Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016)
The New Press
I finished this book a few days ago, and while I’ve been delaying writing a review so that my many thoughts on the subject can have time to breathe, I’ve already noticed concrete examples of ways Hochschild’s exploration of right wing sociology has altered the way I interact with my world. For example, reading this Nicholas Kristof column, I found myself taking exception to his claim that “ In America, climate change costs families beach homes; in poor countries, parents lose their children.” My mind immediately leapt to Strangers in Their Own Land, which focuses on how self-identifying Tea Party members in Louisiana live with and engage with the idea of environmental destruction in their own backyards. I thought about how not one of the people profiled by Hochschild was worrying about a vacation home, and I thought about how many of them were worried—not about starving or the despicable temptation of marrying of their daughters as child brides—but about dying too young from preventable cancers and the disappearance of self-caught fish as a source of nourishment and income. Obviously, Kristoff is being toungue-in-cheek in this column, and he’s trying to make an important point about the disparity in the ways we in America experience climate change and the way those in developing countries do, but Hochschild has given me the tools to consider the possibility that when Kristof describes how we in America face climate change, he’s talking about a rather specifically demarcated blue state America.
(As an aside, I don’t at all mean to disparage Kristof whose columns I’ve been reading for years now and whose name has a lot of pull with me. This particular column prompted me to throw some money to the charity he recommends—Catholic Relief Serives—and I’d encourage anyone who’s able to to do the same. Giving is always important but it’s especially so under a Trump presidency, I think.)
But back to the book. Strangers in Their Own Land is a sociological study, written by a self-identifying liberal, of why members of the right, specifically Tea Party members, often seem to support politicians and policies that act against their best interests. As her focus, Hochschild examines specifically environmental conditions, policies, and attitudes toward and beliefs about the environment as communicated by the subjects of her study. The results are fascinating. It surprised me—though perhaps it shouldn’t have—how many Tea Partiers interviewed by Hochschild not only profess a great love of the outdoors and knowledge regarding the ways in which the environment is being destroyed but also are active in various environmental groups and related efforts to do something to clean up the effects of oil drilling and polluting plastics factories. Yet, these same people voted in the walking disaster that was Bobby Jindal, and most of them reveal that they plan on voting for Trump, though there’s less enthusiasm about this among them than one might suppose. Hochschild’s question, and my question, is why?
Something I struggle with when reviewing books like this is how much of the thesis to give away—should I operate under the norms for reviewing fiction and avoid spoilers, or is it okay to give it all away with the understanding that it’s the evidence supporting that thesis that makes people actually read the book in the first place? I’ll split the difference and share some Hochschild’s own words, from the first chapter, about her own findings: “At play are ‘feeling rules,’ left ones and right ones. The right seeks release from liberal notions of what they should feel—happy for the gay newlywed, sad at the plight of the Syrian refugee, unresentful about paying taxes. The left sees prejudice” (15). In other words, our engagement with politics is a lot more emotionally driven than we probably want to think it is, but we all (duh) experience and act on our emotions differently.
This suggests that the key to bridging the divide between the left and the right lies in increasing one’s efforts to understand the emotional positions of those on the other side, a process Hochschild refers to as crossing the “empathy wall.” There’s an implicit assumption that if one’s own emotional needs aren’t being met, it’s more difficult to empathize with others in meaningful practice-oriented ways (eg if I feel like you’re behaving dismissively toward my experiences, it’s going to be really difficult and not that appealing for me to express respect and enthusiasm for your own experience-based assertions). This makes intuitive sense to me, but if it doesn’t to you, then I urge you to pick up this book, give it a shot, deeply consider its evidence.
Hochschild’s writing is a pleasure to read, and much of the book is so compelling and engagingly written that I forgot to take notes (half the pages of my copy are covered in scribbled notes and crooked underlinings and the other half appear untouched because those are the pages I flicked through at a rapid, spellbound pace). So many of the stories she shares in this book are heartbreaking, maddening, frustrating in the extreme, but they are all worthy of knowing. She is careful to acknowledge and interrogate her own biases, and I enjoyed these sections of the book especially because, often, they were my biases, too. Many of the stories she heard left her feeling confused, sometimes a little bit scornful, and I often felt similarly, and her reminders that in such cases we must try harder to understand, not shut down, were helpful to me even as I snorted in despair at some of the Tea Partier’s most beguiling comments.
Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t ask readers to see the wisdom or logic in conservative beliefs; in fact, quite the contrary (there’s a thorough appendix providing refutations of many of the commonly held conservative beliefs about, for example, welfare recipients, tax breaks for the wealthy, and the roles of civil servants in America). Rather, this book asks readers to see the rich lives and the deeply felt emotions behind those conservative beliefs, to remember that these right wing strangers are just as fully human as strangers who are among the unemployed or refugees or otherwise deserving of our empathy and efforts to connect. In my experience, liberals (including myself on occasion) are quick to applaud liberals for putting emotional self-interest over economic self-interest, and what this book argues is that conservatives are doing much the same thing, albeit in different ways and with different outcomes, and understanding this could be a way toward understanding how to salvage our utterly gutted current political landscape (and, if we’re lucky, the actual environmental landscapes across the world as well). Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t have all the answers—it is not a road map to a Democratic victory in 2020. Still, it does have some very helpful and insightful suggestions we could all benefit from heeding to some extent at least. 5/5.