Sep 8 2016

Elephants in Lake Charles

Arlie Russell Hochschild

"YOU CAN TELL I'm a Republican," Janice Areno says as she invites me to sit down in her office. Elephants fill three shelves of a wall opposite her desk. One is blue-and-white porcelain, a second is gold, a third is red, white, and blue and stands near a young child's drawing of a yellow one. One is shaped into a teapot. Another holds an American flag. There are large elephants and small, wooden and glass. There are elephants standing and elephants trotting. Next to her awards for outstanding service to her community and photos of relatives, the elephants had been gathered, over the years, from bake sales, luncheon raffles, and Republican conventions. "I see an elephant, I feel proud of this country."

I am seated across from Janice (pronounced Jan-EECE) in her spacious office where she has long worked as an accountant for Lacassane, a land management company in Lake Charles. She is the daughter of Harold Areno's oldest brother, and she herself grew up not far from Bayou d'Inde.

She is a short woman with a purposeful handshake and a lively face who dresses in a no‑nonsense gray pantsuit and practical shoes. She wears neither jewelry nor make-up; in this way, she "dresses Pentecostal," as she puts it. But with her somewhat mannish outfit and close-cropped brown-gray hair, she explains, "In some ways, I don't dress Pentecostal." Her manner is direct, forceful, usually good-humored. Across the desk, during our first of many meetings, she punches out a series of well-articulated opinions on a wide range of issues, and then comments humorously, aside, "You get me talking about all the burrs under my saddle." Then she quips, "Maybe I'll visit you in Berkeley and you can introduce me to naked hippies."

A blizzard of papers covers her large wooden desk. "Tax season," she explains. "I do returns for the cleaning lady and the computer guy free, and I just finished taxes for the daughter of a co‑worker." She's also been calling around to everyone she knows to donate food and furniture to a friend's relative, a soldier who had just returned from a second tour in Iraq to discover that his wife had abandoned their three small children. The oldest was feeding the younger ones remnants of stale cereal. Janice had joined her church's compassionate effort to rally around the man.

We joke. On a later visit to Lake Charles, I bring her a San Francisco 49ers cap; she is an ardent Dallas Cowboys fan. She tells me she'll wear it deer hunting, but can't promise to root for the 49ers. In truth, her home team is the right wing of the elephant, the Republican Party. Her loyalty to it defines her world.

Sixty-one and single, she is devoted to a large extended family and notes proudly, "I raised my sister's kids like my own." One nephew, now grown, lives in a trailer on her property and is helping her construct rooms in her large new home to accommodate one sister, maybe two, and anyone else it works out with. At Lacassane, Janice is usually the last to leave the office at night. She oversees the management of 21,000 acres of land, long ago part of a rice and soybean plantation. Throughout the years, the land has also been leased for hunting and oil and gas exploration. Lacassane also runs a large hunting lodge called Jed's Cabin, licenses underground pipeline rights of way, and manages timber.

I ask Janice if we could visit her former school, church, and home in Sulphur, just west of Lake Charles. We leave her office, walk into the parking lot, and climb into her silver SUV. Fishing rods rattle in the back, along with a three-pound bag of pecans "crushed but not shelled" that she plans to give away to friends. Sulphur is an industrial town of 20,000 built in the 1870s. Out of the car window I see signs of many other lines of work in Louisiana: Richard's Boudin and Seafood Market, Sulphur Pawn and Discount Center Bebop's Ice House, lumber yards, barber shops, Family Dollar stores, Walgreens, J.C. Penney, PayDay Loans of Sulphur, and EZ Cash.

As we head for her old school, she begins to describe her childhood. "I was born in the middle of the pack, fourth of six. My dad was the oldest of ten, and my mom was the youngest of seven, and everyone married and had kids. On Daddy's side alone I have forty-six cousins, and on my mom's side it's about the same. One of my mother's sisters had eleven." Like many of those I talked to, Janice describes her childhood as "poor but happy." "My mother was a homemaker, but, boy, she cooked up a storm morning and night and washed for eight in a washhouse."

