There are ten guests around the table and a Vidalia onion in the middle of it at Brother Cappy and Sister Fay Brantley’s Sunday dinner in Longville, just north of Lake Charles. Mike Tritico has invited Hochschild to the dinner, and the onion is Cappy’s “half joke and half serious” way of keeping arguments civil.
The onion demonstrates the delicate balance between community and politics—it serves to remind the guests that their disagreements about the public sphere should not infringe on their meaningful private relationships.
Cappy and Fay, an aging couple active in the local Longville Pentecostal church, live on a compound with much of their extended family. Mike Tritico, a longtime friend of Cappy and Fay’s, even jokes that they “have adopted us!” This is because Cappy and Fay frequently invite their friends over on Sundays for polite arguments about politics, religion, and the environment, held at gender-segregated tables. But Hochschild is permitted to sit at the men’s table, so she can hear Mike argue with Donny, “the man [she is] eager to meet.”
As conveners of community, Cappy and Fay take on a role that Hochschild’s liberal instincts generally associate with the public sphere. The gender segregation at their dinner and the fact Hochschild needs to ask if she can sit with the men might horrify cosmopolitans who value tolerance and equality across diversity, just as those cosmopolitans’ looseness toward traditional moral authority horrifies conservative Louisianans.
Hochschild first describes Donny as “a retired telephone company worker who hates regulators.” He grew up with a strictly religious mother, but he has been known all his life for his generosity, pranks, and fearlessness. He used to be a Democrat, but he thought Al Gore’s belief in climate change made him “too stupid to be president” and, since then, he has ended up “right of the Republican Party.” One piece of local lore involves Cappy, who also worked at the phone company, driving his repair truck down the highway to notice “Donny driving his truck alongside him, as legend has it, also sixty miles an hour—in reverse.” Donny has worked a series of dangerous jobs and “hates environmentalists.” If Janice is a Team Loyalist and Jackie is a Worshipper, Hochschild explains, then Donny is a Cowboy: he “came to endurance […] through a celebration of daring.”
Curiously, unlike with the rest of the people she introduces, Hochschild introduces Donny through a political attitude—but then, as usual, she delves straight into his life story and shifting political affiliations. These provide a base of personal understanding that, in particular, demonstrates the mutability of political orientation over time and suggests how inadequate a picture political affiliation can offer of another. Donny’s macho, Cowboy values portray risk as a means to demonstrate strength.
The guests serve the food and say their prayers. Donny and Mike Tritico sit across from one another; they are both “white, churchgoing residents of Longville” who “value honor and integrity,” even though Mike’s family has more education. They start discussing the Condea Vista leak and the I-10 bridge, which carries 50,000 vehicles a day in Lake Charles and has gotten “strange” ever since the ethylene dichloride from the leak has started to weaken its foundations.
The I-10 bridge shows how private pollution threatens public freedom, and the fact that the dinner guests know it is compromised through personal experience rather than any official report demonstrates how government genuinely fails at preventative environmental measures in Louisiana.
Mike agrees with the government’s calls to close the bridge, adhering to the “precautionary principle” that government should first and foremost “do no harm.” Donny says that Condea Vista could not have predicted the effects of their leak, but Tritico cites company studies demonstrating that they knew the environmental risks of ethylene dichloride. Donny questions whether Condea Vista would choose to believe scientific experts over the money they knew they could make, but Mike sees this as evidence of how “companies contrive innocence.” Donny suggests that “experts can be wrong,” like when regulators decided that lap belts were not safe enough and forced everyone to switch to seatbelts.
This conversation returns to the conflict between negative and positive freedom, or freedom from and freedom to. Mike prioritizes the public’s freedom from harm and Donny prioritizes private actors’ freedom to act without restraint. Again, trust and suspicion become the basis for people’s differing degrees of belief in empirical science—for Donny, facts can be rejected if they don’t fit feelings, particularly if they are not in a company’s economic self-interest, which he sees as a self-justifying and honorable force.
Mike says that Condea Vista should “have to pay” if they are found responsible for weakening the bridge; Donny replies that “you can’t always be ready to blame the company” but Mike asks, “what if it is their fault and it’s your bridge?” Donny thinks Mike is overly cautious, focused on “avoiding bad instead of maximizing good.” To Donny, innovation fundamentally requires taking risks (“we wouldn’t have built this country if we were all as risk-averse as you are”), but regulation, for Donny, creates a permanent obstacle to taking the necessary risks. It also creates more regulation, “a little at a time,” until “everything is regulated” and “we’re all stuck in cement.” As on a playground, Donny says, conflict “only stops when one guy is afraid his lip is going to get busted.” But “regulation breaks that up” and gets in the way of competition.
While Mike simply points out that Condea Vista’s private actions had public effects, Donny thinks the company should be able to reap the benefits of their work without worrying about the public interest because he sees competitive capitalism as a good thing in itself. Throughout the book, Hochschild has argued that economic regulations are generally intended to make competition more efficient by breaking up monopolies, although the Louisiana government instead supports corporate oil monopolies. Donny sees these regulations, as well as environmental ones, as petrifying economic actors: if companies cannot act with absolute freedom, for Donny, it is as though they cannot act at all.
