Who’s Fighting For Democracy These Days?

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photo by Isai Ramos via Unsplash.com

Let’s talk politics.  I don’t do this much on the blog, because it’s a toxic substance and has to be handled with care.  But there’s no doubt that Heartlands had its origin in concerns about the political direction of the country.  And there is no way to talk about these strange days of rural America without dealing with the role they are playing in the current Great Divide.

My own taste in political thinkers runs to thoughtful iconoclasts who don’t lean with the prevailing winds.  I like people who search for the larger contours of our present moment and different frames for viewing the scene.

41dqZWxy60L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Edward Luce is such a person and I have just gotten around to his 2017 book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  I highly recommend it.  Luce is a British-born, American-based columnist for the Financial Times.  He also served as a speechwriter for the Treasury Secretary in the Obama White House.  But don’t expect hopey-changey from this guy.

Luce is horrified by a political landscape which allows unprincipled populist blowhards to rule the day, but he isn’t surprised.  For Luce, liberal democracies have been on the retreat for awhile now, and Trump is the symptom, not the disease.  The comfortable, urban, wealthy elites of the West have been divorcing themselves from the anxious, rural, working class for some time now.  And the the divide is only getting worse.

In four brief sections of a 200-page book, Luce offers a breathless ride through his thesis.  In the first section, “Fusion,” he takes on globalism—how it has enriched so many in developing nations but also how it has forced down wages on the Western middle classes.  Urban centers have flourished even as they have begun to grow more and more disconnected from the nations around them.  London is not responsible for Brexit any more than Chicago is responsible for Trump, but they share so much in common with each other and so little with the hinterlands for which they used to be magnets.  “To the West’s economic losers,” Luce says, “cities like London and Chicago are not so much magnets as death stars.” (48)

Buckle your seat belt.  It gets worse.

The second section, “Reaction,” charts “the degeneration of Western politics” in which the optimism that accompanied economic growth curdles into the angry, divisive movements that seek a scapegoat and a nostalgic return to a more secure past.  When progressives saw this movement and slapped easy labels like ‘racist,’ ‘regressive,’ and ‘whitelash’ on it, it only fed the divide.  Something that became all to clear in the aftermath of Charlottesville, when MAGA Americans, who were otherwise sympathetic to the outrage over the overt racism, felt they were being asked to sign on to an agenda that equated their support of Trump with the same overt racism.  “To write off all those who voted for [Trump] as bigoted will only make his job easier,” Luce notes. (97)

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Edward Luce

The third part, “Fallout,” looks at the foreign policy implications of the United States’ declining power in the world.  The chaotic world that takes the place of Pax Americana is a frightening one to consider as Luce tells it.

Finally, in the fourth part, “Half Life,” Luce sketches, all too briefly, an ambitious plan to combat the decline of the democracies—one which would require a recognition by both right and left that we can’t keep ‘playing to the base’ no matter how righteous it makes us feel.  Some new common narrative must take the place of the Great Divide.

There have been a lot of books out there that try to explain what’s going on in the Heartlands.  I’ve highlighted a few in this blog, such as Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, and Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing LandAdd J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to that list as well.

But Luce’s book pulls back the lens so that we can see that the change is not just out here, but everywhere.  And a shaming moralism is no way to point the way to a brighter future for those who feel left behind.  “If politics is persuasion, these are dangerous tactics,” Luce says.  “There is a thin line between convincing people of the merits of a case and suggesting they are moral outcasts if they fail to see it.” (188)

There’s a theological argument to make here as well, which is not in Luce’s bailiwick.  It’s no more complex than the Golden Rule.  In seeing the world through the eyes of the other, we recognize a humanity that transcends our political assumptions.  Reading, and shuddering along with, Edward Luce, I wonder if we still have eyes to see.

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Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#1 Lincoln in the Bardo (& a recap)

LincolnintheBardoThere are certain things you know you’re going to find when you sit down to read a George Saunders story.  It will be weird, funny, engaging, and surprisingly deep.  I expected no less from Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel and I was not disappointed.

The book, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, uses a little-known but poignant episode from Abraham Lincoln’s life as a center around which to turn: Lincoln’s late night visit to a DC cemetery in the early part of the Civil War to visit the mausoleum where his young son, Willie, lies dead.  From that point of connection with history, Saunders creates a universe of characters – ghosts who are watching and lamenting their own unresolved lives.

