Wordcraft: Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

strangers in their own land, book, review

BK’s NOTE: With only two exceptions, I read all the books shortlisted as 2016 National Book Award Finalists prior to the November 16 ceremony, but I never posted my thoughts about them. I intend to do that with a series of posts in the coming days.

Listening to the replay of Tanya Free’s recent radio show reminded me that I should share my thoughts about Arlie Russell Hochschild’s National Book Award-Nominated work, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

(Ahem) I did commit to posting about each NBA shortlisted finalist entry …

During the latter part of Free’s show (around the 92:10 mark), one of her call-in comments came from Steve, a financially-distressed man “saved and washed in the blood of Jesus Christ.”

I couldn’t determine Steve’s skin color, but his words smacked of the White working-class Louisiana residents Hochschild wrote about in her book.

“I am amongst the working poor.”

“I had family members who voted for Trump.”

“I don’t have money to buy health insurance.”

“I will not lie. I will not take something that is not mine” was Steve’s response when a member of Tanya’s panel advised him to look at tax exemptions as a way to get financial relief.

“I don’t trust the government anymore. The government is out to get people who are trying.”

Steve said that he did not vote for Donald Trump.

But many people who think like Steve actively support the Tea Party and GOP, or disengage from politics out of a feeling that they’re Strangers in Their Own Land.

Hochschild, A UC-Berkeley sociologist, documented her visits to Lake Charles, Louisiana and surrounding areas over a five-year period as she observed the residents’ views about the economy, environment, faith, family, money, life, politics, recreation and their government. She often participated in the residents’ activities.

The state where only 11 percent of its residents voted for Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election — compared to 28% among Southern US states — Louisiana provided one of the most intriguing geographies for Hochschild’s study, which she calls the Great Paradox.

If Louisiana were a separate nation, its United Nations Human Development Index would likely label it as a developing country, and some would declare an urgent need for emergency economic development packages.

Louisiana receives among the most dismal scores in America for educational achievement, poverty, health and food insecurity.

In the face of these low quality of life measures in what’s supposed to be the greatest democracy on Earth, Louisiana’s White poor and working class shun the help of “Big Government” to help solve their problems. In fact, many of them believe that government is the enemy and should only exist in the most minute form, if at all.

And the state’s previous Governor, Bobby Jindal, complied with the people’s will. Hochschild notes that during Jindal’s eight-year gubernatorial leadership, he spent $1.6 billion in incentives to attract companies to Louisiana, including 10-year tax exemptions. The one-sided deals created a negative budget gap just as high as the incentive expenditures. Jindal also fired 30,000 state employees while doling out temporary layoffs to others. He cut higher education funding by 44%.

The painful outcome of these cuts are easily seen and felt among Louisianans, making them resent government even more.

This paradox becomes even more pronounced when you consider that Louisiana receives the most federal aid among all US states, save for one.

Ironically, the businesses that benefitted from Jindal’s incentives but haven’t helped the state demonstrably turn its bad fortunes around are viewed by Louisianans — relatively speaking — as heroes of this social tragedy.

It also appears these businesses can do no wrong in Louisiana, regardless of the transgression.

“I wasn’t aware of the extent of a problem until I looked out the window of the helicopter that took me to New Orleans after Katrina,” [US Army General Russel Honoré] says. “The landscape was littered for miles with debris. I remember commenting to the pilot ‘The storm must’ve caused that mess,’ and hearing back, ‘No, those are abandoned oil derricks from years back.’”

In excruciating detail that would make most non-Louisianans angry, Hochschild describes decades of toxic environmental dumping and industry-caused accidents that hurt the state’s seafood and tourism Industries, as well as destroy the lives of many citizens. A stretch of road along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is known as Cancer Alley, the home of about 150 production plants and suspected to be a key driver behind the high rate of cancer among men in the area.

But Louisianans save their ire for the government.

You have to admit their anger is justified when you consider how several of Louisiana’s high-profile disasters can be traced to lax government oversight, either driven by the desire to appease industry, or sheer neglect for public safety.

“It’s not in the company’s own interest you have a spill or an accident. They try hard,” one woman told me. “So if there’s [an oil spill], it’s probably the best the company could do.”

Hochschild tries to unpack the anger of the White poverty and working classes through two major approaches: [1] the deep story, or a literary device for capturing a story constructed only by emotions and sensory data; [2] the history of the South’s relationship to the federal government — consider the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement as examples — which effectively feeds the deep story.

For the deep story, Hochschild envisions the American Dream as a destination just over a steep hill with a slow and long line of people waiting for their turn to reach the hilltop. The line sometimes looks as if it’s moving backward.

You’ve suffered long hours, layoffs, and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions. You have shown moral character through trial by fire, and the American Dream of prosperity and security is a reward for all of this, showing who you have been and are — a badge of honor.

But it then appears that immigrants, people of color and even women are unfairly cutting the line.

I won’t describe the Deep story any further. Read the book.

Sure racism is deeply embedded within American society — but so has social and economic inequality which stokes more racial resentment among the White poor and working class.

Hochschild’s conclusion is straightforward: this working class cocktail of oil rig blowouts, chemical-related illnesses, declining wages, environmental disasters, poverty and perceived line-cutters became a fertile environment for the rise of President Donald Trump — or someone like him.

And if these conditions remain unaddressed, we could see a more dangerous President move into the White House someday …

song currently stuck in my head: “the sick rose” – david axelrod

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