This website was archived on July 21, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.

Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Stuck on Welfare

Rod Dreher interviewed JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy. This much-touted memoir is described by its Amazon blurb as “a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class”.

Photo by Shawn Perez, depicting dummies of several characters from The Beverly Hillbillies. Context unknown.
Photo by Shawn Perez, depicting dummies of several characters from The Beverly Hillbillies. Context unknown.

Vance’s answers to Dreher’s questions prompted me to buy the book. Here are some choice quotes from their conversation:

“By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe. So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.”

“[W]hen you grow up in a dying steel town with very few middle class job prospects, making a better life for yourself is often a binary proposition: if you don’t get a good job, you may be stuck on welfare for the rest of your life.”

Photo by Don O'Brien — a collapsing house "[s]een during a visit to a small town along the Ohio Rver."
Photo by Don O’Brien — “Seen during a visit to a small town along the Ohio R[i]ver.”

“The refusal to talk about individual agency is in some ways a consequence of a very detached elite, one too afraid to judge and consequently too handicapped to really understand. At the same time, poor people don’t like to be judged, and a little bit of recognition that life has been unfair to them goes a long way. […] But there’s this weird refusal to deal with the poor as moral agents in their own right.”

“The long view, inherited from my grandparents’ 1930s upbringing in coal country, is that all of us can still control some part of our fate. Even if we are doomed, there’s reason to pretend otherwise.”

I want Scott Alexander to review this book (after I’ve read it, that is). Also, isn’t Hillbilly Elegy an evocative title, regardless of anything else?

Mental Illness & Free Will (Or Not)

Here’s something I’ve been told about depression, both personally and generally: “It’s not your fault.” This sentiment is usually extended to any kind of mental illness. From one perspective, it’s true. We are all products — or rather victims — of brain chemistry and circumstance. No one gets to choose their genetics or how they’re treated by other people.

two men boxing
Photo via USMC Archives.

You gotta roll with the punches. Unfortunately, some of us are bad at rolling. Just because. We didn’t decide to default to stupid coping methods, and most of us can’t change our patterns without help. That’s normal and okay, positivity, blah blah blah, etc. The availability of help is crucial. Without health insurance, I would be sleeping on the streets, or dead, which is a cliche so I’m not sure how to state it with enough impact.

As a mentally ill person, I know the experience of suffering because your mind is beyond your control. (I’m tempted to say “formerly mentally ill”, because of ~stigma~, but it’s not something that goes away when the pills are working.) And yet… I have also human agency. To some degree my emotional experience is my fault, at least according to common ideas about how society works.

Author Alexandra Erin noted on Twitter, “So many systems that make up whatever you want to call ‘civilization’ depend on the participants abiding by certain minimal expectations.” It’s hard to blunder into abiding by such expectations, especially en masse — we do it on purpose, and we’re proud of that. Our species is smitten with the semblance of free will. I feel like I make choices.

choose your collar
Photo by zhouxuan12345678.

Previously I wrote about the illusion of autonomy:

“You’re born with particular DNA programming, which determines how you perceive and process outside stimuli, thus shaping your progress as a person, as a human psycho-physiological entity. Nature is what determines your reaction to nurture, and you don’t have any control over either. They both affect you, certainly, but not in a way that you can manipulate independently of who you already are… it gets circular. [Bold added.]

And yet we think that we have the power to decide things without reference to our formative contexts. Regardless of my philosophical position, my brain is convinced that it is reasonable. Accordingly, society is built on the idea of responsibility for one’s actions. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be! As far as I can tell there’s no alternative. But how interesting, that the entire system of civilization is constructed around a logical fallacy.”

On the one hand, this is sort of freeing. “I’m not responsible for being useless and sad all the time!” On the other hand, if nothing is your fault, then you also don’t have any choices.

trauma of emotional abuse
Artwork by Run Jane Fox.

Battered spouses are often told that they didn’t choose to stay with their abusers after the first incidence of violence (whether emotional or physical). Victims are counselled not to blame themselves. Safety expert Gavin de Becker finds this rhetoric harmful, as he explains in The Gift of Fear. Most advocates contend that abusers forcibly shape reality for their targets, until escape options become invisible. In his book, de Becker argues that this attitude is problematic. If it’s not a choice to stay, then it can’t be a choice to leave. He suggests that empowering abuse survivors requires encouraging accountability for a person’s own abuse. That’s very tricky to do in a non-toxic way.

Are you responsible for your history? Which events and experiences can be traced to your decisions, and which can’t?

old snapshots
Photo by rogintakesphotos.

My reflections on all of this were prompted by Steven Johnson’s complaint about the board game Candy Land, in which outcomes are entirely due to chance:

“It says you are powerless, that your destiny is entirely determined by the luck of the draw, that the only chance you have of winning the game lies in following the rules, and accepting the cards as they come. Who wants to grow up in that kind of universe?”

Really, that’s the only universe we can grow up in. My friend Adam Brinklow commented on Facebook, “I assumed the real lesson [of Candy Land] was to cheat. Cheating being the only means of affecting the outcome.” I wish that cheating were more than a predictable reaction to stimuli… exactly like all other actions.

Sign up for my newsletter to stay abreast of my new writing and projects.

I am a member of the Amazon Associates program. If you click on an Amazon link from this site and subsequently buy something, I may receive a small commission (at no cost to you).