Author Talks: White Anger, Defending Obama, and Mashed Potato Chemistry

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strangers-in-their-own-landU.C. Berkeley apparently has great visiting speakers. This past week I saw three provocative book authors on the Berkeley campus… speakers who left me feeling both inspired and challenged.

Tonight it was Arlie Russell Hochschild at the Journalism School. She’s a Berkeley sociologist who spent several years in southern Louisiana trying to understand the anger of white conservatives there – anger that’s driven support for both the Tea Party and Donald Trump.

It’s hard to imagine this liberal grandmotherly woman essentially going behind enemy lines (at least for her). But she succeeded, it seems, by suppressing her liberal instincts in order to befriend, understand and empathize with the people she met, who are angry for a variety of reasons which she distills into one “deep story.”

The deep story goes like this: ‘We’ve worked hard for a long time, led challenging lives, waited in line patiently for a better life, and now everybody is cutting the line in front of us… immigrants, affirmative action recipients, foreigners who take our jobs, even protected wildlife species. And its the liberal leaders and ideology who are enabling everyone else to cut the line.’

Hochschild focuses on understanding the emotions underlying the anger rather than debunking accompanying strongly held but incorrect beliefs (that 40% of Americans are on welfare). One of the biggest is that the people she talked to feel looked down upon by liberals.

She also acknowledges underlying trends that have set the stage for this anger: the loss of manufacturing jobs (through automation or offshoring), and environmental destruction  by oil companies in Louisiana. She believes that the people she met badly want to work  as a matter of pride – they’d prefer to work rather than get assistance from the government, which they often refuse even when they could benefit.

the-long-game

Speaking of angry people, some of them were in the audience Tuesday night when I saw Derek Chollet, an Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Obama Administration from 2012-15, defend Obama’s foreign policy against its many fierce critics on both the left and the right (the first audience question turned out to be a ranting tirade from a Lyndon Larouche fan).

Chollet’s best moments were personal anecdotes – his descriptions of Obama in meetings, or of what it was like to be in the hospital waiting room with Hillary when Richard Holbrooke died (she’s human). The main point of his talk (and the book) was that Obama was extremely disciplined and relatively effective on foreign policy, playing chess on a large complex global chess board that the U.S. can only influence but not control.

I came away thinking that it’s almost impossible for the U.S. not to be reactive (vs proactive with some grand holistic strategy) when there’s so much going on in the world and everybody wants our help and participation. The biggest criticism of Obama’s foreign policy is lack of a clear strategy.  But I came away mostly convinced that by emphasizing balance, restraint, precision, and sustainability (which among other principles make up what Chollet calls ‘the Obama checklist’), Obama at least kept a lot of our powder dry for the bigger challenges looming ahead.

ingredient

Finally, last week I saw Ali Bouzari talk about food, which he thinks about in a very global way, based on the underlying ingredients and their dynamics. These cut across all ethnic and regional cuisines and cultures and so does he.

Bouzari is unusual in that he’s both a chef (who hobnobs with some of the best known chefs in the world) and a biochemist who did his Ph.D on the food science of mashed potatoes (really).

He’s a joy to hear speak, and I can’t explain why in text. Check him out on YouTube if you want to learn a lot about food and be entertained!

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