Book: Strangers in Their Own Land (2016)

Teal Deer

TL;DR

Why do people who need environmental protection call for the killing of the EPA? This book explores this contradiction. In doing so, it talks about the suffering that deregulation has caused in coastal Louisiana, and portrays the attitudes that allow it to keep happening.

strangers_in_their_own_land_final_revStrangers in Their Own Land (2016) by Arlie Russell Hochschild

The author, a sociology professor from UC Berkeley, went to southern Louisiana in order to study the attitudes and psychology of and the social influences on local Tea Partiers. In particular, she does this by focusing her attention entirely through the lens of attitudes toward environmental protection among this group of people. In doing so, she finds a bizarre contradiction — many of the Tea Partiers she meets are directly badly affected by industrial pollution of their sources of water… and yet they continue to enthusiastically support politicians railing against the EPA and promising subsidies and tax benefits for the companies that have a pattern of poisoning the water again and again and again. Why?

I think the best part of this book is actually its research and journalism about a problem that I think is very underreported (maybe?) — the catastrophic effect of factory dumping and drilling accidents on poor communities in heavily de-regulated coastal regions in the South (Texas and Louisiana being the worst). Outside this book, I’ve never encountered a newspaper or news program signal-boosting this problem. I vaguely remember hearing news reports of sinkholes within the last five years, but never the cause of them (natural gas drilling accident). There is a lot of long-term suffering in these communities even if you limit the scope to environmental disasters and how they have poisoned human beings. For that alone, I think it’s worth reading.

However, aside from that, I think the main thing people appreciate this book for is a fairly in-depth look at the mentality of Tea Partiers — how they view the world, why they arrive at the political positions they do, why liberals tick them off, etc. This synopsis will mostly focus on the insights in this area.

The contradiction

The main contradiction that this book grapples with is that the people in most dire need of environmental regulation and protection are the ones that consistently vote for politicians promising to kill the EPA and similar governmental bodies. She found this connection by analyzing the voting patterns of individual districts and comparing it to a map of the amount of pollution in parts of the U.S.

The book’s biggest bombshell (in my opinion) is when the author talks about a document (“Political Difficulties Facing Waste-to-Energy Conversion Plant Siting”) produced by a consulting firm in 1984 Los Angeles about which communities would be least resistant to locally undesirable land use (plants that are loud, smelly, polluting, etc.). Their profile of the least resistant communities:

Longtime residents of small towns in the South or Midwest; high school educated only; Catholic; uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism; involved in mining, farming, ranching (“nature exploitative occupations”); Conservative; Republican; advocates of the free market.

To me, this solves the contradiction the author is struggling with — the reason why the people who suffer from pollution are the ones opposing the agencies that protect people from pollution is that they were ideologically predisposed to supporting the right of companies to pollute over the right of citizens to live in a pollution-free environment. They have the weakest immune system i.e. a history of collective organizing to fight for their rights and/or an antagonistic relationship to corporations.

This contradiction has very painful consequences. The author profiles someone who was directly affected by a sinkhole. Despite his Tea Party leanings, he also becomes a reluctant environmental activist, writing dozens of letters to politicians and newspapers calling attention to the sinkhole, demanding reparations to the victims, urging support of drilling regulation, even asking the EPA to redo an investigation of the event because he didn’t trust the conclusions Louisiana’s environmental department came to. He’s also involved in an interesting movement called the Green Army. However, he finds that these movements are almost entirely made up of local leftists, not his fellow Tea Partiers. It is very hard for him to get conservatives on board environmental activism. As such, this contradiction makes solving very real problems very hard.

Corporations vs. governments (vs. the people)

One theme running through the book is the attitudes that the people featured in the book have toward corporations and state and federal government, as well as the effect that corporations and government have on the people. Both corporations and the government benefit people and harm people. However, overall, the Tea Partiers profiled in this book had a much more positive view of companies than they did the government.

The harms of corporations are fairly well-known in leftist circles. The author details a cycle of exploitation and impoverishment (which matches one laid out in What’s the Matter with Kansas — a book I will also summarize).

Dangerous chemical industries inflict long-term damage on the productive capability of the region and make the communities poorer (impoverished).

