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Strangers in Their Own Land (review)

Joyce Zerwekh
On Politics (July 2017)
Strangers in Their Own Land
by Arlie Hochschild
reviewed by Joyce Zerwekh


After last fall’s elections, when I learned that half of white women in the U.S. voted for our current president, I wondered how that could have happened. I started trying to imagine what circumstances could have shaped me into the sort of person I would call racist, sexist, homophobic, and Islamophobic. These acts of my imagination have been greatly enriched by Arlie Hochshild’s new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.

Arlie Russell Hochschild is one of today’s most renowned sociologists. In this newest book she travels deep into the conservative stronghold of Louisiana bayou country. With great empathy and kindness, Hochschild finds common ground with people whose ideas she opposes. She sees beyond the standard liberal view that people with traditional values have been duped into voting against their own interests. Her story explains powerful forces that influence conservative voters, including fear of dramatic cultural changes, job loss, and perceived government betrayal.

The truth of my own life is that I grew up in working-class Chicago, in a loving family. As a child, I learned from my dad and other members of my family that many despised people – “niggers,” “dagos,” “wops,” and “kikes” – had invaded our Northern European neighborhood. Although my early foundation was bigoted, I came to denounce it. My actual path diverged gradually after high school to an eventual Quaker commitment to peace and social justice.

Hochschild’s book has helped me imagine how my life might have unfolded differently, if I had stayed on the conservative path that was set before me in childhood. In this alternative life, I was still an intelligent and compassionate young woman at age sixteen. But I ended up pregnant and married to George, the high school wrestling champion. After our second baby was born, we moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana. In my imaginings, George found reliable work as a pipefitter in the oil refineries there, and we joined the Heavenly Angels Pentecostal Church. After years of saving, we bought a plot of land from George’s grandparents, who had farmed there for generations. In evenings and weekends we built our own home. George was so proud of my work sewing our clothing, raising chickens, tending a couple cows, and growing a huge garden.  George could repair our car and house and any kind of machine.

I worked as a secretary at one of those huge chemical companies that set themselves down along our bayou. After many years, the feds eventually shut us down, and the workers got nothing, and I still have anger in my heart over that. George practically bathed in their chemicals, but he never got a pension, and he died of liver cancer twenty years ago. I nursed him for several years, and now I practice laying-on-hands ministry at church. I love gospel singing, and I see the speaking in tongues as a Godly miracle.

I watch our way of life disappearing. You can’t swim or fish or baptize in our river. The frogs and crawfish are gone. I am sure sad about the environment dying all around us, but I’m also certain that God told us to “fill the earth and subdue it” in Genesis. Besides, I understand very well that American progress and jobs require industries to do their work.

I am a proud American. I pray for moral courage to hold on until the rapture comes. I don’t wish any ill for people who are foreign and colored, but they are cutting in line with their welfare checks, while my hard-working family and neighbors get nothing. I am devoted to my five grandchildren, whom I have mostly raised; one son is dead in Afghanistan and another got lost on the streets of Seattle with a needle in his arm. I am as intellectually curious as ever, so my friends and I listen to as much news as I can, mostly on Fox and Mr. Limbaugh’s show.

Even though I don’t like the way our new President talks about women, I know that abortion is the greatest sin of our time, and our President can stop it. And he can bring good jobs back from Mexico and Asia. When I hear him speak, my heart fills with hope that our country can be great again.

I hope love will guide my remaining years and yours. Perhaps we might meet on common ground, and I could tell you more about my story.  ~~~

Joyce Zerwekh is a member of Multnomah Friends Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).

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