Strangers in Their Own Land

Strangers in Their Own Land

by

Arlie Russell Hochschild

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Strangers in Their Own Land can help.

Strangers in Their Own Land: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hochschild sits in the living room of 77-year-old Harold Areno, “a gentle Cajun pipefitter” who takes her through his old photo albums. He finds a photo of himself standing beside the Bayou d’Inde with his parents and nine siblings in 1950. He remembers how his mother used to pull fish straight out of the bayou and he shows Hochschild more photos of the family amidst the bayou’s bald cypress trees and lush moss.
Like Mike Schaff and Lee Sherman, Harold Areno defines himself through a way of life that is no longer available. He particularly defines this identity through a nostalgia for his family’s close ties to their land, which allowed them to live self-sufficiently instead of needing to work for wages.
Themes
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Now, all the bayou’s trees and most of its animals are dead. Harold and Annette live just downstream from the spot where Lee Sherman dumped PPG’s toxic waste and just across the Bayou d’Inde from the place where three generations of Harold’s ancestors cultivated the land, ate the bayou’s wildlife, and even drank its water from time to time. The Arenos were Cajuns—descendants of French settlers that the British expelled from Canada in 1765—and few of them finished school because speaking French was discouraged there.
PPG’s toxic pollution destroyed this way of life and made their land valueless and unlivable: the Arenos were no longer able to live off the Bayou d’Inde. Just as their Cajun ancestors lost their language because of pressure from the government, Harold’s generation lost their distinct lifestyle because of reckless industry.
Themes
Government Regulation and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
The Arenos’ son Derwin stops by with fried chicken from Popeyes. He cannot remember a time before the bayou was dangerously polluted; now, he has learned to “smell whether the water and air are good or bad” anywhere he goes. Together, the family catalogues all the animals that have died out from the pollution: bullfrogs, fish, turtles, cows, chickens, goats, sheep, and even hogs (which Harold notes “can stand almost everything”). Hochschild compares the Arenos’ land to “the scene of a slow-motion crime” and she sees “both resignation and defiance” in their stories.
It is easy to imagine that, some thirty years ago, the Arenos would be eating fish from the bayou rather than fried chicken; whereas Harold retains the memory of this earlier way of life, Derwin never got to experience it, and now detecting pollution is second nature for him. The Arenos’ “resignation and defiance” demonstrates how Louisianans can endure hardship without actually accepting it.
Themes
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Not only did most of the bayou’s animals die, but nearly everyone in the Areno family also developed cancer. Harold lists 11 cancer cases in his immediate family—he and Annette were the only ones to survive. Hochschild is “at a loss for words.” The family debates what, if anything, is safe to eat from the bayou. Harold refuses to eat anything that lives there, but Derwin trusts his instincts and eats anything that looks, smells, and tastes normal. Annette takes issue with her son’s fearlessness and agrees with her husband that nothing from the bayou is safe to eat. But Harold adds that, at the least, “he’d eat the safe part of the fish”—not the fat and the “dark part,” where the toxins are more concentrated.
Hochschild’s deep capacity to empathize with the Arenos is apparent through her shock at the news of their family’s cancer; she is clearly relating to them on an emotional level because she loses track of her train of thought. The Arenos’ debate over whether to eat the fish suggests both an enduring desire to preserve their previous lifestyle and a utilitarian mindset toward the problems they are forced to endure—this is the same mindset that the government’s report on how to eat contaminated fish enforces later on in the book.
Themes
Trust, Empathy, and Political Progress Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Get the entire Strangers in Their Own Land LitChart as a printable PDF.
Strangers in Their Own Land PDF
Harold explains that the bayou is still getting worse—the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the toxic sludge from the bottom and dumped it on the riverbanks. Seeing that the government had failed the Arenos in this regard, Hochschild them whether they want stricter pollution regulations, and Harold says yes. He and Annette recognize that most Republican candidates “stand for big business” rather than families like theirs, but they still vote Republican because of their Christian faith.
The government’s cosmetic attempts to fix pollution actually made it worse for residents, which leads the Arenos to distrust the government as much as the companies who pollute the bayou. The Arenos have little trust that politicians on either side care about their personal interests, although unlike many Louisianans, they do not necessarily distrust regulations on principle—just the government’s willingness and effectiveness in enforcing them
Themes
Trust, Empathy, and Political Progress Theme Icon
Government Regulation and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
The Arenos’ primary guidance in life has come from faith: “politics hadn’t helped, they felt, and the Bible surely had.” Based on “faith and family values,” they even voted for Louisiana’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal, who accused President Obama of “holding our economy hostage” with environmental protection standards and who cut $1.6 billion from education and social services to give tax breaks to oil companies.
Religion is the only thing that gives the Arenos hope for a better future, so it is unsurprising that they rely on it—doing so is in their emotional self-interest. Meanwhile, their belief that no politician will protect their political self-interest by cleaning up the bayou emphasizes that pollution is an invisible and forgotten problem in Louisiana—except by the people who suffer the direct effects.
Themes
Trust, Empathy, and Political Progress Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Still, the Arenos vote Republican in order “to place themselves in spiritually-guided hands.” Trust is central to politics for them, especially since the government had so often broken their trust in the past. They feel forced to choose between trustworthy Republicans who will ignore the environment and suspicious Democrats who promise to save it. While “no one they voted for thought [climate change] was real,” the Arenos decided by studying the Bible that global warming “was, indeed, a man-made disaster-in-waiting that called for strong countermeasures.”
