Strangers in Their Own Land

Strangers in Their Own Land

by

Arlie Russell Hochschild

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Strangers in Their Own Land: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hochschild attends campaign event thrown by Republican representative Charles Boustany, who is running against Tea Party favorite Jeff Landry. Hochschild wonders whether the candidates would remember disasters like the pollution in the Bayou d’Inde and notes that political campaigns have “a central place in the cultural life of a people” because they demonstrate “what issues powerful people think are worth hearing about.”
The Arenos’ story showed Hochschild how politicians use silence and structural amnesia to protect the Louisiana oil industry, so now she wants to see how this works up close. She sees how politics determine and reinforce people’s feeling rules while also appealing to people’s preexisting cultural values.
Themes
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Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Hochschild feels that she is “backing into the deep story” by noticing what that story excludes. She is clearly not yet “over the empathy wall,” even though the Tea Party members she met surprised her with their warmth and generosity. To these voters, “there was something else” more important than community, church, and (for some) the environment, although Hochschild does not yet say what that “something else” is. Louisiana conservatives seem to want a representative who can represent them in Washington but is not a member of the Washington elite.
Louisianans’ distrust for the federal government leads them to want candidates who appear trustworthy because of shared values and backgrounds. However, this enables politicians to play up their affinities with their constituents and potentially cover up their true political interests until after they are elected.
Themes
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The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Boustany gives a speech emphasizing oil’s economic benefits. Soon thereafter, at a different event, Landry “makes a remarkably similar speech,” suggesting that the oil industry can give Louisianans “better money than most people make anywhere else in this country” and decrying the idea that people should ask the federal government for help. When older constituents ask him about improving their Social Security and Medicare, “Landry has no answers.”
Boustany and Landry seem to have virtually the same platform—Republican voters have no choice but to support oil and reject social programs if they want to remain loyal to their team. Landry’s silence about Social Security speaks to his interests—whereas Louisianans might reject such programs because they distrust the government, Landry is the government and has trouble finding a justification for its inability to protect seniors’ freedom from poverty.
Themes
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The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Hochschild is “struck by what both candidates avoid saying.” They fail to mention the state’s widespread poverty and dependence on federal money, then turn around and “both express and promote a culture that has produced the Great Paradox.” Boustany and Landry are campaigning to represent “one of the most polluted counties in the nation,” but neither mentions pollution during the campaign. During their previous terms, both voted against a variety of environmental protections and even supported a measure “to redefine ‘healthy air,’ basing the definition of it on the feasibility and cost to polluting industries, and not on human health.” Even the Democrat in the race is “pro-life, pro-marriage, pro-gun, and pro-oil.”
The Great Paradox seems to stem more from conservatives’ unwillingness to admit that they take and need government help than a genuine willingness to sacrifice their environment—it is about their values and feeling rules rather than their political self-interest. The candidates’ votes to change the definition of “healthy air” reflects their point of view, which (in the context of Janice Areno’s loyalty to industry) Hochschild later labels a “company perspective.”
Themes
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Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
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Hochschild interviews “three dozen retired plant workers” who remember when Louisiana used to consistently vote for Democrats before 1970. They echo Lee Sherman’s concern that the government is “giving away” their tax dollars to a class of “non-working, non-deserving people.” Hochschild suggests that, beyond taxes, their votes are also a matter of honor.
These plant workers vote based on their loyalty to industry and feeling that they are being taken advantage of by poorer Americans rather than on their concrete political self-interest.
Themes
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Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Hochschild meets gubernatorial candidate Russel Honoré, an Army general who led the Hurricane Katrina rescue effort and who is one of the few Louisiana politicians to openly discuss the environment on the campaign trail. Hochschild describes Honoré (who is black Creole but popularly known as the “Ragin’ Cajun”) as an “empathy wall leaper.” When Hochschild asks him why Louisianans do not “ask politicians to clean up their environment,” he responds that he thinks of them as “captives of a psychological program” that touts oil’s potential to create jobs without considering its downsides. To help create awareness about pollution in Louisiana, Honoré started “The Green Army,” an umbrella group for smaller environmentalist organizations.
