The public does not want to consider the question of what price we are, or ought to be, willing to pay to save one life, a hundred lives, a thousand lives.
Fans of J.D. Vance’s 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, have been scratching their heads over the critical response to director Ron Howard’s new film of the same name. Under normal circumstances, critics and audiences warm quickly to this kind of story: a young boy from a poor, troubled, and turbulent family who, with the help of a tough, plucky, and profane grandmother, rises above his circumstances to an Ivy League education, professional success, and personal healing. Throw in top Hollywood talent like actresses Glenn Close and Amy Adams, and we should be talking about a blockbuster success.
The critical response to the film, however, has ranged from chilly to acerbic to dismissive. To be sure, the film isn’t without flaws resulting mainly from the imbalance of talent between the marquee actors (Adams and Close) and those chosen to play the parts of Vance (Owen Asztalos and Gabriel Basso). It would be challenging under the best of circumstances for these younger, less experienced actors to match up against such talent, and in this case, the mismatch creates some awkward and uncomfortable moments. But there’s more at work here than disappointing casting decisions.
Some of the critical and public response seems to imply that the movie and the themes it explores are socially and politically suspect. Feelings of sympathy for individuals struggling with unemployment, drug addiction, and socio-economic hierarchy might be just fine, indeed mandatory, for modern films telling stories of poverty and oppression among racial minorities. But taking up the story of white, Appalachian poverty risks aligning oneself with some of the most out-of-favor forces in American society. It may be true that J.D. Vance and his family are readily recognizable as archetypes of the consequences of American deindustrialization and social breakdown, but that apparently isn’t enough to secure our interest and attention. The nagging fear that these people are the ones who brought us the Trump presidency seemingly attenuates whatever sympathy we might have for their suffering.
The Sympathies of the Right and Left
A related issue came up a few months back during a conversation with a colleague studying at a prestigious Northeastern university. In the context of discussing the extraordinary post-2016 attention paid to the challenges of low-income white communities, I raised the work of the Princeton husband and wife duo, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the authors of Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. My friend responded that this work, despite its quality and the compelling narrative of social distress it portrays, is exasperating to many poverty scholars at elite institutions. It isn’t that the findings are wrong, mind you, they just don’t fit with the modern academic narrative of “approved” poverty among those who have been subjected to racial, ethnic, gender, and other forms of discrimination. In fact, the thinking goes, poor whites, especially in the South, were integral to the Jim Crow super-structure of oppression, discrimination, and violence against Black people. These voters provided the votes that elected segregationists to Congress, strengthened anti-civil rights forces, and cut welfare benefits. If they don’t exactly deserve what they’re getting, then they also don’t deserve to have their current socio-economic tribulations validated, much less become a public policy cause celebre. At best, their poverty is of a second-class variety, and their needs and concerns don’t rise to the same level as other, more sympathetic groups.
Two seconds of reflection reveals this perspective to be flawed and riven with ironies. As a matter of public policy and debate, we have more or less abandoned the notion of the “worthy poor.” When there’s a person, family, or community in need, our stance has been to help first and second-guess life-choices and circumstances later, if at all. Delving too deeply into issues of agency—to what degree did the series of unfortunate events that led to my downward spiral result from my own choices—has largely been discarded as “victim-blaming,” which, whatever its merits as an anti-poverty strategy, ought to provide a completely level playing field when it comes to assistance. Reacting with indifference or contempt for low-income whites of today because of the transitive property of historical guilt is a shockingly prejudiced stance at odds with the core assumptions of the progressives that practice it. Yet the responses to Hillbilly Elegy and Deaths of Despair suggest progressive sympathy for unemployed, impoverished, and drug-addicted whites is remarkably short indeed.
At the same time, progressives are not alone in their neglect and amnesia as it relates to poverty. The post-2016 conservative awakening to the problems of poverty and the notion that there are, perhaps, some structural factors that go beyond personal responsibility contributing to economic and social collapse has left many long-time researchers and advocates with their mouths agape. During the 1980s and 1990s, scholars like William Julius Wilson persistently argued that the problems of Black unemployment, family dissolution, social disorganization, and chronic poverty had their roots in the transformation of the U.S. economy. As jobs shifted away from urban-based manufacturing to information and services work, Wilson said, family-supporting employment moved out of reach both geographically and in terms of education and skills. It was this labor market transformation and the relentless escalation in demand for higher levels of education and skill rather than a “culture of poverty” that detached Black men from the workforce and helped to generate rising levels of social dysfunction in the nation’s urban neighborhoods. The comparison between conservative attitudes toward Black poverty then and white poverty now ought to induce much more introspection among conservatives than it does.
In progressive, psycho-social stinginess toward white poverty and the great awakening to the structural underpinnings of poverty among conservatives, we may be able to see the reverse image of an important national consensus where ideologies on both sides bend toward a new, shared reality. For instance, being poor can be hard on your character, leading to all sorts of negative behaviors and outcomes, and it can also be strongly influenced by factors over which an individual little or no control, ranging from the conditions of birth to the strictures of an impoverished childhood, to the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs.