"I worked hard all my life. I started at age eight and never stopped," Janice begins. In the course of her work life, she had learned to tough things out, to endure. Endurance wasn't just a moral value; it was a practice. It was work of an emotional sort. Not claiming to be a victim, accommodating the downside of loose regulations out of a loyalty to free enterprise—this was a tacit form of heroism, hidden to incurious liberals. Sometimes you had to endure bad news, Janice felt, for a higher good, such as jobs in oil.

I was discovering three distinct expressions of this endurance self in different people around Lake Charles—the Team Loyalist, the Worshipper, and the Cowboy, as I came to see them. Each kind of person expresses the value of endurance and expresses a capacity for it. Each attaches an aspect of self to this heroism. The Team Loyalist accomplishes a team goal, supporting the Republican Party. The Worshipper sacrifices a strong wish. The Cowboy affirms a fearless self. Janice was a Team Loyalist.

WORK HAD BEEN a passport out of fear, poverty, and humiliation for her father and others a generation back. But Janice doesn't base her own sense of honor or that of others just on money. She doesn't base it on how gifted she is in her work, or whether her job makes for a better world—at least, none of this comes up. If people work as hard as she does, it is a better world.

Her feeling about work is part of a larger moral code that shapes her feelings about those ahead and behind her in line for the American Dream. "Hard" is the important idea. More than aptitude, reward, or consequence, hard work confers honor. It comes with clean living and being churched. Those getting ahead of her in line don't share these beliefs, she feels. Liberals—those associated with the social movements that brought in the line cutters—share a looser, less defined moral code, she feels. Liberals don't give personal morality itself its full due, probably because they aren't churched. Janice opposes abortion except under certain circumstances, but imagines there are "fifty million abortions a year, probably all Democrats." (She pauses for a moment of dark humor: "Maybe I should rethink that position.") With Supreme Court approval of gay marriage, with federal welfare for the idle, with fewer Americans "churched," with the PC amnesia concerning the heroism of the young boys who died for the South (however misguided the Confederate cause), her piece of America seems like a small, brave holdout against a national tide. The American Dream itself has become strange, un��'Bibled, hyper-materialized, and lacking in honor. Even as she stands patiently in line, she is being made to feel a stranger in her own land. The only holdout for the better aspects of the past is the Republican Party.

If you have a job, you should apply yourself to it, even if you face a little risk, Janice feels. "Two of my brothers are pipe welders, and the guys they work with would stop work for small stuff," she complains. "On one job, the guys were welding aluminum. It helps to counteract the fumes you inhale if you drink milk, so the company brings them ten o'clock milk. It's in the union contract. If the company didn't bring them their milk at ten o'clock, thirty guys would wobble the job [stop working]. Now is that stupid or what? It wouldn't have killed them, one day. They could have brought their own milk." Janice's was a company perspective. For a period, she worked for the Lake Area Industry Alliance, visiting schools to explain the benefits of industry to students who might be getting another story from home or from the liberal media.

Work has a disciplinary function. "If there aren't jobs around, well, get people working on the highways, using wheelbarrows and shovels instead of all the dump trucks," she says. "When people got home at night, they'd be tired and wouldn't be out drinking or doing drugs."

Janice had even cooked up an imaginative scheme to bring jobs back to America: "America needs to dig up every rock and every headstone" of American veterans of World War II buried in France—which "hasn't been a good friend to us"—she declares, and "bring them back to American land, and let American workers mow the lawns around them with American lawnmowers."

If we can't substitute wheelbarrows for dump trucks, or import cemeteries to bring morality to the idle, her thoughts turn to war. "I'm not advocating war so people can work," she adds hastily, "but there's a positive side to the war—manufacturing missiles, Humvees, sewing uniforms—it's work."

Copyright 2016 by Arlie Russell Hochschild. This excerpt originally appeared in Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Advertisement