appalacian senators. I think TN has one as well, but, overall the political power of Appalachia does not at all seem sufficient to warrant extra attention.

Technically that is 50% more senators than California with twice the population.

Senators were just to make a comparison point against other rural areas (considering that the Senate is the place most rural places are over-represented). The same division though also ensures that, unlike Californians, Appalachians have relatively little voice in the electoral vote or for governor-level positions as well because WV is their only majority state.

A senator does you no good if your primary governmental irritant is the state government which for most rural areas is the case. The federal government generally doesn't do anything to egregious to rural areas (maybe because most federal policy mostly doesn't affect people's day to day lives or maybe because of those senators doing their jobs?) but the state governments generally have a problem with major cities enacting state level policy that should really be done on a county level.

Federally-funded farm subsidies are a huge deal to rural people in Midwest. Those are largely possible because mostly rural states like Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas have senators who strongly advocate for those deals.

Appalachians don't have the type of land that benefits from those subsidies, and they don't have enough clout to get an equivalent type of economic benefit package. The TVA was the last major economic project the feds funded, and it was hugely popular because it did actually improve the lives of people there. Better federal representation at the Senate level wouldn't solve every problem, but it could definitely alleviate some of the pain.

>but, overall the political power of Appalachia does not at all seem sufficient to warrant extra attention

They also serve (willingly or not) as exemplars held up by Republicans, particularly in the populist ideology of Trump supporters, of those "real Americans" who have been betrayed by globalism and progressivism, and to further the narrative of an intractable cultural and political divide having formed between the rural right and urban left (and to contrast the cultural and ethnic purity of the former against the corrupting influence of multiculturalism and secularism among the latter.)

Sure, but Vance is more "wrong" than his detractors are. He's the one who sees all poor people, and all poor people alike.

Hard to say Vance is "more wrong" than his detractors ... when it seems all they say is "Nuh uh!". Let's do some quick math: many of the poorest areas of the country? Check. Some of the highest levels if drug addiction and overdose deaths over the last decades? Check. Rampant pollution? Check. Stagnant and or non-existent economies? Check. Extremely poorly educated populace? Check. Why are his detractors less wrong again? Or are they just embarrassed and see a way to make a quick buck with the current "grift it while you can" mentality gripping a large segment of our society?

Wrong in what regard? I found nothing wrong with Vance’s book. Having a similar family background to Vance, I think he has a great outlook on the matter.

I think his biggest miss was failing to connect the region to the rest of the country. He could have easily compared Appalachia to Rust Belt cities facing urban decay but never made the connection. It could have made the story of the region more approachable to more people. It seemed so obvious to me how the areas are linked by economic circumstances, environmental degradation, poor education levels, distinct culture and problems with drug addiction.

> He could have easily compared Appalachia to Rust Belt cities facing urban decay but never made the connection.

Did you and I read the same book? Most of this story is occurring in the Rust Belt[0], in Middletown, Ohio[1]. He discusses the mass Appalachian flight into Rust Belt towns and the mixing and clashing of culture.

If anything, I'm glad the author kept things largely, as the subtitle would imply, a memoir of sorts. He focuses on his family history and his life to give a face to the problem, but makes you aware that these are major problems in that community. From there you can draw your own comparison based on your experiences.

[0] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rust_Belt

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middletown,_Ohio

I think we read the same book. I don’t really think of Middletown as a Rust Belt city. It’s a town of 50,000 people. I am talking about big cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland and smaller ones like Youngstown and Erie.

As someone who lives in one of those cities, it seemed like a clear correlation could have been made. It was chance to unite a rural and an urban problem across race and I thought it was a missed opportunity. I still enjoyed the book, but think it is even more powerful when read in tandem with a book like Evicted [1] that views the problem from another perspective.

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Evicted-Poverty-Profit-American-City/...

So you wanted him to write a different book? Maybe he had different goals and that's fine.

Not what I said at all. I thought there was an opportunity to make a larger connection between what has happened in the Appalachian towns he focuses on and larger Rust Belt cities who face much of the same issues.

