Southern Ohio anomie

I graduated from high school in Youngstown, Ohio; spent four years at Ohio U. in the southeastern part of the state (in Athens, OH); worked & then went to grad school in Cincinnati; and married a girl from Lancaster, Ohio…. so you can see that I’m somewhat familiar with that area. Still, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s been going on lately within the U.S., and – let’s be honest here – I’m also trying to understand (at least in some small way) how 63 million fellow American citizens could vote for someone like Trump. A summertime visit to Southern Ohio gave us a chance to catch up with some old friends and former neighbors, & offered a glimpse of that world….. although I first did a bit of reading prep.

Brian Alexander’s Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town begins with the author’s description of a cop & other local residents in my wife’s hometown, Lancaster, choking to hold back tears as they described “just how much the foundation of the town they once knew had crumbled.” Adult males “heavily tattooed and skinny, hoodies drawn up over their heads” accompanied by “girlfriends dressed in Hello Kitty pajama pants who pushed strollers” now haunted Main Street…. all linked to the twin scourges of job loss and drugs.

When I first started visiting that current “pajama pants capital of Ohio,” the town had a thriving dominant employer, the Anchor Hocking glass company – and what makes Alexander’s book so powerful is that he shows that it was not globalization, or China, or some foreign entity that caused the decline. Instead, it was a domestic threat: Wall Street. The firm that locals called ‘the Hockin’’ employed 17,000 people and had little debt in the early 1980s – until corporate ‘private equity’ raiders (led by Carl Icahn) loaded it up with debt, stripped away that wealth, put little into maintenance or R&D, and ultimately drove the company into bankruptcy.

Sam Quinones’ Dream Land: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic deals with the drug side of the equation. I’ll admit that the whole opioid problem was not even on my radar screen before the election – but Quinones documents how “OxyContin’s popularity was spreading west just as the trafficker… brought Xalisco black tar heroin east. They collided in central and southern Ohio [emphasis added].” His book, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction in 2015, shows how a group of entrepreneurs from one small town in Mexico (Xalisco) set up a delivery system in the U.S. that sold heroin like pizza…. and met up with a pharmaceutical-delivery system for opiates every bit as effective (but legal).

J.D. Vance’s best-selling book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis shows just how devastating such an opiate addiction can be…. especially when entwined with a culture that – although fiercely patriotic – also displays elements of despair & what psychologists call “learned helplessness” (i.e., when persons believe that the choices they make have no effect on the outcomes of their lives). Vance discusses the latter trait, but found its antithesis in the Marines – a “learned willfulness” that enabled him to break out of that mindset and achieve considerable personal success (including graduations from both Ohio State University and Yale Law School, before his authorship acclaim).

Such a result for one individual is certainly encouraging — but this collection of books also makes it clear that these issues are very, very deep-rooted within the community, the result of culture, personal decisions and economic activities undertaken over decades…. and they are not readily amenable to simple or easy fixes. Southern Ohio has been hit hard in recent years, and the on-going demise of its coal industry seems likely to portend continuing economic difficulties.

Our visit provided considerable evidence for the story told in these books – new ‘pain management centers,’ unfamiliar flashy storefronts offering ‘quick cash for car titles,’ and the like….. but our friends are doing fine, and there was also some new construction, & new stores and homes. Such books alone do not explain Trump; Mugambi Jouet’s Exceptional America and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism probably give a better overall picture. But lots of bumper stickers told the same story (I certainly didn’t see any Hillary ones!) — and more than 60% of Lancaster’s Fairfield County voters helped elect Donald Trump President.

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