barbara ehrenreich, rest in power. i will miss you.

I was very saddened by the news that Barbara Ehrenreich had died earlier this month. She was one of my favourite thinkers and writers, and I found it difficult to bundle my thoughts and feelings into a tribute. 

From her last book, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, I know she rejected continuing with  cancer treatment after a certain point, so it was good to see that she died while in hospice care.

Why did Ehrenreich's writing mean so much to me?

She was a fierce champion of the working class.

She was fearless in her research and her writing.

She was a steadfast feminist, always examining the impact of policies and trends on women, especially working-class and low-income women.

She was clear-eyed and unrepentent. Ehrenreich's essay on the 2000 US election, "Vote For Nader," was widely shared. Then her post-election "Don't Blame Me", in Time magazine, strengthened my admiration for her. 

So many supposedly leftist writers will spend 1,500 words explaining why the Democrats suck, why the two-party system is broken, why we need a new or a different party -- then close with some version of "but that's all we got, so just shut up and vote for them". Ehrenreich understood a more complex picture.

I know there's not much point arguing with a party spurned. Scapegoating is, after all, so much easier than thinking. But, dear disappointed Dems, why not vent your rage on, for example, the union guys who voted for Bush because of his easygoing attitude toward firearms? (Oh, yes, I forgot, they're armed.) And before beating up on the Democratic defectors to Nader, wouldn't it be a good idea to pause for a little numerical perspective? According to exit polls, Gore lost 11 pecent of Democratic voters to Bush, compared to only 2 percent to Nader, who also drew votes from Independents and Republicans.

One of the major charges leveled against Nader voters is that we pretended - in some perverse kind of optical malingering - that we couldn't see the difference between the major candidates. Well, I'm capable of making fine visual distinctions. But a lot of people who probably never wandered near the Nader camp kept muttering, "Bush, Gore? Gush, Bore?" right up to election eve. This was, after all, the year the parties did their utmost to resemble one another. Recall that in August, after a Republican convention full of "compassion" and black gospel choirs, the pundits gave Bush high marks for making the Republican party look more like the Democratic party. But how hard was that? He wouldn't have been able to make the Republicans look like the Democrats if the Democrats had not already spent most of the past decade making themselves look like the Republicans - embracing capital punishment, unrestricted trade, welfare reform and the need to abolish the deficit. You call this a two-party system? I demand a recount.

. . . .

The staggering thing about the Democratic party's sense of entitlement - as in, "We own your vote" - is that it has made so little effort to hold on to its base. Labor, for example. Would there have been any worry about union members' defecting to Nader if the Clinton administration had spent even half as much time fighting to raise the minimum wage as it spent on pushing free trade with China?

So back off, Democratic avengers. Nader didn't steal Gore's election; he just mobilized some of the mounting disgust for money-polluted politics, with its battery-operated candidates and look-alike, corporate-welfare-state policies, whether they're labeled Democratic or Republican. All right, maybe the Republican disguise worked for the Democrats in 1992. But if you go around long enough in camouflage clothes, you're eventually going to be mistaken for, well, a bush.

What I loved best about Ehrenreich's writing was that she wrote for everyone. Although she was a columnist for The Nation, which was (before the internet) the preeminent left publication in the US, most of her writing had a broader target. She wanted to enlighten, educate, and also entertain, anyone who could read her. For me, this put her at the absolute top of the heap of feminist and socialist writers. 

A lifetime ago, I saw Ehrenreich read on a double bill with another great feminist writer, Katha Pollitt. When she signed my copy of The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from a Decade of Greed, she said, "Hardcover! Bless you, supporting my family." Just a tiny personal memory from more than three decades of attention and admiration.

If you haven't read any of Ehrenreich's books, certainly begin with Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, which has become a classic, then Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.

Her obituary in The Guardian is here. Both this, and the obituary in The New York Times, recount the birth of the idea for Nickled and Dimed

Barbara Ehrenreich, I will miss your voice.


deang said...

Such a nice tribute to Ehrenreich. She was one of my favorite writers, too. A memory I have of her is also from a lifetime ago, 1994-95, when I had walked into a university building to attend a talk on Guatemala and saw a sign that said that Barbara Ehrenreich was speaking in the same building in a different room. I immediately changed my plans and went to see Ehrenreich, whose work I had only recently discovered. I walked into the lecture room right on time and there were only about ten people there! "The organizers didn't publicize it for some reason," Ehrenreich said, shaking her head, and then she said we'd just pull up a table and sit around it and talk, so we got virtually one-on-one time with her for about an hour. I didn't say much at all because there were a few students there who really engaged with her, but she addressed the country's and the Democratic Party's rightward drift as they followed the Republicans, changes since the 1960s, etc. When her essay collection The Snarling Citizen came out a few. months later, I got a copy, shared it with friends, and never got it back, they liked it so much. I really do miss her.

laura k said...

Dean, thanks so much for sharing that. What a lovely memory! How smart and sensitive of Ehrenreich to change plans that way.

On a tangent... I once had a similar thing happen when organizing a YA author appearance when I was a youth-services librarian. We ended up sitting around a table -- the author, me, and 5 or 6 teens from my teen book club. They asked her great questions about the book they had read, but soon the questions were all about writing and how to become a writer. She was so thoughtful and encouraging. She even gave out her email address so they could email her questions if they wanted.

The writer died a year or so later, and I realized she must have had cancer at the time of that program.

It's very sad that we won't have any new books from either of these authors.