The “Deep Story” of the White American South, or Strangers in Their Own Land (2016) by Arlie Russell Hochschild (Part II)

By Michaela Keck

After the gen­er­al intro­duc­tion to Hochschild’s trea­tise last week, let us now pur­sue a deep­er analy­sis. The “deep sto­ry” of the Tea Par­ty move­ment in red states is a sto­ry through which its advo­cates pur­sue an “emo­tion­al self-inter­est” (in addi­tion to an eco­nom­ic self-inter­est) as Hochschild empha­sizes. Iron­i­cal­ly, while her inter­vie­wees adamant­ly refuse to par­tic­i­pate in what they con­sid­er a cul­ture of vic­tim­iza­tion – mean­ing a cul­ture that seeks to rem­e­dy sys­temic inequal­i­ties – pop­ulist white male politi­cians, such as Don­ald Trump, nev­er­the­less pro­vide them exact­ly with those empow­er­ing moments of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics that they reject in women, minori­ties, or refugees. As Hochschild puts it in her con­clu­sion, although “vic­tims” would be “the last word my Louisiana Tea Par­ty friends would apply to them­selves,” they are “sac­ri­fi­cial lambs to the entire Amer­i­can indus­tri­al sys­tem.” Hochschild’s use of qua­si-reli­gious terms is telling. She ascribes to Trump’s ral­lies a reli­gious, cul­tic qual­i­ty which, through invo­ca­tions of “dom­i­nance, brava­do, clar­i­ty, nation­al pride, and per­son­al uplift,” trans­forms the crowd’s sense of shame and alien­ation into feel­ings of ela­tion and belong­ing. These con­clud­ing obser­va­tions of Strangers in Their Own Land show the deeply trou­bling aspects of the Tea Par­ty, most of all the manip­u­la­tion of the mass­es through the promise of uplift, uni­ty, and pow­er in a way that uncan­ni­ly resem­bles extrem­ist, fas­cist ideologies.

Still, I applaud Hochschild for reveal­ing the Amer­i­can (post)industrial sys­tem as one for which states like Louisiana pay a much high­er price in human and non­hu­man lives than blue states. Even more so, she per­sua­sive­ly shows that they are pock­ets of envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis and pover­ty with­in a first world coun­try with­out, how­ev­er, sim­pli­fy­ing the man­i­fold caus­es and com­plex rela­tions behind what sounds like a rather straight­for­ward “deep story.”

More specif­i­cal­ly, she shows – with­out con­de­scen­sion or con­tempt – their par­tial com­plic­i­ty “through their own votes for eas­i­er reg­u­la­tion and […] through their expo­sure to a social ter­rain of pol­i­tics, indus­try, tele­vi­sion chan­nels, and a pul­pit that invites them to do so.” Hochschild’s choice of mak­ing the envi­ron­ment “the key­hole issue” of her book is indeed a pow­er­ful means of high­light­ing people’s loss­es in regions, such as Louisiana: be it the loss of their favorite out­door haunts, clean air and water, or be it the loss of their homes, health, and loved ones due to envi­ron­men­tal haz­ards. Not only do their sto­ries res­onate strong­ly with our cur­rent envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis, but they also emphat­i­cal­ly human­ize the peo­ple involved.

There is, for instance, the sto­ry of Mike Schaff, whose old home is threat­ened to be sucked into the Bay­ou Corne Sink­hole. Con­sist­ing of methane gas and oil, the giant hole is the result of long­time drilling and frack­ing enter­pris­es into under­ground salt domes in the south­ern coastal regions. In this area, under­ground cav­erns are gen­er­al­ly used by var­i­ous com­pa­nies for the stor­age of chem­i­cals. The Bay­ou Corne Sink­hole dis­as­ter from 2012 effec­tive­ly destroyed the homes of the entire neigh­bor­hood, not to speak of the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of water, soil, and the bio­di­ver­si­ty in the entire region. Mike’s home is sim­i­lar­ly threat­ened by the waste dis­pos­al of frack­ing which has been import­ed from the – by now – blue state of Pennsylvania.

Then there is the sto­ry of Lee Sher­man whose work for Pitts­burgh Plate Glass exposed him to dan­ger­ous chem­i­cals until he got sick and was fired by the com­pa­ny. Part of his work for PPG was to dump chem­i­cals into Bay­ou d’Inde, which not only result­ed in the mass extinc­tion of fish but also caused ill­ness­es in many of his co-work­ers (all of whom have died ear­ly). Oth­er inter­vie­wees, who have not under­gone or wit­nessed such trag­ic expe­ri­ences of loss them­selves, are nev­er­the­less famil­iar with them through hearsay. In this con­text, the fun­da­men­tal­ist belief in ‘the rap­ture,’ or judg­ment day, strange­ly res­onates with these rad­i­cal social and envi­ron­men­tal trans­for­ma­tions. Yet, being the rig­or­ous soci­ol­o­gist she is, Hochschild at no time allows these sto­ries of indi­vid­ual loss and strug­gle to get the upper hand over pro­vid­ing the nec­es­sary con­texts of the “deep sto­ry.” Hence, while human­iz­ing Tea Par­ty vot­ers through their indi­vid­ual sto­ries, Hochschild at the same time rel­a­tivizes their impact. She also adds a “Fact-Check­ing” appen­dix that reveals the bias­es in the “deep sto­ry” she uncov­ers, show­ing that it is indeed based on felt expe­ri­ences rather than facts.

Although Hochschild con­duct­ed alto­geth­er 40 inter­views, her book only fea­tures six which she sin­gled out for their “clear­ly and rich­ly exem­pli­fied pat­terns of think­ing and feel­ing.” Appen­dix A reveals that she con­duct­ed inter­views with an equal num­ber of Democ­rats – the ‘oth­er camp’ – in the Lake Charles area. Hence, Hochschild’s repeat­ed com­ments that lib­er­als have their “deep sto­ry” as well should not be dis­missed as mere com­mon sense remarks.

Strangers in Their Own Land does not offer solu­tions for the exist­ing great divide between America’s left and right, at least not explic­it­ly. I con­sid­er her refusal to par­tic­i­pate in the char­ac­ter­is­tic judg­men­tal polemics between the two camps a ges­ture well worth remem­ber­ing in these times of a grow­ing inter­na­tion­al anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic pop­ulism. Oth­er­wise, one may indeed be next in line as anoth­er stranger in one’s own land.


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