Strangers in Their Own Land

Strangers in Their Own Land

by

Arlie Russell Hochschild

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Strangers in Their Own Land: Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hochschild meets Mike Schaff in his 350-person town of Bayou Corne. Like him, Schaff’s neighbors enjoy fishing in the bayou and are mostly “Cajun, Catholic, and conservative, predisposed to the Tea Party.” Schaff, the most politically active among them, “wished to feel himself in a nearly wholly private world, one as far as he could get from government taxes and regulation.” Hochschild wonders how such a world would respond to “a sudden catastrophe” that government could have prevented and then reveals that this is precisely what happened when the Bayou Corne Sinkhole opened in the town.
Mike’s search for a life free from government intervention was ironically undermined by a lack of government regulation. Mike’s desire for a private world reflects his belief in the primacy of personal relationships among neighbors over contractual ones with the government—in a sense, he thinks government gets in the way of empathy. Although Mike believes in the power of small communities to govern and care for themselves, Hochschild doubts whether this is still possible now that private corporations own rights to the land on which such communities are built.
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In 2012, Bayou Corne residents noticed bubbles in the swamp and started smelling oil—the gas company said everything was fine, but soon thereafter the town’s first-ever earthquake hit, and a gas-sputtering sinkhole opened up in the middle of the bayou. “As if a plug was pulled in a bathtub,” the sinkhole sucked trees and even a boat down under the water; oil bubbled up to the surface and the sinkhole expanded gradually.
The gas company’s failure to predict the sinkhole suggests that companies really do not “self-regulate,” as many pro-free market Louisianans believe. The fully private community Mike had so deeply longed for was literally sucked away by private industry’s mistakes and the absence of government regulation.
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The sinkhole was caused by Texas Brine, a salt drilling company operating in Bayou Corne against the advice of their own engineers. Their risky drilling violated environmental restrictions that a government official agreed to waive. Then, Texas Brine accidentally drilled a hole in a cavern surrounded by the Napoleonville Dome salt formation. The cavern, which was used to store chemicals deep underground, started to collapse and suck down the 4,000 feet of earth above it. Hochschild wonders “how a free-market economy in a highly regulation-averse culture” can deal with private corporations that store toxic chemicals offshore and underground.
Regulators’ willingness to let Texas Brine break their rules demonstrates that regulations mean nothing when officials with close ties to industry refuse to enforce them. Hochschild believes that, once private companies can own mineral and chemical deposits deep underground, their actions are necessarily a matter of the public interest because they affect the land on which citizens live.
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Seven months after the sinkhole first opened, Governor Bobby Jindal visited Bayou Corne’s displaced residents, many of whom were still homeless and frustrated. Jindal speeds through his remarks, which Hochschild says “conveys mastery, urgency, busyness, and, perhaps, avoidance.” He promises to appoint a commission to investigate the accident and opens himself for questions. The residents ask why he only announced his visit five hours earlier that morning, why it took him seven months to visit, and why he chose to speak while most people were at work. Their houses have become an official “sacrifice zone,” but the government has no answers for them—just the promise that an independent Blue Ribbon Commission will investigate.
Jindal’s visit to Bayou Corne offers the town’s residents a salient image of a big government that pretends to care but is really more interested in facilitating structural amnesia by covering up their issues. Bayou Corne residents find it difficult to trust the Republican governor for whom so many of them voted, but who is quite literally willing to sacrifice their houses without promising any compensation or resettlement assistance.
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Hochschild meets Mike Schaff at his home on Crawfish Street. He apologizes for his lawn’s poor condition and admits that he has become depressed since the sinkhole opened. He has lived in Bayou Corne for the last five years, but now he lives in constant fear: with all the gas coming up from the ground, his wife has moved back home and his grandchildren cannot visit because it is too dangerous to even light a match. But Mike chose to stay even after Jindal ordered the town evacuated. He shows Hochschild where he would host crawfish boils in his backyard and lists the neighbors who used to attend but have since left Bayou Corne for good. Instead, “it’s Texas Brine, Texas Brine, Texas Brine, and Texas Brine.” There are only three others who also decided to stay.
Like the Arenos, Mike Schaff stays in a dilapidated environment because he cannot bring himself to leave; in telling Hochschild about his old crawfish boils and neighborly connections, Mike shows a deep nostalgia for the community and way of life that he has lost. He, too, is a “stayer” who insists on remembering the past as a way to resist the imposition of structural amnesia in his now-dispersed town. Only this time, the government did not destroy his community—Mike’s beloved free market did.
