Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land (2016)
This is part 3 in an ongoing series exploring books that address the current political, social, and economic situation in the US. Part 1: The Unwinding Part 2: Dark Money
When sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild set out to explore what she calls the Great Paradox — why the very states which benefit most from government assistance, and which are the most vulnerable to environmental destruction, are the most resolute in opposing governmental and regulatory intervention — she knew she needed to get out of her liberal Berkeley enclave. Some serendipitous connections led her to Louisiana, an oil-dominated state with an abysmal environmental record, as well as being a bastion of the Tea Party that yet draws a substantial percentage of its funding from the federal government.
Hochschild wanted to get to know a group of people well, to speak to them where they lived and hear how they felt about their land and water and air, while focusing on the “keyhole issue” of how much, if at all, government should regulate industrial polluters. Her research occupied five years and generated over four thousand pages of interviews, which her book distills into a few selected stories and profiles. After we get to know some of her subjects, she creates profiles of types of right-wing thinking (the Team Player, the Worshipper, and the Cowboy), and an overall “deep story” that feels true to the people she has been studying.
For anyone who also questions how on earth our country has gotten into such an impossible and unhealthy situation, Hochschild’s approach is enlightening. She brought both empathy and objectivity into her research, seeking first to simply observe and describe, rather than immediately argue with or contradict the people whose logic ran counter to her own. Her genuine interest drew forth their trust, and allowed her to get behind the usual liberal stereotypes of conservatives to a more nuanced, compassionate view.
This helped me to see how blaming one political party is not a full or helpful explanation of the situation. I learned about the role that “blue” states have played in pushing environmental polluters into states with looser regulations, thus displacing rather than truly solving the problem, and about the betrayal and frustration felt by people who experience the government as addressing everyone else’s woes rather than theirs. Coupled with the wish to ally themselves with the rich “plantation owners” who still rule the South, rather than with the descendants of poor slaves and sharecroppers, this has caused them to identify the government rather than industry as their oppressors. (I believe the clever manipulation of conservative ideas by the fossil fuel industry and libertarian extremists, as detailed in Dark Money, has also been a strong factor — though Hochschild does not take up this theme.)
Hochschild ended by feeling great admiration for those she met, and believing that when we meet each other in human terms, the wall between liberal and conservative can start to come down. As a reader, it was hard for me to fully enter into this view; perhaps because I did not have the opportunity to meet her subjects in person, I remained baffled and frustrated by the illogical, backward thinking so often on display. I found their impulse to throw out all government childish and egotistical, their faith in a self-regulating free market naive and self-deluding, and their un-Christian, pseudo-religious belief system sadly deficient.
Still, I also have to admit that the system has not served them well, and that as a nation we have never addressed the terrible legacy of cruelty and exploitation upon which our much-vaunted “American Dream” was actually founded. Though the Tea Party response is not notable for logic or common sense, at least it’s forcing us to confront some of the issues that have long been tearing us apart from within. The question is how to address them, when a purely intellectual approach is clearly ineffective and even counterproductive.
Logic and intellect, it’s becoming increasingly clear, have very little to do with American politics. It’s the feelings that matter, and we need to learn how to work within that realm, to find common ground there rather than in our wildly divergent perceptions and ideas, and so work our way toward a world where we can perhaps exist together. If we can get to the level where we are all simply human beings, and not slaves of one ideology or another, we might have a chance of starting a dialogue rather than a war. For as Hochschild points out, “many on the left feel like strangers in their own land too.”
When will we learn to meet each other, to welcome the stranger into our hearts, and make our place of exile into a home for all people? Such a goal may seem impossibly far away, yet each of us can make a start. We don’t have to go to a faraway state, but can begin in our own neighborhoods, our own homes, even within our own selves.
For I have to admit that in me, too, there is a stubborn separatist who doesn’t want to hear reason. Rather than battering her with logical arguments, I can admire her tenacity, her fierce drive for independence, even as I wince at the ways in which this one-sided impulse is hurting her, her neighbors, and the planet. I can try to make her feel safe, to enable her to tell her story, and to model the compassion that she so sorely needs to learn. Maybe from this point of departure, I will find the strength to listen to others’ stories as well.
Another recent review of this book can be found at The Book Stop