“Hillbilly Elegy” Movie Provided Some Clarity

Disclaimer: I’m going to be painting in broad strokes in my post today. I know what I’m writing does not apply to everyone, but, in my opinion, it will apply to more than one thinks.

I read the book Hillbilly Elegy when it first came out a few years ago. It spoke to me then as I’m a product of the Appalachians myself as I hail from southern Ohio. Watching one’s hometown in decline, no matter where you come from, is hard. Watching those around you falling victim to circumstances beyond your control, is hard. Waiting for your elected leaders to follow-through on even a few of their promises, is hard. Hard, frustrating, and angering.

Watching the movie today was hard. There were times I almost stopped watching it because it was so painful, so depressing, so frustrating. I know what it is like to grow-up with periods of food scarcity, with loved ones and strangers treating me and my family badly, to have a parent with an addiction, and to want a better life but not quite sure how to make it happen.

It clicked with me how much anger I felt. Angry that we didn’t always have a TV, angry that we had to hang clothes on the clothesline in the freezing cold, angry that we didn’t have an indoor bathroom, angry that we were on food stamps, angry the teachers didn’t understand what my life was like, angry we didn’t have more money, angry that many things were not within our control. Anger that sometimes spills over at the most inopportune times even as an adult in a much better place in life.

Did you know the trauma of your life can actually alter your DNA? And, that altered DNA, with all the trauma in the DNA code, can then be passed down to your children. Then, it doesn’t stop there because if your children experience similar trauma, rather than healing the DNA, the trauma infused DNA is then passed down again to their children. As I watched today, I wondered how many generations of anger was pent up in the people portrayed in this true story.

As odd is it may sound, and I offer this not as an excuse for their behavior and votes, but it did shed some light on the white votes for the lame duck in 2016, and in 2020.

Since anger, frustration, sadness, depression can be passed via DNA, and when your life doesn’t get any better even when you work your tail off, and you see politicians making unkept promises, and when you see the rich not paying taxes and you do. If you are mad because your child needs medication you can’t pay for, your rent is going up but your pay stays the same, when you have to choose between food and electricity, when your boss gives you just the right amount of hours to keep you below eligibility for benefits, it can wear on a person.

That anger then must go somewhere. Some people bury their anger with drugs, others with alcohol, some with beating their significant other, some with beating their kids, and yet others with killing someone over what most would consider a trivial matter.

Think about it. Right now the real unemployment number is around 30,000,000 people out of work. The uninsured number of people is about 31,000,000 in the middle of a pandemic (and may be higher since so many are out-of-work now). In just little over a month from now, 40,000,000 people may be evicted from their homes. These are just national numbers and doesn’t include the number of people who are contemplating suicide, started taking drugs, or have committed suicide because of the current state of our country and economy.

Although these numbers are higher now, many millions were experiencing some of these life stressors in 2016. The statistics include people of all races and ethnicities. However, many white people in the lower income and education brackets, due to centuries of privilege, seem to feel more aggrieved with the way things have gone for them over the past 40 years with the death of the middle class. Many are worse off than their parents were because of the shuttering of factories and decline of their small town businesses, often through no fault of their own, but through the fault of the corporations sending jobs offshore to raise their stock prices and profits.

The feelings in the movie hit me of how the anger and frustration has caused people, consciously or not, to want to punish the country because their country is not doing anything to help them. When you feel you have little to no power, but you can vote, why not vote for the candidate the elites don’t want to be in office. What better way to get even with the powers that be? After all, your own life can’t get any worse that it is right now, and hey, maybe things will get a little better so why not give it a whirl. If nothing gets better, well, at least you’ve gotten even with the system.

No, it isn’t rational, it isn’t logical, but it does help emotionally. Many people vote due to how a candidate makes them feel. If that candidate is giving the system, giving Washington, giving current career politicians the finger, then he gets my vote because I will feel better. Again rational and logical thinking has nothing to do with the vote, it is more visceral.

I am not at the point of forgiving those who voted for the lame duck in 2016 because that vote has put us on the precipice of authoritarianism. However, it does provide some insight into why they voted why they did then, and in 2020. It also provides a lesson. A lesson that if we, as a society, don’t do anything to help the many who are hurting and forgotten in our society, we will, at some point, have an authoritarian take over our country and we will all pay a much greater price than it would have cost for us to take care of those in need through improved access to education, healthcare, job training, and the social safety net.

We need to meet the needs for all people, not just those whites in economic turmoil. All people, regardless of race or ethnicity, must be helped.

Not to do so will be the end of us, and much sooner than anyone may have anticipated.

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