Hochschild explicitly demonstrates how distrust lies at the heart of the Great Paradox: people reject government help not because they do not want a better life but rather because they do not trust the government to provide them with one. The Arenos have essentially given up on the environment but still deeply wish they could bring themselves to trust the government as much as they trust the Bible. Interestingly, the Arenos’ belief in climate change—which breaks with the Republican Party’s mainstream view—actually stems from their loyalty to religion.
Themes
Trust, Empathy, and Political Progress Theme Icon
Government Regulation and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Derwin Areno notes that warning signs on the bayou have been taken down and he suggests that the oil industry’s advertising is “trying to make us forget.” Hochschild argues that the Arenos “remembered against” a “larger institutional forgetting” that prevented them from leaving the area, even if they had wanted to. She recalls the etymology behind the word “nostalgia”—the longing to return to a faraway home. The Arenos, conversely, “live at home in an environment no longer there.”
Memory is an important site of political conflict in Louisiana: Republicans convince locals to accept pollution by helping them forget it and focus on oil companies’ economic contributions to the region, rather than by admitting their problem. Indeed, this injunction to forget takes the form of a feeling rule, which means feeling nostalgic for a better life in the past—even though Louisiana did not have oil at the time—is itself a form of resistance.
Themes
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Hochschild also met other “rememberers,” like the nameless Forest Service worker who set up plaques memorializing long-lost cypress forests and activist Paul Ringo, who worked for the nonprofit Riverkeepers and brought crowds to pray for the polluted Sabine river. But most people in southwest Louisiana want the economic progress that oil promises and find it hard to trust secular, liberal outsiders from the government who claim to be saving their environment. Many petrochemical workers see a forced choice between their jobs that pollute and the “magnificent wilderness” they love.
These other “rememberers” also sustain the memory of pollution against a government that encourages Louisianans to forget. By making workers feel as though they are forced to choose between oil and the environment, the government stages a conflict between emotions and industry, which suggests that saving the environment is just about sentimentality—not human health and welfare.
Themes
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
News media reinforces the “basic feeling around town” that nostalgia is a barrier to economic progress. Hochschild sees this as a kind of structural amnesia, a term coined by anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard when he noted that the Sudanese Nuer would forget their female ancestors because they were a patriarchal society. Similarly, in Louisiana, powerful institutions—the government, the media and the oil industry—work together to incentivize systematic collective forgetting of pollution.
The government, media, and oil industry are in a sense trying to set up an empathy wall between Louisianans and their environment: the structural amnesia they enforce encourages people to prioritize showing pride in their work over their nostalgia for the environment. This encourages a kind of self that sees emotion as weakness and enduring suffering as a source of honor.
Themes
Trust, Empathy, and Political Progress Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Capitalism, Media, and Class Conflict Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Harold suggests that the government tends to “overregulate the bottom because it’s harder to regulate the top”; the government does not merely help people forget past rules violations, but it also enforces those rules unevenly. Oil companies get off easy, but “the little guy” gets punished.
Harold understands how corporations get around the law in Louisiana—the government takes advantage of its constituents’ pride in endurance by forcing them to deal with the problems created by industry.
Themes
Government Regulation and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
But the Arenos believe that God “remembers how it was” before the pollution and understands what they have endured. They think that the “End Times” are approaching fast—Derwin suggests that God’s cleansing fire is probably the bayou’s best chance of getting cleaned up. While Derwin’s parents hope that humankind will act first, “they’ve already waited long enough and nearly despair of politics.”
The Arenos’ Christian faith encourages them to accept their suffering for the sake of a later reward and refrain from taking political action to address the bayou’s pollution. The total lack of accountability for polluters has led them to resignation, which allows the government to continue letting oil destroy its citizens’ wellbeing without consequence.
Themes
Government Regulation and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
On her way out, Hochschild asks the Arenos about a lawsuit they have filed against 22 polluting companies. They have no news about the lawsuit, but it is their only chance at getting enough money to move. Their lawyer suggests that the companies and government are working together to “string these lawsuits out for so long that plaintiffs die before money is due,” and Hochschild is “astonished to learn” that one of the Arenos’ co-plaintiffs is none other than Lee Sherman. As Harold walks Hochschild back to her car, he tells her that “the most important thing” is to think “long-term” and focus on getting into Heaven.
Despite their resignation, the Arenos are still trying to do whatever they can to recover damages, but they have little expectation that they will ever beat the oil industry that is in the government’s back pocket. Hochschild is surprised that Lee Sherman was Harold’s coworker and is helping with the legal case because, first, this means that the Arenos are friendly with the man who destroyed their bayou, and secondly, Harold actually worked for the company that did so. While Lee and the Arenos can sustain a trusting relationship despite this history, PPG took advantage of both of their loyalty.
Themes
Trust, Empathy, and Political Progress Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon