Shame, when its uncovered, can get you somewhere in therapy but it’s useless in healing a country. That was my thought as I read through the later chapters of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s 2016 pre-election book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Hochschild, a Berkley-based sociologist and self-indentified liberal, took her skills to Louisiana where she spent a lot of time getting to know people who approached their politics very differently. The result is an uneven but very helpful attempt at understanding the complexities of rural white voters.
Hochschild uses environmental policy as her “keyhole” to understand what’s going on. Louisiana has major environmental issues ranging from coastline degradation to managing byproducts of major oil and fracking operations to ongoing pollution from chemical plants. It also has a lot of voters who’d like to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s this kind of thinking that Hochschild calls “the Great Paradox” and which she tries to understand.
The first half of the book is a meandering introduction of individual characters, (like Mike Schaff who is trying to pull off the unlikely combination of being both an environmental activist and a Tea Party member), and larger actors on the stage, (like Texas Brine, a drilling company that pierced a salt dome at the bottom of Bayou Corne and caused a massive sinkhole that destroyed a whole community). Hochschild is sympathetic to the people she talks to, but she can’t restrain herself from building a case against industry, government, media, and church. The particulars she discovers are scandalous, but they seem incomplete.
Her analysis of Louisiana religious life seems particularly superficial and reductive. Encountering the emotionalism of a Pentecostal service, Hochschild says, “the needs [the service] fills seem like those met in less religious cultures by psychotherapy and meditation, as well as family and friendship” (120).
I feel like Hochschild is on stronger ground in the second half of the book where she outlines a “deep story” to ground her understanding of the culture she is encountering. The story is grounded by two major elements – 1) a sense by white voters that the American Dream of a materially better life is not working for them anymore and that it is being impacted by a government that puts other people (immigrants, Syrian refugees, minorities) unfairly ahead of them, and 2) a resentment at being told how to feel by people “at the front of the line” who seem to have made it.
I recognize this story. It’s a variation on the narrative I grew up with in a rural Southern town. It’s also a variation on the narrative of the Lost Cause, which offered Southerners a way to cope with the trauma of the Civil War.
I’m trying to understand this strange moment in time and the stories that shape it. It’s one of the main purposes of this blog. Hochschild’s observation, made at a Trump rally, that one of the strongest unifiers of Trump voters was not economic but emotional self-interest, feels right. “While economic self-interest is never entirely absent, what I discovered was the profound importance of emotional self-interest–a giddy release from the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own land” (228). There is also a kind of release from shame.
There’s only a short walk from the accusation often made by those on the left about Trump supporters–“They should be ashamed”–to “They should be shamed.” Shame is crippling. It exerts a moral weight that prevents the flourishing of human life and it leads to distorted expressions of our true selves. When we try to impose it on our political opponents, we are reaching for a powerful weapon.
Shame is crippling. It exerts a moral weight that prevents the flourishing of human life and it leads to distorted expressions of our true selves.
The church is often brought to the bar to answer for the imposition of shame, but it should be a critical resource in helping us confront the effects of shame. After all, “for freedom Christ has set us free.”
That’s not a Tea Party kind of freedom. It’s a freedom that recognizes the devastating power of Sin, including the age-old evils of racism and sexism, to twist us into unrecognizable shapes. It’s a freedom that holds human beings up to the light of God for what they are–flawed, contradictory, and beautiful in their capacity for reflecting God’s intentions.
Hochschild has done us the service of pausing long enough to really see people and to understand their longings to be at home.