|Poster for the 1985 film by Michael Hoffman.|
A slightly fresher version of the thesis about how "we" cosmopolitans, I guess, need to listen to "them" rednecks, or whoever the enemy is supposed to be, as long as you understand they're not supposed to be the enemy, came on my radio yesterday morning, at 6:00, and I found myself not going back to sleep. It was an interview with the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, a clearly better qualified person to defend any thesis than David Brooks or Bari Weiss in the New York Times, but I still got irritable right away.
Hochschild, a Berkeley professor emerita who has been hanging out ethnographically with people from southwestern Louisiana since 2011, whose "deep story" she elicited and wrote up in her Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, which came out last January and has been praised as "humble" by David Brooks and "masterly" by Atul Gawande:
The metaphor for the right-wing deep story that I describe in Strangers is that you’re waiting in line for the American dream that you feel you very much deserve. It’s like waiting in a pilgrimage, and the line isn’t moving. Your feet are tired. You feel you are properly deserving of this reward that’s ahead. And the idea is, you don’t begrudge anyone in this right deep story. You’re not a hateful person. But then you see — the second moment of the right-wing deep story — somebody cutting ahead of you. Why are they getting special treatment?
Then, in another moment, the president of the country, Barack Obama, who should be tending fairly to all waiters-in-line, seems to be waving to the line cutters. In fact, “Is he a line cutter?” — the idea is. How did his mother — she was a single mother, not a rich woman — afford a Harvard education, a Columbia education? Something fishy happened. That was the thought there.Which she knows (as Brooks or Weiss presumably don't) is a bad metaphor, from inside to outside—the reason you don't get ahead as your grandparents did is that the cards have been stacked against everybody—and infected with racism (why Obama? why not the born-wealthy George W. Bush or Donald J. Trump, who actually pushed through tax legislation to give a leg up to those who were already rich?). But she'll be damned if she'll be so uncivil as to say so. For example, she knows this:
But it's poignant:
Yeah, doesn’t it break your heart? It does mine, because the people I came to know, know more about the environment — they know which fish are in what area, where you set the crab pots, what ducks you can shoot at what period of the year. They love their land. And yet they’re caught, the people working in the plants. I talked to a woman — I asked, “Do you talk to your neighbors about the environment?” She said, “Our neighbors work in the plants, and I don’t want to hurt their feelings. I don’t want them to feel accused.” As if the people working in the plants would take on the guilt.
Right, or as though the guilt belongs to them.
Poor person, you know what I mean? It’s not their personal guilt. It’s a company policy, and it’s the absence of regulation. There are rules here; California has very strict rules. We enjoy a cleaner environment as a result. It’s at that level. The guilt is not a personal one. That, I felt, was very poignant and sweet of her to be mindful that an operator might feel accused. That’s how poignant this whole thing gets.
The lesson being that once you've done your emotionally intelligent listening, you understand that everybody's in a bind, things are just the way they are, and nothing can be done. The energy companies have to be forgiven for poisoning the bayous because they buy football uniforms, and nobody knows what kind of jobs there'd be if they were regulated (there'd be terrific jobs in maintaining compliance with the regulations, and people wouldn't have to be ashamed of where they work, to say nothing of a solar energy industry, though perhaps that wouldn't be so poignant). Except in California. Because California doesn't have rednecks? (California certainly used to have an oil industry.) Is that the implication?
This empathy thing — another wonderful encounter was with a gospel singer who was sitting across the table at a meeting of Republican women of Southwest Louisiana. She said, “Oh, I love Rush Limbaugh” I first thought, “Oh, my goodness.” Then I thought, “Wonderful. Here’s a chance for me to get larger here.” So I said to her, “Could we meet sometime this week for some sweet teas, and you can explain why you love Rush Limbaugh?” She said, “Yeah, sure.”
The next day we were meeting for sweet teas, and she explains, “I love Rush Limbaugh because he hates feminazis.” I thought, “Oh, my goodness.” So I ask her, “Well, what is a feminazi?” “Well, it’s a feminist who doesn’t like children, wants men to cook...” She goes on to “environmental wackos, these people that want to regulate us to death.”
After I’m asking her, she stops me and says, “You’ve told me that you come from ‘the other side.’ Is it hard for you to listen to me?” I told her, “Actually, it’s not hard at all. I have my alarm system off, and I’m learning about you, and you are doing me such a big favor to share your thoughts. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.” Then she says, “Take your alarm system off? I do that too. I do it with my kids. I do it with my parishioners.” I thought, OK, let’s start with that, a little common ground.
