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.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Ironically, here in the 3rd-smallest state in the union, people from more urban areas still make fun of people from less urban areas – as if Hartford is a city that should be mentioned alongside other cities. I think the real difference is between two groups of people: those who look for differences and those that look for the things we all have in common.

  2. This book sounds so interesting and is certainly timely. When I moved from Santa Barbara to the Central Valley, people thought I was crazy. It was a difficult transition for me as I had never lived in a rural area. There are so many divisions between people – opinions are based on stereotypes. Things would certainly improve in this country if people would just take the time to listen to each other.

    • You made me smile since the last thing I would think about you is craziness 🙂
      Stereotypes are pretty hard to destroy. My hope is to see how younger people are way less judgmental. So we are walking in the right direction. But for now, this book is a real eye opener.

  3. Fantastic post!
    I marvel over differences, I really do. I like to glean the similarities, but really get to the why. Why do people love hot weather or why do they kill their dandelions? The answers are usually fascinating and complex, far more than what’s expected or assumed.
    I found out exactly how Northern I am by living in the south. As much as I can say I’m not a Southerner, I can feel the south, my roots, my ancestors — two sides, within me. This makes me think I can feel anything in common with anyone.
    Accents are a great interest for me. Language and dialects especially are said to be not just a part of self-expression, but also a part of self-preservation.
    Another book, Evelyne, REALLY! My TBR is as long as my leg! lol

    • Someone who writes beautifully about her mixed feelings regarding the South is Sue Monk Kidd. She is torn between her roots and the love for her native land and her more liberal views.
      I love accents too. Now that I’m able to target the origin of various American accents I appreciate the richness.
      Sorry about your ever growing reading list, Joey 🙂

  4. A thoughtful piece, Evelyne. I am now reading “A History of the Cultural Wars: A War for the Soul of America” by Andrew Hartman. I’ve thought a lot about this issue over the years, having grown up in the 40s and 50s in a small rural town where my dad worked for a lumber company— and then having gone on the Berkeley in the 60s, where and when much of our ‘modern’ era was born. The same events that gave rise to the New Left gave rise to the New Right. Ronald Reagan used the unrest that took place in Berkeley as a springboard for his leap into politics. The issue is complex, far too much so to be addressed here. I still remember high school in the 50s when college prep was first created and a division developed that somehow defined kids going on to college as somehow being superior to kids who focused on agriculture, or auto shop, or… It was a mistake then and it still is. But it was only one of so many other things that left a large segment of the population behind. I could go on and on. –Curt

    • It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it? As always your comment is thoughtful and documented. I appreciate so much the point of view of American men and women who’ve lived here way before I set foot on this vast land. Your last passage about schooling touches me a lot as I agree so much about what you say. You also have a valid point about the complexity of the issues that a modest book review can’t even start to tackle.
      The book you mention is on my list 🙂
      Thank you for stopping by, Curt.

  5. So interesting Evelyne, to hear your perspective on the difference between living in the provinces and in the city in France and your perspective on similar divides in the US. Division seems such a human thing – here too there is a north / south divide. The south is generally wealthier and often those in the north are considered more backward and traditional.

    • It’s too bad, I think, to build these walls of difference berween us only depending on our location. Interesting that for you it is the north that’s considered more backward while here it is the other way around. In any case, this book is an important read. Very timely. Take care, Andrea.

  6. I’ve been hanging on 2 cycling Internet forums for past decade. One predominantly men while the other predominant women. Both are Americans who tend to chat. I’m the rare foreigner/Canadian that participates in casual chat. The tenor of those willing to say something on the Internet is that they are quite disturbed by the current presidency, even if they are Repulbican..much less Democrat.

    I appreciate the tendency to blame some nameless body for the pollution and looking backwards to better times. I do think for some of us, being in U.S. or Canada can be, not always, a better base/easier to drop centuries-old damaging social attitudes about class, race and gender. But right now, in the U.S., there is an even deeper divide, in certain areas.

    A good friend volunteered here in my city went to New Orleans to help out post Hurricane Katrina. She was struck how desperate and how many people were left with very little help, resources..and she is talking about the poor, black, etc. She herself is Canadian born Chinese like myself. Even when she compares to the flood we had in our city in 2013 that resulted in 100,000 people evacuated, it was very pale in personal devastation in terms of assets, etc. (She too was involved in emergency planning and response at the neighbourhood reception /shelter centres in our city.)

    • There is a divide for sure in the USA, and not only between urban and rural. One of my daughters who studies in San Diego told me of a few troubling incidents there. You would assume that everyone in California is open-minded. Not true.
      What you write about Katrina is terrifying. The fact that the infrastructure was poor but left alone is dramatic. The people the most affected were of course the poorest.
      The author who wrote the book I read didn’t go to other parts of Louisiana. Certainly it would have been very interesting if she had met African American men and women in New Orleans and visited other locations. But her goal was to focus on this very industrialized part of the state and explore the paradox of people who had lost their original quality of life due to pollution but were still supporting big business as usual and dreaming for even more. Bizarre, although much more understandable now that I’ve read the book. You could probably find it in a library in your city since it has been highly praised.
      Thank you, Jean for your visit and comment.

  7. ” But her goal was to focus on this very industrialized part of the state and explore the paradox of people who had lost their original quality of life due to pollution but were still supporting big business as usual and dreaming for even more. Bizarre, although much more understandable now that I’ve read the book.:”

    Alberta is Canada’s biggest producer of oil and gas. Our province is where this industry dominates. Unfortunately we are at bust stage, or economic downturn. Over 35,000 people in our city laid off, probably close to 90,000 across the province. Some people moved back to British Columbia, Ontario or eastern maritime provinces for work/where their permanent homes were.

    Just 50 km. south of us are sour gas wells that give off sour gas…which is long term a health hazard to people living in the area. Many locals still want the big business industry to come back…. So I can appreciate the people in the book who are still hoping for …the same thing because they haven’t known anything much more or want to make the effort to learn more…or move/relocate.

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