He took other opportunities. Not sure why that's a failing. Someone else can still write the book you want.

Got quotes to support this claim?

> a curated photoset of Sides of Appalachia You May Not Know is aimed at the level of The New Yorker, and not something relatable to everyday folk in the suburbs or the Midwest.

Midwesterner here.

You don't speak for me. JD Vance doesn't speak for me.

Try listening for once.

Please don't take personal swipes or lash back at another comment, even if it is wrong or seems so. Doing that only makes things worse. It doesn't help.


I took it to mean not relatable because we go "what's the big deal, looks like a hillier version of what and who I can see if I find a state highway and drive 20 minutes", here in the Midwest. A jab at the New Yorker more than the Midwest. That's my charitable reading based on the tone of the rest of the post, anyway—but I could be wrong.

Exactly. The entire paragraph after that sentence confirms exactly this reading... charity not necessary.

Yeah, just leaving some wiggle room to account for my own stupidity, since it looks like at least one person read it differently.

I like this comment.

“The perception that mountain folk like to be poor serves someone — but it’s not the poor mountain folk. The representation of Appalachia as all white is not only inaccurate, but it preserves a false and destructive ideal of imaginary “pure white stock.” Images of decay and absence allow those in power to turn away from a place that has been forgotten, but has not disappeared. The narrow ideas that circulate about this broad place do active harm.”


I'm assuming the commentary is about this book: https://www.amazon.com/Hillbilly-Elegy-Memoir-Family-Culture...

This book is specifically written from one (white guy's) point of view -- somebody who grew up in the area.

I'm not sure how the ideas that circulate about this place do active harm. Most (if not all) accounts I've heard about this place are personal accounts. The truth from people who have lived or traveled there.

Sometimes the truth hurts. Denying it's truthful isn't helping anybody.

It’s right in the first lines of the article.

“In the new book “Appalachian Reckoning,” dozens of mountain voices combine to talk back to J.D. Vance’s best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy.” Today, an exclusive story from its co-editor and a powerful essay (which involves Granny, her .38 pistol, and some coal trucks) excerpted from the book.”

Part of the point of the article (which was very good) was that there is not singular truth about a place a vast and varied as Appalachia. This new book seems to be much more than a commentary on Hillbilly Elegy.

I've got to tell you: every subculture of humans has fractal complexity that is not captured by any representation. We're reduced to using blind men's descriptions of elephants. Nothing can be adequately explained in any book, not Appalachia and not the subculture of people in a semi-urban locality outside of Kandy.

This is natural, so we use shortcuts as heuristic predictive tools: so the Russians throw numbers at war, the Chinese steal your secrets, the Appalachians are poor, the New Yorkers rude, the Japanese clean and neat. And the San Frannigans bristle at that demonym while they shit themselves in the street.

So, no, the fact that there is complexity and uniqueness in culture is normal. It is not interesting. The only value is what you extract as the weak trendline. Imagine a scatterplot with loads of overlapping red and blue dots, but there are more blue dots above some line than red dots, by a considerable number. Most of them will interact, some red dot may even be higher than any blue dots, but you will be reduced to the fact that blue is higher than red on the graph. It is a weak decisioning tool because the complexity is both incompressible and useless for prediction.

> every subculture of humans has fractal complexity that is not captured by any representation

Yes, and the facile reduction of that complexity is the source for much of the political stupidity making us miserable. Also, thank you, Internet, for spreading it around so prolifically.

Counterpoint: "fuck nuance".


"I do claim that the more we tend to value nuance as such—that is, as a virtue to be cultivated, or as the first thing to look for when assessing arguments—the more we will tend to slide toward one or more of three nuance traps. First is the ever more detailed, merely empirical description of the world. This is the nuance of the fine-grain. It is a rejection of theory masquerading as increased accuracy...."