But she doesn't start with that, she finishes with it. She gets her wonderful encounter and her material, and we readers and listeners get to shake our heads over how poignant everything is, and this subject with her fear of feminazis and environmental wackos (who a few paragraphs ago were people who were in the right on reality but emotionally wrong because they didn't mind hurting the feelings of people whose jobs required them to pollute).
My first thought in this argument has become, "Why doesn't that gospel singer have to listen to me?" Why does she have a license to believe there's a whole class of people who hate children or that my old lady is something like a Nazi because I do most of the family cooking? Why do I have to have a tender appreciation of how poignant her life is while she doesn't have to think about mine at all?
I think that there’s something actually missing in the entire vocabulary we have for talking about social class, because I didn’t go just to another region or to people with different political views. I went to a different social class. And there is a lot of sneering on the left at the blue-collar class. They’re furious at it. “Look, we’re the daily workers. We are climbing the telephone pole to repair your telephone wire. We’re repaving your roads. Who are you to put that down?” There’s a lot of humble pie to eat here. I think it’s a problem I didn’t know when I set out that I would come back and be as critical of the little cocoon I’ve long been in, here, as I am.
Who says there's a lot of sneering on the left at "the blue-collar class"? Again, my dad worked telephone lines every summer when I was small because he didn't make enough money as a high school teacher, and I put myself through college working in a restaurant kitchen. Of course that was a different economic world, but I don't hear anybody sneering at people who work with their hands, and I wouldn't put up with it if I did. (And I take care to emphasize that the people I do kind of sneer at, the Republican voters, are mostly well-off small-business proprietors and local professionals, who appreciate the tax cuts—the people who work with their hands for shitty pay mostly don't vote, sadly, but they don't have a lot of good reasons for believing politicians are going to do them a lot of good. Did Hochschild ask her subjects about their voting behavior?)
Does Hochschild really hear that sneering in the sociology department in Berkeley? (Those guys need their membership in the international Communist conspiracy revoked! Or they don't exist). Or is it that she hears her Louisiana subjects complaining about how those "coastal" people sneer at them because that's what Rush Limbaugh told them and it's a part of their "deep story"?
Why don't I have a deep story? Why doesn't Hochschild?
Which brings me to the other point: this research approach, which makes such a big point of its respect for the subjects and their feelings, is actually deeply contemptuous of them. While Hochschild and her Berkeley friends have agency, and listening ability, and a range of different kinds of intelligence, academic and emotional, to work with, the white southerners are helpless and one-dimensional objects of pity. You can't ask them to take any responsibility for their beliefs, which they automatically imbibe with their mother's milk, off the radio—all you can do is show them your "empathy"—if you were brought up under the same idiotic limitations you might be afraid of feminazis too. It's a kind of colonialist view of simple-minded natives who can't be expected to think for themselves the way people from advanced societies do.
This is partly a consequence of the history of sociology in the United States, where it was rigorously separated from anthropology, sort of the way Pope Alexander VI separated the spheres of Spanish and Portuguese influence in the New World, in exclusive territorial zones, sociologists studying a generalized "us" and anthropologists a generalized "them". Sociology became a largely quantitative subject, concerned with collecting data about mostly white, mostly English-speaking people, about whom there wasn't a lot of mystery, while anthropologists charged out to Africa and South America and the Pacific and other exotic locations where everything was mysterious. They were literally following the paths of imperialism, in fact, and they eventually had to confront the ethical problems of imperialism, which are precisely of this type: the denial to the Other of her or his full humanity, the objectification of the research subject. It was necessary to find ways of bringing a critical approach to the work (something which could be found in Europe, where the anthropology-sociology division hardly existed), for the researcher to be continually questioning her- or himself and the interviewer-subject relationship.
Sociology in the US was far behind in this evolution, and Hochschild herself (b.1940) was a pioneer in bringing sociology to a recognition of the humanity of the subject, in her work on the sociology of the emotions, but in this ethnographic work in Louisiana she's making all the worst mistakes of imperial anthropologists in the years before World War II, objectifying the natives and treating herself as transcendently wise and unquestionable. It's just awful, and it's deeply counterproductive. You're not giving people their full humanity if you think they're not smart enough to be wrong and occasionally recognize it.