Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
NOTE: One of these days I’ll write a short review; this is not that day. This review is unlike most of my others where I try to go point-by-point through the author’s arguments, highlighting them with quotes from the book. In this book I give a broad overview of her narrative I then respond with my own opinions. So, much, if not all, of the opinions here are mine and not necessarily the author’s.
Since last Fall (2016) I’ve been reading in an attempt to understand the rise and the gripes of the far right wing (e.g. The Tea Party). This book directly addresses the issue through the “keyhole” topic of pollution in Louisiana. Arlie Hochschild went down to Louisiana for an extended stay getting to know the people in order to understand their political and social views.
The book opens with a harrowing tale of the damage done to a bayou from dumping toxic chemicals in the waterways. An old cypress tree forest is just gone. It’s no longer safe to eat fish from the water or go swimming in it – or even drink it. But when warning signs went up conservatives in the area were angry at the intrusion of the government into what in their minds should be a private matter.
Fracking breached a salt cavern causing an enormous sinkhole that swallowed everything within hundreds of yards ruining property and homes. Once again, many conservatives objected to any government interference or actions against the company.
Instead, governor Bobby Jindal doubled down on this laissez-faire attitude by cutting the state’s budgets for education and social services and gave that money to entice more chemical companies to the state in the hopes of creating more jobs. However, there aren’t many low skill / high way jobs from these new sites. Foreign workers were brought in to build the plant, and with increasing automation there is not a much need for manual laborers. Moreover, many high skilled professionals such as engineers aren’t interested in going to live in Louisiana because the infrastructure is all but gone and the natural areas are polluted beyond use. In her awesome Appendix C, the author shows that states with stronger environmental law enforcement and better infrastructure actually experience better employment growth.
Hochschild breaks the conservatives into three large, overlapping groups. Loyalists who don’t want to turn against the industries that give them jobs; cowboys who just tough it out and figure they can handle anything thrown at them; and, the religious who look to God rather than government for answers. God provides the ability to abide the hard times.
Hochschild reports that some of that distrust of government comes from the south’s experiences in the 1860s and 1960s. In the Civil War and Reconstruction the federal government descended on the south and took control of everything in an attempt to bring rights to the newly freed slaves. It is interesting to note that 151 years have passed since the end of the Civil War – much more time than elapsed between the founding of the country and the start of that war.
Then in the 1960s the federal government once again impinged on states’ rights by passing the Civil Rights Act. This was later compounded by expanded rights for women, and eventually the LGBTQ community. The decline of church attendance in the country exacerbates the problem – making many conservatives uncomfortable in today’s world. The Southern conservatives the author spoke with don’t want to be told who to like. They want to like their own kind – straight white folk (though Hochschild doesn’t say it as plainly as that). They only want to help their Christian friends. This, in my opinion, is flawed theology. The very heart of the New Testament calls for a new covenant. All three of the synoptic gospels quote Jesus as saying there are only two commandments. First, love God; and the “second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”. And who is your neighbor? The parable of the Good Samaritan makes it plain that our neighbors are everyone.
Hochschild developed a “deep story” metaphor of waiting in line for the American Dream. Poor, uneducated, white southerners have been standing in line waiting for their turn. Now government and society are giving other people cuts ahead of them in line. The blacks were given better places; then women; then foreigners and gay people.
That metaphor may give them reason to complain and feel like victims (though they chafe at that term) but it is fundamentally flawed. We can think of it as a line; but that line is horizontal, not vertical. I think of it like the Oklahoma land rush where people lined up horizontally at the territory border and took off at the canon shot to find their slice of the American dream. The poor, uneducated, conservative southern whites are feeling displaced not because others have received cuts in the vertical line, but because those people have been given equal place in the horizontal line. If everyone is equal, the whites lose the benefits of place. And really, those other groups aren’t given an equal place in the horizontal starting line; rather, they are just moved up a bit but really are still behind whites in many ways.
Finally, the “facts” that are quoted by the people in the book are often wildly wrong. Appendix C goes through many of these so-called facts and disputes them with the real facts and figures.
Certainly the poor, white, conservatives are under attack in today’s world. They are being pinched by the three forces Thomas Friedman writes about in “Thank You For Being Late”: Globalization, Climate Change, and Technology. These forces are causing fundamental changes in our society and if you don’t keep up, you’ll be left behind. The salad days of the 60s and 70s are gone; the low-skill / high-wage jobs of the past (auto workers for example) are disappearing; replaced by technology (robots) and overseas workers. No amount of complaining, wall building, tariffs, treaty-leaving, and isolation will work. The plight of the poor, unskilled, uneducated – whatever their politics or color – is only going to get worse. I don’t see that the Tea Party’s efforts to go back in time is going to fix that. It’s up to our politicians and leaders to change that narrative. Unfortunately, the Democrats have been too focused on identity politics to really touch the hearts of the poor, uneducated white people.
This tremendous book concisely and (I think) accurately reporting the root causes of the conservative movement today. If you want to understand how Donald Trump became president, this is an excellent place to start. But just because the reporting is accurate doesn’t mean the right-wing viewpoint is accurate. Their facts are often wrong (see Appendix C) and I argue their theology is wrong. And because the basis is wrong, their solutions of isolation and retrenchment are fundamentally flawed. They have the right to be wrong; I just wish they weren’t so powerful. But that power means they must be addressed.
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