>So, no, the fact that there is complexity and uniqueness in culture is normal. It is not interesting. The only value is what you extract as the weak trendline. Imagine a scatterplot with loads of overlapping red and blue dots, but there are more blue dots above some line than red dots, by a considerable number. Most of them will interact, some red dot may even be higher than any blue dots, but you will be reduced to the fact that blue is higher than red on the graph. It is a weak decisioning tool because the complexity is both incompressible and useless for prediction.

There is wisdom in your words.

“Morgantown, West Virginia [...] We were in the heart of Appalachia“

BS! Morgantown is definitely not the heart of Appalachia:

- It’s only 9 mi into WV!

- has population that doubles during the school semester

- has three or four federal agencies (FBI, NETL, NIOSH)

- showered with federal and state largess (thank you senator Byrd)

- has traffic jams worthy of a city with 10x it’s population

- has one of my favorite restaurants in the US

- has a significant private sector economy (Mylan, for one)

-if I recall, technically it didn’t have a recession in ‘08.

I’ve lived in Morgantown for a while. And while I certainly caught a glimpse of Appalachia, it certainly isn’t the heart. Maybe it’s about as redneck as the president of WVU dares to venture.

Maybe the author meant more in a geographic sense. Like I've definitely heard people say Austin is in the heart of Texas, but they're mostly saying it's centrally-located in the state not that the city itself is a canonical representation of Texas culture at large.

Edit: And while Morgantown is only 9 miles into WV, really the entire state of WV is the heart of Appalachia. No matter what part of the state you leave from you're still going to be in Appalachia, just in a neighboring state.

It isn’t the geographic center of Appalachia either. Pittsburgh, 90mi north, is as much a part of Appalachia as Atlanta, almost 600 mi south.

I get it. The author uses “heart of” as an expression, like I use “literally” in a figurative sense.

But, it also gives me a sense that it betrays the authors almost complete ignorance of Appalachia; which the article purports to explain :S

>It isn’t the geographic center of Appalachia either. Pittsburgh, 90mi north, is as much a part of Appalachia as Atlanta, almost 600 mi south.

I don't know about that, that's weird logic to me. Atlanta is barely Appalachia, at best it's at the very terminus in the south. Pittsburgh is much more a part of Appalachia to me, though honestly I'd say both those cities have their own unique culture that's perhaps related or influenced by Appalachia (yinzers are kinda Appalachia). I guess somewhere around Roanoke would probably be the true geographic middle, but eh. Close enough.

I agree Pittsburgh is more Appalachia than ATL; it’s Appalachia proper.

But Atlanta is really close. at the “Piedmont” of the if you will ;)

The article also has pictures of Asheville and Berea, the former famous for it's ties to the super-rich, the latter a long time artists' colony. Was there even a picture of a trailer in the article? Or a church?

“... or a church” +1

I agree. I'm originally from Charleston and have always said that it's not like the rest of WV.

I'd say the real heart of Appalachia is Pikeville KY.

Well, Hillbilly Bear is the representative picture for Pikeville on Google Maps which is a vote in your favor.

Btw, I’m not from Appalachia, I just did a post-doc at WVU.

Beautiful state and people.

> The room was packed with intellectuals, artists, donors, students, the president of West Virginia University and the dean of its law school.

Nary a coal miner, nor axeman to be found in this ivory tower meeting.

Yeah, that was the point of the sentence. A man who wasn't Appalachian was telling a room full of educated Appalachian intellectuals that Appalachians are happy making 24k a year because they don't "need to show off".

Also, it wasn't an "ivory tower" (such a limp, worn-out descriptor) meeting, it was a book launch, and it was literally open to the public.

The best way to understand what makes Appalachia what it is culturally, is to read _Albion's Seed_. The people who ended up there came from parts of Britain that required extreme self-sufficiency and had no real functional government.