Lincoln is interesting, but it’s the ghosts who take center stage.  They are the ones who, like the dead in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, carry, in exaggerated form, the distortions of their lives, waiting until they can accept the peace that awaits them.  They cling to their past–not wanting to acknowledge their deaths, not wanting to let go of the ones they love, and not believing that the angels who visit can mean them anything but harm.

It’s haunting and beautiful and it’s my best read of 2017.  Click the link on the title above for my full review.

lysander-yuen-288916And now, to recap the Best Reads of 2017:

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

2. Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders & the Birth of the FBIby David Grann

4. Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

5. The Crucifixion:Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

7. All the Pretty Horsesby Cormac McCarthy

8. American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

9. Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James

10. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Other great reads:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Perhaps you’ll see in this Top Ten list the preoccupations of my reading life–what it means to inhabit a place, how it is that we live together and grow apart, and how a richer world inhabits this one.  Here’s to your good reading in 2018!

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #10 Strangers In Their Own Land

lysander-yuen-288916It’s been a great year for reading.  I credit Sarah Willson Craig for inviting me into a real mid-life reading renaissance.  She’s the one who posted the Better World Reading Challenge on Facebook in 2016 and got a group of friends committed.  I’m grateful.

Since everyone else is doing their end-of-the-year list, I decided to join the fray with a Heartlands Best Reads of 2017.  Some caveats: These are books I read in 2017, but they weren’t all published this year.  2017 books did get some extra points in the ranking, however.

Also, I’m not making any allowance for genre.  Fiction, non-fiction–theology and journalism–cats and dogs living together–it’s one big, unruly house on my nightstand.

Of course there are some great books that didn’t make the final list.  Here are a few of the near-misses that I loved reading this year (with links to reviews where I’ve done them):

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is not Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Given the quality of those books, you can see why the Top Ten are extra special to me.  So today we start the countdown with #10.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild was not one of the best-written of the Top Ten, but it lingered with me and proved to be a very useful book during a year when I was trying to get my mind around the Great Divide.  Her “deep story” that emerged from many days of living as a California sociologist in rural Louisiana was a very useful framework that reminded me of a Flannery O’Conner story.  A bonus for me was the opportunity to interview Hochschild and she turns out to be a delightful, perceptive, authentic person.

Why Books Will Win

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photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov via Unsplash

I’m making a wager that books will lead us to the future.

Heartlands came about as a desire to understand the present age, particularly from the perspective of rural America and rural church ministry.  In the beginning I was trying to figure out why the place where I live seemed suddenly so strange to me.  Things had shifted, and not just because of an unexpected outcome to the presidential election.  We had been shifting for some time and no politician could claim credit for creating the Great Divide.

What we lost was texture.  Red and blue became easy stand-ins for the complexities of our culture and we let the color labels define us.  We latched onto them as identity markers.  Who we are, in all our contradictions and quirks, was less interesting than a convenient narrative that prevented us from observing and thinking deeply.

As I wrote in a piece for Topology magazine, “Rural is Plural,” there was a tendency in some writers from the coastal cities that sounded like they were writing off the heartland.  The reason Heartlands is plural is because there is diversity here, too, that is unrecognized.  So I began to search for the lens and the language that would help me bring it to sight and voice.

The surprising thing is that literature has become one of the most useful tools in that search.  You know—books.  Stories have the capacity to carry so much more freight than other forms of communication.  Good stories don’t force the world into neat categories and simple morals.  Characters in a book should always be able to surprise us because, like real human beings, that have complex motivations that they don’t always understand.  That’s certainly the case for biblical characters.

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photo by Lysander Yuen via Unsplash

So the jaunts this blog has taken into books and interviews with authors like Alix Hawley, Trudy Hale, and Arlie Russell Hochschild, and with the photographer Michael Mergen, have ended up not being diversions but central to the whole project.  Perhaps the best language for an age that has destroyed truth is the vernacular of art, which is groping, not desperately, but confidently in search of new truth.  It’s obvious that the old vehicles have broken down—science, politics, and the like.  But the arts still sparkle – underfunded as they are.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice” — T.S. Eliot

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice,” T.S. Eliot says in ‘Little Gidding.’  So I’ll keep reading and writing, awaiting another voice.  Literature may not be the fluff we have presumed it to be.  It may the gateway to what comes next.