Mike explains that he does not want to regulate everything or avoid any risk at all; rather, he thinks the government should prevent an accident “if there’s a known way to prevent it.” Donny thinks this gets in the way of people’s “independent decisions” and says that, if someone gets hurt driving on the I-10, “a lot of it” is their own fault for choosing to drive there. Mike accuses Donny of having the mindset that has caused the region’s health issues; Hochschild sees that the room is focused on their conversation and “the two are approaching a real showdown.”
Mike shows how regulation better fulfills Donny’s logic of taking actions whose benefits outweigh their risks, but Donny fundamentally does not think such cost-benefit analyses can be undertaken by a centralized institution on behalf of all people. While he thinks people are responsible for their own decisions, he exempts polluters from that same responsibility.
Mike wonders, “how could it be my own fault that I got hurt or killed?” Donny explains that “real people—not the government” should be in charge of deciding “what is or isn’t too risky.” Mike asks how citizens without expertise “about very complicated things” could make these decisions, and the pair continues to go back and forth. As the guests switch to dessert, Mike accuses Donny of parroting the chemical companies’ ideology. In Hochschild’s words, Mike thinks that Donny “embraces their right to take risks with our lives.” And, in turn, Donny accuses Mike of siding with regulators. Hochschild notes that their debate continues elsewhere—Mike has even suggested that Donny left anonymous comments on an internet news article about a talk that he helped organize.
Donny’s rejection of scientific expertise recalls his climate denial and demonstrates his view of people as self-sufficient decision makers who need answer to nobody. He is comfortable rejecting evidence that conflicts with his emotional self-interest because he considers changing his beliefs a violation of his self-sufficiency, a sign of weakness, and therefore a source of dishonor. His desire for a world of independent decision-makers recalls Mike Schaff’s search for an entirely private universe—both do not want institutions that force people to act against their will, but Donny does not see how this kind of license might adversely affect others (Mike does realize this, as the reader discovers in the next chapter).
The women have joined the men’s table and change the conversation topic to “government welfare, out-of-wedlock births, addiction, and the reluctance to work for your living.” The group agrees that, after the first out-of-wedlock child, the government should cut off support because “the woman in question should have learned her lesson.”
When the tables combine, the topic shifts from the masculine domains of industry and infrastructure to concerns with which Tea Party women are generally more sympathetic, as Hochschild noted earlier. Their willingness to have the government dictate how many children poor mothers should have reflects the kind of centralized decision-making for other people that Donny demonstrated just paragraphs before. This illustrates how political appeals to freedom often tacitly value some people’s freedom (here, white men’s) while devaluing others’ (here, poor women’s).
Hochschild notes that Donny and Mike’s debate reflects a broader trend about Louisianans’ fears of pollution. She notes a 1997 study demonstrating that managers and clerical workers in chemical plants worried more about chemical exposure than the laborers who were actually exposed to chemicals. Women and minorities paid more attention to warnings, and overall “white males stood out from all other groups as being less likely to see risk.” She compares Donny to the crafts workers and Mike to the managers.
The Cowboy mentality is strongest of all amongst the white men who have historically had near absolute freedom, often at other groups’ expense, in the United States and the Western world. The study about chemical exposure demonstrates how the Cowboy mentality leads Donny and many other blue-collar workers to devalue scientific data because they prize daring, strength, and honor.
They also have differing perspectives on honor. Donny sees honor as a function of bravery, but Mike “wanted to reduce the need for bravery.” Hochschild argues that Mike’s environmental activism—which once led to construction workers driving him off the highway—is actually another form of bravery altogether. She recalls stories of regulators who ended up on the receiving end of corporate wrath—one who pointed out leaky pipes started to get bullied off the premises because he was creating more work for plant operators; another was seen as a “corporate sissy” for wearing a gas mask and laughed down by an army of workers whose teeth were visibly damaged by sulfuric acid exposure.
Hochschild’s argument that Mike’s activism constitutes bravery in its own right suggests that Cowboys like Donny only value certain kinds of bravery: namely, a masculine, socially conformist willingness to take bodily risks. Mike’s willingness to take social risks and challenge conformity does not count in the Cowboy conception of bravery. When it comes to long-term risks like the workers’ toxic exposure, Cowboys’ bravery can backfire. The Cowboy brand of bravery awards honor in the short term, far before the negative repercussions of bodily risks are apparent.
Hochschild suggests that, in terms of regulation, “Louisiana is a Cowboy kind of state” that carries Donny’s attitude toward risk: enduring risk, even when the risk is unnecessary, proves one’s strength and honor. Hochschild suggests that, despite all the Tea Partiers’ disdain for self-proclaimed “victims,” Louisianans are themselves the victims of unregulated industry. Back at Brother Cappy and Sister Fay’s dinner, the guests continue to argue “issue by issue,” but Brother Cappy never has to reach for the onion. As they finish up dessert, Mike asks Donny how he would “feel about crossing the I-10 bridge.” Donny’s reply: “If my kids weren’t with me […] I’d drive fast.”
The Cowboy attitude, which embraces danger as an opportunity, seems responsible for some part of Louisiana’s rampant social issues. Just as Team Players endure the abuses that their teams levy on them, and Worshippers refrain from solving problems because of their faith, Cowboys willingly become victims because surviving hardship is a source of pride. It is unclear whether Donny’s statement that he would “drive fast” means that he recognizes the bridge’s risk and would drive fast to avoid the possibility of a collapse or, more likely, that he simply enjoys the risk-taking involved in speeding.