B.J. Bethel

A view of the world from Ohio

Bursting the Bubble: The reaction to JD Vance’s ‘Why I’m Moving Home’ column shows bigotry is a two-way street

My first trip to the “big city” occurred well into adulthood. I’m not talking Dayton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Cleveland – the metropolitan areas of my home state, but one of the “big” cities. Four weeks after becoming a father I wearily traveled to Washington D.C. for two days. I was a finalist for a fellowship that would propel my writing and journalism career. I was one of 15 finalists out of 400 and some applicants, I had never been a finalist for anything, let alone won anything.

I had 20 minutes to present my case for a grant that was more money than I thought I’d ever make in a year, to convince them I was responsible and smart enough to handle a project that would possibly be published as a book.

My presentation was over before it began: The first 10 minutes of my 20 minute presentation were confused DC-ite judges asking me questions about my home state of Ohio like I flew in from the Planet Vulcan. “Where is it?” “Where’s do you live?” Where is Cincinnati?” I’m no geographic ace but I have a general idea of where most places in the United State are, and I don’t crack jokes at people at the expense of their hometowns. I would expect educated DC-ites to know Ohio is east of the Mississippi, not west, and I’m not writing this is normalcy in the American capital, but maybe I ran into some special cases.

My attitude grew rather sarcastic, and out of those 15 applicants, I was one of three to not get a grant, which served me fine, I didn’t want their money after meeting with them. When asking what we do with our time (I’m guessing they had images of hanging over overpasses picking at banjos) I stated “We grow all your food, build all your cars and appliances, and send our money here every two weeks when we get paid.” I followed with another crack that was one I regret (it was along the lines of DC was a place we picked the biggest assholes in the state, and voted which one to send away). Losing was the best thing that happened to me.

If someone were to ask where I’m from, I’d say Dayton. I don’t have a Dayton address, I live in a small town in a county on the outskirts. I’ve lived in those towns for the better part of my life since sixth grade. When New York Times columnist J.D. Vance writes he’s moving from San Francisco to Columbus, starting a non-profit to battle the heroin epidemic that has shaken the state to its core, the commenters at the Times take great joy in labeling Vance as some hypocrite, as the scion of racists and bigots who dare voted for Trump and is a poser who isn’t putting his money where his mouth is.

It’s the bubbles – there’s a bubble for those of us out here in God’s country, and the ones in the country’s power centers, the later of which I’m writing about. Vance has done something I haven’t seen a writer, or journalist do who found themselves on such a large stage so quickly, and at such a young age. He didn’t move to New York and run the cocktail circuit, he’s using the advantage of the spotlight given to his book and his life story do to help those he’s written about.

Vance states this wonderfully in a New York Times op-ed entitled “Why I’m Moving Home,” which appears in today’s paper and is available online, and he’s now being blasted as a hypocrite by the New York Times commenters. The Times has done wonderful job since the election of putting a spotlight on the issues in Ohio and states like it: economy, jobs, faith, heroin, the people and the general epidemic of despair some in the rural areas are experiencing. Their op-ed page has shared a wide variety of voices on the subject, some I agree with, some I don’t.

Vance writes: “The more difficult truth is that people naturally trust the people they know — their friend sharing a story on Facebook — more than strangers who work for faraway institutions. And when we’re surrounded by polarized, ideologically homogeneous crowds, whether online or off, it becomes easier to believe bizarre things about them. This problem runs in both directions: I’ve heard ugly words uttered about “flyover country” and some of its inhabitants from well-educated, generally well-meaning people.”

Why that trust has eroded and what changed: that’s another post, but the reaction to Vance’s column are examples of why you have Trump in the White House.

Here are the responses in the comments section to Vance’s article, which are typical any time he writes for a publication.

Little Vance pretends he’s going back to his little hometown and the farm to honestly work the land…..as he heads to Columbus, the state political capital dominated by Ohio State University, one of the largest universities in the United States.

Vance is moving to the intellectual oasis of Ohio, a place where the fake Hillary PizzaGate news gets laughed off campus the way the Flat Earth Society gets laughed off campus.

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This is an interesting article but if I was from Ohio, I would not return to it. In many states there is nothing to go home to; no job prospects, no culture, and who wants to wonder if the pubic schools are sufficient. No, I am glad I was born on the East Coast and for most of my life I have lived here.

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On recommendation from my conservative friends I read the book. Rather than making my sympathetic it made me angry. Angry at a group of people who feel entitled to benefits that they would deny others simply because of the color of their skin. Angry at a group of people who would rather blame Obama for their plight than the GOP politicians and greedy corporations that took away their jobs and their future in pursuit of profit and tax cuts. Angry at a group of people that think the 1950s (or maybe the 1850s) will return as a golden age restored.

J.D. Vance is just another conservative trying to make us understand the mind of and be sympathetic to the Trump voter while not inconveniencing himself too much.

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There is another piece in the op-ed section today highlighting the decline of ambition and accomplishment among white men–that is what Vance’s small minded view produces.

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You don’t tell us what people disparaging “fly-over” country say about those areas. Do they moan about the inhabitants support of populist presidents? Do they groan about their lack of education? Or do they just rail against the paucity of good Tai food? No idea if their complaints have any basis in reality.

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Or, since you claim the Hillbilly mantle (your words, not mine), consider someplace like East Liverpool or Ironton. To someone doing community and economic development work in small rural towns of Virginia, your risky flight to a thriving metropolis rings hollow.

