Remembering Barbara Ehrenreich, Acid Mind and Labor Champion

bArbara Ehrenreich, who died on September 1 aged 81, was one of the greatest literary representatives of the working class. A wildly prescient thinker, she was blessed with a wryly witty prose style that could make even the most important subject matter compelling, and was proof that activism and journalism not only can mix, but should mix more often.

Not coincidentally, she was an early member and co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, the left-wing group that has recently undergone such a powerful renaissance. Her participation was at least part of why she could see what was wrong with this country and name it with more humor and clarity than most of the centrist democratic media. In this sense, as in many others, she was similar to the trickster in disguise The jungleUpton Sinclair, who was a card-carrying socialist, and George Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

The Barbara I met a decade ago (I ran the nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project she founded for almost as long) was not typical of the great journalists of her generation. Instead, her writing and her very nature expanded the meaning of media accountability long before the flaws and lies of objectivity or “two-sidedness” were widely discussed. “I’ve never seen a conflict between journalism and activism,” she said. “As a journalist, I seek the truth. But as a moral person, I also have an obligation to do something about it.”

Barbara knew that the sharp line imposed in the media between journalism and advocacy can really mask ideology. She knew that what was considered neutral reporting could reinforce the status quo, recording only what was already there, in official language already accepted and naturalized, or in acronyms and milkshake phrases. It does not capture what was once or may soon be a reality. She also cast a cold eye on the kind of popular writers who mused about, say, so-called dead fathers from their laptops or traded in false equivalencies in bits and pieces discarded on the way to their second homes. In her long years as a TIME essayist, she tried to be the antithesis of this archetype, writing with panache and clarity about everything she support of Ralph Naderits acceptance Family values and what the popularity of dinosaur movies said of unity.

However, in the days following her death, these details did not tend to make the obituaries of major publications. This seems to me to be more than a casual observation: it was her political commitment that determined the quality of her work. It comes from activist and trade union culture, not the hyper-professionalized areas of the newsroom or journalism school.

Her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, in which Barbara goes undercover, working low-paying gigs as a waitress or cleaning houses, was a bestseller, but now it can be mistakenly neutralized simply as a set of yarns for the poor. Her point and form were, in fact, entirely fresh, as was her volume on witches and midwives; another for the transformative pleasure of dance and music; a third about the tacky commercial industry that has grown up around being a cancer survivor; and my beloved Fear of fallingabout the status anxiety of the middle class.

She was able to predict trends in part because she was neither an undercover reporter nor his new version, a data crunching technocrat. Instead, she combined the scientific method (she had a PhD in biology) with what I call lyrical leftism, a style fostered in the 1970s. Part of it is the understanding that everyday life, even popular culture, can bring about political change. Her very specific mindset stems from growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood: she comes from a town full of mines, not a coastal town where a view is created out of nowhere.

The so-called neutrality of politics also infuriated her, and you can see this dislike of this distant white-collar jargon in Nickel and Dimed, too. It was one of the first books to present America’s working poor as an emergency. This calculation was metabolised a bit more after the financial crisis of 2008. However, to this day this reality has not yet been fully absorbed by America as a whole. As Barbara writes, these workers were truly “our society’s greatest philanthropists.” how? “They neglect their own children to care for the children of others; they live in substandard housing so that other homes are shiny and perfect.”

I think—and I believe Barbara thought—readers had forgotten the vast working class in our country because the privileged caste no longer interacted with them except when receiving services. As Barbara said in an interview, “Millions of people do this kind of work every day for their entire lives—haven’t you noticed?” In addition, the media and political leadership of the 1980s and 1990s propagated a charged narrative about the yuppie , actively excluding those who were not white-collar from their studios and podiums. Her book became the one that revived people’s interest in the coming-of-age experience, in part because she took the approach of the insider who goes “undercover.” It made everyday horrors that were naturalized shocking and engaging to readers.

Her 21 books and numerous essays are on the shelf of timeless class literature, in part because her unabashed voice makes readers feel less alone. This is also part of the reason why there has been a very personal outpouring of feelings for her on social media since her death. What impressed me the most were the posts from people who had read Nickel and Dimed while they were waiting. One reader tweeted that this book “it came out the year my life blew up, the dotcom bubble burst, and I went to work as a waitress at a cemetery… I couldn’t have done it without her.” Barbara’s works evoked such a sense of empathy in readers because of the unwaveringness of her voice—full of sympathy for the ordinary people she encountered, always brimming with dark humor, ready to call out everyone from New Age gurus to powerful politicians on both sides of the aisle. .

Fear of fallingwhich Barbara wrote before Nickel and Dimedand published in 1989, casts her trademark ultraviolet light on what she describes as America’s managerial class and their anxieties about slipping out of the middle class. “Money doesn’t bring happiness,” she writes, “only the means, perhaps, to endure the lack of it.”

My story overlaps with hers in another of her activist-journalist-meets-meets-her-attempts to save America’s independent journalists. As Barbara wrote, “In America, only the rich can afford to write about poverty,” referring to the elite economic status of many journalists, the early collapse of independent reporting, and such venture capitalists as Alden Global Capital, who bought newspapers and fired reporters while they were chasing bigger profits. Unlike traditional journalists who can see a problem, write about it and move on, Barbara decided to do something about it by starting a non-profit journalism organization to advocate for destabilized and underpaid American voices.

The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which she founded in 2012 in response to the effects of the recession, supports and edits writers who experience poverty or report firsthand about it (including one who covered her own eviction.) Sometimes the checks of our contributors had to be telegraphed to poor writers so they could pay for hotel rooms and rental cars while they reported. Barbara, never one for formalities, sometimes paid these payments from her own bank account, for greater expediency. Can you imagine your typical editor at any normal publication (and many have access to trust funds) doing something like this? Even her management practices were radical and sharp, sometimes ludicrous: she wanted us to meet in cheap diners where she ordered just a cup of black coffee and tipped the waitress $10; she got potential donors to our organization to meet with us in seedy downtown hotels, far from any glassy offices; she would be far more interested in writers who can’t pay their rent than in the most famous TV news anchors. When we met one of the latter, I’m not sure Barbara ever smiled.

Barbara was consistently concerned with human solidarity, one of the few modern journalists for whom this was an organizing principle.

Her influence was so strong that despite her recent health setbacks, she seemed immortal, like the ancient cave paintings she was fascinated by at the end of her life. That she died as we approach Labor Day seems fitting, although given her penchant for busting myths, she’ll probably roll her eyes at the idea of ​​a news hook about her passing. She could have said something like “news pegs are products of the Hallmark Media Industrial Complex, Alissa.”

I now turn my mind to her writing about religious experience in her book To live with a wild god. From a young age, she writes, she thought about the conundrum of being what she called “the situation.” She described it as the fact that we all share “ecstatic springs and bitter winters” and that all our lives of beautiful experiences ultimately end in death. It wasn’t some spiritual kick at the end of her life that turned her away from her radical tendencies. Instead, it was further evidence of her attachment to materialism. She saw individual deaths as part of a saga of social struggle. “The situation,” she writes, makes her young self wonder, “What is the point of our short existence?”

She was too close to anyone to understand.

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