Review: Arlie Russell Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land”

by Miles Raymer


No matter what part of the political spectrum you hail from, few Americans would deny that this moment in our nation’s history is shot through with alienation. At every turn, Americans are forsaking the public square in favor of familiar and increasingly insular communities––digital and physical––occupied by similarly-minded friends and family. Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land represents an attempt to inform and uplift those who see this trend as indicative of national decline or impending disaster. The book brims with compassion and thoughtfulness, but––unsurprisingly––fails to identify a plausible resolution to America’s unpleasant political predicament.

Strangers in Their Own Land is the result of five years of sociological research, almost all of which was conducted in Louisiana. Hochschild, a liberal academic from Berkeley, California, traveled repeatedly to the heart of red America to see if she could forge a connection with fellow citizens that went beyond the stereotypes and politically-charged rhetoric that dominate liberal attitudes about the South. The reader traverses a series of detailed and lively depictions of the people she befriended and events she witnessed. There is also one excellent chapter toward the end of the book that places Hochschild’s research in its appropriate historical context(s).

To get familiar with Hochschild’s Strangers, you need to understand three ideas: the “empathy wall,” the “Great Paradox,” and the “deep story.” Hochschild characterizes American political divisions as fueled and sustained by an empathy wall, which she defines as “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances” (5). Hochschild’s stated goal is find out if she can “understand the links between life, feeling, and politics…to cross the empathy wall,” (5).

The empathy wall’s most significant bolster is the Great Paradox:

Across the country, red states are poorer and have more teen mothers, more divorce, worse health, more obesity, more trauma-related deaths, more low-birth-weight babies, and lower school enrollment. On average, people in red states die five years earlier than people in blue states…Red states suffer more in another highly important but little-known way, one that speaks to the very biological self-interest in health and life: industrial pollution…Given such an array of challenges, one might expect people to welcome federal help. (9)

As we know, red states are less likely to gratefully welcome federal assistance (although they receive a great deal of it), and rarely raise taxes or allocate funds to support a thriving public sector. But it seems––to liberals, anyhow––that taking such action would begin to ameliorate the socioeconomic and environment problems besieging conservative America. This paradox––that conservatives appear to vote against their own interests––elicits a lot of frustration, and even disgust, from residents of blue states. Why do these people keep voting for politicians who stab them in the back and policies that degrade their states and livelihoods? we ask. It can be difficult indeed to empathize with people who undermine their own chances at prosperity.

Finally, Hochschild claims that understanding someone’s deep story is the key to resolving the Great Paradox and scaling the empathy wall:

A deep story is a feels-as-if story––it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back the explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story. (135, emphasis hers)

Hochschild’s deep story of her Louisianan friends can be summarized thus: They all see themselves waiting patiently in line for the American Dream. They’ve been waiting a long time and have worked hard to keep their place in line. Yet, as the line seems to move ever slower, they see “others”––minorities, homosexuals, immigrants, political opponents, nonbelievers––cutting ahead in line. And they think the government is favoring the line-cutters by using its resources to pick winners, thus enabling the less-deserving to achieve the American Dream while everyone else stalls or gives up (136-140).

As an explanatory mechanism for why Americans in red states do what they do, Hochschild’s deep story is a powerful and effective tool. Numerous Lousianans confirmed that, yes, this narrative perfectly captured their feelings about the state of the modern American Dream and their resentment toward government and liberals. The problem with this, however, is made plain by Hochschild’s correct assertion that deep stories remove judgment and fact––that they describe how something feels, not what is. So we are left with a critical question: Is the elucidation of a deep and accurate portrait of how a political opponent feels sufficient to bring down the empathy wall and dissolve the Great Paradox, thereby paving the way for reconciliation? 

In my case, the answer is mixed. I loved the stories of people who actually changed some of their ideas about the world when faced with new information. Two subjects in particular––Lee Sherman and Mike Schaff––made me feel like there is hope for people in the South to respond to the industrial pollution that is rampant due to poor regulation and enforcement. Without abandoning all the core elements of Hochschild’s deep story, both of these men were able to integrate environmental concerns and appropriate political responses into their respective worldviews. This made it much easier for me to empathize with them, even despite persistent political differences.