It’s a Howlin’ Shame

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Photo by Cristian Newman via Unsplash

Crawling under the skin of the present age is a reality, an anthropology so old that it infests everything we do.  I felt it as I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s sociology of Tea Party Louisiana in Strangers in the Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  But it’s there in liberal moral puritanism.  It’s in the narcissism of Trump and the pretension of a hipster coffee bar.  It’s shame, back from the never-dead to be reckoned with once again.

“We need to talk about Addie Mae,” the blues singer Adia Victoria growls in a reference to herself on the song “It’s a Howlin’ Shame.”

“Oh that girl is a ghost

Burnin’ in a hell that don’t nobody know

White flag twistin’ in the wind
And at her best she is witherin’
And she all set for death, she can’t be saved.”

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Adia Victoria

The song is a mournful, angry descent into the pain of a young African-American woman growing up in South Carolina.  “Being the other in the South meant that I was never afforded a complacency with my history that so many Southern white people live with,” Victoria told an interviewer from i-D. “I understand, and still feel, the reasons why my ancestor’s blood was spilled on the very same land I live on. I am bound to this injustice because it was never made right.”

But, of course, the effect of this is to feel that she was never made right—that there is nothing she could do to be made visible and worthy in an environment she considered “hostile to my very existence.”  So she howls:

“A murder of crows

They followed her home

And they didn’t leave much

Just a bed of bones

Get away, away

Away, away, away”

Then the title of the song twists.  The descriptive third-person voice sinks into the first person.  “I’m a howlin’ shame.”

Shame-based discourse does this.  It dehumanizes.  It takes behaviors and qualities and totalizes them into causes for disregarding the worth and dignity of a person or group.  Trump voters become an undifferentiated gaggle of racists.  Democrats are “not even people,” the president’s son says.

At its heart, shame is experienced as a profound lack.  When we are in touch with shame, we have a sense of being insufficient, defective, deformed, unlovable, incapable, and generally ‘not enough.’  “At her best she is witherin’/And she all set for death, she can’t be saved.”

There is a psychological component to shame.  My own time in therapy has convinced me of its awful power in my own life.  The thing that can’t be said, even in the safest company, festers and grows.  Partly because of the perversity of believing that I still have to seduce my therapist into accepting me and that the saying of the thing would bring the whole enterprise to ruin.  Partly because I don’t want to hear myself saying the thing.  Mostly because to give voice to it would cause masks to drop, walls to crumble, certainties to tremble, and worlds to change.

The last thing is certainly true.  But discovering that truth was one of the great liberations of that time.

Then, of course, there is the next layer down.  And the layer after that.  As John Donne puts it in puns on his name in one of my favorite of his poems, “A Hymn to God the Father”:

“Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun

         A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?

                When thou hast done, thou hast not done,

                        For I have more.”

Eventually you know that no matter how deep the confession goes and how many “unforgivable” things you throw out to God/your therapist you will always have more.  It gradually becomes clear that there is no ridding yourself of the defects you imagine or cleansing yourself of mistakes.  The ones you bring to speech are blessedly defanged but, oh, there is always something else.  I have more.

So you come to understand that there is something more essential at stake here.  Wherever you go, there you are.  You, with your darkness and your pain.  You, with your perverse tendencies to seek affirmation in a funhouse mirror of your desire.  You, with your suspicions and your fears.  You, with your doubts that you could ever make yourself acceptable or be made acceptable.  Shame.  It’s a howlin’ shame.

The therapist, or pastor, or trusted confessor provides some relief.  He or she, by not turning in disgust for the door at your tentative honesty, can give you the gift of being seen.  Or as Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground put it in “I’ll Be Your Mirror”:

“When you think the night has seen your mind

That inside you’re twisted and unkind

Let me stand to show that you are blind

Please put down your hands

‘Cause I see you

I’ll be your mirror”

Except that inside we are twisted and unkind and we need to see that, too.  A good confessor won’t tell us we’re OK.  But she will clear the space for us to stand in dignity anyway and point out all the ways we are working, below the surface, against our interest, to erase that space.

51K+KMGhnwL._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Ethics, saw shame as elemental and relational.  It is the “ineffable recollection of [a person’s] estrangement from the origin; it is grief for this estrangement, and the powerless longing to return to unity with the origin.”  Like the nakedness of Adam and Eve in the garden, we are exposed as disunited, lacking something essential.

Bonhoeffer felt that shame had a role to play in the journey to God.  Though it leads us to put on masks, “beneath the mask there is the longing for the restoration of the lost unity.”  In human relationships, particularly our most intimate ones, we pull down those masks for another and risk being wounded.  In the spiritual realm, shame is the sign of a yearning for union with God.  “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you” to quote Psalm 42:1.

It is unseemly to talk of such longing in our disenchanted world.  To speak, without irony, of dreams and hopes, desires and loves is to invite debunking, ridicule, and scorn—shaming, to be blunt.  And then it will not just be your words or your beliefs or your political views that will be held up to the klieg lights for interrogation, but your very self.  It is who you are that’s problematic.

We need to talk about Addie Mae.  She’s the victim of the distorted lens of the world that allows no place in the flesh for redemption and reunion.  And her howling is the deep cry of shame seeking some recognition and release.

Talking to Anarchists – An interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – part 3 of 3

By now you know the story, if you’ve been following since Part 1: Blue state sociologist goes to oil patch Louisiana to try and understand the environment and the people of this Red state.  Writes Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Talks with an Eastern Shore preacher about what she learned.  In Part 3 of this interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild we explore the possibilities of bridging the Great Divide.

hochschild_arlie_russell_paige_parsonsYou say liberals have their own deep story, just like the folks that you were talking to there.  And one of the things that I think about in terms of the Church is how–especially in the ’80s when the evangelical Christian movement became a real political movement–how our ‘deep story’ and the Christian faith felt hijacked to me.  I’m sure the folks in the evangelical wing felt the same about some of the liberal Christianity that came before and has been around since, too.  So, is there potential for stories to link up?  I don’t hope for a common narrative out of this, but I just wonder if there’s a way.  I mean, the fishing trip [discussed in part 2] sounds like a great way to do that.  You start building new narratives just by being in each other’s presence.

Yeah, and to see a search for common ground.  Check out the Bridge Alliance.  It is an umbrella group of some 70 or 80 different organizations that has just popped up.  This is just people-to-people kind of groups with names like Hi from the Other Side, or Living Room Conversations, or Read Across the Aisle.  These are all groups that are trying to get Left and Right together to see if they can find common ground in respectful ways.  I think we can do it.   It’s also something I’d like to see grow through the schools, through churches, unions (in the places where we still have them), to counter the divisive forces which are growing in this culture.

I had somebody from Lake Charles who was in the book.  She was a single mom with her two kids.  They were guests here in Berkeley, and we had a living room conversation here.  The last night, she said, “You know, I’m going to start a living room conversation back in Lake Charles.”  So it can be done.

So, what’s your next project?  What’re you working on now?

Well, I’m still dealing with the consequences, the aftermath of this book.  I’m still giving a lot of talks.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I bet you got a lot of phone calls on November 9th, didn’t you?

Yes, exactly.  I did, and I’m still getting them, and actually talking to a number of church groups.  And people will say, “What do we do?”  So, I have some answers for that and some suggestions.  One of them is see if we can re-establish channels across these divides, because we’re living in a different economic geography these days.

The have and have-nots of globalization.  I think that underlies some of this Blue/Red divide, so that you have people in the South, people on the coasts, and each facing different economic fates.  I’m living in the San Francisco Bay area.  It’s a boom town.  It’s like a gold rush, and they can’t see problems, don’t feel a sense of decline, don’t fear for their fate.  They have problems, but it’s not systemic or global from their vantage point.  But in the rural hinterland, it feels very different.

Yeah, the West Coast and the Northeast Corridor seem farther and farther away from here [Virginia’s Eastern Shore].  The realities are so different.  That whole thing that you point out in the book of people looking at the success of economically successful areas, and feeling like that’s not a narrative for them anymore, is certainly true.

Right.  Right.

Do you see yourself as an advocate for the bridge, or do you see yourself as the self-described liberal that you are—a disciple for that cause?  Or both?

I’m focusing on bridging, very definitely.  I see three pillars of activism that I’d like to see engaged.  One is the defense of democracy and the very principle of checks and balances, an independent judiciary and press.  I think that’s pillar one, and we ought to do everything we can to defend those.  I do feel they’re being challenged now.  I do think that’s the first order of business.

