Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Book Plug: Strangers in Their Own Land

The new national past time. (Screaming into it, I mean.)
“To set up the air monitors, I had to wear a respirator. Staff asked me to take it off since it might make the workers who saw me with it on worry about the ill effects of the air on them. But they needn’t have worried. Some of the guys would taunt me, the corporate sissy who couldn’t tough it out like they [did]. But when they laughed at me, I could see their teeth were visibly eroded by exposure to sulfuric acid mist.”
It takes reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land to get the sub-text of that moment. Hochschild, a UC-Berkeley sociologist, conducted a research/residence in Louisiana, the “reddest of red states” as she puts it, and here’s something you might not know about that state: its wildlife splashes around in all kinds of chemicals and toxic waste and the people seem weirdly accepting of that. Over the course of Louisianans present lifetimes, bayous across the state, even suburban neighborhoods, have become biological dead zones. The state government – especially under former Governor Bobby “This Is Your Brain on Ideology” Jindal – turns an irresponsibly blind eye and the public, desperate for jobs and acculturated to the notion, cheers on corporate operators who bring industry to Louisiana, and toxic waste, but little in the way of jobs. The emotional response among most of Hochschild’s interviewees isn’t resignation; most would relate to that toothless, laughing guy; over half of them would high-five him.

The phenomena explored in Strangers in Their Own Land require some suspension of disbelief. Reading the thoughts of people who not only defend, but praise the same companies that punch toxic, neighborhood-swallowing sinkholes under bayous and get away with it produces cognitive dissonance on a level that…let me try something else: here’s where the late, rising tide of sympathy for Red State America becomes manifest and condescending all at the same time: how to get inside the heads of U.S. citizens who roll over to corporate malfeasance again and again, while blaming the government, specifically the federal government, for not preventing it, even as these same people vote for regulation-slashing Republicans at every single level of government? Oh, and it’s a Red State government that does the relevant permitting? Think al Qaeda’s “near-enemy/far enemy” concept, only without the logic?

One answer is, you don’t. Hochschild tried really goddamn hard, and she gives warm impressions of all the people she befriended (and they sound genuine; but, damn, that’d be a follow-up interview), but, if nothing else, her fact-checking appendices get to her ultimate unwillingness to admit that the people she met are, in any meaningful way, right. You can’t blame her either, especially given the particular political issue on which she chose to focus – the environment. It’s a pretty clever hook, really: hunters come by conservation fairly naturally (even if they shun the label “environmentalist” in favor of “conservationist”), and that gave Hochschild a way to talk to her subjects about something physically immediate, something that can’t be evaded with the political Right’s go-to rhetorical tool (e.g. denial). Her interviewees live too close to the land to deny what’s happening and they’ve got entire lifetimes of horrifying anecdotes – e,g., a horse that stepped into a pond, only to have its extremities coated in industrial sealant (it was put down two or three days later) – but the response is always the same: we need the jobs, and the feds and the EPA can go to hell.

There’s a fascinating chapter/passage in the middle of the book that references a study from the 1980s on how industrial companies select states and/or locales, ultimately sites, in which to locate. The list should be sobering, and to everyone. Because I’m already pushing the hell out of fair use, I’ll just flag a couple items in the personal/community profile (from the text, verbatim):

- High school educated only.
- Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism.
- Conservative.
- Republican.
- Advocates of the free market.
A podcast I listened to yesterday, as well as (one of) the articles that provided its material, spoke to another rural America phenomenon that is sustained and thrives on the same model: Wal*Mart. I’m not sure it’s possible to talk about the sideways thinking that makes rural America (for that is the real divide) so ripe for precisely the kind of exploitation that most pisses them off without going on to piss them off, but that’s just sort of the shape of it. Then again, where else does one shop after Wal*Mart destroyed Main Street?

One more (over long; sorry, Ms. Hochschild!) quote needs addressing before just saying, yes, you should read this book, it’s totally great, enlightening, and its last sentence will totally make you cry (unless you’re dead inside). The later stages of the book record a debate between a Louisiana-based environmentalist and an “average citizen” of this particular corner of the South. The immediate problem concerns a bridge, the I-10. A leak in a pipeline that went unnoticed for far too long (one that was barely remedied, and then, predictably, without safety equipment) introduced toxins into the soil under that bridge, making it almost unpassable (the same spill also threatens most of the state’s water supply). The debate took up the question of what to do about the bridge and the chemicals.

The environmentalist (a guy named Mike Tritico) speaks to the damage done and the responsibility of the company that caused the damage to clean it up, or at least to help pay for it. He speaks in details, ethical obligations, potential consequences, and so on. The response, which came from a guy named Donny McCorquodale, forms a refrain for much of the book:

“To live in civilization, you’ve got to take risks. There will be mistakes…People have to learn from their mistakes. We couldn’t have made the discoveries we have, live with the world of plastic we’ve got – car steering wheels, computers, the telephone wires I deal with – a lot of that’s plastic. We couldn’t have built this country if we were all as risk-averse as you are. Do you want to go back to life in shacks reading by kerosene?”
Even without the particulars of Tritico’s points, that reads as an evasion, a reference to a mindset as opposed to addressing the particular problem at hand. Variations on that same dialogue take place across editorial pages and op-eds, blogs and cable news, day after wearying day across the country. City shouts toward country, and country shouts back; one side speaks information, the other side speaks, per a familiar shorthand, values. Hochschild called that resort to values each person’s “deep story.” As it happens, conservatives keep those values closer to the surface…and that makes sense, because what else can you do when the facts aren’t on your side?

Sorry. Needed the snark break. It's like screaming into a pillow...

In Hochschild’s view, each of us has a deep story (which is better explained in this book review, which just went up today), a set of assumptions and ideals that informs how we answer personal and societal questions. After she had been in Louisiana a while, Hochschild tried to read her interviewees’ deep stories back to them in her own words and, by her own account, she hit close to the mark. Most of the people featured in Strangers in Their Own Land followed the resentment narrative pedaled by Fox News – the idea that government solves everyone else’s problems, thereby letting women, communities of color, and even homosexuals cut in line that ends at the American Dream. Small wonder, too, seeing that’s where virtually all of them get their news. Parts of it hold up (e.g. opportunity really is dying in rural America), parts of it don’t (e.g., why the jobs left; sorry, you gotta read the whole thing, and it's just a sliver, but a good one), but that distinction relates less to the reality (it’s happening) than to the response. Or, better, the relevance of the response.

The bouts of irrationality that fill Hochschild’s book makes it tempting to dismiss the people she’s talks to, even to mock them (e.g., “enjoy the dentures, dipshit.”). It’s also counter-productive and, frankly, dumb. I don’t know what Hochschild expected to accomplish with her research and the (genuinely good and moving) book that came out of it. Her hopes notwithstanding, it feels like the beginning of the work, and not the end. It’s the first step toward understanding between a couple parts* of the same country who, in spite of 30+ years of primal screaming, have sort of slipped into different worlds without anyone noticing. (*I just realized that this is a big “White-fest”; then again, I’m pretty sure Hochschild pointed this out). 

With this book read and now in the back of my mind, one last thought occurs to me: is it possible that by spending so much time trying to convince the other tribe that our tribe is somehow right, we’ve lost sight of the more important goal of making our communities and country work? To put that another way, how much of the rage would calm down if the country figured out a way to get rural America back on its feet. If you’re asking me for an opinion, that is THE defining question for today’s Republican Party. Are you there to govern, or are you there to throw fits?

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