Strangers In Their Own Land

By Arlie Russell Hochschild

The stunning victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election left a lot of people scratching their heads. Here was a figure with no experience, and whose candidacy seemed little more than a bad joke, upending the entire established political system. A number of books rushed to explain what had happened, and in particular what made Trump voters tick. Of these, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, while not providing a complete answer, is the best we have so far.

Hochschild, a Berkeley sociologist, takes as her test ground the area around Lake Charles, Louisiana, where petrochemical refining is the main industry. This has led to a lot of local problems with pollution, and Hochschild takes the environment as a “keyhole issue” to understand how people with different political points of view and from different social and economic classes respond to something that affects everyone equally (meaning that they all breathe the same poison air, eat fish from the same dirty rivers, and are threatened by the same sinkholes). How do right-wingers square the damage caused by pollution with their resistance to regulating polluters?

In answering that question three concepts become central: the Great Paradox, the empathy wall, and the deep story.

The Great Paradox is that made famous by Thomas Frank in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: why do so many people vote against their own clear self-interest? In particular, why do poor, working-class people vote for governments whose policies actually punish them economically, while only benefiting a tiny elite?

The empathy wall is what divides us from understanding how people with different points of view from our own think and feel. It seems from most reports that this wall is becoming higher, and more and more a fixed part of the American political landscape. Hence the need for the kind of immersive reportage that Hochschild undertakes.

The deep story is a myth, of the kind you get in Plato’s dialogues where someone wants to make a point by telling a story. The story isn’t “true” (that is, it never happened) but it nevertheless represents a felt reality or can be used as a thought experiment. As Hochschild puts it, “a deep story is a feels-as-if story – it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel.”

For Hochschild the deep story explaining Trump voters and Tea Party members is of a bunch of people waiting in line for some promised payoff. Hard work and self-reliance will lead to the realization of the American Dream, or at least some fair reward waiting just over the horizon. Unfortunately, people standing in line see others jumping the queue or being unfairly advanced ahead of them. To their horror they feel themselves actually slipping backward, despite doing nothing wrong and playing by the rules. They feel like strangers at home, and that they have lost honour and respect.

The cornerstone of their faith – and the Tea Party is a religion: “not so much an official political group as a culture, a way of feeling about a place and its people” – is hatred of the government. Not distrust, but hatred. The government has betrayed them. It has taken their money and done nothing to protect them or improve their lives. Instead, they’ve only looted the till, feathering their own nests with public money.

Public servants, they feel, should not get rich for doing their duty. This explains the effectiveness of the Trump campaign’s anti-Hillary television ad that asked how she had gotten so “filthy rich” from a lifetime spent in politics. Nor was this the result of a true double standard. One didn’t expect probity or altruism from a reality TV personality and NYC real estate developer, but from a senator and Secretary of State?

In one of the more telling anecdotes in Hochschild’s book she talks to a local man whose idea of public service is modeled on the church, with those doing government work living modestly like nuns. Similarly, tithing is seen as an honour, where taxes are seen as tyranny. As unrealistic as all this may be, it’s a point of view that I think is widely shared.

As for the environment, I’m afraid that message is being lost completely. Pollution, according to Tea Party doctrine, is “the price we pay for capitalism.” Hochschild breaks down one interviewee’s point of view:

Clean air and water; those were good. She wanted them, just as she wanted a beautiful home. But sometimes you had to do without what you wanted. You couldn’t have both the oil industry and clean lakes, she thought, and if you had to choose, you had to choose oil. “Oil’s been pretty darned good to us,” she said. “I don’t want a smaller house. I don’t want to drive a smaller car.” An operator job in an oil plant is a passport to houses in Pine Mist. One of those rare engineering job gets you into Autumn Run, and a high management job gets you into Courtland. The Arctic Cat, the SUV, the house: all these, she felt, came indirectly from oil. For its part, the federal government got in the way of both oil and the good life.

