Review- Hochschild, “Strangers in Their Own Land”

Arlie Russell Hochschild, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” (narrated by Suzanne Toren) (2016) – Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild would, presumably, object to me categorizing her book along with others in the “Cletus Safari” genre, where educated types go out into the hollers and trailer parks (but seldom the McMansions) to figure out what those dang flyover people are thinking, what they could possibly want. And in some respects, she’d be right to object- she did spend several years with Tea Partiers in Louisiana, after all, and clearly does her level best to write of them sensitively. She makes a game effort to “scale the empathy wall,” as she put it, between her Berkeley-bound blue state self and her informants, and claims to have befriended several. I tend to believe it.

Still and all… there’s no rule saying Cletus Safari can’t be undertaken in earnest. What makes it Cletus Safari isn’t exploitativeness (though that’s inevitable in any researcher-informant relationship, no matter how respectful) but the relationship between researcher and informant as envisioned by the researcher. Acting as though the people of Middle America are this riddle that needs deep (or shallow, as the case more generally is with journalistic safaris) application of the tools that urban sophistication can provide in order to get what’s going on with them- that’s the essence of Cletus Safari.

Leftists get “the white working class” or “middle America” or whatever plenty wrong plenty of the time when they try to explain it, too, but Cletus Safari is a peculiar product of deep-freeze liberal, or even liberal-conservative as with J.D. Vance or Charles Murray, mindset. There’s just something about it: the individual, armed only with their advanced degrees, research assistants, and gosh darn broad-mindedness, getting down to cases with the canaille — and y’know what? LEARNING something about THEMSELVES in the process! — that just screams “domestic Peace Corps,” or “domestic counterinsurgency” for that matter (it might be a matter of time before the genre gets folded into the latter…).

I’m getting away with myself, here. My point is that Hochschild doesn’t need to be stupid or a bad writer or sociologist — she is none of those things — to produce Cletus Safari. She just needs liberal brain, which she has in spades. At its core, liberalism is about short-circuiting power conflicts through appeal to some sort of underlying harmony of interests and channeling the energy of power conflict into other streams of “progress,” economic, technological, political, whatever flavor. One such short-circuiting and channelling produced the discourse of “big government versus small government” or “government versus market.” It’s a way of not asking the question even a baby radical would ask- “whose government?”

Hochschild takes the terms of the debate over “government” at face value as presented in contemporary American political media. The image of the liberal professor arrogantly lording their perspective over others is wrong, or at least is in this case- this particular liberal professor has been captured by her sources, at least to the extent where she uncritically accepts a “big government versus small government” framing as though it means anything in and of itself. This is the heart of “The Great Paradox,” as she calls it- the fact that the people most in need of “government” by virtue of the economic screwed-ness of their communities are the most likely to want to gut it, to vote for people who refuse to help them and often make matters worse. Why, oh why, do they do this to themselves, the liberals cry out to know?

Thomas Frank often gets lumped in here and it’s called the “What’s The Matter With Kansas” question, but people (Hochschild included) get Frank wrong- Frank made it abundantly clear to anyone who actually read the book that Kansas was largely the doing of the Democratic Party, which abandoned whatever pretense it once had of looking out for the working class and/or the little guy. If you’re going to get screwed either way, might as well vote for the guys who at least throw you the bone of cultural solidarity and make liberal elites amusingly angry. There’s limits of how long I’ll go to the mat for the honor of Tom Frank, but he deserves more credit than he gets for “What’s the Matter With Kansas” from people who should know better.

Anyway, this book. Hochschild wants to explain What’s the Matter with Louisiana, a state in need of more and better governance if ever there was one, considering it is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico in no small part because of its main export, oil. The people she talks to, white inhabitants of the area around Lake Charles (which is half black but she doesn’t talk to many of them), are prey to one ludicrous petrochemical-linked natural disaster after another, from the BP oil spill to a massive sinkhole that consumes many of their homes caused by irresponsible chemical storage practices. Some of them grant that maybe the government should do more to fix this or that given individual problem (though they rightly point out the state authorities in Louisiana are in the oil industry’s pocket). But in general, they eschew “big government” and hail the oil industry as a great friend of Louisiana.

So she talks to a range of Lake Charles Tea Partiers. A lot of the book is her collecting quotes and anecdotes. From them, Hochschild excavates their “deep story,” a narrative construct that structures all their other ideas. This “deep story” is basically the idea that there’s an orderly line for the American dream, and that Tea Partiers (that is, older white people) are being cut in line by minorities, and moreover, the minorities are being praised and the Tea Party base scorned for their respective actions. Hochschild proudly reports that all of her informants related to the deep story when Hochschild explained it to them.

If I were one of Hochschild’s informants, I would jump at this story, too, because it’s a lot nicer than the simpler explanation: spite. Their lives suck (most people’s lives suck), despite their privileges, and they want to take it out on someone, so they take it out on others. No government could be too big for the task- Hochschild doesn’t record any answers to questions about police violence, but her informants are certainly in favor of big government capable of regulating your uterus, of closing the borders violently, of waging permanent wars in the Middle East. Why wouldn’t they be willing to spite themselves in the bargain, if it’s people like Hochschild who get hurt worse (or more performatively) by things like environmental degradation? Among other things, they’re old. They’ll be gone soon. To paraphrase a Zionist slander of the Palestinians, these people hate liberals more than they love their children.

I don’t know, man. I’m not trying to condemn this book entirely, out of hand. I get that Hochschild put a lot of work in. I get that she couldn’t just go out there and come back with “these people are spiteful” as the answer. Among other reasons, spite isn’t the only thing they’ve got- they also share their sweet tea and pictures of grandchildren with her. But a more complex view of the person than contemporary liberal brain (as distinguished from liberalism at its best, which can do more with complexity) allows shows that spite and at least superficial kindness to strangers (who you know are observing and reporting), basic niceness, can coexist. How personally mean were the bulwarks of any broad-based repressive system? I don’t think spite fails to exist in “blue” areas, and an ethnography of, say, the burghers of Newton/Wellesley (or my own dear hometown of Foxborough) would show that much nicer- maybe a tad more rational in their spite. But between liberalism and some very basic cooptation by her subjects, Hochschild whiffed it on this one. **’

Review- Hochschild, “Strangers in Their Own Land”

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