The second pillar would be to totally renovate the platform of the Democratic party, which I think does not really acknowledge or address the anxieties of the people up to now.  I’m very critical of Democratic party.  That’s the second thing we need to do.

The third is to reach across the aisle.  We’ve got friends on the other side and out there, many values we share in common, and issues that we can find common ground on.  I think it’s important to search them out.  So, I’m really focussed on that third pillar, but I see it all as part of what we need as a coordinated effort.

I have been talking to some people that are anarchists here.  They’re violent and they’re terrible.  They’re giving us a huge black eye here in Berkeley.  I don’t know why they’re doing this, setting fires and stuff.  I’m appalled by it.  But there’s a woman who came up to me after I denounced violence at one talk, which I do routinely around here.  She said, “Oh, I have some friends through Facebook.  Would you like to meet them?”  The Black Bloc, they’re called.

I took a moment, thinking, “These are the last people I want to meet.”  And then thought, “No, they’re the first people.”  Yes, I would like to get to know them.  So, that’s another thing that I’m doing.  I’m trying to get them to not be violent.

Well, you’re a brave adventurer.  I’m really grateful for your willingness to bring us along with you in your writing.  So, thanks for the time.

Churches & Dysfunctional Government – An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – Part 2 of 3

IMG_5610We are repenting from our assumption that government can be an adequate expression of our faith.  That’s one of the marks of these times for Christians on both sides of the Great Divide.  

When Arlie Russell Hochschild, the Berkley sociologist, went to Louisiana to try to understand the deep story of people on the American Right, she found that churches were a significant part of the story.  In the last part of my interview with Hochschild, we talked about her project which led to her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  Today we talk churches, dysfunctional government, and, O yes, a fishing trip across the Great Divide:

 

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Arlie Russell Hochschild

You evidently spent some time in a lot of churches down in Louisiana while you were there.  What was your impression of the role religion plays in this whole narrative?

Oh, it’s enormous.  I think this may be one source of the partition, between red and blue, but certainly not entirely.  The churches were hugely important as a source of community, and solace, and practical help for particular problems.  We were at a Baptist church, a Pentecostal church.  I didn’t make it to the Methodist church.  They’re known to be more progressive.  And the Catholic church less so.  But these large churches—I came to understand why they feel important.  People tithe to them very willingly and happily, so taxes to the government–which help the line-cutters and not them–are more resented, because they feel they’re already being taxed in a way, but for something they believe in.

A lot of social services are associated with these churches.  They’re filling in where the government is lifting out in a way.  So, there’d be a gym.  “Oh, my mother-in-law lost 50 pounds at the Baptist gym.”  Or, “Oh, when our marriage was in trouble, we went to the counselors at the church.”  Or, “There’s a teen area.  My 12-year-old likes to go with her friends there and to summer camp.”  It really had a surround sound kind of feel to it, like you weren’t just there an hour and a half on Sunday.  It was more a way of life.  There were several services during the day.  I kind of felt that it had absorbed the space that a dysfunctional government had left.

Yeah.  When you say ‘dysfunctional government’, which of the levels of government did you feel was the most dysfunctional, or impacted the people the most? 

The state.  There was big petrochemical development, and they proudly called themselves the buckle in America’s energy belt.  But oil was the dominant economic force.  The oil companies had really–I came to conclude–bought the state of Louisiana.  The environmental agencies that were designated the job of protecting people from pollution weren’t doing that.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_There was the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.  It didn’t even have the name ‘protection’ in it.  There were permit hearings [to determine] ‘Could Sasol lift out so many metric tons of water from Lake Charles, and disperse–they call it ‘produced water,’ well, it’s got toxic chemicals in it–back in.  Well, yes, the permit would go right through.  People would object, but it went through anyway.  That was the state department of environmental quality that was doing this.

So, people came to think, “Oh, goodness.  I’m paying taxes for the nice house for this officer for Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, and he’s not protecting me.”

If you step back three steps, you could say that the state was doing the moral dirty work of the oil company.  It works like this: Oil companies were given, by Governor Bobby Jindal and the state government, $1.6 billion in incentives money to lure them to Louisiana, (as if they would go somewhere else).  With that money, they had a lot of money to give out, which they did in donations to the Audubon Society and so on.