Others, such as Jackie Tabor and Harold Areno, left me feeling cynical about the ignorance that pervades the Bible Belt. Tabor’s recollection of her conversion to Christianity, which amounts to nothing more than having one good day after a string of lousy years, and then attributing everything good that came after to the love of Jesus, was nauseating. Her descent into Christian zealotry leads Tabor to perform leaps of logic that defy any definition of intelligent thought:

“The government has gone rogue, corrupt, malicious, and ugly. It can’t help anybody,” she says. Like others, she feels that President Obama is not a real Christian and, neither through his upbringing nor in his loyalty, a true American. Her distrust has gone the full cascade: from president to the redistributive function of the federal government to nearly all government functions––including that of cleaning up the environment. (178)

Hochschild’s work does much to reveal the readiness with which religious beliefs can occlude good thinking and justify irrational behavior. Take, for example, how Harold Areno games out the problem of environmental collapse:

“We’re on this earth for a limited amount of time,” he says, leaning on the edge of the window. “But if we get our souls saved, we go to Heaven, and Heaven is for eternity. We’ll never have to worry about the environment from then on. That’s the most important thing. I’m thinking long-term.” (54, emphasis hers)

This perspective is so crazy that it’s impossible to argue with. Does it have a kind of internal logic? Sure. But will it drive civilization into oblivion if given the keys to the car? You betcha. This leads me to one of the darker conclusions I discovered while reading this book: despite their good qualities, these people scare me more than anything else. Even if I can understand and empathize with them better than before, I still reject their worldviews. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest infringing on their Constitutional rights, I would prefer if these folks stepped back from our country’s political process––not because they are bad people, but because their beliefs are so dangerous. I’m guessing this is not the reaction Hochschild wanted from her readers, but I have a hard time believing I’m the only one who had it.

Even if Hochschild’s attempt to help me over the empathy wall was only partly successful, she gets full marks for revealing a national tragedy I’d not previously examined. Due to its low level of regulation and regulatory capture of government officials by industry, Louisiana has effectively become a national dumping ground for the byproducts of our worst industrial processes. It is a haven for polluters both domestic and foreign, a place where a company’s dirty work can be done with a tacit guarantee that the government will look the other way.

Louisiana’s lack of industrial oversight creates its own distinct flavor of environmental degradation. In one case, a company that had been cleared by regulators to drill for salt underneath the Bayou Corne caused a massive, apocalyptic sinkhole:

The earth under the bayou was beginning to tear open. As if a plug was pulled in a bathtub, a hollow “mouth” of a crack in the bottom of the bayou began sucking down brush and pine from the surface of the earth. Majestic, century-old cypress trees crashed down in slow motion and were dragged sideways into the bubbling water, drawn down in the paging mouth of a sinkhole….In the following days and weeks, polluted mud was thrown back up onto the surface of the water in a weird and terrible exchange of pristine swamp forest for oily sludge. (100)

The Bayou Corne has become a “sacrifice zone”––a place where land and people are seen as necessary casualties in the effort to keep life comfortable and convenient for faraway consumers. The recent natural gas boom also sheds light on how Louisiana fuels the consumer economy:

The gas could be sucked from the ground, piped into plants, processed into various chemical feed stocks, and piped out to still other plants, which manufactured such things as Frisbees, plastic hair brushes, garden hoses, steering wheels, computer cases, Bubble Yum, bed liners, medical gowns, jet fuel, wasp spray, grocery ags, and Hershey bars. (87)

Hochschild does well to include this list of modern amenities. Show me the person who claims to never have used any of these items, and I’ll show you a liar. Though we may not vote in Louisiana or exert any direct influence in its politics, all Americans must take partial responsibility for the exploitative relationship that has developed between less regulated states (which tend to be red) and better-regulated ones (which tend to be blue).

