Barbara Ehrenreich Interview
THE SNARLING CITIZEN. By Barbara Ehrenreich. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 245 pages, $20. You have to respect any columnist who endorses adultery, opposes housework, argues that the American family "may not be the ideal and perfect living arrangement after all" -- and still gets to write for Time magazine. That's why Barbara Ehrenreich is such a political treasure: she's not a bit afraid of taking what amounts to a remarkably radical message right into the mainstream of society -- and she makes her case so amusing, readable, convincing, and unpretentious that she turns a lot of unlikely heads. Ehrenreich is a rarity in modern media discourse, a political pundit who's not an elitist. In her latest collection of essays Ehrenreich demonstrates that she can attack the worst side of popular culture with the best of her highly educated critical colleagues -- but unlike most of them, she shows that she can still enjoy Roseanne: "Mom's job is to keep the whole thing together -- to see that the mortgage payments are made, to fend off the viperish teenagers, to find the missing green sock -- but Mom is no longer interested in being a human sacrifice on the altar of "Profamily Values." She's been down to the feminist bookstore; she's reading Sylvia Plath." This is a bleak and radical vision. Not given to didacticism, Roseanne offers no programmatic ways out.... But Roseanne leaves us hankering for a quality of change that goes beyond mere reform: for a world in which even the lowliest of us -- the hash slinger, the sock finder, the factory hand -- will be recognized as the poet she truly is. That, in many ways, is the message that emerges from The Snarling Citizen, a collection of Ehrenreich's essays from the 1990s. She notes "in a surge of revolutionary insight" that "even those of us who will never be subjects for docudramas, who will never invent ingenious ways of killing our family members and getting rid of the bodies -- also matter." I met Ehrenreich a few weeks ago; she was at the very end of a very long book tour, exhausted, ready to go home. But she perked up for an hour and talked to me about families, feminism, political correctness, and the state of the American left. Q: You write a lot about families -- dysfunctional families, screwed-up families, American families. You say that the family may not be the ideal way of life -- but all those alternative lifestyles we used to talk about in the 1960s didn't work out so well either. Is it just getting bleaker, or are there any signs of hope on the horizon? BARBARA EHRENREICH: I guess the bright spot is that through several marriages and divorces I have produced a rather large, blended family. And I saw the beauty of that when my son graduated from college. His friends with "intact" families would just have a mother and father, but my son had a band of about 30 people crawling everywhere -- parents and grandparents and step-grandparents and parents' exes and fiances and so on. And maybe that's not a bad thing. As families are disintegrating, they're also growing, in an odd way, into larger extended families. Q: You're often critical of the more intellectual side of the modern feminist movement, especially, for example, the people who couldn't understand why so many women cheered Lorena Bobbitt. You also talk about the problem of defending the right to equality when what you end up defending is a woman's right to run a big, polluting corporation or go into the army and kill people. What lessons can you draw for the next generation of feminists? How do you approach equality when you really want more fundamental social change? BE: You have two parts to your agenda: one is assimilation, and the other is transformation. Of course you have to fight for assimilation, but at some point, especially for women, you have to ask, Where is the rest of your agenda? You have to say, How are we changing things for everybody? The other error is you get these older feminists who just cannot let go. You have to make room for the twentysomething feminists who will bring in new energy. For somebody like myself, from the radical end of the Left, one of the things I'm constantly doing is challenging people and saying, Great, now you're deputy CEO of Widgets Inc. Now what are widgets for? What is this all about? Q: It seems to me that the real Left in this country is in serious trouble. What do we do to rebuild a viable Left in the United States? Where will it come from? BE: We have to remember we have a harder sell. The Right is saying, Identify with the bully, the big guys, and you'll get to share in that privilege somehow. We're saying, Identify with the guy who's getting kicked on the street by the bullies. That's a little bit harder. I think in part it's going to be coming from the next wave of college graduates who aren't going to be able to get jobs. We don't get much perspective from the middle. Most of our professional pundits in the media are very well paid, and they have no contact with real Americans. You also have to remember that every time we do anything they'll accuse us of class warfare. We have to remember to say, You started this class war. But we have to get out there with a kind of economic populism so that people who turn on the radio can find something that doesn't blame their plight on immigrants, minorities, Jews, and the federal government. It's a huge triumph of big business to have people looking down on people who are worse off and blaming them. The simple answer, the social democratic answer, is to say that we could have a much more democratic form of capitalism. We can take a few things out of the market system, like health care. We could shift some money out of the armed systems of government, the military and the prisons, and put it into education and housing. We could do some things with this country -- we could have jobs. It's not like there's a shortage of things to do, but maybe they're not profitable to do, so maybe you say, That means the government should do them. Q: Let's talk about the perils of political correctness, which is another one of the topics you address. BE: The truth is, if there's any kind of political correctness in this country, it's on the Right. You can't easily go public in this society and say you're an atheist or a leftist ... that's a great narrowing in the discourse. Most of what they call p.c. these days is good; it's an attempt to create a form of civility. I disagree, though, when there are attempts to legislate this sort of thing. I don't think there should be rules against racism, sexism, etc. on campus. That's a job of persuasion. It's not a matter of a systematic approach as much as it is one where I just say, Lighten up. You can't have women just ready to fly off the handle at every imagined slight -- and I've seen that happen. But you also have to have the guys being willing to think before they speak. That's what civility is about. Q: In one of your essays you talk about crime as a spectator sport and how much we as a society love it. But the real numbers show that crime is going down. How do we acknowledge the fear of crime and still turn this into a progressive issue? BE: Well, dare I mention a tired old liberal idea? Such as to make people's lives such that they have alternatives to crime? Other countries have figured that out. You and I know there are answers to these questions. What I don't understand is how you insert logic into a political discourse that is more and more self-indulgently infantile and involved in a punitive rage. Q: A lot of that, of course, has to do with TV. Is the fact that so much of the information we get comes from watching TV something we should be increasingly scared about? Is there any hope for TV? BE: TV is how we're all wired together. Some of us who have more money for computers are wired through the Internet, but the rest of us are wired through this one-way medium called TV, which turns us into some kind of single neurological organism. This new whole is a lot dumber, and scarier, than the sum of its parts. Individually people are rational, compassionate, ready to talk about anything. Put us together, wire us to TV with polls going the other way to the TV people to make sure we get what we want, and you get a new neural system arising which is very primitive and monsterlike. Q: I suspect you're a closet optimist like me, so I have to ask you: There must be hope. How do we slay that monster? BE: I don't know. My whole life's work has been to say, Can we think this through? We're hurting people. But that's not as primal as saying, Next time a federal agent comes by, I'll shoot him in the groin. I think TV is a great idea. But there has to be more organizing around the media. Becoming a media crank is very important. People have to call their TV stations and demand something better. I know, having worked for magazines, that letters to the editor are very important. I don't think people realize the power that they do have with respect to media choices.