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Strangers in their Own Land

Book review
by Arlie Russell Hochschild
Reviewed by Stephen Kaye

Strangers in Their Own Land; Anger and Mourning on the American Right, A Journey to the Heart of the Political Divide, by Arlie Russell Hochschild,  The New Press 2016

This exceptionally well-written book addresses the political paradox that Democrats were puzzling about even before the election of 2016.  Why do people who need government to clean up the environment vote for right wing politicians who promise to do away with government regulation?  It’s not just the environment, but also education, health care, employment benefits, legal redress for wrongs, just compensation for industrial pollution and industry-caused calamities.  Texas passed a law that prevents communities from banning fracking.  Louisiana passed a law that specifically permits fracking companies to dispose their fracking liquids into Louisiana dump sites, even liquids imported from out of state. These measures are passed by politicians backed by the Tea Party.

Hochschild is a distinguished professor of sociology at Berkeley whose previous nine books establish her as a star of that discipline.  She is an accomplished investigator, a superb writer and a great storyteller.  This is an important book that has the singular merit of being a joy to read. Empathy is one of her accomplishments.  We empathize with the many interviewees she writes about, the families of the bayou country of Louisiana who are ardent supporters of the Tea Party, who are against the federal government’s regulations in any area, but particularly on the environment.  Yet, they suffer from environmental atrocities like illegal dumping of toxic chemicals, air and water pollution, high rates of cancer.  One of the images is that of dead cypress trees that once flourished in the lowlands of the bayous of Lake Charles.  They are now skeletons.  They are remembered, mourned. But, the politics are unchanged.

Digging deep by listening to her interviewed subjects over a period of several years, she learns that there is no epiphany. The people who live in degraded environments are well aware of the declining environment. They love to fish.  Fish fries and cookouts are the defining culture of the Cajun population.  The fish are either dead or so polluted they are not safe to eat, but these families are steadfast in their opposition to the EPA and government regulation.  They remain loyal supporters of Republicans who promise less regulation and smaller government.  They suffer, and their suffering is a badge of honor. They are Christians, believers, loyalists, hospitable and self-aware.   

Wendell Berry uses the image of colonialism to describe how corporations dominate the rural South where the petrochemical conglomerates spew forth their wastes (NY Review of Books, 5/11/17) continuing a plantation economy of exploitation.  Petrochemical companies are the new plantation owners, the lifeblood of the new South.  They have captured the loyalties of the population who accept the plumes of pollution as a necessary by-product of free enterprise and the capitalist system.

Freedom resolves as freedom to pollute, to dump, to destroy the environment and to uproot the local population when certain calamities result.   Freedom is the right of these companies to bribe state officials and legislators with large campaign contributions so laws will aid and abet their right to carry on their business without threat of regulations. 

The judiciary is similarly intimidated.  A class action lawsuit brought to compensate residents for a giant sinkhole that created devastating damage and long lasting pollution to an entire community was dismissed for “lack of evidence”.   Most of the community had to abandon their homes and move elsewhere.  Those that stayed lived in a badly degraded environment.  Industry was not held responsible.  Yet the people who suffered remain loyal to the Tea Party.

These paradoxes can’t be reconciled. It’s simply the way it is.  Beliefs and loyalties survive the loss of clean air, water and polluted land.  The myth that regulation is a greater evil prevails.  White, largely male, mostly Christian voters endorse measures that are directly against their own interests. The only hope Hochschild offers is in the younger generation that may, through travel and education, learn that the world is not flat, that the global companies can live with regulations that protect the environment, provide for worker safety and impose damages for violating environmental standards.

Strangers in Their Land refers to both sides of the political spectrum: neither understands the other.  Hochschild hopes the two sides can find common ground,that understanding supplants ignorance, and that the divide narrows.  Her contribution peels away layers of misunderstanding, revealing sad but earnest folks who are knowing victims of their own beliefs.  There is something noble, even admirable in that. 

This book is important for revealing the nature of those who ardently support right wing politicians, who form the base, who are a good portion of America.  It goes to the nature of beliefs and how they are formed and how they affect people. The paradox is explained.  It may not be to your liking, but there it is. 

Stangers in Their Land has an excellent index, helpful notes, and an extensive bibliography.