AVIATION, SOCIAL MOBILITY AND THEAMERICAN DREAM
Where most of my flights are of a few hours’ duration, passages under sail are measured in days and weeks. Three hours on watch, three hours off, ad infinitum — punctuated by meals, occasional tweaks to sail trim, rare encounters with other vessels and the welcome scream of the trolling reel when dinner takes the lure. During night watches in particular there’s a lot of time to read, and to think. On a recent five-day passage from South Carolina to the Bahamas’ Abaco Cays, I devoured the book Hill billy Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. It was one of those reads that I couldn’t stop thinking about, long after I finished it.
Hillbilly Elegy is about the blight of the Rust Belt and Appalachia in the wake of the Great Recession, and the distinctive characteristics of local Scots-Irish culture that make solutions so elusive. A great deal of ink has been spilled by outside observers of this group in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, in which disaffected Rust Belters played a decisive role, but as a native, Vance’s sympathetic insights are particularly incisive. Growing up dirt poor in a broken, drug-addled, sometimes violent “hillbilly” family, Vance’s childhood was traumatic by most standards, but it was sadly typical of his community. Luckily, he had a few positive influences in his life that saved him from the fate of many of his peers, and after a stint in the Marine Corps straightened him out, he graduated from Ohio State University and then Yale Law School, eventually becoming a successful lawyer and venture capitalist.
Something about Vance’s story resonated with me. Our upbringings weren’t exactly alike; I grew up below the poverty line but never realized it, and never worried about my next meal or the roof over my head. I had the inestimable advantage of a loving, intact nuclear family that valued and invested in education. My hometown suffered few of the economic or societal woes that afflicted Vance’s community. But the basic story is one that I, like millions of Americans, strongly identify with: rising above humble origins through hard work, education and familial support and, with a little luck, joining the middle class and building the comfortable life your parents never knew. This social mobility has always been one of America’s defining characteristics, to the point that we call it “the American dream.” In the prosperous postwar era it became the “American birthright,” and for a long time one of our core cultural assumptions was that any American with a decent work ethic could achieve it.
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