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Remembering Barbara Ehrenreich, Acid Wit and Worker’s Champion

BArbara Ehrenreich, who died on September 1 at the age of 81, was one of the greatest literary representatives of the working class. An extremely prescient thinker, she was blessed with a witty style of prose that could make even the most serious subject matter gripping and was proof that not only can activism and journalism mix, but they really should. do more often.

It is no coincidence that she was an early participant and co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, the left-wing group that has recently enjoyed such a strong resurgence. His involvement 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 center Democratic media. In this sense as well as in many others, she was akin to the undercover muckraker The jungle‘s Upton Sinclair, who was a card-carrying socialist, and George Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

Barbara, whom I met ten years ago (I ran the nonprofit Economic Hardship Reporting Project which she founded for almost as long), was not typical of the great journalists of her generation. . Instead, his writing, and his very being, expanded the media’s sense of responsibility long before the drawbacks and lies of objectivity or “both sides” 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 corporate body, I’m also obligated to do something about it.

Barbara knew that the sharp line that was imposed in the media between journalism and advocacy could, in truth, mask ideology. She knew that what counts as a neutral report can reinforce the status quo, recording only what is already there, in an official language that has already been accepted and naturalized, or in acronyms and milquetoast phrases. It does not capture what once was or may soon be a reality. She also took a cold look at the kind of popular writers who thought, say, of supposedly deadbeat dads from their laptops or traded fake equivalencies in bits thrown on the way to their second homes. In her many years as an essayist for TIME, she tried to be the opposite of that archetype, writing with panache and clarity about everything from her support for Ralph Nader, her view of family values, and what that the popularity of dinosaur movies said about unity. .

However, in the days following his death, these details did not tend to make the obituaries of major publications. This seems to me more than a fortuitous elision: it is his political commitment that defines the quality of his work. It comes from militant and unionist culture rather than from the hyper-professionalized areas of the editorial staff or the school of journalism.

His 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, in which Barbara was undercover, working at low-wage gigs as a waitress or cleaning houses, was a bestseller, but it can now be mistakenly neutralized into a simple set of threads about the poor. Its point and form were, in fact, completely new, as was its volume on witches and midwives; another on the transformational pleasure of dance and music; a third on the clingy commercial industry that has grown up around being a cancer survivor; and my favourite, Fear of fallingabout middle-class status anxiety.

She was able to predict trends in part because she was neither a blind journalist nor her new version, a data-hungry technocrat. Instead, she combined the scientific method (she had a doctorate in biology) with what I call lyrical leftism, a style fomented in the 1970s. It’s partly an understanding that everyday life, even popular culture, can lead to radical political changes. Her very specific mindset stemmed from growing up near blue-collar workers: she came from a town full of mines, not a coastal town where the view of nowhere was.

The so-called neutrality of the politics buffs also pissed her off and you can see that distaste for that white-collar, distanced lingo in Nickel and Dimed, too. It was one of the first books to portray the American working poor as an emergency. This reckoning was further metabolized after the financial crisis of 2008. However, to this day, this reality has still not been fully absorbed by America as a whole. As Barbara wrote, these workers were indeed “our society’s chief philanthropists.” How? “They neglect their own children so that the children of others are cared for; they live in substandard housing so that the other houses are shiny and perfect.

I think – and I think Barbara thought – that readers had forgotten about our country’s vast working class 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 all their lives – haven’t you noticed them?” Additionally, the media and political leaders of the 1980s and 1990s conveyed a startup Yuppie narrative, actively excluding those who were not white-collar workers from their studios and podiums. Her book became one that rekindled people’s interest in the majority experience, in part because she used the relatable person who goes “undercover” approach. It made everyday horrors that had been naturalized shocking and engaging for readers.

His 21 books and numerous essays sit on the shelf with the most timeless literature on the class, in part because his unapologetic voice made readers feel less alone. It’s also partly why, after his death, there was a very personal outpouring of feelings about him on social media. I was most struck by the posts of people who had read Nickel and Dimed while they served. One reader tweeted that this book “came out the year my life blew up, the internet bubble burst and I went to work as a cemetery waitress… couldn’t have done it without her. Barbara’s work evoked such a sense of camaraderie in readers because of how unwavering her voice was – full of sympathy for the ordinary people she met, always darkly humorous, ready to challenge everyone. , from New Age gurus to powerful politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Fear of fallingthat Barbara wrote before Nickel and Dimed, and published in 1989, casts its typical ultraviolet light on what it describes as the American managerial class and their anxieties of rising out of the middle class. “Money does not bring happiness”, she writes, “only what, perhaps, to support its absence”.

My story overlaps with his in another of his activist-meets-journalist moments — his attempt to save America’s independent journalists. As Barbara wrote, “In America, only the wealthy can afford to write about poverty,” referring to the elite economic status of many journalists, the early collapse of independent journalism, and corporate venture capitalists like Alden Global Capital who bought up newspapers and fired journalists as they sought higher profits. Unlike traditional journalists who might see a problem, write about it, and move on, Barbara decided to do something about it, starting a nonprofit journalism organization to champion America’s destabilized and underpaid voices.

The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which she founded in 2012 in response to the fallout from the recession, supports and publishes writers experiencing poverty or who report it firsthand (including one who covered his own eviction. ) Sometimes our contributors checks had to be wired to needy writers so they could pay for hotel rooms and car rentals while they were reporting. Barbara, who does not like formalities, sometimes issued these payments from her own bank account, for the sake of expediency. Can you imagine your typical editor at any normal publication (and many have access to trust funds) doing something like this? Even her managerial practices were radical and edgy, sometimes humorous: she asked to meet me at cheap restaurants where she would just order a cup of black coffee and tip the waitress $10; she asked potential donors to our organization to meet with us in ramshackle downtown hotels, far from any glass-walled offices; she would show much more interest in writers who couldn’t pay their rent than in the most famous TV news hosts. When we met one of these, I’m not sure Barbara ever broke a smile.

Barbara was constantly concerned with human solidarity, one of the few contemporary journalists for whom it was an organizing principle.

Her influence was so pungent that despite her recent health problems, she seemed immortal, like the ancient cave paintings she was fascinated with late in life. That she passed away as we approach Labor Day would seem fitting, though given her penchant for myth-busting, she’d probably roll her eyes at the thought of a news hook for her passing. She could say out of the corner of her mouth something like “clothespins are products of the Hallmark Media Industrial Complex, Alissa.”

I turn now to his writings on religious experience in his book Living with a Wild God. From an early age, she writes, she viewed the enigma of being as what she called “the situation.” She described it as the fact that we all share “ecstatic springs and harsh winters”, and also that our lives of beautiful experiences all end in death. It wasn’t some kind of end-of-life spiritual kick that took her away from her radical inclinations. Instead, it was further proof of his commitment to materialism. She saw the individual deaths as part of the social struggle saga. “The situation,” she wrote, had her wondering, “What is the purpose of our brief existence?”

She approached anyone to find out.

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