A clear-thinking progressive can affirm that a young person from Appalachia speaking in a distinctive twang and dialect may indeed face discrimination in educational and employment opportunities in the same way a young Black person experiences such discrimination for their own patterns of speech or comportment. A conservative newly appreciative of the social disorganization and fragmentation that occurs when a major employer closes taking secure jobs with them should, in principle be able to extend concern and sympathy to a Black or Hispanic teenager whose family and community has been worn down by joblessness and poverty over decades as family-supporting jobs fled the cities for the suburbs. With sympathy comes understanding, and with understanding a step toward one another in a social détente that enables a renewed pursuit of the common good.
The Common Ground of Human Dignity
With social and political tensions at a recent historical peak, where could such a dialogue start? It would be foolish and premature to leap immediately to policy and programs on which little or no consensus exists and where gridlock is the order of the day. Legislation is an endpoint to a much longer, more important process of developing awareness of a shared humanity and social and economic destiny. I would therefore focus on fostering a national conversation that would help resurface an instinct that progressive and conservatives share, namely the dignity of the human person and the role that human dignity plays in ordering our public life. Here’s why.
To thrive, democratic societies require a vision for the purpose of our shared life. The answer for those of us in the West is that human dignity and flourishing—personal, social, cultural, and economic—has been the central purpose of human community and its political order. The bias toward human flourishing is so deeply embedded in our beliefs, behaviors, and social and political organization that it often goes unnoticed, like the air we breathe. In our imperfect pursuit of this aspiration, human dignity has been violated and abused in many contexts, but the arc of Western societies has been toward a gradual expansion of the definition of who is human, who deserves the protection of the law, and who has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The American story in particular has been one of a gradual expansion of principles and laws that protect the dignity and rights of the person including the elimination of slavery, abolishment of Jim Crow legal codes, expansions of suffrage, and outlawing of discrimination against, women, the elderly, children, the disabled, sexual minorities, and, increasingly, the unborn.
Of course, the ultimate foundations of human dignity are much in dispute. Religious traditions, particularly Judaism and Christianity, root human dignity in the concept of the imago Dei, while thinkers like Adam Smith and much of modern neurobiology rely principally on human nature and its evolution to form and sustain a concept of human dignity that is driven by social reciprocity. The clash between these perspectives is often intense, part of the long and ultimately unresolvable division between theists and secularists both of whom suspect that, if it’s opposite ever achieves dominance, it will endanger the freedom of those who anchor their views the other perspective.
What’s lost in this “violent agreement” is that we are actually joined by our differences, commanded or driven, depending on your commitments and perspectives, to love others as ourselves. Our deepest instincts tell us this truth is unavoidable if we are to survive and flourish and that the effort to “get behind” that instinct, to establish a final, shared epistemological basis might require an illiberal surrender of prior beliefs under a coercion that would actually be the opposite of the commandments or instincts from which it arises. From the standpoint of our public engagements, our differences over the source of human dignity ought not to divide but to point us toward one another and serve as a shared basis for exploring how to secure human dignity and make human lives as fruitful as possible.
This shared, underlying agreement about the dignity of the person is the gravitational center around which our polity and politics orbit. It is the truth that illuminates all the other questions we grapple with, from national defense to welfare policy. The underlying agreement doesn’t specify the measures that should be adopted to advance toward the fulfillment of the vision. Rather, it is the inspiration behind the effort to do so.
Because this shared foundational truth is a belief or instinct, the pursuit of its fulfillment is mandatory. We hunger and thirst for it not because a law requires us to but because the desire for it is embedded within us, whether we subscribe to the imago Dei or a more strictly evolutionary perspective. It is the thing we cannot not do, and failing to recognize and engage it, or worse, trying to suppress it, means it can emerge suddenly and violently, a half-understood longing and demand that distorts and ruins individual lives and our public life. Whether the protesters who disrupted our urban centers this summer, and the police who sought to contain them, realize it or not, it was this instinct to preserve and protect the dignity of the human person and to see human persons thrive that was driving them both. It is perhaps the central challenge of our time to make this implicit understanding an explicit aspect of our public life.
Ineradicable human dignity is not just a good place to start in moving us toward greater social cohesion, it’s a non-negotiable requirement to proscribe boundaries for its pursuit and avoid and suppress extremism. In addition to telling us why we should care for and reach out to others in our invisible yet absolute inter-dependence on one another, it also instructs us on what we can’t do to fulfill our particular visions. We cannot turn other human beings into instruments of our own will or desires and still honor their dignity. We are prohibited by conscience and law from coercing or injuring other persons in our pursuit of human dignity. The human person is his or her own final good and end. We cannot subordinate and violate the good of one person as the means of achieving either our own good or, even worse, the good of the much vaguer concept of “society.” This overriding commitment to human dignity means that if one can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, the solution is to give up omelets. To avoid the madness that marked the 20th century requires a constant return to the theme of dignity in the 21st as it fuels, conditions, and limits the search for its own vindication.
I have no opinion on whether Hillbilly Elegy is one of the best films ever produced or, less likely, one of the worst. What I do know about the film is that its themes appeal deeply to us because they touch upon an unspoken agreement that has sustained human communities for, if we are to believe our religious traditions and scientific records, as long as they have existed. Our prejudices may periodically obscure or override this understanding, but the sources and demands of human dignity always eventually reassert themselves. We would do well to heed hear and heed them.