2016 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction
Arlie Russell Hochschild
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
(The New Press)
National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Arlie Russell Hochschild: I wrote Strangers in Their Own Land for all potential climbers of empathy-walls. Some are people of the ”deep story” whom I feature in the book. Mike Schaff, for example, recently accompanied me to a book reading where I saw him bend his head. “I was crying,” he tells me later. In the question period, a black woman asked what the whites I wrote about think about blacks. Later she and Mike and I chatted together, and now the two to have plans to meet. I wrote this book to help open connections just like that everywhere.
I wrote this book to alert the young to looming environmental disasters we must face together, however strong our political differences on other matters. And I wrote this book for all the liberals who secretly agree with Hillary Clinton that half of Trump followers are in the “basket of deplorables.” I also wrote this book so that people realize that whatever the hot-air promises of the political demagogue of the moment, there are many millions of Americans in secret mourning for lost honor, identity, and livelihood whose needs go unaddressed by either major party. Finally across the globe today—in Germany, France, Hungary, Russia, to name a few countries—many feel trapped in fierce moral battle. I wrote this book to help them recognize the deep stories of those they oppose as well as those they embrace in the hopes that the wall itself will one day come tumbling down.
Is the American political divide unbridgeable? Arlie Russell Hochschild travels from Berkeley, California, to the far right. In Strangers in Their Own Land, she paints a landscape of violence done to people and their environment, and of the pain and anger bred there. She writes unflinchingly of deep reasons people act against their apparent self-interest and makes the unlikely case that even in 2016 mutual compassion and understanding between the right and the left are possible.
ABOUT THE BOOK
In Strangers in Their Own Land, the renowned sociologist Arlie Hochschild embarks on a thought-provoking journey from her liberal hometown of Berkeley, California, deep into Louisiana bayou country—a stronghold of the conservative right. As she gets to know people who strongly oppose many of the ideas she famously champions, Hochschild nevertheless finds common ground and quickly warms to the people she meets—among them a Tea Party activist whose town has been swallowed by a sinkhole caused by a drilling accident—people whose concerns are actually ones that all Americans share: the desire for community, the embrace of family, and hopes for their children.
Strangers in Their Own Land goes beyond the commonplace liberal idea that these are people who have been duped into voting against their own interests. Instead, Hochschild finds lives ripped apart by stagnant wages, a loss of home, an elusive American dream—and political choices and views that make sense in the context of their lives. Hochschild draws on her expert knowledge of the sociology of emotion to help us understand what it feels like to live in “red” America. Along the way she finds answers to one of the crucial questions of contemporary American politics: why do the people who would seem to benefit most from “liberal” government intervention abhor the very idea?
About the Author
Arlie Russell Hochschild is one of the most influential sociologists of her generation. She is the author of nine books, including The Second Shift, The Time Bind, The Managed Heart, The Outsourced Self, and Strangers in Their Own Land (The New Press). Three of her books have been named as New York Times Notable Books of the Year and her work appears in sixteen languages. The winner of the Ulysses Medal as well as Guggenheim and Mellon grants, she lives in Berkeley, California.
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Interview by Lyz Lenz
As a distinguished sociologist teaching at Berkley, Arlie Russell Hochschild was living in a context that reinforced her own liberal worldview. Yet, after witnessing the baffling rise of the Tea Party, Hochschild decided to scale what she calls "the empathy wall."
Her book, Strangers In Their Own Land, is in part, an attempt to scale this wall and explore that deep divide of feeling in America. While researching her book, Hochschild spent five years talking to people in the depths of Louisiana's bayou country. She ate cookies, Popeye's chicken, and drank sweet tea; and she listened to the pain, heartache, joy, and anger of people fundamentally different than her. She went into the project hoping to answer the Red State paradox: Why the states that need the most help are often loathe to accept it. But she came out with an even deeper Blue State paradox: How could the Democratic Party call itself the party of the working people and the poor, and still be hemorrhaging large numbers of working-class people?
Lyz Lenz: There is a section in the book where you parse out how your interview subjects felt. You describe it as feeling as though they are waiting in line and people like immigrants and women keep jumping in front of them. While reading that section, I thought "This cannot be right." But you sent it to your interview subjects who said that was exactly right. Can you explain what is at the core of this fundamental misunderstanding in America?
Arlie Russell Hochschild: The book started with my being disturbed about a division in the nation and the enclavization and the stereotypes we develop. My journey was to, first of all, uncover my own stereotypes about them and discard them and then try to get at their stereotypes about me and the people I identify with, who are in the deep story, who they consider to be the line cutters.
The act of crossing this empathy bridge is to have careful, respectful conversations about what's suppressed by your deep story and what's revealed by it without falling into a miasma of truthiness. We need to, in a sense, do the mental experiment of suspending truth to feeling. Look at the origin of the feeling. Then put truth back into that feeling. In a way, I am being a psychotherapist. I'm trying to apply [psychotherapy] to this national divide. That's the method I struck upon.
It doesn't mean that I think that Blacks are butting in, or women, or that I myself was butting in, or that immigrants and refugees and the endangered, oil-soaked Brown Pelican is butting in. I think of all of these as important causes. People and objects, animals, that need a better break ... That's putting moral judgments back in and the facts that support those moral judgments.
LL: I've heard a lot of talk, especially during this election cycle, questioning the logic of empathy, and arguing why give the other side empathy when they don't give empathy to us?
ARH: I've talked to people who have said, "Look, it's dangerous to empathize. You are giving in to the other side. They are so wrong. You, of all people, know it."