This kind of thinking drives progressives crazy, but it isn’t crazy itself. It denies reality (or, in Karl Rove’s deathless words, “the reality-based community”) as well as economic self-interest for what Hochschild calls “emotional self-interest”: “a giddy release from the feelings of being a stranger in one’s own land.” This sense of elation or “high” is what Trump offered, the feeling of “being part of a powerful, like-minded majority.” In comparison, what could reality offer? Downward mobility, or moving backward in the line. Of course Trump was only going to make the lives of his followers worse, but you could say the same for any drug.

Review first published online July 19, 2017. Brian Alexander’s Glass House is another excellent work of social reportage on much the same phenomenon. 

The Siege of Mecca

By Yaroslav Trofimov

“Until 1980, the U.S. military footprint in what is today commonly called the Greater Middle East was so light as to be almost invisible. Thirty years later it is massive, seemingly permanent, and overshadows in importance the American military presence anywhere else in the world.” – Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules

Why? Short answer: because of the Carter Doctrine, announced in that president’s State of the Union address in January 1980 where he declared the entire Persian Gulf region to be in the vital interests of the U.S. and therefore under its protection/domination.

Shorter answer: oil.

And why at this time? Because at the end of 1979 there had been an Islamic awakening that had challenged the authority of the Great Powers. On November 4, 1979 the American embassy in Tehran had been stormed. On Christmas Day of the same year the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan. Between these two events, on November 20, a group of fundamentalist terrorists occupied the Grand Mosque in Mecca for almost two weeks.

Yaroslav Trofimov’s gripping account of the siege of the mosque tells an important story that I suspect few people today know anything about, and helpfully plugs it into the larger context of militant Islamic radicalism.

Few people even at the time knew what was going on. A news and information blackout, of a kind impossible to imagine today, was enforced by Saudi authorities, to the extent that the different branches of the police and military that were directly involved only had a shaky idea themselves as to what they were up against. This, along with poor training and lack of cooperation, prolonged the siege and led to significant loss of life.

As for the larger political context, in terms of both its geographical and historical importance Trofimov may be guilty of overstating things. While there were foreign elements in the terrorist gang and the Saudi government did need to import some Western talent to advise them on the final assault, the takeover of the mosque was — unlike the Iranian revolution and capture of the U.S. embassy in Teheran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — a domestic story. Saudi Arabia was then, as it remains today, a mess. The tension between its government and religious establishment, which has been papered over for a century with a free flow of oil dollars, may be unresolvable.

In hindsight, what makes the story of the siege seem so important is the immediate U.S. response: the massive increase in America’s footprint in the Middle East that would in turn lead to ever greater forms of backlash. It’s curious that this is how it played out. Unallied and even antagonistic Islamic groups reacted against foreign (Western and Russian) imperialism, leading to a far greater involvement, or doubling-down of those same foreign powers, which in turn created an even more violent reaction. As Trofimov puts it, “The process leading to massive U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf – a presence that would motivate droves of jihadis to join al Qaeda in following decades – was set in motion” by the siege. This then became a negative cycle, or spiral of violence, with subsequent generations becoming ever more radical while at the same time being inspired by and borrowing from the rhetoric and political ideas of fringe groups whose earlier apocalyptic imaginings they saw being validated.

This sort of escalation is an old story, and I think we need to start thinking of better options. Carrying a bigger stick into the region hasn’t helped.

Review first published online July 10, 2017.


By Michael Harris

There seems to be no end to the impact of the digital revolution on our lives and its ongoing transformation of the ways we work, relax, socialize, express ourselves, and even think. Clearly technology is changing everything.

Naturally, it is a subject that has been exercising critics and commentators a great deal, and there have already been a host of books on the subject. One of them, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris, won the Governor-General’s Award a couple of years ago. With Solitude Harris is back covering a lot of the same ground. Charitably, we might call it a sequel. With less charity we might think he’s repeating himself.

Even the form the presentation takes will be familiar: personal anecdotes alternating with items drawn from Harris’s eclectic reading and interviews he’s done with various experts in the fields of business and psychology. The basic point he draws from all of this is also nothing new. Modern life, and in particular our always-connected technology, is alienating us from ourselves. We need to recharge and reconnect with absence/solitude in order to regain a sense of personal authenticity.

