Neither Blame Nor Sympathy

J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (2016) describes the poor southern and midwestern culture that Vance himself comes from – a culture that President Obama had characterized eight years before:
“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them. . . . It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Barrack Obama, 2008)
The President got some flak for that comment. In an interview with CNN, Vance acknowledged that Obama had identified legitimate problems, but said the President lacked “sympathy.” But only a certain kind of sympathy will do – otherwise sympathy is condescending. Indeed, it would seem that any sympathy that doesn’t blame, that is nonjudgmental, is therefore, necessarily, condescending.
“Vance is after a certain kind of sympathy: sympathy among equals that doesn’t demean or condescend. Such sympathy can’t be deterministic and categorical. In fact, it must be a little judgmental; it must see the people to whom it’s extended as dignified individuals who retain their moral obligations. For Vance, it’s ‘anger at Mom for the life she chooses’—recognition of her present-day freedom—that makes ‘sympathy for the childhood she didn’t’ meaningful and humane. That’s because sympathy that fails to recognize culpability also fails to recognize potentiality. It becomes a form of giving up. If you’re a politician representing a troubled community from afar, as many √©lite politicians must be, then it’s easy to fall into this sympathy trap. At best, you can be a well-intentioned but nonjudgmental—and, therefore, condescending—outsider.” (Joshua Rothman, New Yorker)
Not that blaming is helpful either. For those of us outside of that culture, there is simply nothing we can say. It’s neither helpful nor fair to blame them for their own problems, and it’s condescending if we don’t. For now, there’s nothing to say. As Rothman concludes:
“Often, after a way of talking has obviously outlived its usefulness, a period of inarticulateness ensues; it’s not yet clear how we should talk going forward.”
J.D. Vance hopes the “broad community of hillbillies” will “wake the hell up” – but he believes that any awakening must be done from within. Those of us who aren’t from the poor white culture Vance describes should just shut up.

Vance doesn't blame government for the ills that beset his hometown, Middletown, OH, but he does believe that government cannot possibly help. In this, I think, he is wrong.

Roosevelt’s New Deal, for instance, made a big difference.
“Projects like the Resettlement Administration, led by Rexford Tugwell, which moved tenants to better land and provided loans for farm improvements, brought real progress. So did the Tennessee Valley Authority, which not only spurred development of much of the South but created training centers and entire planned towns—towns where hill children went to school with engineers’ kids.” (Alec MacGillis, Atlantic)
Not every part of the New Deal worked as well. But we've learned better the sorts of programs that will work.

Sometimes aid contributes to a work disincentive, and encourages gaming the system, fostering resentment against recipients (resentment that helped fueled Trump support). But we could certainly expand Medicaid and treatment programs for people with the drug addictions that have been increasing in places like Middletown. Public investment and jobs programs in the most struggling regions would help. Alternatively, policies could make it easier for people to move.

The rise of monopolies, the decline of American manufacturing, the weakening of organized labor, and the dramatic increase in income inequality since 1980 have all played a role in Middletown's problems, and are all susceptible to amelioration through government policy.

Income inequality has increased precipitously since 1980. Whether the reason was Reagan-era policies, or the inevitable fading of the equalizing effect of the WWII-economy, a more progressive tax structure could ameliorate income inequality.

The policy changes mentioned would help all the poor -- black or white, urban or rural. We can talk about the benefits of those policies without resort to either the stereotyped categories "hillbillies" or "ghetto." Beyond -- and perhaps prior to -- those policy changes, specific attention to the injustices faced by often-urban African American poor (and middle- and upper-class) is needed. It certainly isn't fair that the damage that drug abuse does to communities is met with sympathy when it's white folks abusing oxycontin and with blame/punishment when it's black folks abusing crack. That this difference exists is testament to the systemic racism that no discussion of poverty in America can overlook. A significant manifestation of that systemic racism continues to be the differential police relations with white and black communities.

There are certainly a number of steps that could be taken. But the impetus for legislative action to address social conditions requires sympathy or blame. We will never manage to pass any policy without the moral energy of sympathy, blame, and usually both. We can't do neither, so we'll have to try both: judicious blame encouraging responsibility, and a limited sort of sympathy that avoids condescension.

Criticism is a form of holding accountable -- a way to build community and connection by lifting an expectation that the criticized account for themselves. Criticism affirms the agency and the responsibility of those criticized. While criticism of the less privileged by the more privileged is fraught with peril, if done respectfully (and I have to hope that it is possible to criticize respectfully even across socio-economic power divides) it welcomes the criticized into the dialog of democracy, rather than subjecting them to deterministic treatment or the exclusion of being beneath notice. The behavior of members of dysfunctional communities -- whether poor small-town whites, poor urban blacks, or the police -- needs this attention of criticism. Balancing that criticism with sympathy should take the punitive edge off blame. And balancing the sympathy with careful criticism should take the condescending edge off sympathy. Thoughts?


  1. I believe that the use of empathy is also needed in this discussion and moving forward. Empathy coupled with honesty speaks of needs not met and by whom, yet does not blame or judge.

    1. I should clarify that I'm talking about a context of public discourse. Yes, if we are in dialog with a person, empathy is called for. But in the public discourse about what policies to pursue, we have to walk a narrow line between sympathy for the small-town poor (which risks being condescending and minimizing their agency), and criticism of their choices (which affirms their agency but risks being blaming).