Feb 11, 2017

Hillbillies and Cultural Capital

Every time I open Amazon and Audible they recommend J.D. Vance's dumb book Hillbilly Elegy, and it reminds me to make a point I failed to mention in my previous post on it. This is about his story about attending a private function while he was attending Yale Law School, and his social anxiety at trying to navigate the weird norms of the upper class.

It's a great microcosm of the book's jarring contrast between fairly well-done memoir and idiotic political interpretation thereof. He relates going to some kind of Yale-sponsored dinner, and at one point having to hide in the bathroom to call his girlfriend and ask why there were four different kinds of forks, and just what in God's name he's supposed to do with each one. It's funny, charming, and relatable.

Yet later he includes this sort of thing as part of the list of hillbilly cultural deficiencies. If these poor white people would drop their brash and unsophisticated fork practices, they might be able to leap up into the middle class. And indeed, that was part of a process which worked out relatively well for him.

Yet it never occurs to Vance that the entire point of having Four Forks-style norms is to set up arbitrary social barricades in the service of upper-class self-dealing. There is nothing inherently dignified or superior about eating with more than one fork. It just happens to be the upper class way of doing things. Familiarity with the Four Forks signals that you are a member of the upper class, and therefore a reasonable candidate for jobs, grad school slots, and so on. That sort of thing is most of what people call "cultural capital." And in a hugely unequal society, there are only so many upper class slots to go around. Set up a Fork Instruction Institute in Kentucky someplace, and the elite would merely shift to a different obscure method of signaling the right background.

Of course, these sort of systems are not totally impervious to the lower class, as Vance's story demonstrates. But overall, America's class structure is quite rigid: College dropouts from the top income quintile are 2.5 times more likely to remain in the top quintile than college graduates from the bottom income quintile. Stories like Vance's are nothing more than a meritocratic veneer on top of a massively unfair system of entrenched privilege.

1 comment:

  1. You start with the outermost fork, knife, or spoon, and work your way inward. If you end up with the wrong fork, they set the table wrong.