By Diane Hill (March 18, 2020)
Had I Known: Collective Essays, Barbara Ehrenreich, Twelve, March 24, 2020, 384 pp., $32.84
If you’re self-isolating and need some light reading to take your mind off the Covid-19 outbreak and the general state of the world, please don’t read Barbara Ehrenreich’s newest essay collection.
But if you’re wondering how the heck we got into such a mess and believe we can collectively do better, it’s the perfect source of insight and inspiration.
Had I Known: Collective Essays provides a fascinating overview of political and social problems in the U.S: the growing anti-science movement, the sexual politics of sickness, the false safety of gated communities,class and race issues within a broken mental health system, the narcissism of buying ‘spiritual’ encounters with wild animals, the growing anti-science movement, food deserts in poor neighbourhoods, the cult of busyness, the racism embedded in the 2008 recession, and much more. The earliest piece is from 1982; the latest, 2018.
An award-winning investigative journalist and essayist, Ehrenreich has been warning us about out-of-control income inequality, political division, and anti-intellectualism in the U.S. for decades.
For example, in 1984 she wrote about the growing class divide amongst American men, a crack that’s since widened and twisted its way through the country, helping to produce the millions of disaffected men who voted for Trump against their own economic interest.
In 1986, two years before the romantic-comedy Working Girl celebrated the new and all-powerful female executive, she was already peeking behind the ‘career-as-female-empowerment’ curtain. Dismayed that women were becoming more interested in business networking than consciousness-raising, she scorned the “trickle-down theory” that boosting middle-class women into the upper-class would somehow benefit all women. “Women do not change institutions simply by assimilating into them, only by consciously deciding to fight for change…to infiltrate and subvert them.”
We get to tag along as Ehrenreich follows her endless curiosity in search of context. In The Missionary Position, she takes a quick dip into religious history to help explain the still-powerful political concept of ‘divine right of kings.’ Apparently, about 3,000 years ago in many parts of the world, ideas about God “underwent a major makeover.” After eons of accepting that gods were nasty and selfish and often destructive, like Zeus or Kali, people began to think of God as inherently good. While experts dispute the precise reasons for this transformation, Ehrenreich unsurprisingly favours the political analysis: it was a time of constant warfare, which requires centralized authority and new ways of maintaining domestic order.
“Far easier to persuade the public that the king or the emperor is deserving of obedience because the deity he represents, or even embodies, is himself so transcendentally good.” This new leader “demands not only obedience, but gratitude and love.” You begin to see why some right-wing supporters in the U.S. are desperate to link Trump to God, going so far as to call him ‘the chosen one’ who was ‘sent by God to do great things.’
Ehrenreich has been an active democratic socialist for decades and is one of the few mainstream journalists writing about class in America. Fittingly, this collection opens with Nickle and Dimed, the 1999 Harper’s essay that turned into her best-selling memoir of surviving on minimum wage for three months, the most famous of her 21 books. In this essay and elsewhere, she writes about the working poor with insight, compassion, and outrage. She is keenly aware of her privileged ability to leave at any time and her advantages “unthinkable to the long-term poor—health, stamina, a working car, and no children to care for and support.”
In 2019, the book was ranked 13th on The Guardian's list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.
This essay—and many others in the book—explore income inequality and other issues through the intersectional lenses of gender, race, and class. While this was considered radical twenty years ago, it is commonplace now. In that respect, many of the older essays still seem fresh but her silence on other forms of oppression—such as LGBTQ and disability issues—is noticeable. Worse, last year she blundered badly with a racist tweet about uber-organizer Marie Kondo and the fallout threatened to wipe away her long-standing commitment to equality, evident in essays like The Unbearable Being of Whiteness, her 1988 satirical look at white racism.
The editor’s choice to organize Had I Known by topic—income inequality, health care, gender—rather than chronologically keeps us bouncing back-and-forth in time. This makes it hard to see how trends in one area are reflected in others. A few of the essays seem a bit dated and some of the statistics—like death rates from breast cancer—have changed significantly since the original piece was published.
In fact, at times I couldn’t help but wonder: “Why now?”
Why publish this compilation now, when many of the dire outcomes she’s been warning us about for years seem to be coming to terrible fruition in front of our eyes? When America seems ready to implode, what good can it possibly do to learn the warning signs were there forty years ago?
I’m also puzzled about the meaning of the title, Had I Known. What on earth does Ehrenreich wish she’d known that she didn’t? She knew disaffected men are dangerous. She knew capitalism needs poverty. She knew sexism kills women. She knew many so-called solutions to social problems are actually designed to keep us passive and distracted. Seems to me she knew all of this—and more—way before most of us did.
She also knew—as many of her pieces make clear—that even when we do know, progressive social change is damned hard. The same pattern gets repeated over and over again: People who are oppressed and suffering alone somehow manage to find one another. They organize and fight for their collective rights. They manage to change part of an oppressive system, but soon the system pushes back—hard—usually with a potent combination of financial pressure and social arm-twisting.
Ehrenreich offers no easy answers but, to be fair, that’s not her job. Her job today is the same as it’s been for 40 years: to try to wake us up."
In 2001, Ehrenreich had one of her own ‘wake up’ moments: she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She took one look at the infantilizing pink teddy bears, pink bracelets, pink pillowcases, and other ‘sentimental’ products being pushed on women at one of the most vulnerable times of their lives and pushed back with the essay Welcome to Cancerland. Published in Harper’s Magazine, it was nominated for a National Magazine Award.