I'd argue the best way would be to travel there and read actual histories from local sources. While it's nice to imagine a simple root cause to everything - it's not enough. When my great-grandparents settled in Appalachia about 100 years ago, they did it to find opportunity and escape the terrible working conditions of cotton mills. That side of the family are religious democrats who support unions and new-deal style economic reform and public education. They and their kids integrated culturally, most of them never left and never plan to. Their story is not an uncommon one, their desire for better government support is not out of the norm, and it does nobody any good to propagate a myth saying their culture of self-sufficency was decided 300 years ago when it was actually developed as a necessity after continuously being ignored. Cultures grow and Appalachian culture is no exception - we need to get past this shallow type of categorization based on original settlers.

Yes, but don't travel to Asheville or Morgantown ... go to Elkhorn City or Ashland, Ky ... or Nitro, WV. Bring your own water.

It's really bizarre the lengths to which the author goes to weave the "criticism by outsiders" motif into a critique which ostensibly targets a born-and-bred Appalacian. Three full introductory paragraphs about the guy who says “The thing I like about Appalachians is that they don’t need much to be happy. They’re content with making $24,000 year. They’re not showing off...” A massive full-screen width "When outsiders tell the story" Two long paragraphs introducing Vance without mentioning where he's from. A criticism of the Netflix adaption as "filmmakers from elsewhere will put[ting] their visual stamp on the region." 2 long paragraphs complaining about outsiders defining its territorial extent. 2 paragraphs explaining how politicians and outside media represent it. It goes on to promote it's own take on the region, unsurprisingly dominated by artists, activists and academics. But the force and worth of Vance's take would be ZERO if he was an outsider. They don't, of course, lie at any point about Vance's background, but it's a flagrantly dishonest critique nonetheless.

If the other commenter here is correct about Morganstown being only kind of half-Appalacian, as opposed to their claim of hailing from the heart of Appalacia, that really just puts the cherry on top.

But the force and worth of Vance's take would be ZERO if he was an outsider.

JD Vance was born and raised in Middletown OH. This is far SW Ohio, on the border with Indiana. (It was something of a surprise to me that any part of Ohio is considered Appalachian, but then I've spent most of my Ohio time in Toledo. [0]) There are hills, but those hills are not the Appalachians. JD Vance is from the Midwest. Has he actually claimed to be Appalachian? As far as I can tell he has claimed to be a "hillbilly", which is fine but hardly limited to Ohio or the Appalachians. My neighbors and I in the Ozarks have at least as strong a claim to the term, but we don't seem to get as uptight about this stuff as the folks back East get.

[0] https://lookingatappalachia.org/region

The southeastern portion of the state has (in what I’ve read) traditionally been considered part of Appalachia. Geophysically, it’s simple: the one-third or so of Ohio that wasn’t flattened by the glaciers. It’s rolling, increasingly hilly as you get down to the Ohio River. I went to school at Ohio University in Athens, and a bunch of classes there consider Appalachia a part of their studies and focus. I read Hillbilly Elegy when it came out and my first reaction was “hey, wait, Middletown is really more blue collar, rust belt.” My second reaction is “boy, Vance sure is willing to speak for a huge geographic area that he’s at best only on the edge of.” But to the Bitter Southerner piece, I want to say that the whole “you have to be from a place to talk about a place” thesis has, for me, been as wobbly as anything Vance puts out. So, what, born there? And the deeper inside the geographic boundaries, the better? Nah. But maybe the author (of the Bitter piece) makes a stronger point that ANY generalization of people tied to a geographic area is weak, shallow, insufficient by definition. People will surprise you. (That’s my generalization.)

Vance' detailed the large migration of Eastern Kentucky folks moving to Ohio / Indiana for jobs in the generations before he was born ... and noting how they all maintained a lifeline and frequented remaining Eastern Kentucky family. His claim is solid IMO.

It's cool that he identifies with another region where he never lived and his parents never lived. Lots of humans feel a special connection to places from their family histories. The fact that his family hasn't lived there in several generations (he was raised by grandparents in western Ohio) makes his broad statements about the region and about his own family history with respect to the region problematic. There's no need (besides a psychological one, perhaps) to invoke something about eastern Kentucky to explain his mother's addictions. There are addicts all over the world, including (especially, if reports in other media are believed) in Ohio. If a similar book had been written attributing family and personal dysfunction to a distant descent from any other region or nation, it would have received a different reception. Why are the Appalachians different?