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Mike talks nostalgically about Bayou Corne’s tight-knit community as he shows Hochschild around the abandoned town. Other residents she interviewed felt the same way: their community was destroyed. Hochschild gets in Mike’s boat; they go out on the bayou and Mike shows her where he used to catch all kinds of fish. Now, all they can see are methane bubbles rising to the surface.
The scene on Mike’s boat eerily follows the scene behind the Arenos’ house in the Bayou d’Inde: fish are replaced with chemicals, fishing trips with mourning. Nature has yet again turned from a public resource into a private dumping ground.
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After the accident, Texas Brine started figuring out who they could blame. They argued that earthquakes are common in the area (they are not) and sued the drilling company from which they had rented underground storage, as well as the insurance company that decided not to pay them. A third drilling company sued Texas Brine, so Texas Brine in turn blamed and sued a fourth company that had drilled nearby more than 25 years earlier.
Like PPG and Condea Vista, Texas Brine focuses on recuperating its losses rather than addressing the harm it has done to nearby residents. The law steps in to adjudicate Texas Brine’s claims against other companies but never on behalf of Bayou Corne’s residents. Despite the ideology of personal responsibility and private self-regulation that pervades Louisiana politics and industry, Texas Brine is quick to turn the blame elsewhere.
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The whole time, the “shell-shocked refugees” of Bayou Corne worried that their town would catch fire or explode. But they blamed the government more than Texas Brine for the accident. Scott Angelle, the secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources, approved Texas Brine’s project even though he knew they were drilling near a weak cavern wall that could lead to a sinkhole. Hochschild remarks that the problem was “that the state government had barely been present at all,” not that it was getting in industry’s way. Residents are frustrated that Texas Brine simply pays them to leave without visiting or personally reaching out, but they are even angrier at the government that failed to protect them.
To a significant degree, the sinkhole is the government’s fault—and Bayou Corne residents rightly blame Angelle’s department for failing to do its job. Here, for the first time in this book, Louisianans clearly see the alliance between government and industry, which is opposed to their public interests as private citizens. Residents’ frustration with Texas Brine’s impersonal response and suspicious aloofness echoes the way many Louisianans feel about the federal government.
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Hochschild cites an EPA report that named Louisiana the worst implementer of federal environmental protection laws in its region. Databases about pollution were full of errors, impact reports were missing, inspections were skipped, and the agency never collected fines from law-breaking companies that owed them. The inspector general blamed “natural disasters, low funds, and ‘a culture in which the state agency is expected to protect industry’” for Louisiana’s lackluster enforcement of environmental standards. The state had cut funding, “accidentally ‘given back’ about $13 million to oil and gas companies,” and since 1967 only blocked 60 projects that would impact the environment—out of 89,787 applications.
Louisiana regulators appear to be almost comically terrible at their jobs, which confirms citizens’ distrust in regulators (albeit in an inverted way). For Hochschild, regulators harm citizens when they fail to regulate. For Louisiana locals, regulators harm companies—and, by extension, workers—when they do regulate. Hochschild’s argument for regulation is based on the premise that Americans can trust their government to actually enforce its regulations, but Louisiana’s failure to do so suggests that its citizens’ hatred for government might be well-placed at the local level, even if they interpret it differently.
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Hochschild notes that official environmental reports were “nearly unreadable” and often contradictory. As an example of how “sometimes the state simply lowered standards of protection,” Hochschild cites one report that instructed residents on how to best prepare contaminated fish to minimize their chances of cancer. Hochschild admits that this “made a certain grim sense.” Companies pollute, the government refuses to stop them, and people need to eat. So “at least the authors of the protocol were honest.”
This flyer horrifies Hochschild because it illustrates how government and industry take advantage of the endurance self, meaning Louisianans’ pride in their ability to survive hardship. The government is unwilling to clean up the bayou, feed its citizens another way, or prevent future accidents. Instead, it leaves to citizens deal with the effects of private industry’s indifference to public interest.
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Related Quotes
When Hochschild mentions this report to Mike, he is unsurprised: “there it is again, more bad government.” He suggests that, instead of raising their own salaries, government employees should conceive themselves as devoted servants, like the nuns who taught him in grade school. But he realizes that this would make it “hard to attract the best people.”