She found the pink and childlike branding not only absurd but undignified: “Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.”
But she also went much further, arguing that the syrupy, overly-positive “breast-cancer cult” was designed to “regress (women) to a little-girl state, to suspend critical judgement… (and turn) women into dupes of what could be called the Cancer Industrial Complex: the multinational corporate enterprise that with one hand doles out carcinogens and disease and, with the other, offers expensive, semitoxic pharmaceutical treatments.”
She gives a short history lesson on how women originally pushed back against the oppressive medical establishment: “When postmastectomy patients first proposed meeting in support groups in the mid-1970s, the American Cancer Society responded with a firm and fatherly ‘no.’”Activists refused to take no for an answer, leading to a new era of patient empowerment. Women began questioning the standard medical treatments of the day and asking hard questions, like: “What’s really causing all this cancer?”
But by the time Ehrenreich was diagnosed, money and social pressure had significantly weakened this early activism."
Breast cancer had become the darling of corporate philanthropy. As the director of the National Women’s Health Network shrewdly notes, it gave corporations “a way of doing something for women, without being feminist.”
Support groups had adopted the sunny language of survivorship. No one talked about environmental toxins anymore, just ‘toxic emotions’ like anger and negativity. As an experiment, Ehrenreich once shared a few complaints online through a breast cancer forum, and “received a chorus of rebukes” encouraging her to be more positive. Obviously, those writers didn’t know who they were talking to, because Ehrenreich’s superpower is her ability to see through bullshit.
Breast cancer, she concludes, “did not…make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual—only more deeply angry. What sustained me…was a purifying rage, a resolve, framed in the sleepless nights of chemotherapy, to see the last polluter, along with, say, the last smug health insurance operative, strangled with the last pink ribbon.”
Ehrenreich will likely go to her grave still kicking us in the pants, trying to get us to see, to ask questions—and most of all, to stand up."
One of my favourite kick-in-the-pants essays is The Selfish Side of Gratitude, her critique of the gratitude and mindfulness movements. She calls the current corporate love affair with mindfulness “Buddhism sliced up and commodified,” and positions it as just the latest superficial attempt of corporate bosses to soothe overworked employees.
After decades of leaning on the tired post of ‘positive thinking,’ during the 1990s corporate HR types eagerly embraced ‘multitasking’ as a route to increased productivity. Do five things at once! It’s good for your brain! But that idea soon proved scientifically unsound: “Studies were piling up to suggest that a lifestyle dependent on multiple devices and double-shot expressos might be toxic to the human mind, impeding concentration and undermining human connectedness.”
Corporate America—especially Silicon Valley—heard the increasing calls for ‘digital detoxing,’ and started to worry. “(They) wanted an instant cure, preferably one that was high-tech and marketable.”
Conveniently, around this time a study was published on the positive effects of meditation on the brains of Buddhists monks. Before you could say ‘neural hack,’ hundreds of meditation apps and corporate mindfulness retreats were promising to foster ‘neuroplasticity’ and soothe our frazzled brains.
As usual, no one seemed to be listening to what the science was actually saying: “…meditation can help treat stress-related symptoms but are no more effective in doing so than other interventions, such as muscle relaxation, medication, or psychotherapy.”
In most spiritual traditions, the goal of gratitude, prayer, or meditation isn’t personal improvement but to better serve whatever deity you believe in and, ultimately, humanity. But not surprisingly, the new corporatized approach is passive and individualized: to “generate, within yourself, the good feelings associated with gratitude, and then bask in its warm, comforting glow.”
Ehrenreich urges us to take a “more muscular” and collective approach. Grateful for the food on your table? Thank the people who “picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove those products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves, and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table…whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.”
Get busy supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. Give them bigger tips. Fight against an economic order that condemns so many to poverty. “Demand a more nurturing, less anxiety-ridden social order.”
In short, she says, we need less gratitude and more solidarity, “which may involve getting up off the yoga mat.”
The lessons Ehrenreich offers in this collection are simple but powerful, and are especially important during our current time of crisis:
Remember the big picture. There’s nothing quite like a pandemic to remind us of our interconnectedness and interdependence, and the critical need to protect the most vulnerable.
Look at the world through multiple lenses. The economic fallout of Covid-19 will harm some people much more than others, and government responses must reflect that.
Take nothing for granted. We must fight harder to preserve and strengthen our health care and social service systems, which have become increasingly tattered even here in Canada
Nothing is preordained. Even when it seems too late, we can still fight back, together. “Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.”
Back in 1986, Ehrenreich saw the neoliberal juggernaut overtaking and dividing America and urged her fellow citizens to actively fight back. She knew that if we didn’t, progressive social and economic change was doomed.
“(We) are likely to continue our slide toward a society divided between the hungry and the overfed, the hopeless and the have-it-alls. What is worse, there will be no mainstream, peaceable political outlets for the frustration of the declining middle class or the desperation of those at the bottom. Instead, it is safe to predict that there will be more crime, more exotic forms of political and religious sectarianism, and, ultimately, that we will no longer be one nation, but two.”
Had we only known.
(Diane Hill is the Director of Communication for the Gender Equality Network Canada, a national network convened and facilitated by the Canadian Women’s Foundation.)