Strangers in their Own Land ~ by Arlie Russell Hochschild

I’ve had this book sitting around for a few months and now that maybe I’ll give it a try although I’ve read other material quite similar –  White Trash by Nancy Isenberg  and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance,   both good books – this one  is not quite the same but it’s worthwhile.

Why do people who are directly harmed by government policies on issues like climate change,  water and air pollution, and industrial waste while helped by programs such as food stamps and medicaid,  regularly vote Republican and generally against their own best interests.  Meanwhile they’re opposed to affirmative action and almost all government regulations.

Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
by Arlie Russell Hochschild
2016 / 368 pages
read by Suzanne Toren 11h 17m
rating – 8.5  /  contemp sociology-politics 

I’m disappointed I suppose but …  with the premise that a Berkeley sociologist is going to study and explain – to the point of “deep stories” and “empathy” –  the personal politics of people from southern Louisiana well –    In my opinion,  this is not an unbiased study and Hochschild goes to lengths in the narrative as well as in the appendices,  to show how the subjects of her study are misinformed, wrong and possibly not too bright in that they don’t put things together the way she does.

Hochschild says she “likes” her subjects,  they just disagree on politics.  She’s says she’s trying to understand from a point of empathy and from “deep stories.”   But I think her own “deep story” shows, too.

She does do quite well with her research and getting the general gist of what her subjects believe,  but she never does get to empathy which is to actually “share” the feelings of another person.

The book purports to be an attempt at “empathy,”  but instead of showing how and why the overwhelmingly Republican and  tea-party people believe as they do,  Hochschild seems bent on showing how they’re backward.   The attitude is seen in the assumptions –  for instance that to use the Bible as your ultimate value is less than intelligent.   Or using a quote from then-president Barack Obama as validation of a fact about the environment.

Hochschild presents the ideas of the people she’s curious about – ie oil brings jobs – and then demolishes those ideas with what she says are facts.   They are facts,  but she neglects to mention that 15% of all jobs in Louisiana is quite a lot more than any other industry.   And anything that affects those numbers is going to be seen as a threat whether it’s regulations or taxes.   And if it’s your job – your personal job is threatened.

Not all bad –  I finished –  and there are places the author seems to “get it.”   The metaphor about the “long line” where the people, mostly middle age white men,  are standing patiently waiting the American Dream and seeing the government helps people behind you (blacks and immigrants and women and even animals/environment).  And they get ahead of you or at least stand in your way.   And in the minds of these people,   it’s not fair.

“You are patiently standing in a long line” for something you call the American dream. You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years. You are male. There are people of color behind you, and “in principle you wish them well.” But you’ve waited long, worked hard, “and the line is barely moving.”

Then “Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you!” Who are these interlopers? “Some are black,” others “immigrants, refugees.” They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — “checks for the listless and idle.”  The government wants you to feel sorry for them.

 Sometimesi the problem is definition –  like the definition of racist.   For the folks in Louisiana racist means you still say “nigger.”    If you don’t say that word,  you’re not a racist.  Hocbschild’s  definition has to do with place in the socio-economic scale and maintaining a certain distance from the blacks who are on the lowest rung.

Many people in the US do feel like “strangers in their own land” and probably have since prayer was banned in schools.  They feel like they and their needs have been cast aside by Washington.  They feel their main need is good jobs and that when the provision of that goes against the environment the jobs should win.   There are various belief systems going on in this part of  the country but Hochschild only reports them from the point of view of a secular liberal protecting the environment  –  basically discounting their ideas with her own arguments or showing other ideas which are very general.

  Hochschild can’t quite shed herself of her academic Berkeley background – the ideas show up.   Guns,  drinking laws, abortion, race –  the issues  all come into play and much of what these Louisiana people think and believe goes against Hochschild’s very solidly held ideas.  It all looks like a paradox to her and she’s not up to figuring out their basic assumptions so she can’t help herself – there’s no other way for her to talk about some of this stuff .

The narrator,  Suzanne Toren, seems to have picked up on the biased undertone and emphasized it.

It’s possible to see through the authorial skewing though.  Follow the money.  Money for the big businesses – (oil) and money for the jobs.   How many jobs in oil is only half the question –  the oil money comes from outside the community in the form of jobs.  That money goes from the worker to the landlord and the grocery store and the restaurant and other local entrepreneurs who add more jobs. But it also goes outside the community to corporate headquarters and shareholders and suppliers.  It’s connected.

Finally she gets to trickier issues –  resent the environmental problems or resent the federal government for fixing them.


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