I just finished reading two books. The first was Bill Buckley’s “Up from Liberalism,” which was his critique of the Liberalism of the 1950’s and his staunch defense of Conservatism. I loved it, in part because Buckley was a master of language, in part because he infuriated Liberals, and in part because I believe in many of the Conservative principles he advanced.
The book’s last paragraph beautifully expresses how I feel about individual liberty – “I will not willingly cede more power to anyone…I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God.”
The other book, J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” has had an even more profound impact on my thinking.
Vance is an anomaly. He was born Kentucky coal mining country and raised by his grandparents in Middletown, Ohio. His early life was chaotic. His mother was addicted to drugs and a series of men who drifted in and out of her, and his, life. She was sometimes abusive. The Kentucky and Ohio landscapes of his youth were in the throes of a downward spiral. The once proud coal country of Kentucky and southern Ohio had been decimated. Unemployment, drug addiction, and perpetual government dependence had become the norms.
Yet, somehow, Vance escaped that fate. “Hillbilly Elegy” is the story of a man who clawed his way from desperate circumstances to a law degree from Yale and a budding career as an author and contributing opinion writer at the New York Times.
How did he do it?
While he was brutally honest about his family’s problems, he also talked openly of his love for his mother and her love for him. He heaped pages and pages of praise on his grandparents, whom he affectionately called “Mamaw” and “Papaw,” and the powerful impact they had on his life. While they were often crude and sometimes violent, Vance credits them with teaching him the value of hard work and education that opened the doors of opportunity for him.
So, J.D. Vance has clawed his way out of dire circumstances. He’s proud of his hillbilly roots. He’s not bitter, but he still casts a wary eye on elites and politicians, as he well should. They all too often have this nasty habit C.S. Lewis’s master demon, Screwtape, described as “an ingrained habit of belittling anything that concerns the great mass of their fellow men.”
Vance and I come from different parts of the country, but there are some common threads in our respective experiences. My father was a hardworking man, a chipper (ice man), by trade. He was also a roaring alcoholic. He died when I was six. My mother was an uneducated immigrant from Newfoundland. When my father died, she had a complete nervous breakdown and was institutionalized for a couple of years, which meant my brother, sister, and I became wards of the state during that time. Somehow, propelled by her love for us, she clawed her way past shock treatments and God knows what else to bring us back together. For years after that our lives were lived in tenements or government housing projects, under the ever-watchful eye of welfare department bureaucrats.
All these years later, I occasionally find it hard to believe we’ve done as well as we have.
Vance is quite charitable when it comes to his views on elites. I wish I could say that, but I can’t. I don’t like them and I don’t like being around them. I don’t feel comfortable in their worlds. I feel far more at home being around blue collar workers than I do being around movers and shakers. I prefer the company of the powerless to schmoozing with the powerful.
I guess you can take the boy out of the tenements and housing projects, but you can’t take the tenements and housing projects out of the boy.
In his New York Times column this morning, Vance wrote about Hillary Clinton’s recent comment about “baskets of deplorables.” It was a very revealing Freudian slip. She later tried to temper her remark, claiming that she didn’t mean to vilify millions of Donald Trump supporters or other Americans who aren’t racists, bigots, homophobes, or xenophobes. But, the damage had been done. Hillary’s contempt for millions of her fellow citizens and her own brand of bigotry were exposed.
Vance finished by suggesting Hillary Clinton and her elite friends consider Jesus’ words about specks and planks (Matthew 7:3-5).
It was good advice. We Conservatives and Donald Trump’s “delporables” have our blind spots and prejudices, but so do Hillary and her fellow elites. Maybe it’s time for them to concentrate on their own sins rather than ours.