In particular, the one connection here that people are probably least aware of is the “Corporate resource extraction” → “Poverty, job insecurity” link. The author focuses on the situation in coastal Louisiana specifically: the chemical manufacturing of yesterday and the oil and natural gas drilling of today, when unregulated, contaminate water. This badly affects other major industries in town: fishing, tourism, etc. It also makes locals sick, which in severe cases permanently ruins their ability to work. As such, these dangerous chemical industries inflict long-term damage on the productive capability of the region and make the communities poorer (impoverished). The author talks about how right-wing politicians often frame environmental protection as trading off with jobs/growth — you can only have one! But in reality, deregulation of Big Oil and Gas leads to having neither: you damage the environment and shrink the regional economy. It’s another false dichotomy to be wary of.

The benefits of corporations is that they pay wages. They allow people to convert their hard-working spirit into food, shelter, gifts, etc. for their family. This conversion is a source of pride and honor for people. When accompanied by movement up the corporate ladder, people also feel like they’re growing, like life is getting better and easier. The suffering they paid with hard, thankless work earlier in their life is followed by a gentle coasting later in life. The problem is that this system seems to be increasingly falling apart. People have to work harder to make ends meet, the job prospects for people without a college education are shrinking, wages have stagnated, mid-career layoffs in the wake of the Great Recession are crushing, household savings going into retirement are often zero (one study indicates between 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 baby boomers have zero retirement savings; another study indicates this number is almost 1 in 2), etc.

As for the government, it two of the beneficial functions it serves (in theory) are (1) regulation of corporations / serving as a check on their power, and (2) giving out welfare. However, the experiences people have with the government performing these functions are often quite negative.

For regulation, even when it’s done right, it can create anxiety and hardship. For example, the author talks about a time when the government was considering putting out an advisory that the fish caught in Louisiana contained dangerous levels of mercury. While this action responsibly protects citizens (by warning them of health risks), other citizens (fishers and local restaurants) were worried about the negative impacts on their business.

And that’s assuming the government takes action at all. The author talks to people who notice how regulation agencies are quick to fine small-time polluters, but let companies responsible for massive, sometimes long-term, pollution off scot-free. In addition, the disasters detailed in the book could not have happened if the government was performing safety audits as it was supposed to. When government succumbs to regulatory capture, it no longer serves as a check on corporate power and harm but magnifies them.

For welfare, many people in the area had experiences being on welfare or knew someone personally who was on welfare (19% of Louisiana’s households are on SNAP). They often have experiences of being thrown off of welfare unexpectedly (due to not meeting strict requirements). The income threshold is very low, so people can be struggling to make ends meet and still not qualify for assistance. If you live in a poor community, you’re also more likely to know someone playing the system, running various scams — which includes trying to make a buck off of the food stamps system. The relationship people have with the government is therefore one marked by shame, dependence/lack of self-sufficiency, powerlessness in the face of an uncaring bureaucracy, and seeing other people cheating the system. By contrast, when they work for a wage, they feel like they have something to be proud of, that working brings them honor, that they are achieving self-sufficiency, rather than receiving a band-aid that tides them over until next month.

Unfortunately, I think there is very deep disagreement on this issue of corporations vs. government (vs. the people). Many on the right view companies as an antidote to government. Many on the left view government as an antidote to companies (but even still recognize that lobbying has basically rotted this essential governmental function from the inside). Ultimately, I think the second one is always going to be closer to the truth, because the government is accountable to people in ways that companies are not — there are mechanisms by which people can exert control or pressure on their governments that are not in place for the companies they work at.

One odd thing found by this book is that in these communities, people regularly overestimate the number of people the federal government employs. The typical guess is that 40% of people in their community work for the federal government (actual numbers: 2% work for federal; total of 17% work for governments at any level). But the author doesn’t go into why this is, or if this is indicative of or influences people’s attitudes toward the government.

The conservative and liberal deep story

The author talks about a metaphorical story that resonates with the people she talks to. For conservatives, this deep story goes like this:

They are waiting in line towards a hill. At the top of the hill is the American Dream. The line keeps on getting slower and slower, though. And they find that whenever a group — women, minorities, immigrants — complains about injustice enacted upon them, they get bumped up in the line! People immediately cater to their complaints. Heck, sometimes people complain about the impact of policies on endangered marsh birds, and the marsh birds are catered to! But the white people1 in line either are seen to not have anything to complain about or have prided themselves on their willingness to swallow their complaints and get ahead by working hard. So they don’t complain (either because they can’t or because they’re unwilling to), and yet watch as the only winning strategy seems to be to adopt a self-pitying “poor me” type of mindset.