Technically, according to the book, his parents grew up there and he spent summers there. I would say that is "lived". And as you surely know, a larger percentage of the population is addicted to opiates in Appalachia than in most other areas. I would say that is "problematic".

Citation sorely needed. Every time we read about the "opiate catastrophe", Ohio or Indiana features prominently. You know, where he actually was born and also graduated high school and university. I can't believe I'm having this argument with a greenbean account. Why are you embarrassed to denigrate the Appalachian region using a permanent pseudonym?

And this is denigration, which would be accepted for no other region or nation. In the first place, because it defies logic that some lawyer with no particular sociological training would be accepted as some sort of authority about a region he visited as a child during some summers when his hectic home life allowed. Second, because blaming culture for the misfortunes of any particular group of people is the oldest trick of racists, trickle-down economists, and other awful people. This book is full of corny anecdotes proving Vance is one of those awful people; he judged this person for showing up to work late and that person for smoking too many cigarettes. Third, because ITT we've seen Morgantown WV questioned as "authentically Appalachian"; this is serious double standards.

My "pseudonym" or green account is not an issue. Google for any map of opioid crisis ... you'll see the same thing: KY, WV OH lead the way. Just pointing out you seem to have misspoke about his family and how "appalachiany" they were. BTW: You haven't worked with that guy he was describing, the smoker that shows up late (if at all) and takes breaks all the time? I've worked with several of those types. His judgement is on target. https://www.statnews.com/2017/04/25/opioid-deaths-map/

Your link is interesting, Mr. Vance. It indicates that "drug overdose mortality" has changed over time in various regions of USA. Apparently in 1999 all the Appalachian hillbillies lived in California and the Southwest. For some reason they gradually moved East? Yours is a confusing worldview, to say the least.

It's one thing to dislike a particular person, for whatever reason. It's quite another to see that person as an exemplar of the negative attributes of all the residents of another region where you have never lived. It's another yet when the exemplary person you dislike is also not from that region...

This is important, not because of Appalachia but because of art itself.

As a history buff, I have a difficult time watching many "based on a true story" movies or movies claiming to represent some important person or event in history. It's for the same reason: people consume information through narrative, and narrative forces reality into predefined tracks. This means that any art form claiming to represent a people, region, person, or event must necessarily be lying to you. The better the art the more likely the lies are big ones.

And so storytellers are forced to lie, both by drastically-reducing scope and by smoothing out the edges. Then they consolidate characters, generalize over things that are not part of the narrative. They find a hero. They bump the contrast up a bit to make the narrative consumption more enjoyable.

I love this, I love art and storytelling, but it means that there are great masses of people who don't know jack squat about a ton of topics that they think they do.

I grew up here. I've traveled all over, spending quite a bit of time in SF and other very cosmopolitan places, but this is home. If I were forced to scope it down, I'd probably start with the mountains, then the coal mines, then the Scots-Irish cultural backdrop. The writer made an astute point when they mentioned all the outsiders passing through and screwing us over in various ways for their own selfish reasons. That's been a persistent theme, but it is slowly dying off. There's also the tent revival culture, but that's also going away.

The only other generality I'd add if I were scoping down a story about this place is the stereotype of the ornery eccentric. This character has been played up for comic relief over the years, many times making them out to be simpletons. Instead, there are a lot of PhD-level folks who just don't give a damn about society and don't want to. They're nice enough. They just want to be left alone. You find that plenty of other places as well, but Appalachia has a long history of those folks and we tend to cherish them, even if we're making fun of them.

