Donald’s Book Club: Southern discomfort

In two books focused on the American South, a look at the Red/Blue State divide both in the present day and in a dystopian future

I love books. And because The Munro Review consists of things I’m passionate about, it seems only natural to share at least some of that love with my readers. Thus I thus offer my first “Donald’s Book Club,” an occasional feature. I’ll be writing about books that I’ve read recently — some that lots of people are talking about, others that maybe had their moment in the sun long ago. (John Updike, anyone?)

Book cover of 'Strangers in Their Own Land'

I call it Donald’s Book Club for a couple of reasons. One is that I hope that after reading what I have to say, people will share books they recommend. You can do so in the comments for this post. Some of the best book recommendations I’ve gotten are from readers.

The other is that I’d like to do a series on book clubs in the central San Joaquin Valley. My idea: I will join different book clubs on a temporary basis, read one book and gather with the club members for the discussion. Then I’ll profile the club and my experience. If you have a book club you want to nominate, send me an email (donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com).

Let’s get on with the books.

I’m focusing on two today: “American War,” by Omar El Akkad; and “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right,” by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Both are predominantly about the American South, and I happened to read one right after the other, which added to the thematic impact.

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Strangers in Their Own Land

By Arlie Russell Hochschild. New York: The New Press, 2016

The author is an acclaimed UC Berkeley sociologist who set forth on an earnest mission to bridge the gap between the Blue and the Red in this country. To do so she took an intensive, deep-immersion fact-finding tour of various parts of Louisiana. She didn’t disguise herself as anything but a liberal West Coast type (lots of good-natured hippie jokes), but she also didn’t try to push her own views. Instead she listened and participated — at potlucks, church services, political rallies — in an effort to get out of her liberal bubble and climb over what she calls the “empathy wall” to really get into the mindset of her fellow U.S. citizens.

There are stark differences between the South and the rest of the country, she writes: “The gap in life expectancy between Louisiana (75.7) and Connecticut (80.8) is the same as that between the United States and Nicaragua. Louisiana ranks at the bottom or near bottom of all the states in terms of education and health spending.” The state is adamantly “anti government” even though the federal government provides almost half of its support. The pro-corporate, anti-tax mindset is deeply embedded in the populace.

In terms of the structure of her research, the author chose an issue that hit close to home in terms of Louisiana residents: the environment. Known for its spectacular coastline, pristine bayous and bounty of water life, the state has embraced the oil industry with open arms (and a flurry of tax incentives). Toxic waste? No problem; you can inject it into the thousands of underground salt dome caverns filled with the stuff. Water contamination? Sigh, it’s a necessary byproduct of the energy industry.

People in Louisiana are steeped in the idea that it isn’t possible for companies to make money AND care about the environment, and because jobs are all-important, the environment has to suffer. After crunching lots of numbers, Hochschild writes that “the most interesting findings are these: as the relative riskiness of the county a person lived in increased, the more likely that person was to agree with the statement ‘People worry too much about human progress harming the environment.’ “

It would be be easy to fixate on the contradictions found in the people portrayed in this book. One of them, Lee Sherman, was employed by a chemical company and told to illegally dispose of toxic waste. Then he was fired for “absenteeism” (after getting sick from the chemicals he worked with. At a public meeting about contaminated water, the company said it wasn’t responsible. Then Lee stood up holding a sign that read: “I’M THE ONE WHO DUMPED IT IN THE BAYOU.”

And yet, even though Sherman now considers himself an “environmentalist,” he is depicted in the book working for a Tea Party candidate who wants to abolish the EPA.

Hochschild finds several similar examples of people actively voting against their own interests. And she tries to dig to the root of it. What she comes up with is a series of “deep stories” about people who feel they’re waiting in the line for a better life and keep getting passed by “line jumpers.” Those jumpers are, in most cases, people who are not white males. It comes down to this: Many people would rather vote against their own self-interests if it means that others who are perceived as unfairly taking advantage of the system are also dragged down as well.

I tried to climb the empathy wall with the author. I didn’t succeed as well as she did. Perhaps it’s because I lacked the personal connection with the subjects — all of whom were friendly, generous and respectful to Hochschild. (It helps that she looks like a kindly white grandmother.) I just wasn’t able to make that leap to a place where I, as a bayou dweller, would willingly sit there and stew in my own foul chemical juices just as long as my religion and right to bear arms is honored (and as long as someone else didn’t get bumped ahead of me due to political correctness). Hochschild only casually bumps up against race in the book, though she does mention it; I can see where her approach could be roundly criticized for not making it a more central theme.

