Book review: Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild
In the last decade, but especially the last few years, we’ve seen an especially polarizing shift between the American political left and right, culminating in the election of a previously non-politically-involved narcissistic billionaire (or is he?) bully with an inferiority complex. But even before that menace was in the White House, the unrest and dissatisfaction from the far right was palpable, noticeably through the rise of the Tea Party movement.
I read this book, an absolutely riveting National Book Award Finalist from last year, as yet another attempt to understand the situation in my country. I’ve been reading a lot of that lately.
“Our polarization, and the increasing reality that we simply don’t know each other, makes it too easy to settle for dislike and contempt.” This was written before the 2016 election, and the situation obviously hasn’t improved.
Arlie Russell Hochschild is a sociologist affiliated with the University of California at Berkeley and a self-professed coastal liberal living in a liberal echo chamber. But she wants to understand what’s happened and why, and she knows that’s not going to be possible from her West Coast liberal bubble. She travels to Louisiana, a Republican-voting state with every reason to vote blue, considering how greatly its residents could benefit from various social programs.
As she puts it while shadowing two rival congressional candidates on their campaign trails: “I am again struck by what both candidates avoid saying – that the state ranks 49th out of 50 on an index of human development, that Louisiana is the second poorest state, that 44 percent of its budget comes from the federal government – the Great Paradox.”
She conducts focus groups of Tea Party supporters, interviews with conservatives and their spouses, families, and neighbors, plus the aforementioned campaign trailing. She emphasizes the idea of the “empathy wall” – what keeps us from fully understanding each other’s opinions and empathizing with others’ situations.
You might say I’d come to Louisiana with an interest in walls. Not visible, physicals walls such as those separating Catholics from Protestants in Belfast, Americans from Mexicans on the Texas border, or, once, residents of East and West Berlin. It was empathy walls that interested me. An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances. In a period of political tumult, we grasp for quick certainties. We shoehorn new information into ways we already think.
In Louisiana (and elsewhere) there’s been damage to the local flora and fauna thanks to various petrochemical and manufacturing plants regularly dumping toxic sludge into the waters: “I haven’t heard a bullfrog in this bayou for years,” one local comments. State officials actually issued advice to recreational fishermen “on how to prepare mercury-laced fish” . And yet they continue to support the side of government that creates this state of affairs, and to shun any government interference that smacks of charity, reserving special ire for those who do accept help:
For everything else it is, the government also functions as a curious status-marking machine. The less you depend on it, the higher your status.
Hochschild is interested in the “deep story”, which she explains is influencing a lot of these decisions. Accepting financial aid in whatever form from the government just doesn’t feel right, however much logical sense it makes for Louisianians, that’s what’s happening here:
A deep story is a ‘feels-as-if story’ – it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel.
To explain, she makes an analogy of citizens waiting in a long, long line, and at the end of the line is the American Dream. But as they’re waiting, they feel that others are cutting in line, and that the government is assisting those others:
You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they? Some are black. Through affirmative actions plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches, and they hold a certain secret place in people’s minds. Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers – where will it end? Your money is running through a liberal sympathy sieve you don’t control or agree with. These are opportunities you’d have loved to have had in your day-and either you should have had them when you were young or the young shouldn’t be getting them now. It’s not fair.
This also explains the suspicion some of right-wing America harbored against the Obamas. There’s a belief in certain sets that no black couple could be so well-educated at elite institutions, so successful, while still hailing from a mixed-race family or Chicago’s South Side. In fact, they’re suspicious about most things Democrat-supported, leading to the assignation of vague, sweeping labels or actions to the party without much concern for facts or statistics:
“[A pro-life interview subject] imagines there are ‘fifty million abortions a year, probably all Democrats.’ (She pauses for a moment of dark humor: ‘Maybe I should rethink that position.’)”
The left is guilty of painting many with a broad brush too, don’t get me wrong. But Hochschild focuses here on the opinions and perceptions from this corner of this country and its constituents.
Looking back at my previous research, I see that the scene had been set for Trump’s rise, like kindling before a match is lit. Three elements had come together. Since 1980, virtually all those I talked with felt on shaky economic ground, a fact that made them brace at the very idea of “redistribution”. They also felt culturally marginalized: their views about abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, race, guns, and the Confederate flag all were held up to ridicule in the national media as backward. And they felt part of a demographic decline; “there are fewer and fewer white Christians like us,” [says one]. They’d begun to feel like a besieged minority. And to these feelings they added the cultural tendency…to identify “up” the social ladder with the planter, the oil magnate, and to feel detached from those further down the ladder.
With her sociology background, Hochschild frames the situations so the lay reader clearly understands them. Her points hit home, they make sense. They clear up some of the ambiguity I’ve felt, but like with the other sources I’ve read while desperately trying to make heads or tails of what’s happening in my fractured country, not every question or theory is resolved.
That’s not her fault though, because this topic is sprawling and impossibly contradictory. Strangers is an excellent study in understanding much of the complex sociology at play beneath the politics.
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