Andrew Jackson almost beat a man to death with his cane after he tried to assassinate him (His gun misfired. He grabbed a backup. It also misfired. Jackson commenced to beating on him and had to be pulled off). After the Civil War, Ewell went back to his home, picked back up his law practice, and started writing books about what a bunch of jackasses all those people who misunderstood the war were. We always wave at people here: the best way to tell if people are from far away is when they don't wave. Had a neighbor once that when I waved at him he would make various obscene gestures and curse. He just wanted to be left alone.

I wouldn't live anywhere else, and it's not because I haven't tried out a bunch of other places. There's something about the mountains that keep calling me back. I don't know what.

Thanks for sharing your experiences. I've never visited Appalachia, and I'm afraid my views are filtered through popular media. But even if a TV show like "Justified" (I've seen the first 3 seasons) bends to narrative constraints, I felt it took its setting and the people living there seriously. I'm sure I'm missing a lot though.

Another piece of media that I felt was a strong statement about Appalachia is Ever South[1] by Drive-by Truckers.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwM2yd2QZ2Q - live rendition at KEXP

Thanks. It's an interesting place.

I think the saddest thing about Appalachia is the fact that much of the really interesting parts are disappearing. Everything in the country, including Appalachia, is WalMart-i-fied. It's all strip malls and chain stores. Everybody listens to the same music, surfs the same sites, and buys the same swag. As a species we are homogenizing everything.

I have fond memories of walking into a country store in Grundy, Virginia where I bought a coke. The guy behind the counter spoke in a language I couldn't understand at first. Then I realized it was English. I have another fond memory of walking into a startup where they were on their way to making billions. These memories happened only several dozen miles from each other. There's a lot of cool stuff going on here. I can guarantee that whatever media you've consumed about it misled you in many ways.

I had a eerily similar experience in the Pikeville, KY WalMart: Stopped in to pick up some last minute groceries for a weekend excursion to the Russell Fork. While walking around I heard a voice over the intercom that I literally could not understand a word that was said. I looked at my wife (both of us born and raised in KY) and said, "What was that?". She also had no idea what was said. It was a different language, not really English.

Being from Kentucky, Justified was a laugh-a-minute for us ... it's very authentic, if authentic means filmed in California with the best looking hillbilly's and rednecks anyone has ever seen.

Haha just like they filmed "Ozark" in Georgia.

I understand where the author is coming from with wanting to depict a more diverse/nuanced view of Appalachia.

However, I think that Hillbilly Elegy has been influential based specifically on insight it gives into why the region supported someone like Trump. The author may be correct that Hillbilly Elegy is incorrect; however, since the article doesn't present an alternative explanation I'm not sure that it is very useful.


That you went with an angry post about Donald Trump on an article that doesn't mention him once (or mention politics much at all, really) is telling. Your stereotypes are showing.

Perhaps read through the article, rather than jumping at a headline? You might come away with the impression that it could be worthwhile to meet "these unwashed masses" and find out that they're people too, with just as valid a viewpoint as yours (regardless of whether you agree with it).

47 entries in uMatrix, a banner shows, no visible content. Today's web is garbage.

Seriously, if "Appalachia" is doing so great let's stop taking from wealthier states and redirecting to these poor ones. Let them clean up their broken down coal mines and polluted water resources. They can handle all the opium addicts and disability deadbeats. They should be able to prop up their own economies without handouts and programs from wealthier parts of the country. Let them continue their war against the "War on Coal". Maybe they can eat their coal. And don't get me started on the litter pretty much everywhere and trash dumped in every river of my home state (KY). I'm sure they will eventually handle that too.

Regional flamewar isn't ok here, just like nationalistic flamewar or race flamewar or other flamewars. Could you please not post like this to HN?


Isn't this what the article "Hillbillies Need No Elegy" is about? Isn't this about their response to a book about the region? I grew up in the region and this is my experience.

Your experience is welcome, but you need to actually share your experience. That's very different from posting a putdown rant about a region and the people who live there.

The fact that you grew up there is relevant to what you're saying, of course. But it's not relevant to whether your comment broke the site guidelines. Internet forums can't handle that level of nuance, and a comment like this is going to lead to a big old flamewar by default.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact