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Model Practitioner

Remembering Barbara Ehrenreich

When I first launched my accidental career in journalism more than thirty years ago, as an intern at Mother Jones, one of my first assignments was to fact-check a column by Barbara Ehrenreich. I can still remember the topic: a characteristically biting and witty takedown of the daft notion of “reverse sexism” and some of its trademark turns of phrase. (A passing reference to men as the category of human responsible for hair growing out of their ears still makes me laugh whenever I’m forced to contemplate this unlovely truth.)

Most of all, though, the whole idea that I was trusted to work on this kind of thing—an energetic, incisive, and funny work of polemic journalism—gave me a direct and thrilling sense of the possibilities ahead on the dubious vocation I was then exploring. Given the generally squalid and chaotic condition of my mental life back then, the effect was roughly equivalent to hearing the clear and resounding sound of a tuning fork at the end of a command performance of Lou Reed’s dirge-and-noise opus Metal Machine Music.

Without Barbara to lead the way, the long-dismal prospects for truly life-changing reporting and criticism have grown exponentially bleaker.

I had no way of knowing, of course, that I would later have the singular honor of regularly collaborating with Barbara as her editor when she began columnizing for The Baffler—or that I’d enjoy long lunches and email threads with her after she moved to northern Virginia to pull exuberant babysitting duty for her beloved granddaughters. And now that, like the rest of us, I’m forced to confront a world without Barbara, who died September 1 shortly after her eighty-first birthday, I can’t help feeling like the embattled traditions of journalism and critical discourse have lost a model practitioner. Without Barbara to lead the way, the long-dismal prospects for truly life-changing reporting and criticism have grown exponentially bleaker.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Barbara’s work drew out the contours of the world we now live in well before our caste of conventional media gatekeepers had any hope of sussing them out. One of her earliest academic studies described the rise of the professional managerial class—a key term of analysis in the postwar American class structure that remains crucial (if still widely misunderstood) unto this day. Around the time I was fact-checking her Mother Jones column, she had published her landmark study of the inner life of the middle class, Fear of Falling—another brilliant dissection of the undercurrents of downward mobility assailing American cultural and intellectual life appearing at the peak of the insipid “morning in America” rhetoric of the paper economy’s Reagan boom years. In between came The Hearts of Men, a merciless-yet-nuanced evisceration of faux-countercultural patriarchy, from the then-little-noted misogyny of the Beat generation to the high-consumerist male fantasies peddled by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire.

This was long before Barbara’s best-known book, Nickel and Dimed, a searing and compassionate inside account of the grinding system of class inequality during another era of paper-boom delusion, in the late 1990s. A follow-up study, Bait and Switch, charted the declining fortunes of white-collar office workers at the height of the downsizing era, with the same incisive and trenchant attention to the deranging power of professional instability-by-design.

All these foundational works in the Ehrenreich canon share a pointed emphasis on social class as the underappreciated motive force in most of the prevailing trends in American culture and political economy—and this alone marks Barbara’s legacy as an indispensable guide to the reckonings in store for a republic far too besotted with the mythos of predation and economic punishment as the rationale for individualist success and achievement. Ever attuned to the media’s myriad failures to own up to such realities, Barbara also founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project in 2012—an invaluable clearing house for sharp reporting on the ongoing inequality crisis. A passage from Nickel and Dimed that went viral on social media after Barbara’s death summed up her outlook on these issues, and is well worth reprising here:

When someone works for less pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The “working poor,” as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.

Unlike most name-brand essayists and journalists in today’s mediasphere, Barbara came by this view of things honestly; her father was a copper miner in Montana. While my own family of origin was clinging to the lower rungs of the professional managerial class (and duly fell into the sloughs of downward mobility Barbara described in Fear of Falling and Bait and Switch), I also came of age in a decaying rust-belt outpost of the Midwest. When Barbara and I would meet up in and around D.C., we’d marvel at the unselfconscious ivied hubris of the Beltway cognoscenti—and reminisce about our respective first years at Reed College, where we’d both been taken aback by the school’s proud tradition of trust fund-financed lifestyle radicalism. (For the record, Barbara made it through her full Reed tour; I did not.)

Some of Barbara’s smug detractors carelessly labeled her a vulgar Marxist and confidently dismissed her work in nearly the same breath. This was both a gross caricature (the sort that an interlocutor of a certain class background typically wields against any effort to take class seriously) and an insult to the fearless and wide-ranging character of Barbara’s thinking and writing. When she joined forces with Team Baffler in 2012, she first published a bracing essay about how domestic animals may not be all that domestic. She contributed a lovely meditation on the arch conceptual limits of monotheism as she was working through the material that would become her typically abrasive-yet-expansive spiritual memoir Living With a Wild God. When I decamped the editorship of The Baffler, she wrote to me grousing that I was leaving her without any like-minded editor who would publish the essay she was then completing on Paleolithic cave art. (As I assured her in my reply, she need not have worried.)

Other book-length investigations that speak volumes about Barbara’s truly inquiring mind include Blood Rites, an effort to exhume the roots of warfare in human nature, and Dancing in the Streets, a disquisition on the politics of joy. This topical juxtaposition alone says so much about Barbara; by training, she was a scientist, always driven to get to the bottom of whichever intellectual question, political dilemma, or cultural preoccupation was pulling her onward. At the same time, she was a firm believer in, and practitioner of, the politics of joy, boasting a truly world-class laugh and a battery of inspired one-liners in her speaking and writing voice alike. (For but one recent representative sample, check out her Baffler essay on #MeToo and the silliness of patriarchy.) It was also wholly in character that as Barbara was contending with mounting health challenges, she channeled them directly into another book project, Natural Causes. She also generously offered an excerpt to The Baffler, which grew out of a lunchtime conversation we had about the absurdities of workout regimens—another social practice that Barbara fiercely pursued while viewing it with a robust and mordant critical detachment.

It’s understandable that the initial wave of Barbara’s remembrance has focused on Nickel and Dimed and her groundbreaking work on the psychic and material wages of social class. At the same time, however, it’s a bit disturbing to see the vast range of Barbara’s thought and writing shoehorned into the niche of perennial social-class scold. It’s an act of intellectual compression that’s hard to imagine happening to a male writer of comparable stature and range—another illustration of how the work of care and solidarity has become steadily gendered and ghettoized as part of the broader diminution of the neoliberal political imagination. Come to think of it, that would be a great topic for a column by Barbara. Damn.