Weekend Reads: “Strangers In Their Own Land”

This book was recommended by Ed Erickson, PhD, my co-author on the long out-of-print Born of War … Dedicated to Peace (my first book was a non-fiction military history work about Sixth U.S. Army).  It was far from being an easy read, but it was an enlightening one. I wound up including in the reference list for Bayou Fire as it dealt with some of the issues discussed in the text.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American RightStrangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

UC Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild decided that she wanted to find answers to a question that many progressives/liberals ask: why do conservatives vote against their own best interests? Hochschild refers to this as the Great Paradox.

She decided to pick one keyhole issue: the environment. Then, she looked at one of the most polluted areas in the United States, which also happened to be (by most measures) the most conservative: Louisiana’s Cajun country. So, she visited the region 10 times over five years to interview residents. A couple were progressives, but they had Tea Party friends to whom they could introduce her.

Hochschild’s interviewees included a man whose job it was to dump toxic sludge into the bayou, a man whose dream retirement home was destroyed by a sink hole directly attributable to environmental damage, and more. Every single one of the people affected the worst by environmental damage was a staunch conservative who voted along Republican party lines because they considered issues like abortion more important than the environment.

At the root of all of these decisions was what Hochschild called the deep story, which was about feelings. These voters, all of them white and older, felt that people were cutting ahead of them in line and telling them how they should feel about things: that they should be okay with black people, or LGBTQ people, or women, having equal rights to white men whether they felt that way or not.

Many of the interviewees, toward the end of the research cycle, were planning to vote for Trump because he told them that it was okay not to care about those people (I am summing up).

This was a disturbing and enlightening look into the mind of the typical cultural conservative. I felt a great deal of empathy and pity for this group of people who were seeing blue collar jobs go away … although they had opportunities to train to learn something different and chose not to. What I did not feel was sympathy. In fact, I found myself mentally yelling at people who were more concerned with telling themselves stories that felt good than looking at facts.

This book was recommended to me as a way to better understand Trump voters. I grew up in a rural part of Oregon, and lived around people with this kind of mindset for the majority of my life until I moved to a different state. I refer to that moving-away as an escape with good reason. So, yes. I have new insight … but I’m mad as hell at people who are willing to ignore the fact that they can’t swim in their lakes or fish in their bayous because of pollution, but will vote for a man who is going to make matters worse because he makes them feel good about their bigotry.

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