My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have to give the author credit for being one of the first avowed US liberals to delve deeply into the sociology of the American right. She began research for this book at least 6 years ago, long before lefties getting to know righties had become the cottage industry it is today. I’m a little late to this party, and I’m already tired of it.
The book is worth reading for its environmentalist lens and the stories of its subjects. Viewed through the eyes of the author, a privileged stranger from California, the wild beauty of the Louisiana bayous and the tragedy and inexorability of their destruction is laid bare. The power and horror of the consequences of human greed married to heavy industry begin to transcend my ability to imagine, and also to transcend the author’s storytelling skills. Hochschild is a serviceable writer with clean functional prose, but it wasn’t until the very last chapter that she reached me in the gut rather than the brain.
I was also glad to be introduced in this book to the concept of the “deep story,” a narrative which may not be factually true, but which feels emotionally true to the people who are living it. I believe an attempt at understanding their deep story is a useful way to approach people with whom you disagree. I’m not sure “deep” is the right name for it in this case, however, because the deep story Hochschild told struck me as not all that deep. It is a story of waiting in line for a simplistic and ultimately shallow American dream of prosperity as a badge of honor and moral worth.
In the last chapter the author took a perspective that I wish she had taken from the start: she wrote each side a letter. In her letter to the right, she concludes that “many on the left feel like strangers in their own land too.” In my experience and that of most people I know well, the shattering of that American dream–and the feeling that that dream is not for you, no matter how long you might wait in line–took place in childhood or adolescence. It continues to astonish me that some Americans reach middle age and beyond still regarding it as their birthright. But that they do doesn’t make their story more worth telling than anybody else’s.
Strung along, I kept reading, because I kept hoping that Hochschild and her approach would help me over the empathy wall that she was sometimes able to surmount. But I never made it. I found the book longish and somewhat repetitive, and her arguments about the value of loyalty, endurance, and hard work in the face of risk, danger, and criminal abuse, rang hollow. I was saddened and even horrified by the fatalism about environmental destruction that some of her subjects exhibited, but their skepticism about the ability of government to act for good was usually warranted–and painfully so–based on past experience.
One doesn’t have to agree with their social or political views to feel compassion, and even pity, for the suffering some of the subjects of this book have endured, and to want to help. The reader gets the strong impression, however, that pity and compassion would be resented by the people profiled here, and that even help would be unwelcome unless it came from friends, family, or church. So the reader is left wondering how to respond, and if a response is even possible. Perhaps one response is to stop giving these voices so much time in the sun. They are not showing us a way forward, only back.