A distinguished, sunny-dispositioned, white-haired sociologist from Berkeley travels to southwestern Louisiana to observe the Tea Party in the seat of its misery and hellfire rage. Before embarking on her five-year research mission, Hochschild tells us, she was not friends with a single conservative or southerner. “Who were they?” she wonders. “How did they come to hold their views? Could we make common cause on some issues?”
She is forced to reconcile everything she knows—“New York Times at the newsstand…organic produce in grocery stores…foreign films in movie houses…small cars…bicycle lanes, color-coded recycling bins…gluten-free entrees”—with everything they know: prayer, fried food, plus-sized clothing, and the economic and cultural dominance of the petrochemical industry. In preparation she rereads Ayn Rand, though she fails to encounter anyone who shows the slightest interest in literature; at a bookstore in Lake Charles she finds that three aisles are reserved for Bibles.
Review of Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild, an American sociologist and professor emerita at UC Berkeley in California, one of the world’s top universities, by the novelist Nathaniel Rich.
New York Review of Books, 10 November 2016 issue.
It is of course invidious to name names, but irrespective of one’s own political views, these two short paragraphs stand for much that is wrong with the academy and the media.
The scholasticism of much of the academy explains why it called first Brexit and then Trump so spectacularly wrong.
As with journalists, the same pathology applies – living in bubbles and echo chambers, disdaining the “other” and lacking empathy.
Here we have the standard admission that, yes, we support diversity, but Hochschild does not actually have any conservative or southern friends.
One might have thought that in order to find out about conservative views, the easiest thing would have been to simply walk across the quad to UC Berkeley’s Economics Department or Haas School of Business, which are ranked in the Top 5 and 10 in the world respectively.
Lecturers and students at such faculties tend to be more to the centre or right of the political and economic spectrum than sociology departments, which as a rule are populated by leftists, including cultural Marxists and the hard left.
Presumably Berkeley also a political science department with scholars with expertise on conservative thought.
Hochschild could also have taken a pleasant one-hour’s drive down the California coast to the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford, which is also ranked in the Top 10 universities in the world.
There, she could have gone toe-to-toe with highly articulate conservatives and libertarians who are at least her intellectual equal or superior and could have explained conservative values and economics – in contrast to the less well-educated working-class conservatives she found in Louisiana.
In fact, this approach is typical of both academics and journalists in the US and UK, who tend to look down on the ostensibly far less articulate people who voted for Brexit and Trump, but who barely engage at all with highly credentialled scholars at conservative think tanks such as Hoover or those on the US east coast.
And of course, conservative thought, like leftist and centrist thought, from the intellectuals down to gutter level, is now all over the Internet and YouTube. There is no excuse for being surprised or badly informed.
Another striking aspect of the quote is its sheer banality:
New York Times at the newsstand…organic produce in grocery stores…foreign films in movie houses…small cars…bicycle lanes, color-coded recycling bins…gluten-free entrees…
How all this makes the liberal, highly educated metropolitan and coastal elite so worthy and superior to everyone else is wholly unclear – but it is precisely those attitudes that have rubbed tens of millions of people across the West up the wrong way.
It is all depressingly familiar. In the run-up to Brexit on 23 June 2016, academics at politics and sociology departments up and down the United Kingdom assumed that people would understand their “real” economic interest – whatever that was – and vote to remain in the European Union.
Far too few academics (and journalists) actually bothered to ask people what they really thought. Had they done so, we just might have avoided the current situation, although its roots go back decades.
It is also odd that insofar as Hochschild taught at UC Berkeley, she apparently missed seeing the current situation as a conservative reaction to wider global developments.
The founder of Berkeley’s sociology department was Robert Nisbet, who was influenced by conservatives such as Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville.
In the 1950s, Nisbet published The Quest for Community, regarded by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who wrote the introduction when the book was reissued, as “arguably the 20th century’s most important work of conservative sociology.”
The context now is obviously very different than in the early 1950s, but as Douthat points out, Nisbet suggested that
In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity…, people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias.
In his 1951 book The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer made similar points.
With society breaking down in West’s old industrial heartlands, this looks a natural response – along with the shocking levels of drug addition.
(The last paragraph was added on 18 March 2017)