strangers in their own land

Book Review: Strangers in their Own Land

First of all: whoops. I look back and see my last post was almost two full months ago. How the time flies! I have done other writing...a bit of unshared poetry, and a personal essay that'll be published next week I'm immensely excited about as it'll mark my first ever successful pitch the first time I've been paid for my writing. PAID! I also came in third in a local poetry contest in November, so though nothing to brag about, the past three months have easily been my peak thus far as a writer. On to what I wanted to discuss today: Strangers in their Own Land  by Arlie Russell Hochschild. This gripping journey follows Hoschschild as she tries to "climb the empathy wall" from her left-leaning UC Berkeley wall over to southern Louisiana residents who embrace the Tea Party.


Most impressive to me about Hochschild's book was her commitment to understanding the right and her ability to form a coherent narrative other than "they're bigots because they just are," which was my default and seems to be the default of many on the left. We're at a crisis point in terms of people on opposing sides finding understanding with each other, but it's important for our society that we do find common ground. It seems lately everything has become partisan, and it shouldn't be that way. We're allowed to agree on things!

Hochschild's ultimate offering is the presentation of the right's "deep story," aka, the narrative that shapes their value system. She argues that the Tea Partiers (at least in the area she visited) place self-sufficiency above all other values, believing that if they put in the work, their turn will come. One-percenters aren't the enemy; they're just people who worked hard and are enjoying their turn. And what really grinds their gears is to see women and people of color "cutting the line" through pesky federal initiatives like federal rights. I'm not doing a good job of making it sound empathetic because I'm not that empathetic, but I understand it. I was interested to note that Charles M. Blow had an op-ed in the New York Times today that echoes this, through the words of Lyndon B. Johnson:

As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in the 1960s to a young Bill Moyers: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

And, well, that's it. Their state has been torn asunder by greedy corporations and politicians. They are victims and don't even seem to know it. And it's because of this undying narrative rooted in the pre-Civil War south that as long as the white man had it better than anyone else, they'd be content, even if their environment is being destroyed. Fox News has probably done more to perpetuate this narrative in the modern day than anything else.

But they believe this deep story.

Meanwhile Hochschild argues that on the left, we value providing public goods. We feel pride in our public libraries and government services.

And both sides are trying to address the same problem: the runaway wealth of the wealthiest citizens of our country. Isn't that something? Very different methods, but I agree with Hoschschild this is what it boils down to: a singular feeling that the American dream isn't obtainable in a way it was in the past. We all see it becoming harder to get ahead. We all want comfortable lives.

I highly recommend the read.