Vance conceded that Obama’s comments had been “well-intentioned” and that he had named “legitimate” problems. Nonetheless, he said, Obama’s comments had lacked “sympathy.” Reading “Hillbilly Elegy,” you see what Vance means. Vance is after a certain kind of sympathy: sympathy among equals that doesn’t demean or condescend. Such sympathy can’t be deterministic and categorical. In fact, it must be a little judgmental; it must see the people to whom it’s extended as dignified individuals who retain their moral obligations. For Vance, it’s “anger at Mom for the life she chooses”—recognition of her present-day freedom—that makes “sympathy for the childhood she didn’t” meaningful and humane. That’s because sympathy that fails to recognize culpability also fails to recognize potentiality. It becomes a form of giving up. If you’re a politician representing a troubled community from afar, as many élite politicians must be, then it’s easy to fall into this sympathy trap. At best, you can be a well-intentioned but nonjudgmental—and, therefore, condescending—outsider. Only an insider can speak about his community with honest anguish. “Hillbilly Elegy” is especially compelling because Vance writes with the sorrowful judgment of a betrayed yet loyal son.
Joshua Rothman, "The Lives of Poor White People" The New Yorker 12 Sep. 2016