Meanwhile, the state government also made sure that its office of environmental protection, on the one hand, promised to protect people from pollution, and didn’t, so that the Louisiana Industrial Alliance could proudly boast that regulations were as swift and easily guided–easily bypassed, in essence–more so than in any other state.  I put it differently in the book, but that’s what it amounted to.

So, people felt the state isn’t doing its job, and that a federal government is just a bigger, badder version than this captured Louisiana state government.  That suggests that we really ought to find out: Are these Red states actually more corrupt, more bought by industry, than Blue states?  Are people actually responding very reasonably to the disappointments of living with a captured state?

Does that mean that they’re also being redirected—turning that anger towards the federal government and letting the state get off free?

Yes, right.  When I say ‘captured’, I mean captured by industry.  The state becomes captured by the industries that settle in it.  That’s because they actually pay the election fee; they pay candidates political donations.  They are a source of revenue for the mass media, so that radio bites its tongue on reporting on environmental disasters.  You just don’t hear about them.  Or ads to newspapers.  The American Press in Lake Charles never mentioned problems with the environment.

So, various branches of civic society have been bought, in fact.  I think that is a realistic worry.  I didn’t go in knowing that, but I came out thinking, “Well, I get it, why they’re so cynical about government.”  If they think all government works like this government, wow.  I’d think the same thing.

IMG_3306This Mike Schaff that you uncovered was a really interesting character.  He seems like a really rare flower, combining being an environmental activist and a Tea Party member.  Are there more like him out there? 

You know, there are more like him out there.  Right where he is, no, he remains a rare flower.  But in northern Louisiana, since the book came out, there’s a group of Tea Party people that say, “No.  Our water…the salt content is going up, because of…I think, fracking.”  And they want to stop that.  So, yes.

Actually, Yale University has an environmental polling data source.  There’s a center for research on attitudes towards the environment that has the latest and best data on that.  Renewable energy is a crossover issue.  The Right believes in it not quite as much as the Left, but it’s crossover, and we could really agree on that.  Donald Trump isn’t playing to that, but if you look at how right-wingers really feel, they’re very interested in it.

In fact, I took my son, who is a big environmentalist.  He’s a member of the energy commission here in the state of California—a big environmentalist and very interested in solar energy.  I took him down with me last time, after the book was published, to spend a few days with Mike Schaff.  I said, “Let’s just go out fishing.  I want you guys to see if you can come to some common ground on renewable energy.  I’m just going to hold the tape recorder.”  And they did.

In the end, Mike Schaff said, “Oil’s end is coming–we’re running out of it anyway.  I think solar energy–I’d love to have it on my roof, on my boat, everywhere.”  David, my son, pops up, “Well, and it would also mitigate the effects of global warming.”  Mike said, “No, no, no.  I don’t believe in global warming.  People around here don’t, but if you want to sell solar energy here in our oil country for right-wingers like myself, what you should say is that when you have a solar panel, you’re an independent producer and you are feeding clean energy into the grid and getting paid for it.  You’re independent.”  So, Mike Shaff was telling my son what to say to sell this idea to people like himself.

Part 3 – Talking with Anarchists.

Crossing the Great Divide: An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild – part 1 of 3

hochschild_arlie_russell_paige_parsonsCan a Berkley sociologist and a Louisiana oil patch Tea Party member find common ground?  That was the experiment Arlie Russell Hochschild (the sociologist) undertook when she found she was having a hard time understanding the forces that were shaping Red States.  

When I wrote a review of her book about the project, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, I was intrigued by the “deep story” she narrated, which she proposed as a way of illuminating the worldview of many rural white Americans.  It rang true to me in a way that feels more universal than the insights in that other popular book trying to explain the 2016 election, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

The deep story Hochschild puts together is marked by a sense that, for the people she talked to, the American Dream of a materially better life is not working for them anymore and that they feel it is being impacted by a government that puts other people (immigrants, Syrian refugees, minorities) unfairly ahead of them.  The deep story also uncovers a resentment at being told how to feel by people “at the front of the line” who seem to have made it.

In this three-part interview, I talk with Arlie, (can I call you Arlie? – she’s very personable), about her journey, her interests, the church, and, because I just can’t help myself, Flannery O’Connor.

What made you undertake this experiment?

I was sitting in my office in the sociology department, U.C. Berkeley, six years ago, and it just came to me that many of the things that I’ve long been committed to and hoped would make a better world—especially for working families that aren’t getting time at home—none of this is going to come to pass in my lifetime unless we really look at a growing movement that feels threatened by the government itself, that isn’t thinking of good government [but instead] is thinking of evil, abusive government.  That’s the right wing, and I don’t understand it.

