American Strangers

Part of my challenge this year to read more deeply meant picking up books I normally wouldn’t: namely, contemporary nonfiction. Most of the time I view reading as an escape, and nonfiction detailing exactly how and why the world is going to crap doesn’t particularly provide that.

But, I’m growing older and growing up, and added two well-regarded books to my TBR list. These books were chosen specifically because they were publicized as doing a good job at explaining the “rest” of America outside of my liberal coastal elite bubble, and maybe by reading them I could understand why we have a toddler in the White House.

This question still rattles around in my brain on a daily basis as he continues to rampage and tantrum his way through the Constitution, but at least I got to read some good books while everything goes to hell.

WHAT I READ

Strangers In Their Own Land (Arlie Russell Hochschild) and Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance)

SNAPSHOT REVIEWS

On a scale of 1 to 5 voting ballots, I gave Strangers 4 polluted rivers and Hillbilly 5 rust belts.

MY MUSINGS

Some of the most fascinating information I found in either book were the stats explaining the socioeconomic, cultural, or historic background of regions of the country existing the way they do. Hillbilly had less of that by virtue of it being a memoir, but Strangers did a fantastic job at tying in the rise of Trumpism with a variety of factors in America (in this case, Louisiana). The three reasons for the rise of Donald Trump, according to Strangers In Their Own Land (which profiled white, largely Christian, Louisianans) :

  1. They are on shaky economic ground
  2. They believe they are culturally marginalized and “held up to ridicule in the national media as backward.” The author paints a story of them standing patiently in line for the American Dream, and suddenly others are unfairly allowed to cut in.
  3. They believe they (white Christians) are on a demographic decline.

While I logically understand this point, emotionally I find it absolutely absurd that these privileged people (yes, they are privileged, regardless of their economic status) are getting so crabby because others are being given basic human rights like equal marriage, self-determination, and the essential right to your own body. It’s like being pissed because you were given a whole pie to eat, and then found out you actually have to share the pie. Sure, it sucks that you don’t get the whole thing, but if you don’t share, I get no pie. 

After reading Strangers, I wrote the following:

Despite the author’s best efforts, I still found myself unable to understand the ways in which the people she was profiling (white, Christian, heterosexual, many male) believe themselves to be unfairly culturally marginalized. I want to mull it over a little bit more and read other similar narratives like Hillbilly Elegy – I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to empathize with a privileged individual feeling marginalized just because others have more basic human rights, but perhaps I’ll be able to sympathize more.

Welp, I’m still not sympathizing more, but I remain intrigued to learn more about these cultures so different from my own, even though we are all American.

These books are excellent reads if you are looking to learn more about today’s American culture. Strangers is good if you want something more research-heavy (but easy to read), and Hillbilly is excellent for the personal narrative.

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