Book Review: Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

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: 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.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild”

  1. I saw this poem this morning. And I thought it was a good epigraph for the “deep story” described in this book.

    Of The Empire
    by Mary Oliver

    We will be known as a culture that feared death
    and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
    for the few and cared little for the penury of the
    many. We will be known as a culture that taught
    and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
    little if at all about the quality of life for
    people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
    the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
    commodity. And they will say that this structure
    was held together politically, which it was, and
    they will say also that our politics was no more
    that an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
    the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
    was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

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  2. Thanks for that book review, Karen. It’s good to know that people are thinking about these things in more ways than black and white.

    I do think it all comes back to the environment and the reason why I became an environmental lawyer in the first place. If we’re not willing to keep our house (the planet) clean, then we’ll make due with any kind of squalor which is exactly what we have in Washington these days. Marry that with the long (very long, sadly) ending of a patriarch-dominated society to one that is more male/female balanced (which is why all this sexual harassment stuff is coming up over and over again as women regain their power) and what you have is the controlling white middle-aged male minority in total panic, and subsequently, stirring the pot to get everyone all worked up as a deflect tactic (of which DT is the master). I think it will all sort itself out, but probably not for a decade or two. The planet may be worse for the wear in the short term, but we of sounder mind need to hold the greater vision, especially for our children who will be the ones to put all this right. All in all, it’s a great time to be alive if we come out on the right side of it all. Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this book a little while ago. I appreciated the effort, but it didn’t get me over that wall, either. It’s no mystery that emotionalism (“this is how I feel”) informs political and public discourse these days. I think a lot of liberals attribute some sort of mystical thought process to some conservatives when it’s basically tribalism and a resistance to change. In other words, fear of a changing world.
    Enjoyed your review, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For me it’s the “What’s the Matter with Kansas” phenomenon that’s hardest to understand or empathize with. She describes person after person living in a horrifically polluted environment and still voting for politicians who want to weaken and/or get rid of environmental regulations altogether. I get that they don’t trust government and government regulations, but there’s really not an alternative. God has not stepped in and helped with this problem, and it’s too big for individuals to grapple with on their own.

      Liked by 1 person

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