82-year-old Lee Sherman waits for Hochschild on his front porch and greets her with “a welcoming smile.” In his youth, Sherman was a professional football player and NASCAR driver, but now “he is happy to be alive” after working at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory for years—in fact, all of his old co-workers have died.
Once again, liberal readers meet the person before the politics: Hochschild highlights Lee’s gracious hospitality and recounts his proudest achievements to portray his sense of self before even mentioning his environmentalism or politics.
Sherman became an environmentalist in the 1980s after leaving PPG, but now he is an activist for the Tea Party. Hochschild wonders how Sherman squares his opposition to regulation with his past environmentalism and suggests that his story might help “unlock the door to the Great Paradox.”
Like Mike Schaff, Sherman somehow manages to defend both the Republican Party and Louisiana’s environment, which puzzles Hochschild—but she sees her bewilderment as an invitation to further understanding rather than evidence of Sherman’s paradoxical beliefs.
In fact, Lee Sherman’s politics shifted throughout his life: his mother was a liberal labor activist and Lee was a Democrat for years, but he “turned Republican” when he moved to the South. After moving to Louisiana in 1965, his “fearless and careful” temperament was the perfect match for a job “fitting and repairing pipes carrying lethal chemicals” at PPG.
Lee’s political shift to the right over the last fifty years echoes the broader pattern in the South as a whole. It also suggests that there may be something about Southern culture that matched his daring temperament and turned him conservative.
Sherman tells the story of an explosion at the plant—upon noticing a chlorine leak, his boss told him to leave because the company had too little safety equipment; a half hour later, “the plant blew up” and five people died. At PPG, this lack of safety equipment was standard—for years, Sherman repaired pipes with his bare hands and no protective mask. His only safety training was advice from coworkers. When PPG gave employees badges to measure their chemical exposure, Lee hit safety limits so fast that his supervisor laughed it off and sent him back to work. Another time, after an accidental spill burned all the clothes off Lee’s body, the same supervisor refused to reimburse the full cost of new clothes.
PPG’s indifference to safety procedures killed many of its workers and slowly poisoned the rest; it failed to enforce basic regulations and forced workers to deal with the consequences of the company’s own negligence. Without government supervision, PPG did anything it could get away with. Even though Sherman continued to work at PPG, it was clearly hard for him to trust the company, and this initial distrust was what eventually allowed him to separate his own perspective from that of the company.
The day after that spill, PPG management ordered Sherman to “take on another ominous job.” He would sneak out with a waste tank at night, “make sure no one saw [him],” and illegally dump toxic tar waste just upstream from the Bayou d’Inde. The chemicals made him so sick that he had to go on medical leave for eight months, but PPG’s management did not want to pay his disability benefits, so they fired him for absenteeism instead.
Despite Lee’s distrust in PPG, he was still proud to have a job that was both steady and well-suited to his daring temperament, so he did what he was told. However, PPG was only looking out for its own profit and felt no parallel loyalty to Lee; he was forced to endure the consequences of PPG’s irresponsible behavior, in terms of both health and employment, which is a pattern in everyday Louisianans’ encounters with industry.
Seven years after PPG fired Lee, fish started dying en masse in the Bayou d’Inde. A government task force instructed locals to stay out of the water and avoid eating fish from the bayou more than twice a month. This infuriated Lee’s community, many of whom were fishermen suddenly out of a job. These fishermen were furious at the federal government, which they blamed for destroying their livelihoods.
Even though private industry’s focus on profit above community safety is clearly what caused the fish to die, Louisianans still blamed the government. This suggests that Louisiana residents trust the industry next door but distrust the government that issues environmental decrees from Washington.
Lee Sherman tells Hochschild about a public meeting organized to address the contamination. PPG and state officials sat together on stage, telling “about a thousand angry fishermen” that their catch was too contaminated to eat or sell. As the PPG executives “feigned ignorance” about how it all happened, Sherman came onstage holding a cardboard sign that read, “I’M THE ONE WHO DUMPED IT IN THE BAYOU.” The fisherman let Sherman tell his story, which ultimately enabled them to file a lawsuit. But they only won $12,000 each.
Sherman’s decision to speak out expresses the triumph of his conscience over his loyalty: his stubborn desire to clear his conscience, avenge his mistreatment, and preserve his pride leads him to seek justice against the powerful alliance between the government and PPG. This alliance was clearly already strong in the 1980s and served to push the consequences of industrial capitalism onto workers and consumers; regulators were actually trying to prevent regulation and supervision.
Lee feels that PPG made him do their “moral dirty work” and then “discarded” him like “a form of waste.” As payback for PPG’s betrayal, Lee’s explosive public admission was “the most heroic act of [his] life.” But, in the following years, he became much more conservative. He still thought that PPG acted wrongly and could not be trusted to regulate itself, but he came to reject federal regulation as a solution for pollution. Hochschild sees “both sides of the Great Paradox” in Sherman: “the need for help and a principled refusal of it.”
PPG has no qualms about endangering the safety and infringing on the freedoms of its loyal workers, the people who live near its operations, and the Louisiana environment. However, Lee rejects environmental protections because he distrusts the government even more than he hates PPG. After all, the company pursued its own self-interest (which is what companies are supposed to do), but the government failed to do its job of ensuring public safety.
Hochschild sees three main reasons Tea Party voters reject government intervention: religion, taxes, and honor. Lee’s main complaint is taxes—he thinks that his tax dollars fund welfare programs that reward laziness, and he rejects liberal “PC rules telling him who to feel sorry for.” Instead, he shows his sympathy for the poor by donating Christmas presents to needy children every year.
Lee feels that the government is a giant scheme to defraud him and other hardworking middle-class white people and give his tax dollars to undeserving minorities. This theory combines his distrust of government and minorities into a narrative that sees an alliance between government and the poor rather than between government and industry.
But Lee and his wife can barely afford to give out these gifts because they are living off federal money themselves. He receives Social Security and is furious at the government for twice denying him what he believed were his fair share of benefits. He calls himself “a stubborn man” and claims to be seeking vindication against the government, just like he did against PPG. Both wronged him, Hochschild suggests, but at least PPG gave him a good paycheck and a place to show off “his great skill, his bravery, his endurance, his manhood.”
Lee realizes that he truly needs federal money, so he makes an exception for himself but fails to realize that other recipients of that money need it too—he is incapable of empathizing with other people who need government help and, to some extent, views that need as reflecting a moral failure. This may be why he stays on the offensive against the government instead of feeling grateful for the way it now helps him.