Vance has some support, but the responses generally get worse.

But reading this feedback, I felt the need to respond. Call this an explainer, as Vox.com would put it, from someone whose parents graduated high school in Appalachia, whose grandmother had an outhouse until I was a teenager (look it up).

In Ohio, there’s this thing called space. While I may live in some backwater hell-hole to some of you, I can hear coyotes howl at the moon from my back porch, drive 20 minutes, see a Broadway play, and be home 20 minutes afterward – I would call that ideal living circumstances. I live with cornfields surrounding the houses in my little subdivision, which looks like a small town version of suburbia to most around here, but to the bubblers on the coast, is probably a fate of the damned. I say this to those disparaging the people here, not the vast amount of people I know on the coasts, in New York, DC or LA who actually have been places, talked to different people and are some of the best people I know and judge people based on their character and not on characterizations.

He says he is moving to Columbus, in Ohio vernacular he could be moving to a suburb, a small town, maybe a township, maybe he’s getting 40 acres, a nice house or living in a house in the woods. Even in Ohio, if someone asks where you’re from you probably tell them the name of the city that’s closest to where you’re located – Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton – unless you don’t live near one, then you tell them your home town or county.

From Columbus Vance can get to his hometown of Middletown in less time than someone spends commuting to work one-way in New York – so he isn’t exactly holding himself up in some enclave of the haves. This may be a strange thing to mention or bring to this argument, but it’s obvious Vance’s disparagers have no idea how life works around here, so I thought I would educate them.

Yes Columbus is a big city, and growing – it’s the third largest in the Midwest, and by the next census or two, it might be giving Indianapolis a run for its money. But living there isn’t like living in a Maryland or Virginia suburb of DC. Chances are he’s going to be late being stuck behind a tractor from time to time. In other words, moving to Columbus is moving back home.

I read the criticism constantly, that the Trump voter was racist, bigoted – and there certainly are racist and bigoted Trump voters (the part played by white nationalists in the election is undeniable, but bubbled rural voters don’t know this, and being called a racist for them is a default at this point). But when a region is going through a societal upheaval not seen in a century, they tend to vote for the candidate that will throw a brick through the window, not the establishment candidate. Trump’s dog whistles to the alt-right, Bannon, and the other lunacy that has come from his administration (like the HHS head’s latest statement on vaccines) are real, but he was the one candidate that came to small towns, that talked about the heroin epidemic, that talked about the factories. Hillary was campaigning with LeBron, Jay-Z, and Beyonce during a stop in Cleveland while Trump was hitting every small town in between.

The idea that these people should move to the bigger coastal cities is a joke, and these cities are now being designed to keep them and others (minorities) out. A hotel room for one night in the areas with the most “opportunity (not taking into account the cost of those opportunities) is more than they would pay for their rent or mortgage in a month. They kill themselves to get educated They flood the local community colleges, take on thousands in loans while working two jobs with kids, they take shots in the dark at local for-profit colleges, if they can spring it and get to an Ohio State, a Miami, a Wright State, a UD or a Ohio University, they do, or more importantly to them, get their kids there.

Trump is the first candidate since NAFTA was passed to run on a platform critical of US trade policy, the policy that sent 15,000 auto manufacturing jobs out of Dayton, not counting jobs on the periphery, such as the machine shop that made their parts, and dotted every small towns for hundreds of miles in both directions, the bars and pizza places across the street from the plant, the companies that shipped their parts or trucked their finished Chevy S-10s.

Most places wouldn’t survive this, but Dayton is, and is on the verge of thriving. The community and the governor worked to bring Fuyao, a Chinese auto glass manufacturer into the abandoned truck plant. Every six months the factory announces additions of hundreds of new jobs, at rates higher than Delphi/GM were paying when they began tiering their wages. The Toledo Blade writes of Dayton in a whimsical tone, wondering how it’s getting done here, but it always has. The airplane was invented here, the cash register, the city at one point held more major patents alone than many major countries. Bloomberg’s recent story: Professional millennials are leaving New York – why? They can’t afford it. For the cost of a one-bedroom apartment you can have a 2,000 square foot house and raise kids, and still do your job (Dayton was the specific example mentioned).

The status of those in the white working class areas are either up or down. The heroin epidemic is reaching levels of community destruction. Some still work and get out of it, even though it is now harder than ever. Some of them stay, some manage to make it to the cities Vance’s detractors suggest, even though these same cities and people have zoned them so people like us in the country, or those in Harlem or in the rougher parts of Oakland, can’t live there.

The people who have done best to understand the challenges in the rural Midwest and South have been the often derided national media outlets like the Times, the Atlantic, CNN and others. Still, even writing these stories pisses some off, like political journalist Dave Weigel.

But bigotry is a two-way street, and it’s another word – classism. If Vance hadn’t went to Yale Law School, didn’t work in Silicon Valley, didn’t have the networking opportunities he had, he would never been given the platform he was given if he was still living in Middletown. Maybe his writing skills and his tremendous life story would get him a book deal, but he wouldn’t be on everything from Fareed Zakaria, to Morning Joe to writing op-eds in major papers. That is no shot at Vance, who served his country in the military, lived a family and home life that usually leaves kids shattered, not thriving, and managed to make it to the top levels of media in this country and become a best-selling author. It is a criticism of how class and geographical bigotry work in this country. Would Ta-Nehesi Coates be the soothsayer of racial politics many consider him to be if he grew up in West Side Dayton and not Baltimore?

Therein lies the problem.

 

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