sábado, 10 de setembro de 2016
Hand on heart. An American sociologist examines a political conundrum
Hand on heart
An American sociologist examines a political conundrum
Sep 10th 2016 | From the print edition
Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. By Arlie Russell Hochschild. The New Press; 351 pages; $27.95.
THE past is a foreign country. But so too is the present, says Arlie Hochschild, an American sociologist, of much of her own country. Ms Hochschild is a devoted liberal from Berkeley, California, and her latest book, “Strangers in Their Own Land”, is an astute study of America’s “culture war” drawn from the perspective of the white conservatives who feel they are losing it. But it is also a Bildungsroman: one woman’s journey across the political divide, to an empathy with those on the other side.
Based on five years among Tea Party activists in Louisiana—a typical, if perhaps extreme, Southern “red state”—“Strangers in Their Own Land” will elicit comparisons with “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” by Thomas Frank, a bestseller in 2004. Like Mr Frank, Ms Hochschild is concerned chiefly with what she calls the “great paradox” of ordinary, hard-working Americans seemingly voting against their own economic interests by supporting small-state Republican politicians. And like Mr Frank, she is certain such voters would be better off under the Democrats. Much of the book is concerned with the many environmental disasters suffered by Louisiana as a result of under-regulated oil and gas companies plundering its natural wealth with the connivance of local Republican leaders. Where she and Mr Frank disagree is over his central premise that such voters are being duped by an unholy alliance of Fox News, unscrupulous corporations and self-aggrandising Washington elites.
Ms Hochschild has been praised for focusing on her subjects’ emotional lives. Her new book is no exception. It is people’s emotional response, she argues, that is the raw stuff of politics. What, then, do her subjects feel? They see themselves as betrayed by “line-cutters”—black people, immigrants, women and gays—who jump in ahead of them in the queue for the American dream. Southerners feel patronised and humiliated by northerners who tell them whom to feel sorry for, then dismiss them as bigots when they do not. They feel they are victims of stagnant wages and affirmative action but without the language of victimhood: struggling Southerners are not “poor-me’s”. They believe that they are honourable people in a world where traditional sources of honour—faith, independence and endurance—seem to go unrecognised: until Donald Trump began offering hope and emotional affirmation.
It is a convincing thesis, but not a new one. That conservative white middle-class and working-class Americans feel a sense of betrayal and loss is familiar territory. Ms Hochschild has little new to say about right-wing media or evangelical Christianity. What she does say about prosperity preachers and Fox News shock jocks duping their subjects by directing their anger away from real sources of local grievance like oil spills and gas leaks might confirm the argument she seeks to overturn. The book’s appendix shows how misled Tea Party activists are on many of their most cherished gripes, such as the size of federal government. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, at the end of 2014 only 17% of the 143m American workers were federal, state-government or military employees. The Tea Party activists she spoke to believe the figure is around 40%.
Ms Hochschild offers an entry pass to an alternative worldview, and with it a route map towards empathy. In her book people like Janice Areno, a Bible-bashing Pentecostalist who says the poor should work or starve, become human. The anger and hurt of the author’s interviewees is intelligible to all. In today’s political climate, this may be invaluable.