Thursday, June 08, 2006

Barbara Ehrenreich

I discovered yesterday that Barbara Ehrenreich has a blog. Ehrenreich has long been one of my favorite writers on politics and social issues. While in college, I read The Worst Years of Our Lives, a collection of columns from the 1980s (which, as far as I can tell, is currently out of print), and her wit and sarcasm certainly appealed to the smart-ass in me. Since then I have continued to read her with great interest, including many of her books. Her later collection, The Snarling Citizen, is worth a look, and, of course, the famous Nickel and Dimed is excellent. But, for me, her most valuable books have been Fear of Falling and For Her Own Good. Fear of Falling is an absorbing account of how the professional and managerial classes, essentially the middle class, create and protect their own class standing (inheritance not being an option) through elaborate education and certification rituals in the main not accessible to the working classes. It's been a while since I've read it, and I'm not doing it justice here, but it's an essential book. As, I think, is For Her Own Good, written with Deirdre English, originally published in 1978, with the subtitle 150 Years of the Experts' Advice to Women. This was the version I read, and I found it fascinating, especially the social history side of it--how men, in the name of medical science, ignored and discarded everything that women knew about health and childbirth in the push to professionalize medicine, and protect their own nascent authority (this part dovetails nicely with Fear of Falling) (and, incidentally, I read Tristram Shandy some time after reading For Her Own Good--it was thus interesting to read a book published in the 1760s expressing the distrust of doctors, particularly when it came to childbirth: the doctor clearly has no idea what he's doing and is scorned by the women in the novel). The part of For Her Own Good that dealt with the "present day" was necessarily out of date when I read it a couple of years ago, so I thought it was a book that cried out for a revised edition. One of my closest friends (a mother of two) works as a midwife's assistant (doula), and I've learned much through her about recent trends in and research on birth and children and childcare. In light of this I was very curious to know what an updated version of the book would have had to say about the current situation (the general state of things, of course, but also the countercurrents back towards midwifery and birth clinics, etc.). Happily, it turns out that last year a revised edition was indeed published, as I learned when I went to Amazon to find the link provided above; the new subtitle is Two Centuries of the Experts' Advice to Women. I may need to revisit the book in its new edition.

I found Ehrenreich's blog in the course of reading this interview with her, at ZNet:
TD: You recently commented, "Thanks to Reagan, Clinton, and Bush, we now have a government with vastly expanded military and surveillance functions and sadly atrophied helping functions. Imagine, for an awkward zoological analogy, a lioness with grossly enlarged claws and teeth but no mammary glands."

Ehrenreich: This was something I first wrote about in 1997 in an essay in the Nation which they entitled, "Confessions of a Recovering Statist." I talked about the shift of government, at the end of the Clinton years, away from the helping functions and toward the military, penitentiaries, law enforcement. At what point, I asked, do progressives have to say: I don't want to expand the helping functions of this government because look what it's doing? A nice example is public housing -- okay, public housing's a good thing, but when you start doing drug tests on people to get in or stay in such housing, then it's become an extension of the law enforcement function of government.

I still raise that question. Today, we have this even larger federal government, more and more of it being war-related, surveillance-related. I mean it's gone beyond our wildest Clinton administration dreams. I think progressives can't just be seen as pro-big-government when big government has gotten so nasty.

TD: And also when civil society has been stripped of so many of its "civil" capacities, including, as with Katrina, the capacity to rebuild.

Ehrenreich: Katrina's a perfect example of how militarized the government has gotten even when it's supposedly trying to help people. The initial response of the government was a military one. When they finally got people down there, it was armed guards to protect the fancy stores and keep people in that convention center -- at gunpoint! I mean, this is unbelievable.

TD: And what about the fobbing off of the civil parts of government onto religious and charitable groups, often politicized?

Ehrenreich: It's partly that the evangelical churches have reached for these things, and then there's the faith-based approach coming from the Bush administration where the dream was: Let's turn all social welfare functions over to churches. A lot of the megachurches now function as giant social welfare bureaucracies. I wouldn't have found this out if I hadn't been researching Bait and Switch and gone into some of them, because that's where you go when you want to connect with people to find a job. That's also where you find after-school care, child care, support groups for battered women, support groups for people with different illnesses. As government helping functions dwindle, the role of the churches grows. What's sinister is that so many of these churches also support political candidates who are anti-choice, anti-gay, and -- not coincidentally -- opposed to any kind of expansion of secular social services.


jwer said...

The last Jane Jacobs book (Dark Age Ahead) has strong words for universities' shift from education to credentialing, and it was quite clear that she is deliberately echoing Ehrenreich. I highly recommend it, although it's more than a little depressing...

Richard said...

Good to know. It sounded like a worthwhile book, from the interview I read with her in CounterPunch soon after she died. Thanks.