But she was after empathy and understanding, not firing off another round in this nation’s unending culture/economic wars.

One thing did click with me quite strongly: Many of the Louisiana residents she interviewed noted that wealthier and liberal residents of the United States are perfectly happy to use all the plastic stuff and articles of convenience that come from the oil and chemicals produced in the state. Those liberals, however, don’t want it made in their own backyards. That sense of wanting creature comforts but not particularly caring how those things get made really resonated with me.

In her research, the author determines that the more conservative and poorer a place is, the more likely it will be to have major environmental problems. Some companies won’t even think of trying to set up their chemical plants and manufacturing facilities in more liberal communities because they know there’ll be too much of a community backlash. It’s better to go to Louisiana. And the people there will continue to pay the environmental price.

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American War: A Novel

By Omar El Akkad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017

There’s no question about the reality of global warming in this grim and finely told tale of a near dystopian future. The South “rises” again, nearly 150 years after the first American Civil War, and the carnage and division is just as striking. In 2075 the U.S. has been ripped apart by political factionalism. Instead of slavery, the precipitating conflict is not slavery but the use of fossil fuels. When the federal government (now based in Columbus) outlaws gasoline/oil for good, it’s enough to wrench the country apart. (Which at first I thought seemed a little far-fetched, but in the overall context of the global warming debate, the plausibility of it started to grow on me.) Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia secede to form the Free Southern State, while South Carolina is under permanent quarantine because of a plague unleashed by the federal government.

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Meanwhile, the rest of the world has gone topsy-turvy, at least in terms of U.S. supremacy. China and a new mega-empire based in the Middle East dominate the world, and food aid is sent to America from wealthy donor countries instead of the other way around. The country is wracked by terrorism, economic stagnation and widespread poverty. Global warming has unleashed havoc on Louisiana and Florida. Mexico has taken over most of the Southwest. The map of the U.S. is vastly different.

Our central character is a young girl named Sarat, daughter of a family living in a mostly flooded Louisiana. After Sarat’s father is killed by a terrorist bombing, her mother flees their Louisiana home, and the family ends up in a horrific refugee camp. There Sarat is recruited by an amiable and compelling man representing the new Middle Eastern empire. He encourages a new generation of American terrorists simply because it’s a geopolitical advantage for his country.

In other words, it might be the 2070s, but “American War” is more a provocative commentary on America’s place in the world today rather than yet another dystopian novel imagining a wretched future.

Refugee camps breeding terrorists? Welcome to Palestine. Government agents hard at work sowing discord and destabilizing foreign governments? Think CIA overreach. Horrific suicide bombings in the name of nationalism and religion? It’s an almost daily occurrence in the world today. Just not in the United States — yet.

Part of the power of El Akkad’s narrative in “American War” is that it seems so plausible. In Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (currently the talk of the nation thanks to the Hulu series), a theocratic state called Gilead makes for great dystopian TV. But how believable is it really in “Handmaid’s Tale” that a quick and clean American Revolution results in pervasive Old Testament savagery? The far more likely, and chilling, scenario, is what we find in “American War”: a nation of patchwork constituencies and beliefs tenuously tied together for almost 250 years in an archaic and cumbersome federal union that slowly crumbles into stagnation and large-scale violence when our differences finally overtake our similarities. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is the stuff of allegory; “American War” feels like brutal realism.

And don’t even get me started on the Red State/Blue State divide today, the breakdown in civil discourse, the ominous feeling that perhaps our creaky federal system devised by a bunch of decidedly non-divinely inspired “Founding Fathers” might not be up to the task. The novel begs the question: Just how does the U.S. manage to even hang together? From there it isn’t hard to imagine some of the harrowing events in the novel, including not one but two plagues deliberately unleashed, killing tens of millions.

Sarat, who grows up in the refugee camp and turns into a driving force for the Southern cause, is a fascinating character, as hard as a diamond, whose bitterness becomes the narrative’s driving force. You don’t begrudge Sarat her desire for revenge. (Particularly after she is thrown into a prison camp by federal forces and subjected to horrific torture.) Redemption and forgiveness are not strong themes. There is a point of no return for some (probably most) humans in terms of what they can endure, and Sarat represents someone who has gone beyond the breaking point. So often I read stories about suicide bombers (aka freedom fighters) and wonder how someone could reach the point where someone would be willing to inflict harm on innocent people. Sarat is at that dark place of empathy. Bleakly, she’d probably applaud.


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

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