Honoré’s willingness to speak honestly and passionately about the environment is unique among Louisiana politicians and relates to his firsthand experience of how environmental catastrophe devastates citizens while the state government remains silent. He has significant cultural capital in Louisiana—his nickname emphasizes his local roots, and the name of his Green Army emphasizes his military background, which marks a masculine strength and resilience. By expressing these shared values, Honoré can talk about the environment without alienating Louisianans.
Themes
Trust, Empathy, and Political Progress Theme Icon
Government Regulation and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Hochschild and Honoré travel to the town of Gonzales, which lies within “one of the most polluted industrial strips in the world.” Not only is the area dotted with petrochemical plants, but Honoré tells Hochschild that Louisiana actually imports toxic waste from other states and dumps it here. He takes her to the campus of Southern University and points to “Free Nigger Point” across the Mississippi. It was so called “because if a man could swim across the river to it, he could reach the Underground Railroad and he was free.” Many drowned trying to cross, but now, Honoré says, they would just “get sick and die gradually of pollution.”
The Louisiana government’s resistance to environmental regulations is so strong that it chooses to burden its citizens with other states’ toxic waste in order to offer corporations an incentive to invest in their state. Honoré’s remarks about “Free Nigger Point” suggest that pollution is a covert attack on people’s freedom and draws a disturbing parallel to Louisiana’s history of defending white citizens’ economic interests by failing to protect the freedom of enslaved African-Americans.
Themes
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The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Hochschild realizes how easy it is to “forget or ignore the problems with Louisiana’s environment.” But she wonders how Louisiana would respond to a disaster “so spectacular” that people had to look. The massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill created exactly this sort of spectacle: it threatened 98% of commercial seafood in the Gulf of Mexico and put 90,000 fishermen out of work. President Obama imposed a moratorium on drilling after the accident, since BP was using unproven technology, and “no one knew for sure why the accident had occurred.”
If the Louisiana government and oil industry facilitate pollution by promoting silence about it, then Hochschild wonders whether citizens would defend themselves against pollution when silence is not an option. The Deepwater Horizon spill shows how corporations’ freedom to pollute infringes on Louisianans’ livelihoods and destroys other industries—this only expands oil’s dominance.
Themes
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The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
A Louisiana State University survey found that more coastal residents opposed than favored the drilling moratorium and most did not think differently about global warming or pollution after the spill. Hochschild finds the same attitudes near Lake Charles: many Louisianans believe government regulation is unnecessary because “it’s not in the company’s own interest to have a spill or an accident”—one person even blamed the spill on regulators “looking over BP’s shoulder.” Hochschild wonders whether Louisianans were “expressing loyalty to the oil industry,” or perhaps trying to cope with “strong feelings of anxiety, fear, and anger about what they already knew.” Returning to the Great Paradox, Hochschild notes that in Louisiana “pollution hit better-off people” as much as the poor, but all “seemed braced to tough it out” instead of fighting it with regulations.
When they are forced to address pollution head-on, Louisianans still do not blame petrochemical companies. Whereas Hochschild sees the government and oil industry suppressing citizens’ voices, those citizens believe the oil industry is on their side, fighting with them against government overregulation. Hochschild suggests that citizens may truly be trying to deal with negative emotions by supporting a narrative that is in their emotional self-interest. Blaming a government that they already distrust allows them to sustain their loyalty to the oil industry instead of admitting that it actually prioritizes profit and does not care about them.