The author also provides the liberal deep story:

As you get to know them, you’ll find progressives have their own deep story, one parallel to yours, one they feel you may misunderstand. In it, people stand around a large public square inside of which are creative science museums for kids, public art and theater programs, libraries, schools — a state-of-the-art public infrastructure available for use by all. They are fiercely proud of it. Some of them built it. Outsiders can join those standing around the square, since a lot of people who are insiders now were outsiders in the past; incorporation and acceptance of difference feel like American values represented in the Statue of Liberty. But in the liberal deep story, an alarming event occurs; marauders invade the public square, recklessly dismantle it, and selfishly steal away bricks and concrete chunks from the public buildings at its center. Seeing insult added to injury, those guarding the public square watch helplessly as those who’ve dismantled it construct private McMansions with the same bricks and pieces of concrete, privatizing the public realm.

This is pretty accurate.

The role of racism and other bigotries in the deep story

Even though the conservative deep story removes racism from the picture, I think (and I believe author would agree) that this narrative is nonetheless 100% compatible with race being strongly at play.

For one, this personal story reveals a great deal of race-specificity, similar to the way Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America great again” did. Even though people of all races can agree on the goal of making America great (assuming this means something like: better job opportunities, less poverty, less suffering, more upward mobility, etc.), the slogan itself alienates large swathes of the U.S. with the word “again”. For many people in the U.S., America has never really been that great to them. Jim Crow wasn’t that long ago. People who are not white would be hard-pressed to name a decade since the Civil Rights Act where America was great. Similarly, the conservative deep story described by the author relies on the American Dream being attainable at some point and no longer. And yet for many people in the U.S., the American Dream is only recently starting to open up to people who look like them. The idea of a breakdown in the American Dream just… doesn’t make sense. From their point of view, it never worked.

So there’s already a huge racial differential in terms of who can actually plausibly buy into the story. But then there’s also how people view the cutting in line. I’ve noticed in general there is a huge bifurcation between minorities and the dominant majority about what is happening when minorities get increased representation in the upper echelons of society.

To the dominant majority, the world was always a functioning meritocracy, at least when it was dominated by their group. But then it stopped being a functioning meritocracy. In this view, the success of minorities, however modest, can only be possible because of a less-than-perfect meritocracy — people being bumped up or favored because everyone wants to look PC (affirmative action). See the “cutting in line” aspect inherent to this deep story.

To the minorities, though, the world before was definitely not a functioning meritocracy. They were shut out for arbitrary reasons, discouraged from pursuing certain career paths, flat-out denied entry to certain institutions based on their gender or race, unable to inherit or borrow the capital needed to pursue certain career paths like starting a business, etc. When these barriers were brought down, in their view, the world took a small step closer to a true meritocracy. And when minorities start breaking into the upper echelons of society, far from being a violation of perfect meritocracy, that’s proof of meritocracy actually functioning better.

The idea of once-functioning meritocracy is predicated upon a view of (e.g. white racial) supremacy. By contrast, the view of expanded meritocracy is predicated upon a view of (e.g. racial) equality.

Although uncomfortable to think about, the idea of once-functioning meritocracy is predicated upon a view of (e.g. white racial) supremacy. When meritocracy is functioning, white people naturally rise to the top, because white people are better and more deserving. By contrast, the view of expanded meritocracy is predicated upon a view of (e.g. racial) equality. When minorities are allowed to compete, some do well, competitive with the highest echelons of the people who came before. I think many people who buy into the first explanation do so because they can only see anti-meritocratic forces at play (e.g. affirmative action) and not the pro-meritocratic forces (e.g. better access to capital, egalitarian social attitudes, etc.).

Weirdly, people think the idea of a once-functioning meritocracy is an idea conservatives (often with the qualifications of: rural, Southern, poor, uneducated, etc.) hold. However, it is actually an idea I encounter most often in my educated, urban, Northern/West Coast, rich, upper-class peers in Computer Science. The idea that CS (or video games or math or engineering) was a strong meritocracy up until the very moment some women started being selected over men is a shockingly common one in this world. But why should this be? Underpinning this view is the mental model that women are inferior to men. The author had this to say regarding racism: “As I and others use the term, however, racism refers to the belief in a natural hierarchy that places blacks at the bottom. By that definition, many Americans, north and south, are racist” (p. 147). This is an accurate depiction of my experience. Whenever people free-associate “bigotry” with “rural”, “Southern”, “poor”, etc. I always just think, “What the hell are you talking about? Don’t you see it all the time in your own circles?” Sure, we don’t use slurs, and we don’t shout angry invective at random strangers in the supermarket. But the notion of natural hierarchy is as far as I can tell as pervasive or even more strongly believed in among the urban, Northern, rich, and educated.

