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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Rural Soul: Evolution of a Liberal, Guest Blogger – Sara Keeling

I’m traveling back from Israel & Palestine Monday, but not before the Rev. Sara Porter Keeling continues her guest hosting with a post on anthropology, theology, and the continuing journey of discerning the Word.  Many thanks to Sara for bringing her rural soul to Heartlands while I’ve been away…

Sara Porter Keeling

Does loving our neighbors look like being politically correct and choosing our language for each other carefully? Does wanting access to health care and child care and equal pay and education make me a snowflake?  
 

It goes without saying that we have trouble hearing one another and talking to each other. But it seems to be helpful to try to understand why we may think and feel the way that we do: particularly about social and political issues.  

I used to be concerned that The UMC might allow for the full inclusion of LGBT persons. Now I’m much more deeply concerned that we never will.  

 It doesn’t feel right that people who are gifted for ministry, called by God, should not be ordained because of who they are attracted to and who they commit their lives to.  

 It doesn’t feel right that that is the number one issue, life choice, character trait, even as we allow for outright, named, unquestionable sins to exist amongst our clergy. We pick and choose what we want out of the Bible. We pick and choose what we want out of the Book of Discipline. Are we all so blameless and striving for perfection? We don’t mind sinful clergy so long as they are not gay. And there’s nothing else to say except that we are fascinated and grossed out and consumed by sex.

I managed to leave the town of Orange, Virginia as a moderate conservative. I confess that I voted for a Republican my first election.  Shortly thereafter, my liberal arts education lived up to its name. That’s what happens to all small town girls right? We go off to college, cut our hair short, and become raging feminists. That was true for me.

I majored in Anthropology and English at UVA. And yes, since you asked, my first paying job—post diploma—was making coffee.  

Brooks Hall at UVA

My intro-level anthropology classes started with an apology tour of the oppression the discipline had caused. I barely understood what anthropology was in those days.  (It’s the study of human culture—“anthro” referring to human beings, “ology” to the study thereof.)  But before we could fully understand cultural criticism or current archaeological methods, we had to take a look at the history of the discipline.  

It turns out that the study of human culture was a very euro-centric, very 19th-century way of documenting and cataloging other cultures–the non-European, therefore non-civilized, generally inferior and primitive cultures. This way of study was often to prove such inferiority and primitiveness in the first place. To document cultural aspects as they “vanished” in the march of progress, civilization, colonization, slavery. Often proving along the way exactly why these cultures and groups of people were so “easily” destroyed and obliterated or assimilated or enslaved.  

In general, keeping bones, and other sacred objects that were acquired through “discovery.” Despicable things such as keeping skulls in museums to measure was also a practice. Which is why many indigenous peoples are dubious, even unwelcoming, to an anthropologist in their midst—to an outsider attempting to tell their story or stealing their ancestral heirlooms.

Now done differently, of course, anthropology is a way of actually understanding how very different and unique and valuable each culture is—how so many things that we consider natural and normal are really our cultural ways of understanding.

To uncover the lost stories and different perspectives that were lost to the written history books. To challenge our assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, and on and on.

I took all of this and thought what does God have to say about this? About indigenous cultures, minorities, colonists and the colonized?  Aren’t we all God’s children no matter the winners and losers of history?

I had taken a bit of a break from church at that point, but I returned and picked up at the Wesley Foundation. Where Alex was serving as director. (It all comes back to Alex, like it’s his blog or something.) I discovered that the language of Wesley and our Social Principles aligned quite nicely with my social conscience. My academic language and the native language of my religious upbringing were not at all at odds.  

As a minister, I bring cultural understanding to the scriptures. Realizing that our stories as the people of God are so highly tribal and interwoven with all of the stories of God. From other times and places and cultures and understandings. Sometimes the people of Israel were the oppressed and downtrodden. And sometimes they were the mighty victor and the oppressor. Both slaves and slave holders throughout history. Sometimes with God on their side and sometimes not. Words that were not written for us in 21st Century America, and yet words that still speak to us and guide us.  

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.

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.

Post-election Reading – my interview with Mark Athitakis concludes – part 3

i-m-priscilla-165366I discovered Mark Athitakis and his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Beltin an article on The Huffington Post where Mark was interviewed.  Then I thought, if HufPo can do it, why can’t I?  So, I contacted Mark and well, here we are.

Mark’s field is Midwestern fiction and he has written on books for a number of publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Belt Magazine, which publishes his “Reading the Midwest” column.  Previous entries have covered the plural Midwest and keeping the Midwest weird.  Today – reading après le déluge:

So, you say in that interview with The Huffington Post that you wrote this book mostly before Trump’s election.  And I’ve read the other selection of your suggested reading list for the time of Trump.  What are the connections you see between the kind of writing that you’ve been doing and what’s happening politically in the region?

You know, I wish I’d whipped up a better grand, unified theory about this just because of the interview.

Yeah, well, nobody’s got one these days.

41emhjjubll-_sx348_bo1204203200_I was writing on this book.  I was just really no different from anybody else as regards to Trump.  I just thought, well, he was an interesting sensation, but wasn’t somebody who was really going to capture the imaginations of enough Americans to win the election when November rolled around.  But I grew up in a Chicago suburb, and the Chicago area in general, is treated as this monolithically Democratic stronghold.  When people hear that, especially people who are outside the region, they say, “Well, it must be a progressive place.”  And no, it’s not.

I’ve lived there, and there’s lots of people, especially older white people, who harbor a lot of resentment that goes back to the 50s and 60s, and weren’t onboard with the civil rights movement, and they voted Democratic because they wanted their trash picked up on time, and that was the party that you voted for if you wanted your trash picked up.  So, it was more a practical vote than it was anything that reflected their ethics or their values.

So, obviously, that got tapped into in the last election, and there’s a smallish shelf of fiction that reflects some of that.  I think you see it early on in a book like Joyce Carol Oates’s Them, which is an interesting book about the ’68/’69 Detroit riots.  And it focuses on that neglected, upper-/lower-middle class of whites who are not in poverty, but also feel like they’ve been ignored by the system, and people you might call Trump voters now.

You see it in books like Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, which is about people who are struggling in that area of Pennsylvania; or in books like American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, which is set in central Michigan and dealing with people who are really just scraping by after factories and plants closed in the 70s and 80s.  There’s a lot of people who got hit very hard and felt neglected and felt unled and were obviously looking for a leader who was going to speak to them.  None of these books are explicitly political books, but they are about these people.

I gave a reading last week here in Phoenix.  Someone was asking me, “Do you think we’re going to see more books about this?”  And I said it’ll take a few years.  It took a few years for novels about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to appear.  So, we are probably going to see more of these books about what is happening in the Midwest and what is going on culturally, but there’s enough evidence that we already have some of these books now.

There’s no book that will say, “Here is what happened in the Midwest that changed things.”  But, again, it’s a place full of micro-climates.  There’s a big difference between what’s happening on the east end of the Ohio River Valley in Ohio and the west end of it.  There’s a big difference between that and what’s going on in Cleveland, and different from that and what’s happening in Detroit.  Clearly there was enough of a critical mass of people to say that they were making a decision to vote for Trump, but I just hope that whatever book comes out, doesn’t say, “Well, you know, of course, all the people who live in Ohio are like this or all the people who live in Michigan are like this.”