Hell or High Water – Culture Implicating Structure




If you want an unflinching insight into the rotting core of America, the neglected and left-for-dead rural and backwoods regions of our country, take the 1 hour and 42 minutes to watch “Hell or High Water.” David McKenzie directs this neo-Western/heist/thriller, with the backdrop to the action providing a portrait of a Texas still ravaged by the 2008 financial collapse. The political and socioeconomic undertones are less than subtle.  As our redneck Robin Hoods drive beat-up old cars through bleak desert landscapes the camera lingers on billboards for payday loans and other predatory lending advertisements – the vultures circling the carcass of a starved cow. “Hell or High Water” is a fresh take on an old genre and a brilliant depiction of the soul-crushing nature of poverty. The audience isn’t intended to completely embrace the two bank robbers, but you are supposed to understand how they came to such a desperate position. After the action concludes and the dust settles, Chris Pine’s character offers an explanation for his criminal deeds when the law man comes calling: “I’ve been poor my whole life. It’s like a disease, passing from generation to generation. But not my boys. Not anymore.” The honesty, the frankness of his statement is borne of a bone-deep exhaustion. His voice is sad and quiet and tired. Poverty has robbed him of life; he’s known nothing except the struggle to escape it. This omnipresent anxiety that poverty inflicts on vast swaths of America’s midwest and Appalachia has become a source of contention in the media and the political sphere, and unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.


Much has been made this year about the shocking result of the previous year’s election of Donald Trump. Some media outlets, in a desperate attempt to explain such a damning reflection of American voters, relied on the now much maligned angle, “economic anxiety.” It’s now become a sarcastic refrain employed by writers or pundits after displays of blatant racism, meant to skewer what they believe to be apologetics from naive leftists or liberals trying to redeem the irredeemable.


Now the backlash against this misguided explanation for American citizens voting for a man who lays bare that which was previously whispered has afforded many well-to-do liberal media members an opportunity to engage in one of their most cherished pastimes: sneering at the working class. The uneducated rabble, we are to believe, are to blame for electing such a crass bigot. The Neanderthals love to vote against their own interests. Tsk tsk. Such a shame really. If only they would identify with the rich white liberals that we, the enlightened and worldly, know are best for them, they could start to dig themselves out of the miserable state their communities are in. Which, by the way, they themselves are to blame for. J.D. Vance, their new hick-whisperer, has offered them a peek into your sad lives and now they see the root of the problem – your cultural tendencies toward laziness and self-destructive habits.


“Hillbilly Elegy” has been hailed as one of the best books of this past year, and it’s hardly a secret why. The coastal elite relished the opportunity to confirm all their worst suspicions about what ails the backwoods communities that have been consumed by poverty and drug use. The book charges the white poor of America with subscribing to a self-destructive culture, and details the rise of one man, the esteemed narrator, of making it out of the mire by his hard work and merits. He is the shining beacon of the American Dream, the confirmation that anyone can make it if they work hard enough, are talented enough. “Hillbilly Elegy” reinforces the notion of a meritocracy that those in positions of wealth and influence are only too happy to lap up. It posits that there is no structural issue here, no malignant economic or political forces holding the riffraff down. Rather, it’s a problem with the individuals themselves, their culture, their bad habits. This notion necessarily endorses the status quo and implicates the poor in their own damnation. It reassures those that are rich and less touched by the social ills that plague faraway communities that they deserve – they earned – their comfort, and by extension that the broken working class deserves their fate. They deemphasize the absolutely crucial structural factors: that the schools in these communities are ludicrously underfunded, the profit-driven Big Pharma role in the opioid crisis, the government response to said drug epidemic with incarceration rather than rehabilitation, and the poor access to healthcare that so many face when they inevitably need treatment for ailments stemming from hard labor, poor living conditions, and a meager diet.


The “racist hillbilly” punching bag provides centrist liberals with an excuse to abandon the rapidly declining rural communities hit hard by the economic collapse their Wall Street-friendly policies helped create (“well they’re racist so they deserve it”) and for their hilariously inept campaigning and embarrassing defeat at the hands of a man who thought Frederick Douglas was still alive. This vile conception of poor communities echoes conservative “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric and reveals the neoliberal obsession with means-testing for social programs as opposed to leftist-favored universal policy. Neoliberals, forever handwringing over who deserves to have access to beneficial services, cannot bear the idea of an unworthy poor improving their life. Only the blameless poors, the model-citizen poors, should be helped.


For the time being, let’s set aside the utter moral turpitude needed to sentence an already vulnerable and suffering class of people to miserable deaths and poverty, no matter their beliefs. It’s also just flat out wrong to say poor white people are to blame for why Donald Trump won the election. Poor people generally don’t vote. The median income of Trump voters in the primary was $72,000. That is higher than the median income of both Clinton and Sanders voters in the primaries (roughly $61,000 for each). It is well above the median income of American households, which is somewhere around $56,000. Less than 34% of Trump voters actually had a household income less than the national average income.


Donald Trump was not carried to the highest office in the land on the shoulders of the poor white folks that are dying by the thousands in one of the most harrowing drug crises this country has ever seen. Are some poor whites racist or bigoted? God knows many of them are. I was born and raised in a rural Western Pennsylvania coal town and can attest to that firsthand. But anecdotes only serve to encourage confirmation bias and stereotypes that are not based in evidence or are only a small part of a larger picture. For instance, poor whites did in fact favor Trump in general. But as previously shown, they make up only a fraction of the voters that put him in power. Most poor people are often too alienated and disillusioned to vote. Additionally, more information shows that all white voters skewed Republican and Trump in the election. That includes wealthy, as opposed to poor, white voters. Maybe those liberal and moderate Republican journalists bashing the backwards hicks who they hold responsible for voting in the meanie who insults them should look around. Their fellow rich white friends may not be quite so enlightened after all.


     Meanwhile, the number of families living on $2 per day has grown 136% since 1996. Home foreclosure rates soar in rustbelt states. Alongside them suicide rates soar as well. The year 2015 saw significantly more Americans dying from drug overdose (over 52,000) than from gun violence or car accidents, in large part to an opioid crisis that is only continuing to get worse. Factory and mining jobs, once an opportunity for working class Americans in rural regions to make a decent living, are in decline and are simply not coming back. Opportunities dwindle and poverty takes root. Many will never escape despite all their efforts. Eventually hopelessness grows. Some will look at it and shake their head. No wonder it isn’t bearing any fruit – its leaves aren’t even bothering to reach for the sun! The farmer anxiously nods his head in agreement as he goes back to putting seeds into arid earth bereft of nutrients.


“You’ll never be done with it no matter what. It’s gonna haunt you, son, for the rest of your days.”


Poor rural areas are suffering. They don’t need your derision, and they certainly don’t need a kick in the ribs while they’re down. They need easy-to-understand universal programs that give them a life-preserver in difficult times, not a foot on their drowning head. They need higher wages for the jobs that are still widely available and accessible to them (often in the service and retail industry) so that they can support themselves and their families. They don’t need liberal’s scolding or conservative’s scapegoating. They need substantive change and access to services that will provide them security and opportunity. It’s time to inoculate them from the disease that is poverty and stop it from spreading across generations.

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