Conservative views on liberals

I know a lot of people in my friend group that are worried about looking condescending toward the right. So this section summarizes how the right rank-and-file views the left.

• For the right, religiosity, morality, and work ethic are all tied together. Therefore the atheistic left is seen as lacking strong morals, and also not appreciating the value of hard work. I think this is true in the sense that leftists view a world where people don’t have to do taxing or unpleasant or tedious work and can spend their time e.g. making art to entertain each other as utopian/ideal. This isn’t to say that they don’t appreciate a work ethic or view hard-working people as admirable (they do), but they have no love for either grueling work or pain in and of themselves, wishing there were just less of both in the world.

• Mixing news with moral commentary:

“How can you tell straight news from opinion?” I ask. “By their tone of voice,” she explains. “Take Christiane Amanpour. She’ll be kneeling by a sick African child, or a bedraggled Indian, looking into the camera, and her voice is saying, ‘Something’s wrong. We have to fix it.’ Or worse, we caused the problem. She’s using that child to say, ‘Do something, America.’ But that child’s problems aren’t our fault.” The Tea Party listener felt Christiane Amanpour was implicitly scolding her. She was imposing liberal feeling rules about whom to feel sorry for. The woman didn’t want to be told she should feel sorry for, or responsible for, the fate of the child. Amanpour was overstepping her role as commentator by suggesting how to feel.

• Denial of the right’s deep story:

Those on the far right I came to know felt two things. First, they felt the deep story was true. Second, they felt that liberals were saying it was not true, and that they themselves were not feeling the right feelings. Blacks and women who were beneficiaries of affirmative action, immigrants, refugees, and public employees were not really stealing their place in line, liberals said. So don’t feel resentful. Obama’s help to these groups was not really a betrayal, liberals said. The success of those who cut ahead was not really at the expense of white men and their wives. In other words, the far right felt that the deep story was their real story and that there was a false PC cover-up of that story. They felt scorned. “People think we’re not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees,” one man told me. “But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.”

With the cover-up, as my new friends explained to me, came the need to manage the appearance of their real feelings and even, to some extent, the feelings themselves. They didn’t have to do this with friends, neighbors, and family. But they realized that the rest of America did not agree. (“I know liberals want us to feel sorry for blacks. I know they think they are so idealistic and we aren’t,” one woman old me.) My friends on the right felt obliged to try to modify their feelings, and they didn’t like having to do that; they felt under the watchful eye of the “PC police.” In the realm of emotions, the right felt like they were being treated as the criminals, and the liberals had the guns.

So it was with joyous relief that many heard a Donald Trump who seemed to be wildly, omnipotently, magically free of all PC constraint. He generalized about all Muslims, all Mexicans, all women […] Trump allowed them both to feel like a good moral American and to feel superior to those they considered “other” or beneath them.

I am not helpful on this end, as I do think the deep story is not the real story and has the issues I talk about above. I also think we should really think about the notion of political correctness seriously (more on that later). However, I also don’t think empathizing with someone or working with them to solve their problems is something that is affected by whether someone has a right or wrong analysis of the problem.

• Conservatives believe that human pride is more important than animal health. So when people e.g. attack a company that is providing local jobs in order to save the animals, conservatives tend to get annoyed. (Even though, as mentioned throughout the book, fighting for human pride is often compatible with attacking companies.)

Conclusion

This book has important information about how environmental disasters deeply affect a largely poor but passionately pro-deregulation community. It also tries hard to describe what the world looks like from the point of view of people in this community. I highly recommend reading it.

Buy on Amazon


1 Both white men and white women the author talked to felt like this deep story resonated with them. Women cutting in the line is an issue to Tea Party women too because they want to (and think other women also should) be homemakers. Even though some of the women worked outside the home, some wanted to someday make enough money so that they wouldn’t have to do this anymore. At least I think the author noted this was the case (I didn’t take complete notes).

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