Is empathizing with people that you have powerful differences with tantamount to compromise with them and, in a sense, weakening your own moral positions? To which my answer is, "Absolutely not." A therapist, for example, talking to a patient ... The therapist doesn't compromise. But it doesn't mean you don't respect that patient either. We're all patients.
LL: One thing that struck me about everyone you interviewed was how under attack they all felt. And yet, the people they felt attacked by, weren't even really the companies who have wrecked their landscape, it was the vague notion of "liberals" and "government overreach." What do you think feeds into this idea of persecution?
ARH: I think that points to the media enclaves that they found themselves in. They get that, I think, from Fox News, Breitbart, and from the right-wing media, from which they get this confirmation effect where you turn to something to confirm what it is you already believe. I think we all do that. In addition, they get a feeling of how the other side is sneering at them and they add that to their story. I don't think they get that directly. I think they get it indirectly. However, someone like Mike Schaff said he found Rachel Maddow talking about rednecks. Then he gets hot under the collar.
Now, I never heard Rachel Maddow use that word, but you can see there is a chip on his shoulder. The origin of that, I would lay at, largely, Fox News. He's in an enclave. He's never directly met people who put him down as he fears to be put down.
LL: The book speaks to a sense of politics of feeling and passion. The people you spoke with felt a lot of things to be true, even when they weren't true, such as the economy going down the drain or "immigrants taking our jobs." How did you find yourself navigating that divide between feeling and fact?
ARH: First of all, when they say, and they resonate to Donald Trump saying, the economy is in the toilet and America is going downhill, they hear that statement as a statement about their sector, that is, the blue collar, white sector. These are people whose parents and brothers and sisters and cousins have worked in industrial jobs, and they are right that their sector has gone down.
In a way, their particular economic sector has gone downhill while the productivity in the nation, as a whole, has gone up. Unemployment rates, such as we account them, have gone down, but they don't feel spoken to by those more general statistics. They feel like those statistics don't apply to them. [They are] trapped, in a larger whale of a nation.
LL: There is a certain amount fatalism that's expressed by the interview subjects in the book, especially about the environment. There's a mindset that basically believes that the Bible predicts the End Times, which involves the ruin of the earth, so the logic is "what can we do?" As a result, I was wondering, how important do you think Christianity is to the conservative worldview?
ARH: Let me just back up and comment about the fatalism. They saw it as stoicism and felt that liberals didn't understand the honor of their stoicism. They felt they were living lives that were hard to live, in this poor state [with] a lot of divorce, a lot of separation, and little public health help. They felt stoical and they admired this [stoicism in themselves]. The logic was, I can take it. You can take it. Mother Nature can take it.
I think it goes together with a sense of powerlessness. They feel remote from the engine of power. They don't feel powerful. They want to focus on a local reality, their own community, within which they can feel more powerful. The church fits in there. It is a social world which gives them a lot of things they feel they need. Many of these mega-churches were, in essence, little welfare worlds, something for the children, something for the teenagers, something for the elderly.
As for the fatalism implicit in a belief in the end times... It fascinates me how differently people responded to that and gripped that very narrative. Some people said, "Yep, so what can you do?" Yet, others said, "No, we've got to do our best to clean up the environment and the end times are neither here nor there. It doesn't alter our motivation in cleaning up the environment."
People divided whether that belief demobilized them in a desire to clean up the environment or whether it didn't. I didn't find one clear implication of an End Times belief.
LL: One subject who really resonated was Jackie, when she spoke about wanting a nice home, but not wanting it too much. And because she hadn't wanted too much, her logic reasoned, that was why she was blessed with it. There was a real sense of sublimated desire that I could feel in everyone. I'd love to know how you understood this repressed desire even outside of the realm of politics? Why are people so afraid to want or need?
ARH: That exactly goes to the emotional heart of this. You get to have needs. I don't get to have needs. I'm supposed to feel sorry for you. They think of that as PC. The liberals are telling me to feel sorry for you. What they can't say, the crux of the dilemma they are caught in, they can't say, "Well, I have needs. I'm a victim." They don't believe in the whole vocabulary of victims because that puts them in the long line of "poor me's."
They look down on a poor me, but they are a poor me. That's their conflict.
LL: Given how deeply you dove into the other side, as it were, what way do you see forward through the incredible divisions that this election has revealed and entrenched in us?
ARH: I am very much hoping that my book will help inspire a way of healing a division in this nation. Healing doesn't mean capitulation. It doesn't mean that one side blends into the other. It means developing a respectful way of handling difference. I think the way forward is to put forward the goal of a diversity of empathies and to acknowledge other people, a lot different groups.
I think for liberals this is especially important. If they're Democrats to look at your party. What's it doing? Who is it not speaking to? There are real issues out there that are really not being addressed. The one group that liberals are not accustomed to empathizing with, the one way in which they have not extended themselves into a full diversity of empathies is blue collar white males, actually. They're their own group. What is their story? Permit yourself to get interested in that.
I do believe that in the world I grew up in, a more liberal one, that white men were seen as the top of the hierarchy. You didn't have to worry about them. They were the ones the world was built for. I think that's largely true, but I think that the privilege of maleness hasn't trickled down, or all the way down, to blue collar men. The privilege of whiteness also hasn't trickled down. There is a have and a have-not among white males. Our stereotype is, if you're white and you're male you've got it made. We need to get curious about how at that class level it actually works out for such a man and their family.
We need that new kind of empathy in order to be able to sit down and negotiate. This is a first necessary step to restore a carpet of civility that has been lost.
Lyz Lenz's writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, MarieClaire.com, Pacific Standard, Buzzfeed, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in Iowa and has an MFA from Lesley University.