Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
Reviewed by Pamela Haines
By Arlie Russell Hochschild. The New Press, 2016. 315 pages. $27.95/hardcover; $27.99/eBook.
One of the most troubling aspects of our current political climate is the ever-growing fear and loathing felt by liberals and conservatives for each other. As we retreat to enclaves of the angry like-minded, how can we find our way forward together? In such a poisonous atmosphere, this book is a breath of fresh air. In Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist from University of California, Berkeley, invites cosmopolitan liberals to try scaling the empathy wall.
For her investigation of why people on the political right would choose against their own self-interest, Hochschild chose to focus on Louisiana Tea Party communities in the heavily industrialized and polluted stretch of the lower Mississippi known as Cancer Alley. Over five years of in-depth visits, she surprised herself by making friends and finding her own way over the empathy wall. I almost didn’t make it, stopped by a harrowing early description of the death of a bayou and the unspeakable losses of those who lived there and watched it die. If I couldn’t turn the next page without mourning that loss, what must it be like for them?
It was maddening to learn about the extent of this greed-based violence visited on a land and its people, about resources being withdrawn from an already squeezed public sector, only to be offered as incentives to powerful international petrochemical corporations with complete disdain for the health and well-being of the local community—and to witness the community supporting the whole process. How could that be? I wanted to scream at them for swallowing so many lies. As Hochschild put it, I could see what they couldn’t see, but not what I couldn’t see.
Slowly the picture began to come into focus. I began to see the cultural values: clean and honorable living, self-reliance, hard work, heroic endurance, a distaste for victimization, the status that comes with independence from the government. From this perspective, cosmopolitan liberalism can look grasping, rootless, and without honor, drawn to victimization, standing up for the biological environment but embracing a cultural environment that is polluted, unclean, and harmful.
I began to see the role of the church in providing critical emotional support, as well as family, friendship, and cherished non-governmental services. Politics hadn’t helped, mused a man we get to know from the bayou, but the Bible surely had. While it’s unsettling to learn how many Americans believe in the Rapture, with so many older white men feeling so much despair, life may well feel like the end times.
The historical role of the North took on a new light. From the carpetbaggers of the 1860s to the Freedom Riders of the 1960s to Obamacare, global warming, gun control, and abortion rights, the moralizing North just kept coming, with their PC guns pointing. They badgered you for sympathy for victims, then made you feel bad if you didn’t grant it. You were sticking it out in a dying land, doing the hard emotional work of accommodating polluters, and now you were supposed to feel sorry for Syrian refugees. You worked hard at being a good Christian, and were labeled as uneducated. You identified “up,” showing that you were optimistic, hopeful, a trier, and were accused of bigotry. Why did liberal commentators feel so free to catcall? Is it surprising that Rush Limbaugh was welcomed as a firewall against liberal insults thrown at these people and their ancestors?
I began to see the bind they are in. Their economic and emotional self-interests do not align. Those who value a clean environment—and these are hunters, fishers, and outdoorsmen—can’t afford to grieve, with all the weight of industry and local government focused on jobs, forgetting, and moving forward. At the same time, they are enduring the worst of an industrial system, the fruits of which liberals enjoy from a distance in their highly regulated and cleaner blue states.
Hochschild identifies three ways people respond to this bind: the team players who are loyal to their group, even though it’s imperfect; the religiously inclined who know you have to give up things that you love for a higher good; and the cowboy types who would prefer to stand brave against danger than to be risk-averse. These are qualities that resonate. Just as they are loyal to a deeply flawed free market as a bulwark against predation from big government, I am similarly loyal to a deeply flawed federal government as a bulwark against free market predation.
The final scaling of the empathy wall comes with what Hochschild calls the deep story: Imagine waiting patiently in line for the American Dream, which lies just over the hill. It’s a long line that doesn’t seem to be moving anymore. Worse, others are cutting in.
Strangers step ahead of you in line, making you anxious, resentful, and afraid. A president allies with the line cutters, making you feel distrustful, betrayed. A person ahead of you in line insults you as an ignorant redneck, making you feel humiliated and mad. Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land.
At one point, Hochschild describes this feeling another way: You are a victim without a language of victimhood. It’s not surprising that you are attracted to the emotion-based appeal of Donald Trump, thrilled to be, in his presence, part of a powerful like-minded majority.
I am immeasurably grateful to Arlie Hochschild for inviting us on this journey. While not an explicitly religious book, Strangers in Their Own Land is a deep meditation on the challenges and rewards of seeking that of God where we least expect to find it. As such, I recommend this book to Quakers everywhere, especially those of us in the cosmopolitan North.