Arlie Russell Hochschild

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This powerful—even disturbing—book examines the state of Louisiana, a home of the Tea Party, multiple polluting industries (oil, chemicals), environmental degradation, bad health for all, including children, and politics and economics that favor corporations not local business. 

In Part One, “The Great Paradox,” sociologist Hochschild interviews locals, attends civic events, sits in cafes, and listens to stories. Bit by bit she understands that right-leaning people believe in Republican notions of less governmental regulation despite suffering from the ill effects of living in “red” states, even individual counties, that are the most polluted in the U.S. (pp. 79-80).  She calls this disparity “the great paradox.” Locals call a portion of the Mississippi between Baton Rouge and New Orleans “Cancer Alley” (p. 62), but there is no popular demand for control of pollution.

Part Two, “The Social Terrain” discusses history. Earlier, Louisiana had economies of fishing and farming in tune with the landscape. New industries, including Big Oil changed all that, with promises of jobs and wealth for all—neither of which occurred, because oil is largely mechanized, and wealth went to corporations, some headquartered in other countries. Further, there was not just pollution but also large sinkholes and the BP Horizon blow-out of 2010. Problems of on-going pollution were ignored by the Press, especially Fox news, and the “Pulpit” (evangelistic Christianity) took the longer view, urging continued human exploitation of nature, patience for ultimate rewards, and the hope that “the rapture” would ultimately save the most worthy Christians.

Part Three is “The Deep Story and the People in it.” Hochschild formulates an unspoken but motivating narrative of values in Louisiana. This metaphoric story represents deep feelings, including urges for a success that is always thwarted. In the story, there is a long line of white, Christian people, mostly male, often with limited education, waiting in line patiently to climb a hill. On the other side is a good job, wealth, security, and reward for the long waiting. Tragically, there are “line cutters,” symbolized by President Obama and other blacks who had various preferments, but also women, also immigrants, also refugees, even the brown pelican, the Louisiana state bird that needs clean water and fish to survive. The people in line feel betrayed. Where is progress toward the American Dream? Fair play? There is hatred toward the line cutters, and loyalty toward the similar people in line and the industries that will save them. Pollution is unfortunate but a necessary cost.

“Going National” is the fourth part. Hochschild reviews the plantations of the South that not only brutalized slaves but also caused poor whites to move to non-productive land, while the wealthy always improved their lot. People from the North were (and are) suspect, with policies of integration, abortion, gun control, etc. The North cut in line. People in Louisiana became “strangers in their own land” and therefore glad to support not only Governor Bobby Jindal (who “left the state in shambles,” p. 232) but also Trump who would “make American great again.” The “strangers” have gone national in the U.S. and even in some other countries. Hochschild drafts two short “letters,” one to the liberal left and the other to the Louisiana people. She suggests that the two polarized groups have more in common than they currently imagine.  

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