Themes
Government Regulation and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Capitalism, Media, and Class Conflict Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Hochschild considers the possibility that Louisianans’ frustration with the drilling moratorium might simply be an extension of their general aversion to government regulation. She looks at the state’s lax alcohol and gun regulations—people can buy alcohol in drive-through stores as long as “the plastic lid is pressed on and the straw is not yet inserted,” it is legal to bring loaded guns into bars and churches, and gun vendors can legally sell to domestic abusers and suspected terrorists without conducting background checks or keeping any records. Louisiana’s gun death rate is the highest in the United States, “nearly double the national average,” and many of the people Hochschild meets keep firearms.
Louisiana’s broader attitude toward regulation reflects a strong stance in favor of individuals’ freedom to take risks that may harm others, such as carrying loaded weapons. This demonstrates how the Great Paradox far exceeds the problem of pollution, but rather reflects a more general set of beliefs about the government. This suggests that Louisianans’ sense of self and feeling rules prescribe a preference for individual license over the common good.
Themes
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Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Hochschild contrasts these light regulations on drinking and shooting with the severe restrictions Louisiana places on particular social groups, like women seeking abortions and black men who can be fined for wearing their pants too low. In fact, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States, which has the world’s second-highest incarceration rate, and blacks disproportionately make up its prison population. Despite this selective overregulation, the regulations Hochschild’s conservative acquaintances actually care about involve “what the government was telling them to buy,” like energy-efficient light bulbs, salads, and seatbelts.
However, the individual license Louisiana protects only applies to some people—white men in particular. There seems to be a trade-off between white men’s freedom and everyone else’s: the government (which is overwhelmingly composed of white men) is willing to sacrifice the latter for the sake of the former. These white Louisianans focus on the way government impacts them individually and are unable to see the forms of overregulation that, in Hochschild’s mind, are truly violent. This reflects the empathy wall that divides blacks from whites in the state.
Themes
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Government Regulation and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
Capitalism, Media, and Class Conflict Theme Icon
Louise, a Louisiana mother who lives near petrochemical plants, told Hochschild how she anxiously watches for signs of another accident. Another man suggested that “they don’t tell us the truth about what’s going on because they don’t want to alarm us,” and Hochschild gives the example of a 2013 explosion at the old PPG plant, after which regulators claimed to detect nothing out of the ordinary.
The Louisiana government’s failure to warn citizens about likely disasters reflects its close alliance with oil and makes people distrust it even more deeply. The government is more worried about people’s reactions than their safety because it wants to protect their feelings and ease their anxiety—the government’s strategic forgetting works in Louisianans’ emotional self-interest.
Themes
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The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Hochschild returns to her drive with Honoré. She asked him to answer one of the most common objections she hears from Louisianans: why have the government if companies “want to avoid accidents themselves?” He answers that “regulation works” but the Louisiana state Department of Environmental Quality asks companies to regulate themselves, which clearly does not work.
Although all empirical evidence suggests that regulation is effective, regulators themselves believe that the free market will self-correct—since many regulators worked for the oil industry, this belief seems to fulfill their desire to justify their loyalty to and trust in it.
Themes
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The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Capitalism, Media, and Class Conflict Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon
Reflecting on the meetings she had attended during the campaign, Hochschild notes that Louisianans worry “a great deal about freedom in the sense of freedom to” but have little interest in protecting their “freedom from such things as gun violence, car accidents, or toxic pollution.” She wonders whether the “psychological programHonoré sees at work is the true explanation for Louisianans’ politics—perhaps people don’t hate the government so much as simply love oil. She declares that, in order to understand Louisiana’s economic reliance on oil, she “had to understand the private sector.”
Hochschild is beginning to formulate a coherent picture of Louisianans’ deep story by considering the way that the rhetoric of “freedom to” and “freedom from” helps them turn away from government help. Honoré has shown her how the psychological program keeps Louisianans in the oil industry’s back pocket and lets it continue to hoard power in the region.
Themes
Trust, Empathy, and Political Progress Theme Icon
Government Regulation and Individual Freedom Theme Icon
The Environment and the Economy Theme Icon
Personal Identity and Emotional Self-Interest Theme Icon