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Left Behind: The Trouble with Euphemism

When J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, was the toast of the media, journalists and editors repeatedly landed on “left behind” as the most apt description for the kinds of folks Vance grew up around. As a recent Netflix film, the Vance story returned with its message magnified. But as we focus on poverty in America, we must be careful with our metaphors. The euphemism “left behind” is ambiguous, especially if we actually aim to remedy the larger societal problem it intends to expose.1

“Left behind” most often evokes sorrow, in pointing to survivors after a loved one’s death. An early use of the term appears in the caption of a Harper’s Magazine illustration shortly after the Civil War showing a grieving widow and her baby beside a casket. In the Vance context, the left behind are those who have been excluded from society’s benefits, from opportunity, who have been ignored, marginalized, abandoned. In the political environment of 2016, when Hillbilly Elegy topped the bestseller lists, the familiar term was ostensibly meant to provide insight into those folks who were attracted to presidential candidate Donald Trump for promising the rebirth of American industry while flinging insults at the elites who lorded over the “swamp” in Washington.2

I have a personal investment in understanding all of this. Because my book White Trash and Vance’s were so often paired, I resisted reviewing Hillbilly Elegy until asked to do so, along with two other contemporaneous publications, in the New York Review of Books. The editors, of course, titled the piece “Left Behind.” As I thought further about the topic––class and regional inequality, death and despair among the rural poor––something didn’t quite sit right. At the end of 2016, Vance and I were once more paired, this time in Politico’s annual list of fifty “influential thinkers.” He’d taken on the critical question of the moment, “Does America need to be made ‘great again’?,” and ventriloquized his answer in the voice of Trump’s base: “No, but it needs to recognize that many of its citizens feel left behind.”3

I do not fault Vance for the easy recourse to this euphemism. He did not coin it. By “euphemism” I mean here a form of intellectual evasion, giving a seemingly positive gloss to the process of becoming poor, which sidesteps the active agents of class exploitation. In a strange and disturbing way, “left behind” functions like the old “vanishing Indian” trope, in which causes and struggles are muted or erased. Indians just disappeared. The poor just fell behind. It seems nonjudgmental, but polite evasion gives way to ahistorical explanations of fate, destiny, inevitable decline.4

Read entire article at Hedgehog Review