Merle Haggard's best song is arguably "Hungry Eyes."
It is, at the least, his best lyric, about a childhood of deprivation and the toll that took on the singer's mother. It starts in "a canvas-covered cabin in a crowded labor camp," and in a few sentences resolves to the heartbreaking failure of hope, as his parents' prayers fail to bring about "a change of any size; just a little loss of courage, as their age began to show." And "more sadness" in his "mama's hungry eyes."
It is not precisely autobiographical, for young Haggard lived in a converted box car, not a tent, but like all genuine poetry, it is a true song. We don't perceive that it is performed in character, and Haggard probably meant it to be taken as his lived experience. He came up poor and got to where he got, but underneath the scar tissue is a wound inflicted by "another class of people" who kept his people "somewhere just below."
He could have written and sung "a better class of people" and meant it ironically, or a "meaner class of people" to express a balder bitterness, but "another" has a more nuanced connotation. It's almost a dismissal, like this other tribe can't help it; it's just their nature to deny the singer's ilk any kind of social standing. They don't consider those who are consigned to labor camps, they don't see them at all.
In a way, the singer's use of "another" suggests his inability to understand them, and a reclamation of dignity. They aren't better than him, and they aren't actively evil. Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.
Obviously the singer isn't the kid in the song any more--he's no longer "too young to understand." And he is no longer, as they say, without agency. He has talent and luck and he works hard. He makes it. But his parents worked just as hard, probably harder, and didn't.
When J.D. Vance's book ""Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis" came out in 2016, it appeared the author, like Merle Haggard, had overachieved by overcoming his grim Kentucky and Ohio upbringing to graduate from Yale Law School.
It's possible to view some of Vance's ideas skeptically; he's enamored of Charles Murray, an entrepreneurial pseudo-scientist who provides cover for racist policies by arguing disadvantaged groups are disadvantaged because, on average, they aren't as smart, sane or morally sound as white men.
Murray believes--or professes to believe--that wealth and social power naturally accrue to a "cognitive elite" made up primarily of white males from well-to-do families. It's not systemic racism and structural disadvantages that cause the obvious inequality between the moneyed class in this country, it's that some white folks are just better. Murray's view is that the reason you haven't done better with is your life is because you're somehow inferior to those who have. It's not your fault; you just don't have the right genetic stuff.
To put it the way it's been argued in bars by frat boys, if you knocked everyone down to zero tomorrow, by the end of next week the same people would be back in charge.
I don't believe that. I've fired Harvard business school graduates for incompetence, and can see how racism and cronyism and nepotism and lookism and ageism and all those petty fevers shape society. People can be unfair. It happens.
The thing about "Hillbilly Elegy"--the book, not the Netflix movie (which is problematic for other reasons)--is that it's about poor white people, the kind another class of people put "somewhere just below," as Haggard sings, whether or not they actually call them "white trash."
Vance was born into a family like that. And like Merle Haggard, he managed to escape a cycle of dysfunction and poverty, because he had talent and luck and worked hard.
But not everybody gets to be a J.D. Vance or a Merle Haggard. And it's not because they didn't try.
"There but for the grace of God go I," we used to say.
While Haggard looks back on his people with humble, tender affection in "Hungry Eyes," Vance mixes in a lot of contempt. This is understandable. If you're working as a minimum-wage grocery clerk to try to afford to go to school, you're going to resent the drug dealer on welfare who buys steaks you can't afford. It's difficult to have patience with junkies who prioritize instant gratification.
When you see people voting against their own self-interest because they've bought some flattering myth peddled by some cynical politician or broadcast pundit, it's easy to roll your eyes and say we get the sort of government we deserve.
When "Hillbilly Elegy" came out, it got a lot of attention. Plenty of people praised parts of the book, and plenty pointed out the problems with it, one of which is that some of us get second, third and even fourth and fifth chances, while others get no chance at all. Talent is hardly scarce, though it is meaningless if unexpressed, and tragic if expressed without discipline. None of us are entirely responsible for how we end up, or entirely worthy of the love we inspire.
Merle Haggard had the right idea, that just because things are the way they are doesn't mean that they are the way they're supposed to be. Maybe the first step we ought to take is to actively start to see other people as our own kind, each with unique properties and problems, yet possessed of a common humanity. We need to stop being mysterious to one another.
We need to stop being another class of people.
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