On some fundamental level, Hochschild realizes here, Mike actually wants good government, too—this is an interest they share, but Mike has lived his whole life in a place where government actively impedes citizens’ efforts at success, whereas in Hochschild’s home state of California, social programs generally do prioritize the public interest.
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Hochschild still cannot wrap her head around how Mike thinks “a total free-market world and local community” can coexist. After all, she notes, the “near pure free market” that Jindal put in place failed to protect Bayou Corne’s community. Hochschild sees the government’s ineffective disaster response as “an open-and-shut case for good government,” but Schaff simply sees it as a case for less government. Even Hochschild agrees that the government does bad things, but she notes that these “criticisms were based on a faith in the idea of good government.” Mike, on the other hand, distrusts all government whatsoever—he thinks that he and Hochschild “would be millionaires by now” if they had only been able to invest their money instead of paying taxes for Social Security and Medicare.
Because of Hochschild’s basic trust in government and Mike’s basic suspicion of it, Hochschild calls for more good government while Mike wants less bad government. In fact, Mike’s trust in the free market that he expects to make him millions closely resembles Hochschild’s trust in the government that she expects to take care of needy citizens. If the Louisiana government is actually a cartel organized to protect oil companies, then it makes sense to reject its so-called “help.” In realizing the basis of her disagreement with Mike, Hochschild affirms that liberals and conservatives’ opposite feelings toward the government are one major root of their mutual distrust—but those feelings about government do not need to change for dialogue and empathy to become possible.
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Hochschild asks Mike whether he is grateful for anything federal government has done for him—he cites hurricane relief and the I-10 highway. Hochschild offers some additional suggestions: FDA inspections, the post office, and the military, among others. When she mentions the fact that 44% of Louisiana’s state budget comes from the federal government, Mike responds that this is wasteful because “at least half” of Medicaid recipients decide not to work. But he understands why they would choose to simply accept government money because, “if the programs are there, why not use them?” He remembers that the Coast Guard once saved him, his wife, and his two daughters from a near boating accident during a storm.
Mike instinctively distrusts anything he associates with the government, unless he has personally benefitted from it. The intentions he assumes come to define his entire perspective about government programs, like his declaration that Medicaid recipients must not work (which Hochschild disproves in Appendix C). Even though the government (via the Coast Guard) nearly saved his life once, he still does not view himself as dependent on it.
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Hochschild wonders “what image of the government was at play” in Mike’s mind, and she compares his disdain for government services he nevertheless uses to “Berkeley hippies of the 1960s” who lived off their parents’ dime even while they “felt proud to be ‘above consumerism.’” She suggests that Tea Party advocates claim to be “‘above the government and all its services’ to show the world their higher ideals,” even while they use those services. In Louisiana, “the less you depend on [government], the higher your status.” Mike seems to view the federal government as “a more powerful, distant, untrustworthy version of the state government” that fails to protect him and does not mesh with his “local culture of endurance and adaptation.”
Because Mike and other Tea Party voters see relying on the government as a shameful refusal to endure and take control of one’s situation, Hochschild suggests that they repress or ignore the realization that they actually do rely on the government in various ways. Their political views are determined by their feeling rules rather than their real relationship to government. By pointing out that liberal Berkeley anti-consumerists are just as hypocritical, Hochschild shows her willingness to criticize her own “team” and suggests that feeling rules are powerful determiners of political behavior on both sides.
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But Hochschild sees another, deeper cause behind Mike’s feelings about government. This is the idea that “the federal government was taking money from the workers and giving it to the idle. It was taking from people of good character and giving to people of bad character,” which implicitly meant poor minorities. She wonders whether “the malaise I was seeing” might come from a disguised class conflict between the working-class and the poor. The right, it seems, resents the government for choosing “the wrong—betraying—side.” Mike hands Hochschild a jar of peaches as she leaves, and she drives away wondering what Mike’s church and Fox News were telling him about his community, his government, and the people that government helps.
Hochschild introduces an idea that looms large over the remainder of her book: the hidden class conflict between blue-collar whites and lower-class Americans of color. Like many Louisianans, Mike believes there is a trade-off between his own interests and those of liberal urban minorities—he does not view them as members of a unified American political community with unified interests, but rather as a competing force trying to take away his hard-earned wealth.
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