The Trouble With “Strangers”

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U.S. sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild spent five years living among and interviewing hard-pressed whites in the poorest and most polluted part of Louisiana, itself one of the poorest and most polluted states in the Union. Her subjects—Donald Trump supporters all—find validation within their fundamentalist religion, Fox News, Tea Party affiliation, and their seething resentment against all of those—minorities, immigrants, feminists—who they are convinced have unfairly jumped ahead of them in “the line of the American dream.” Hochschild’s interview subjects reserved special scorn for the effete denizens of the blue states: the liberal New York Times readers and NPR listeners. Even more galling, these elite “cosmopolitans” were said to look down their noses at hard working, virtuous, God-fearing, patriotic whites in small towns, mocking their culture as ignorant.

The book that recounted her sojourn, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, was published in 2016. An unexpected bestseller, it received rapturous reviews and was listed as a finalist for the National Book Award. Prestigious publications heaped praise on Strangers and Hochschild’s commitment and skill as a social scientist.

I read the book with a mixture of rage and revulsion. I’ve continued to wrestle with what its contents suggest about my country, and struggled to find a response consistent with my Quaker values.

Strangers in Their Own Land also set off a spate of reactions and commentary that I have found troubling. Many reviewers have treated Hochschild’s subjects as some kind of exotic fauna in the forest, labeling them wholly innocent and good, deserving of urgent care and special feedings. They wrote copiously in guilty tropes about arrogant and insensitive liberals—among whose company they included themselves. How, they agonized, could they have overlooked and discounted for so long the concerns of the millions of the hard-up white fellow citizens who voted for the New York billionaire? They exhorted “us” to get out of our privileged bubbles and make special efforts to empathize with the plight of the Trumpists.

Remember the Tea Party? Placards at Tea Party rallies featured violent, race-tinged depictions of Barack Obama, including lynching.

Friends haven’t been immune to this tone. The Friends Journal review of Strangers in Their Own Land agreed that “cosmopolitan liberalism can look grasping, rootless, and without honor . . . [embracing] a cultural environment that is polluted, unclean, and harmful.” Reviewer Pamela Haines suggested that liberals unfairly benefit from the environmental destruction Hochschild’s interviewees suffer. She apparently commiserates with white Southerners who had to endure generations of “moralistic” and “elitist” Northerners—including those impertinent Freedom Riders—swooping down with, as Hochschild quotes a Louisianan, “their PC guns blazing.”

I don’t concede my freedom as a black American citizen to be anyone’s politically correct option; I’m just glad that in the 1950s and 1960s, blacks and “liberal” white allies drove a (nonviolent) stake through the heart of Jim Crow laws and segregation. I do not expend much sympathy for the Southern whites who believed in—and benefited from—an unjust system (or, as they might express it, “our way of life”) and lamented its demise. You can hear echoes of this sentiment in the ongoing debates about Confederate statues and other symbols of national treason.

“For the Tea Party around the country,” Hochschild writes, “the shifting moral qualifications for the American Dream had turned them into strangers in their own land, afraid, resentful, displaced, and dismissed by the very people who were, they felt, cutting in line.”

Remember the Tea Party? Placards at Tea Party rallies featured violent, race-tinged depictions of Barack Obama, including lynching. Tea Party-affiliated politicians hurled insults and circulated images of both Barack and Michelle Obama that are too vile to reproduce in this publication. Hochschild’s subjects may not have committed those specific acts, but neither did they repudiate them by ending their affiliation with the Tea Party.

Hochschild—seemingly to her own surprise—writes of the deep regard she developed for the interviewees. She finds them “caring,” “bright,” and “warm and intelligent.” She admires their stoicism and dedicates her book to them. And in the book’s epilogue, she urges East and West Coast liberals and the Trump/Tea Party-identified whites to reach out in understanding to each other—to “climb the empathy wall.”

Friends, I cannot scale that wall.

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As an African American (and a woman), I would have to agree to assume a subordinate position in American society, so they can move to the front of the “line” they believe it is their right to occupy. That I will never do.

As one of those “line crashers,” my reaching out, over, and to the Trump voters would only legitimize and reinforce their self-serving beliefs. It would imply that to assuage their feelings of anger and disenfranchisement, I, as an African American (and a woman), would have to agree to assume a subordinate position in American society, so they can move to the front of the “line” they believe it is their right to occupy. That I will never do.

I do not overlook or excuse the right-wing Republican legislators and their unquestioning embrace of the Trump agenda. But it was the Trump base—coupled with Republican voter suppression techniques targeting mainly minority populations—that enabled the presidential outcome.

Anyone who can or wants to may proceed to reach out to and plan listening sessions with the Trump base. Apart from the logistics, those healing conversations might be rather one-sided: I don’t see a population boom of contrite Trumpists on the horizon. As the New York Times reported in January 2018, Trump retains an 80 percent approval rating among those who voted for him.

However, for those who do venture into the wall-climbing experience, I offer a few words of advice:

  1. Dismiss, ignore, and disbelieve the self-serving canard that religious fundamentalists are somehow more moral than the rest of the population just because they believe in biblical inerrancy and can speak in tongues. As one raised in that branch of the Christian family tree, I am completely persuaded that its adherents possess no more moral virtue than those of any other sect.
  2. Dispense with labels on all sides. If you don’t want to identify groups of people as rednecks or hillbillies, why unthinkingly employ the moniker of “cosmopolitan liberal” to describe yourself? It’s a made-up term, a caricature whose only purpose is to invalidate. You are not obligated to repeat that term, and certainly not obligated to adopt it. Stop doing it.
  3. Stop apologizing for your values. If you think that tolerance, equality, and inclusion are non-negotiable values, be prepared to articulate and defend them with the same fervor as the conservatives refute them. Appeasement and false moral equivalency are not good baselines for honest mutual communication.

I don’t claim more wisdom than any other American in how to engage with those whose views I oppose—no, loathe—in these volatile times for our country. I don’t know what reconciliation would look like. Our exemplary co-religionist John Woolman abhorred the institution of slavery but traveled among the slaveholders in the American South, preaching that the practice subverted God’s will and was injurious to whites’ own humanity. Woolman did not merely “talk the talk”; he made substantial material sacrifices to carry out the acts that supported his beliefs. And he did change the hearts of a few slaveholders to release African Americans from bondage.

The unhappy fact, however, is that the iniquity of slavery endured for another hundred years, and ended by a bloody civil war. New laws enforced emancipation, equality, and economic opportunity (no matter how imperfectly they were and are applied). They have remained in place precisely because racial discrimination and hate crimes persist to this very day. Now, not only these hard-won laws but also basic democratic norms and institutions are under threat from extreme right-wing lawmakers and Trump appointees, facilitated by the “Strangers” who assured Trump’s election.

Scripture reminds us that to everything there is a season. In this season, my energy, focus, and future as a citizen and human being is served by working to repudiate everything these “Strangers” in their own land, and their candidate, stand for and that their vote has unleashed. As a Quaker, I look to the principle of continuing revelation for hope and for spiritual wisdom. May Way open.

Gerri Williams

Gerri Williams is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and has served on AFSC Nobel Peace Prize Task Group. The opinions expressed are her own*. Her article “Standing for Miss Rosa” appeared in the August 2006 issue of Friends Journal.   [*Disclaimer added by author's request. - FJ Eds.]

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