If this sounds like the sort of felt truism typical of a lot of pop spirituality (think of the mindfulness movement, for example), that may give some clue to the source of Harris’s charm. In his hands what are often banal observations take on an air of profundity (or fail, as when we are told that “not till we are lost can we hope to be found”). But he is always an engaging writer, easy to read and capable of expressing his arguments in what are often memorable and helpful ways. His main thesis, that solitude is a beneficial resource that has to be responsibly managed and saved from being exploited by profiteering tech companies and other agents of distraction, is particularly well imagined. The environmental analogy works nicely, finally presenting us with the dangerous possibility of a clear-cut “Easter Island of the mind” and stressing the need to make the preservation of individual solitude (so as to “safeguard our inner weirdo”) a personal mission.

The comparison of solitude to a threatened environment is extended in various ways, culminating in Harris’s visit to an off-the-network island retreat. Such a retreat, however, can also be seen as symbolic of a withdrawal into an intellectual comfort zone. Harris is not big on raising counterpoints, such as, for example, whether our protective weaving of “stronger weirdo cocoons” might be seen as narcissistic. He also allows his argument to spread a bit thin at times. The chapter on the grand, “final and inviolate solitude” of death seems particularly out of place and doesn’t connect all that well with the rest of the book.

There is, however, a strong takeaway. Solitude has real benefits: leading to enhanced creativity, a better understanding of the self, and the ability to connect more fully with others. It is, however, a psychological and emotional resource that is increasingly under assault. We have to be aware of this, and look for ways to defend the endangered singular life.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2017.

Little Children

Little Children
Tom Perrotta

It’s hard to judge little children. They aren’t as morally developed as adults, and are likely to behave in ways that are selfish and irresponsible. At least that’s the generous way of looking at Sarah and Todd, a couple of young married types, each with kids, but unemployed and still wondering what they want to do with their lives. Can we forgive these grown-up yuppie kids, or “grups,” their infidelities? Isn’t it the adult world that has in some way let them down?

I really enjoy Perrotta’s eye for contemporary detail and his ironic adaptation of Madame Bovary to the Boston ‘burbs. The one reservation I have is that while all of Perrotta’s characters are presented in a wry but humane manner – as flawed, humorous, and sympathetic – he doesn’t take their lives seriously. Are there, finally, any consequences to their actions? It can’t be a coincidence that the novel begins and ends on the playground, and we spend more time there (and the pool, and the playing field) than we do at any workplace. This isn’t life in a bubble but a bubble chamber. I don’t think a novel, or the novel, should be such a safe space.

Washington Rules

Washington Rules
Andrew J. Bacevich

The title of this broadside has a double meaning, referring to America’s status as imperial superpower as well as the set of doctrines and principles by which it seeks to govern the world. It was published as part of the American Empire Project alongside books like Noam Chomsky’s What We Say Goes, and Chomsky’s title also works as a pretty good summary of what Bacevich means by the rules, which boil down to the application of force to achieve immediate, and often self-defeating or inconsistent, ends.

The basic point is that American foreign policy is grounded in the projection of military force globally and that as an empire America now exists in a permanent state of war. The tricky question is to what extent the American people have knowingly signed on to this program, been kept in the dark, and/or been willfully blind. Bacevich’s analysis suggests willful blindness, making the public not only complicit but culpable. Given the existence of books like this, it’s hard not to agree.

No News Is Bad News

By Ian Gill

The story is a by-now familiar one. Print is locked in a death spiral, starved for revenue because of the switch to a “culture of free” online. Newspapers are either cutting back or shutting down entirely. Postmedia and Torstar, to take just two of Canada’s biggest players, engage in public spats arguing over which of them will be going out of business first.

If you don’t know what’s been happening to the news business then you haven’t been following the news. In this new book former journalist Ian Gill isn’t sounding a fresh alarm. We’ve had warnings for decades, going back to the Davey Report and Kent Commission on the concentration of media ownership. Of course more recently things have been getting worse, faster, with disruptions fueled by the digital revolution and the move to alternative advertising avenues, not to mention the fallout from the economic downturn that struck in 2007-2008, but this is still a story that has been covered extensively elsewhere. Just last year an excellent book by Brian Gorman, Crash to Paywall: Canadian Newspapers and the Great Disruption, provided an in-depth look at the situation, with insightful analysis and thoughts about the shape of things to come.

