When I finished reading Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, I had mixed feelings. Could a UC Berkley sociology professor really shed her liberal leanings and give her study subjects a fair hearing? Curious at reader responses, I looked on Amazon and found some of the fiercest ratings I’ve ever seen. More about that later.
Hochschild picked Louisiana because it presented an extreme example of what she called the Great Paradox. Statistics show in overall health it ranked last and 49th in child well-being. The beliefs she encountered were strong religious, Tea Party, and anti-regulations of the very industries that were creating environmental pollution and serious illness. Like many areas of the US, holding up jobs and benefits as bait lures communities to accept the risk and hope for the best. During Bobby Jindal’s reign as governor, he spent billions bringing in gas and oil companies by massively cutting services to Louisianans.
The author’s stated intent was to spend enough time (five years of visits) primarily in red-state Louisiana to learn more about the people and their challenges and then to scale the “empathy wall.” She defined the wall as an obstacle that prevents a deep understanding with another person and makes us feel indifferent (at best) and often hostile to their beliefs.
Hochschild begins with environmental pollution as a “keyhole issue” to gain more understanding of the Great Paradox. A good example is the 2012 Bayou Corne Sinkhole that swallowed a bayou forest and polluted the drinking water of people who had lived there for generations. Texas Brine, disregarded regulations and began drilling underneath the bayou for concentrated salt deposits used in fracking. Even given the disaster, many of the people she met were anti-EPA. The author looks at the “social terrain” as well as the role of churches and mainstream media in shaping political beliefs. Churches and neighbors fill in where government help might be demanded in blue states.” Rugged individualism and self-reliance replace Nordic independence. And the word welfare bears no resemblance to the well-being term in the Nordic countries.
After several years of forming relationships with many of the locals, she uses the image of “the deep story.” She pictures people standing in line to realize the American Dream. They work hard for the promise of upward economic mobility and have to tolerate the “line jumpers” who move ahead of them. These include civil rights legislation, the women’s movement, Black and Latino Americans, ill-treated Native Americans, immigrants, refugees, LGBT people, and people who live off their tax dollars through governmental programs like Medicaid, and the environmental movement.
As Hochschild describes it, this resentment of the line jumpers has been simmering for years. “The 1960s and 1970s set off a series of social movements, which, to some degree, shuffled the order of those waiting in line and laid down a simmering fire of resentment which was to flame up years later as the Tea Party.” All these social movements left one group at the end of the line: the older, white male, especially if such a man worked in a field that didn’t particularly help the planet. He was, or was soon becoming, a minority too.
To Hochschild’s credit, these observations came to light through her efforts to listen sympathetically and try to understand people with whom she did not agree. She points out that their views about abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, race, guns, and the Confederate flag are held up to ridicule by Democrats and the media as backward. And that liberals were asking them to feel compassion for the “line jumpers” who were taking their jobs and the American Dream. Ultimately, Hochschild wrote that despite the complexity and height of the empathy wall, the people she met in Louisiana showed that the wall could come down and a possibility for practical cooperation.
A note about the Amazon reviews. The hardcover edition was published in 2016; the paperback includes the Trump election. Of the 1,256 global ratings, 70% were 5 stars. 7% were 3 stars, and 2% were 1 star.
Below are samples of the reviews I think are reflective of a larger issue—compassion or more like the Nordic theory of Love.
*Liberal lady, bad review – 57 people found this helpful
Hi. Educated liberal elite here, and just had to chime in to say this is one of the most condescending tour guides of the “other side” that I could possibly imagine. If you need a book like this to break the “empathy wall” and give you insight into why we have a twittering reality star representing us on the world stage, that’s your first clue as to how he got there.
*** Disappointing – 335 people found this helpful
I had high expectations for this book…Unfortunately, this one was disappointing. She says that she’s going to explain this “Great Paradox” to us, but really, all she does is tell us more about the lives of people who perpetuate it, and what really nice folks they are. That may be – in fact, I believe that it is – but I still don’t get it any more than I did before. Hochschild basically didn’t want to use her sociological skills to dig deeper into the back story of what she was reporting on because that would be disrespectful to those she now considers her friends.
***** The Selling of Resentment – 584 people found this helpful
Whenever policy is driven by resentment, the result is self-destructive. The people who elected Trump bear an ethical stain. Too many of them have allowed resentment to drive their policy. Everybody knew what Trump was. He made no attempt to hide his dark side; in fact, he flaunted it. And that is what people voted for. They voted for someone who was clearly inexperienced, emotionally immature, consistently dishonest, and with a mean streak deep as a chasm. And they voted for him not in spite of that but because of it.
And about that Big Idea for a Tedx talk. The two books I’ve outline for April left me with the start of a big idea. I keep thinking about the design of Medicare and the subsequent debates in Congress about cutting, expanding, or adding to it. Instead of corporate lobbyists, CEOs, insurance executives, and bought politicians – all with vested financial interests – at the table to design the program, we could try this.
I imagine in my deep story scenario a diverse group of seniors in various parts of the country coming together to share their ideas. They redesign Medicare based on their actual and future needs. It would surely include long-term care, hearing aids, comprehensive dental and vision benefits covered in a meaningful and affordable way. I think small groups of citizens meeting – like those sewing clubs in Iceland –could design a universal benefit package that would, like the Nordic countries, bring the US healthcare system into the 21st century.
Photo credits: The Paradox – Klidkeqfoo, Crack in the wall – nick-haupt, US Oil Spills – NOAA, Big Idea – absolutvision.