Not since Jon Krakauer disemboweled Greg Mortenson in Three Cups of Deceit has an author gone quite for the jugular of a popular book like Elizabeth Catte does in What You are Getting Wrong about Appalachia. The target of her ire is J.D. Vance and his uber popular Hillbilly Elegy.
The word Appalachia is really a code word for the dog whistle politics of the right wing. It conjures all sorts of images of humble working class folk wronged by the liberal politicians of the coastal states. Too bad this is all just a bunch of bullshit and Catte calls people like Vance to the carpet for perpetuating simplistic stereotypes for financial gain. Make no mistake, Vance has sold whatever credibility and authenticity he had to being “Appalachian” long ago. Please, do not take my word for it. Read this excerpt from page 93:
Vance is a well-educated person of means with a powerful platform who has chosen to accept a considerable amount of fame and wealth to become a spokesperson for the region. Since he is such an enormous fan of personal responsibility, I am thrilled to hold him responsible for his asinine beliefs and associations. Appalachian blogger Kelli Haywood, in her essays on Elegy, objects to the individuals who claim that Vance isn’t authentically Appalachian because he migrated outside the region. I don’t give a damn about geography, but I’ll not that Vance has transcended one of the most authentically Appalachian experiences of them all: watching someone with tired ideas about race and culture get famous by selling cheap stereotypes about the region.
Damn. J.D. Vance is really just a road side carnival barker selling the United States at large on a drive by tourism of tired Appalachian tropes.
Here’s the thing: Catte is spot on in her criticism. We, as a nation and especially the media, would like nice and neat narratives about regions like Appalachia because it allows us to fool ourselves into a sense of cultural complacency. Appalachia is poor and dependent upon extractive industries for whatever economic good fortune might trickle its way. Iowa is rural and the price of corn or soybeans is the single most important economic indicator on any given day. Oklahoma is run by the oil and gas lobby…oh wait, that one is probably true.
You get the idea. We want Appalachia to be easy to understand because it makes our own communities easier to understand. It is not easy to grapple with an Appalachia that was and, to some degree, remains a place where radical workers reside and resistance to coal companies, as opposed to the assumed subservience, was a hallmark of the holler. It is not easy to imagine an Appalachia that is increasingly diverse as African Americans and Hispanic populations grow while the Caucasian population declines. God forbid we try to wrap our minds around an Appalachia that contains members of the LGBTQ community. Whoa nelly!
Appalachia is America and the sooner we realize that truth is the sooner that we become a better country.