French Friday

French Friday is a new series that I inaugurate today. I won’t follow strict guidelines, except that each Friday I will blog about writing, reading, and living in the USA, away from my native France. Bear with me as I just start this new series and jump in if you have any suggestions.

When I moved from my native rural Normandy to Paris I heard a few “Parisians” making fun of these “provincial” people moving to the capital. The American hillbillies are called culs-terreux or bouseux in France. Both derogative terms designate a farmer. Although the remarks were never directed to me and despite the fact that my parents were not farmers, I felt the sting of the insult. However, I laughed with the “Parisians,” sensing that it wasn’t worth arguing that people are more than the place they come from. I had already understood that they would not change their mind about “provincial” people.

Someone told me once that I didn’t speak like a Parisian. Now days I would insist that French is spoken in many other places than France. With all kinds of accents, it remains French. Hey, I know first hand about accents 🙂

Back then I only laughed. I was twenty, shy, and yes, from provincial France. For the first time, I realized that being brought up in rural France was negatively perceived. Not being from Paris or a major big city put me lower on the social ladder. Humiliation is never a good feeling.

I spent ten years in Paris, a city that still shows up in my dreams or grazes my mind at random moments. But my home region is never far from my thoughts either and I don’t forget the place where I am from. Which I credit for my love for the outdoors, but also for being the place where I learned that keeping our challenges to ourselves with resilience and dignity isn’t always a bad idea. Pride and deep connection to the land is common to the people living away from capitals and big cities.

This week I finished reading Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a prominent sociologist based in Berkeley, Cal. The book was a 2016 National Book Award Finalist for Non Fiction, a 2016 New York Times Notable Book, and also a New York Times best seller. Researched between 2011 and 2016 and published by New Press, a nonprofit, public interest publisher, at the beginning of Donald Trump’s unstoppable ascension, the book is a fascinating, troubling prescient journey to the heart of our political divide, the Lake Charles area in Louisiana, a state that has known and still knows its share of hardship.

If you wonder why our country was (is) divided and why we envisioned (envision) it so differently, this book is for you.

If you cannot put your strong beliefs on the side burner (at least for the time of a book) or don’t really want to dislodge any of the bricks that have erected a solid wall between liberals and conservatives, coastal and rural areas, North and South, this book is not for you.

No book is ever perfect and this one presents some flaws, too.

For example, I would have liked the author to visit other regions, in addition to Southern Louisiana, such as parts of Arizona, Oregon, Wisconsin, or even some California counties to balance her research instead of reinforcing the divide North versus South.

Hoschchild, however, takes us on an unforgettable trip to a region that echoes extreme pollution in the name of oil and petrochemical industries, a region foreign to many of us and that will probably remain so.

As a sociologist the author had noticed the escalading divide within our country. Troubled, she was aware of having spent her entire life in a liberal bubble and decided to explore the heart of the Tea Party, hoping to find answers to the questions she had. One of them being: why former Democrats would turn to hardcore conservatives? As she shared her idea for her next book, one of her former graduate students’ wife told her that she had to talk to her progressive mother and her Tea Party best friend living near Lake Charles. This introduction was enough for Hochschild to meet a mix of men and women who had lived their entire lives in the area.

I would lie if I said that now I understand the paradox of a land constantly violated for profit, where bayous and their ancestral sweeping trees have been demolished, where the air and water are so polluted that people get sick, a land that still favors big business to anything coming from the government. I would lie if I said that the book made me change my own vision for our country, but I would also lie if I pretended that these people’s shift toward the extreme right hadn’t moved me.

This is due to the author’s initial desire to reach across the wall and approach what’s beyond with empathy. To achieve the result she has dug into each man and woman’s deep story. We all know that few things in life happen overnight. What we think today is the product of our past. For adults it can mean decades of life. It is rooted in our childhood, anchored to our birthplace.

In any case, no one can remain 100% cold when listening to the stories behind the stories that our fellow citizens shared with Hochschild. In fact, no one, I believe can be left unmoved when hearing any other human being’s deep story.

The stories from these Southern Louisianians don’t justify their current desire for a country with no or very little government (yes, it means no financial help to anyone, including for the poorest of all, for higher education, no affirmative action, and no universal health care, among other things). But behind this deep belief lays the story of resilience in the face of hardship. And that part of the book touched me.

The author went back to the 70s when wages started to stagnate and even decline, when more women entered the work force, and when affirmative action followed the civil rights movement. Until then the people in this part of Louisiana had moved on with resilience in the face of any struggle, resilience sustained by strong religious faith and also a tight supportive community. When this way of life felt threatened by the necessary changes societies must experience to improve, the world felt slippery beneath their feet. As if walking on quick sand, they soon witnessed what they describe now as loss. Loss of the world they had always known and that too few people seemed to share. This feeling of isolation was frightening.

Yes, the consequences of these changes affect more deeply white middle aged men who had always provided for their families and suddenly lacked education and the desire to leave their beloved region to move on. Many ended up losing their jobs or never got the expected promotion. Some, however, did well, thanks to the oil industry. Which explains blindness to the pollution brought by the industry. By the way red and blue states use the products created by the petrochemical industries (plastic used for bottles and even toothpaste, to name only two).

 

As a French native who only went to New Orleans a few times and never drove through the Lake Charles area I read the book as a novel. The people the author met became the protagonists of a deeply disturbing story that kept me up until I finished it.

Occasionally I was reminded of a woman I met while my family lived in San Mateo County, only miles away from San Francisco. We had kids in the same elementary school. I had relocated from Concord, Massachusetts, she from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I loved the way she pronounced the French name and since I had never been there I pictured a highly industrialized area and imagined that my new friend would only be happy to have left. So I was surprised when she never mentioned the pollution and shocked when she admitted being homesick. It’s very cold here, she told me. I understood that she didn’t speak of the cool weather on this side of the Bay but of the people. She craved the tight knit of her home, the famous Southern hospitality, the seafood and Southern comfort food, and yes, even the heat while I could only see pollution and a less open-minded part of the States.

When I read Strangers in Their Own Land I was moved by the sense of place that the locals living around Lake Charles experienced. As polluted as their bayous became they still loved them with all their heart. They recalled happy childhoods spent fishing and swimming in clean waters while their parents who knew all their neighbors trusted one another. They now live in a state of nostalgia that a born-foreigner can share.

So many years after hearing true Parisians laugh out loud whenever they evocated provincial France I know what I despise viscerally: putting people in boxes and tagging them according to their place of birth or current address.

Coming from the left or from the right the biggest human mistake we all make at one point or another is to assume “things” about others without taking the chance to meet them, to listen to them in order to discover their “deep story” that makes them think the way they think. Doesn’t mean that we must leave our own beliefs on the side. Doesn’t mean that we must adopt beliefs that are not ours. Just listening would be a start. You may argue that it is hard since we seem to live in clusters with people who thing likewise. True. This is why this book is a bridge to an unknown world.

The author concludes with two letters, one written to her liberal friends and the other to her conservative friends.

They are a little too idealistic, bordering cliché, but she makes a valid point: if we crossed the wall built between us we would find out that we have in fact things in common.

Perhaps, I’m thinking, it’s only one thing: huge money that increases our differences. Then could we unite against our common enemy?

As a last note: as he was still campaigning the new French president Emmanuel Macron (a Centrist) has said that the real divide in France is between progressives and conservatives.

 

 

 

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