The current issue of the New York Review of Books contains a review of Arlie Russell Hoschschild's new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. In the book Hoschschild recounts her travels to Louisiana in search of an explanation for one of the odder political phenomena of our time: the specter of poor white Americans so passionately supporting a right-wing agenda that seems diametrically opposed to their own best interests.
I was struck by a passage from the book, quoted in the review, that describes the environment in which some of those she encounters live:
While Hochschild’s Tea Partiers contemplate a triumphant, if hazy, future, she leaves her readers with Grand Guignol images of their present day. We visit the tranquil bayou home belonging to Harold and Annette Areno, who, in the last two decades, have found themselves hemmed in by a chloride hydrocarbon manufacturing facility, a coal-fired power plant, a hazardous waste landfill, and the Conoco Docks, the site of one of the largest chemical leaks in North American history. The family’s cows, goats, and chickens fall over dead after drinking from the bayou, and the turtles go blind, their eyes turning white.
We watch Bob Hardey, mayor of Westlake, as he dutifully tends a family cemetery that is about to be surrounded on all sides by a humungous Sasol gas-to-liquids plant to which he has sold much of his property. Louisiana has given the facility permission to emit benzene at eighty-five times the entire state’s “threshold rate.” And we meet a safety inspector at a Ford battery plant who is called a sissy by plant employees for wearing a respirator. When the workers cackle he sees that their teeth have been eroded by sulfuric acid mist.
To some degree this makes it even harder to understand why those who are most exposed to this level of environmental degradation would so readily support a political philosophy that aims to make it easier rather than harder to continue that degradation. What does make sense is that living with this level of environmental degradation would make anyone angry, and more likely to lash out in anger — logically or not — at anyone they can be convinced is responsible.