This situation has seriously eroded the physical and psychological health of Louisianans. Dealing regularly with toxic substances takes a nasty toll on the body, but even more insidious is how laborers––overwhelmingly men––must integrate this suffering into their identities in order to give it meaning. The daily act of braving the dangers of industrial pollution is claimed as a badge of honor by many in the state’s workforce. Donny McCorquodale, a gritty man that Hochschild calls “The Cowboy,” explains his view while debating a friend:

You want everything to be perfect, for companies to make no mistakes, and you––and we––can’t live like that. If you aim for perfection, then you’re being overly cautious, because we have to be able to take risks. That’s how they split the atom––risk. That’s how they made vaccines––risk. They were daring. A lot of good things happen because people dare to take risks. With all these environmental regulations, we’re being too cautious. We’re avoiding bad instead of maximizing good. To live in civilization, you’ve got to take risks. There will be mistakes. You can’t succeed by just always being perfect. People have to learn from their mistakes. We wouldn’t have made the discoveries we have, live with the world of plastics we’ve got––car steering wheels, computers, the telephone wires I deal with––a lot of that’s plastic. Would wouldn’t have built this country if we were all as risk-averse as you are. Do we want to go back to life in shacks reading by kerosene? Accidents happen. They used to spill kerosene. So what? Do you wish they hadn’t ever used that? (185-6, emphasis hers)

The best thing about this passage is that it contains a lot of good sense. McCorquodale’s claim that risk is baked into a society’s capacity for progress is incontestable, as is his assertion that the learning process is utterly dependent on trial and error. But misapplications of these sound arguments can and do stifle the implementation of necessary and affordable safety rules. To compensate for harsh conditions, the mind reinvents suffering as noble pioneering:

The Cowboy expressed high moral virtue. Equating creativity with daring––the stuff of great explorers inventors, generals, winners––Donny honored the capacity to take risk and face fear. He could take hard knocks like a man. (190)

This Southern version of the stiff upper lip, while potent, cannot cover up the grim truth about the abusive dynamic that has come to dominate the relationship between red and blue America:

They [Louisianans] are proud to endure the difficulties they face. But in the loss of their homes, their drinking water, and even their jobs in non-oil sectors of a economy, there is no other word for it: they are victims. Indeed, Louisianans are sacrificial lambs to the entire American industrial system. Left or right, we all happily use plastic combs, toothbrushes, cell phones, and cars, but we don’t all pay for it with high pollution. As research for this book shows, red states pay for it more––partly through their own votes for easier regulation and partly through their exposure to a social terrain of politics, industry, television channels, and a pulpit that invites them to do so. In one way, people in blue states have their cake and eat it too, while many red states have neither. (232)

Immediately after dropping this incisive piece of criticism, Hochschild pivots toward a vision of hope, where common ground is waiting to be discovered and nurtured:

In my travels, I was humbled by the complexity and height of the empathy wall. But with their teasing, good-hearted acceptance of a stranger from Berkeley, the people I met in Louisiana showed me that, in human terms, the wall can easily come down. And issue by issue, there is possibility for practical cooperation. (233)

While I won’t deny the existence of the “possibility for practical cooperation,” I must admit that it feels less likely with each passing day. Strangers in Their Own Land was an informative, accessible, and engaging read, but I can’t say that it made me any more sanguine about the prospects of the American political divide. In some cases, it has provided me with concrete evidence for why compromise may be less likely than I thought previously. I cannot deny feeling deep pity for Hochschild’s Strangers, as well as a significant degree of trepidation regarding their lately increased presence in national politics.

One thing is certain: All Americans participate in an economic, social, and political system that produces fantastic luxuries and diversions that we voraciously consume. At the very least, continued participation in that system demands a collective acknowledgment that the system’s current structure marginalizes and destroys certain people and places, twisting the knife with each shift, each shipment, each shopping spree.

Rating: 8/10