Strangers in their own land: anger and mourning on the American right by Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press, 2016)
This nonfiction book written by a respected sociologist (her tenth book) is as readable as a novel. A resident of Berkeley, California, Dr. Hochschild spent the past six years visiting Louisiana, interviewing people on the political right and getting to know their culture. Her goal was to try to understand what she calls the Great Paradox. Red states that have the most industrial pollution and environmental damage consistently elect the most right wing Republican and Tea Party candidates. These politicians eliminate or fail to enforce environmental regulations, while offering incentives for fossil fuel companies to relocate to their states. Over the past twenty years states such as Louisiana have become havens for oil refineries, fracking operations, and all kinds of polluting industries. Hochschild takes a very personal approach in which she tries to “scale the empathy wall” and truly understand people whose political values are very different from her own. By visiting people’s homes, churches, and businesses, she gradually builds up a “deep story” about why people on the right end of the political spectrum prioritize jobs, their Christian faith, and their communities over the very real health impacts (such as cancer) that local environmental degradation is causing themselves and their families. Part of it is a deeply ingrained loyalty to the free market system and pride in being able to take care of themselves; part of it is a hatred of the federal government dating back to the Civil War. A key factor is that the South has an insular culture (most folks don’t ever travel far from home) with a heavy dependence on right-wing media sources like Fox News and talk radio. I recommend this book highly to liberal and progressive readers open-minded enough to want to understand people on the other end of the political spectrum.
Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2016)
This is not quite a biography of Benedict Arnold, but not quite a history of the American Revolution either. The book ends abruptly when John Andre is hanged for his part in Benedict’s Arnold’s treason; it fails to tell us what Arnold did with the rest of his life and when and where he died. It seems a bit rude to not tell us what happened, unless Philbrick is planning a sequel. The book is quite interesting and well-written, and obviously based on copious primary sources which Philbrick quotes extensively. If you’re at all interested in American history you will certainly enjoy and learn a lot from this book. I particularly enjoyed the battlefield maps since as a resident of the northeastern United States I have driven through most of the locations on them.
Why America Misunderstands the World by Paul R. Pillar (Columbia University Press, 2016)
This new book by retired CIA officer Paul Pillar tries to explain why Americans “misunderstand” the world. In other words, why our foreign policy is based on a very different perception of why people in other countries behave than those people themselves have. Despite having been a representative of the American way of looking at the world for his whole career, Paul Pillar has also spent a great deal of time in other countries. He reveals a lot of insight into the psychology of American thought with regard to foreign countries. Pillar explains how American exceptionalism developed from our unique history and geographical advantages, and how our lack of interest in learning about other nations has made us even more prone to misperceptions based on ignorance. Pillar is critical of right-wing leaders (such as the Bushes) but also tends to blame “the public” for not being smart enough to avoid being misled. I don’t like the “blame the victim” mentality (we’re not the ones with the power, after all), nor Pillar’s idea that leaders sometimes have to talk the public into doing what he considers the right thing. But it was an interesting book, and he makes the point very well that it is ridiculous to expect the war on terror to be the sort of war that comes to an end one day with a treaty (presumably with the U.S. winning).