No News Is Bad News doesn’t go into the same detail as Crash to Paywall (which it oddly doesn’t reference), but is instead a breezier, more condensed broadside. While the problem both books address is the same, what’s different is their attribution of blame and their roadmaps for the future.

For Gill most of the blame lies with the news media itself, in particular the old, “legacy” news dinosaurs that have failed to adapt to the new media environment while at the same time cutting off access to revenue for up-and-coming alternative news sources.

To some extent, particularly with regard to the large chains, this criticism is deserved. The idea that newspapers can cut their way to profitability, for example, has clearly been a disaster, and thus far there have been few bold new ideas from the “wounded giants of yore” for monetizing the digital audience.

That said, the current crisis is largely the product of forces over which the news media has little to no control. At its best, you could argue that journalism in Canada today is better than it’s ever been. The problem is that the Internet economy is geared toward producing a handful of big winners at the cost of the destruction of everyone else, and the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. This same dynamic has led to the hollowing out of the middle class generally and the laying waste of entire cultural ecosystems, as described by Scott Timberg in Culture Crash.
Better journalism isn’t going to fix the problem of a vanishing audience, and the question that remains is how quality reporting, which is very much in the public interest, is going to be financed. A lot of Gill’s book is taken up with his interviews with people who have enjoyed some success in alternative (usually non-profit) media start-ups, but there doesn’t seem to be any clear, long-term, scalable business model aside from snagging grants from charitable foundations or subsidies from the government.

Like many a surveyor of the Canadian cultural landscape over the years, what Gill really wants to do is disrupt the status quo. At one time the Internet seemed to be a beacon of hope in this regard, but as we’ve seen it has only led to further consolidation and generally made matters worse. Gill is absolutely right that we need healthy, dynamic news media. The question is whether we want them bad enough.

Reviews first published in Quill & Quire, November 2016.

The Winter Family

By Clifford Jackman

The de-mythologizing of the Wild West in popular culture began with the Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” of the 1960s. These movies eschewed the idealized and heroic Hollywood vision of the West and instead emphasized violence, moral ambiguity, and dirty realism.

The Italian influence continues to this day on both screen and page. In literature it reached a zenith with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the operatic saga of a bunch of brutal outlaws blazing a path of murder and destruction across the nineteenth-century American frontier.

Clifford Jackman’s The Winter Family is very much a work in this same vein (Jackman names McCarthy as an important influence), and closely follows Blood Meridian with its story of a gang of psychopaths led by an almost mystical figure named Augustus Winter. Winter, like McCarthy’s Judge, is a Nietzschean superman who represents a brutal natural philosophy beyond good or evil, justice or law. As one early witness to Winter’s nihilistic “force of will” puts it: “What could you do with will like that? Where would it take you? What could stop you? How would it all end?”

Where it takes Winter and his adopted “family” is through an episodic plot that has them first joining together during Sherman’s march through Georgia, resurfacing to play a role in the murderous Chicago ward politics of the 1870s, fighting both natives and settlers in Phoenix and Oklahoma, and finally arriving, at least in some spiritual afterlife, in a California landscape dotted with oil derricks.

Such a broad canvas means that in addition to being a rousing novel full of exciting action sequences, Jackman’s book is also offering an interpretation of American history. His characters can even get rather talky when it comes to presenting their thoughts on the matter. At bottom, however, is the fairly simple notion that the Winter family are the manifest destiny of American culture and Darwinian capitalism in microcosm. They don’t represent the last breath of freedom before the closing of the frontier so much as the germ from which the larger chaos that is “civilization” will follow.

Jackman can’t match McCarthy’s overwrought rhetorical style, but he has nevertheless written a book that stands in that company, which is high praise indeed. It’s a philosophical Spaghetti Western that doesn’t stint on the tomato sauce, served up with flair.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2015.