Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild
This book isn’t exactly related to my personal research, though understanding the cultural and political landscape of America is always important in locating my own work. I actually decided to read this through a recommendation from my mom (Hi, Mom!) on GoodReads. She is a voracious reader and regular user on GoodReads, so I finally decided to join her. I logged in, followed her, then look through the books she had read and wanted to read. I suggested we read a book together, and picked this one out from her “want to read” list. Today I marked it as “read,” although I declined to write a review. My mom is much better about doing that than I am!
We both got the book from our local libraries, and checked in with each other’s progress along the way. The narrative of the book was perfectly woven somewhere between an academic ethnography and popular non-fiction. Hochschild takes the reader to rural Louisiana and explores the “keyhole issue”: the environment. Rather than take on an issue that is classed, where people of middle- to high-economic status clearly benefit and low-economic status do not, Hochschild chooses the environment as an issue that affects us all. Her driving question was to explore how people reconcile their vote in favor of the Tea Party and the environmental destruction from deregulated industries, such as Shell, Gasol, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and Citgo, among many others.
Hochschild writes about the “empathy wall” that stands between the right and the left. I appreciated her honest and aware internal dialogue as she questioned responses from locals that felt illogical to her. She interrogated their politics, cultural beliefs, religion, gender identities, the role of work, belief about what it means to be American, viewpoints on immigration, and each other. She uses the analogy of “standing in line” to describe what it feels like to be marching forward toward “progress” and the American Dream, which is just over the top of hill. We were all “in line”, with white men at the front, but the civil war, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, immigration and refugees, has been the government helping other people “cut” in line. Along with the sense of cutting comes the injustice and feeling of having been in line and followed the cultural norms of working hard and patiently waiting for rewards due. The (undeserving) cutters are not working hard and asking the government to push them ahead. This sentiment is the source of distrust and resentment toward government involvement.
Along with this is the cultural erosion of society as it was when “the line” was in tact (i.e. pre-Civil War? I’m not sure when the locals in this book would go back to.). I didn’t take any notes on this book, but I wanted to quote one long passage from near the end of the book that resonated with me:
But without a national vision based on the common good, none of us could leave a natural heritage to our children, or, as the General said, be ‘free.’ A free market didn’t make us a free people, I thought. But I had slipped way over to my side of the empathy wall again.
Mike agreed with a smidgen of this – a skeleton crew at the EPA, maybe. But the EPA was grabbing authority and tax money to take on a fictive mission, he felt – lessening the impact of global warming. This was just another excuse to expand, like governments do…..
In fact, after the 2009 government bailout of failing banks, companies, and home owners, the federal government seemed to side with yet more line cutters. Now debtors, too, were cutting ahead of people and the federal government was inviting them to do so. This was a strange new expression of social conflict, undeclared, appearing on a new stage, with various groups undefined by class per se – blacks, immigrants, refugees – mixed in. And by proxy, the federal government was the enemy.
And on the personal side, there was one more thing – the federal government wasn’t on the side of men being manly. Liberals were certainly on the wrong side of that one. It wasn’t easy being a man. It was an era of numerous subtle challenges to masculinity, it seemed. These days a woman didn’t need a man for financial support, for procreation, even for the status of being married. And now with talk of transgender people, what, really, was a man? It was unsettling, wrong. At the core, to be a man you had to be willing to lose your life in battle, willing to use your strength to protect the weak. Who today was remembering all that? Marriage was truly between a man and a woman, Mike felt. Clarity about one’s identity was a good thing, and the military had offered that clarity, he felt, even as it offered gifted men of modest backgrounds a pathway to honor. Meanwhile, the nearly all-male areas of life – the police, the fire department, parts of the U.S. military, and the oil rigs – need defending against this cultural erosion of manhood. The federal government, the EPA, stood up for the biological environment, but it was allowing – and it seemed at times it was causing – a cultural erosion. What seemed to my Tea Party friends to be dangerously polluted, unclean, and harmful was American culture. And against that pollution, the Tea Party stood firm. (p.202-203)
This book gave me a lot to think about in this political and cultural moment, and I’ll leave it at that.