I decided, “I’m in a bubble.”  In a geographic bubble, in a media bubble—I read The New York Times, The Washington Post—and an electronic bubble.  If you look at the screen of your computer, it gives you yourself back in certain things that are advertised, blogs you read.

So, I thought, “I’m going to get out of here, and try and take my moral and political alarm system off and really permit myself a great deal of curiosity and interest in people that I know I will find deep differences with.  I’ll find an enclave that’s as far right as Berkeley, California is left, and go there and get to know people, and climb an empathy wall.”  It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Really?  How so?

I’ve been a sociologist a long time, but this really taught me a lot.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_You obviously met some interesting characters in the course of your study there.  How did you take those individual stories and work towards that deep story? 

I got to know people and they were very generous-hearted.  [They thought], “Here’s this lady from the coast and she’s in enclaves, and she’s writing a book, and she’s a retired teacher, and she’s worried about the divide.  Well, we’re worried about the divide, too.  So, come on, and I’ll take you to where I was born, take you to the school I went to, show you around town, introduce you to my relatives.”  That happened to me a great number of times.  It was absolutely fabulous getting to know people.

I was just listening all the time, and then putting together all that I was hearing.  I would hear it, I would get on a plane, I would come back here and sit in my study and try to think of how all those beliefs drew on what images.  How is it that we come to feel the way we do about a situation?  That’s how the deep story was born.  It’s basically translating all these different opinions and feelings that I was learning that people had, and translating them into an allegory, a story.

That was an act of my mental process.  Then, I went back and said, “Does this feel real?  Let me try this out on you.  Does this work?  Or does it not really capture what you’re feeling?”  Some people [agreed], just as is.  “Oh, you read my mind,” says Lee Sherman.  Or “I live your allegory,” emails Mike Schaff.  Others would say, “Well, wait a minute.  You don’t have that we’re paying taxes for the people that are cutting ahead.”

So, they would change it.  Madonna Matthews said, “Well, wait a minute.  We got a line.  We move to a different line.”  They would modify the ending, the middle.  So, I put that in, too.  Then, I began to think past the book, “Well, I wonder if other right-wing movements in Europe and elsewhere around the world have versions of this.  Is displacement, the fear of that, dread of that, a main motivation?”  Or does this same story have a different endings?

That’s where my mind is now.  I’m really interested in out-groups and in-groups, and how we develop them.  Then, of course, how do we undo them?

I’ll be really interested to see what you find out from that sort of research, because it does seem like the deep story you uncovered has a real American feel to it with the whole belief of “you work hard, you get ahead.” Some might think, “What’s interrupting that story for me as a traditionally powerful person within the South are these people cutting in line in front of me.”

Right.  I think in Europe, though, it’s not falsely entitled insiders that are cutting ahead [in the deep story], but aliens from the outside—Muslims, refugees.  It’s not an insider–it’s an outsider.  I think what’s feared in the South’s deep story are kind of upstart insiders.  So, the nature of the line-cutters can vary across national lines.

I was amazed, reading the book this Spring after the election, how you had the Syrian refugee in there as a character who’s one of the folks that’s a source of fear in the narrative.  That really feels recent.

And Muslims.  There are almost no Muslims in Louisiana.  There’s a tremendous fear of them, too.

Right.  You mentioned an allegory.  Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor’s short story, ‘Revelation’?

No.

It put that whole story in a new light for me, because–and she was writing in the 1950’s–it’s about a white woman who is coming to terms with the new status of her black neighbors, and feeling like she has been unfairly maligned and shamed in the midst of her story.  But she has this image at the very end where she sees this vision of a swinging bridge reaching up to heaven, and there are all of these folks that she would’ve considered unworthy climbing up ahead of her.

Her final way of dealing with that image and how disturbing it was for her is to say, “Put that bottom rail on top.  There’ll still be a top and bottom.”  And it just struck me that this is a very old narrative that you’ve uncovered.

Yes.  Thank you for flagging that for me.  I’m going to read that.

Part 2–Churches & Dysfunctional Government.

Shame on the Bayou – a Review of Strangers in Their Own Land

IMG_6244Shame, 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.

51b54MMSZnL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_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.