Remembering Barbara Ehrenreich, Acid Wit and Workers’ Champ

Barbara Ehrenreich died on Sept. 1, aged 81. She was a premonitionist and had a knack for writing prose that was sharp and funny. This was a proof that activism can and should be mixed more frequently.

She was not an accident that she co-chaired Democratic Socialists of America (a leftwing group which has had a strong revival in recent years). She was involved at the very least in Why?She could identify the problems in our country with greater clarity and humor than many in the center-Democratic media. This and other senses, she was similar to an undercover muckerraker 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 a decade ago (I’ve run the non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project which she founded for nearly that long), was not typical of the great journalists of her generation. Instead, her writing, and her very being, expanded the meaning of media accountability long before the downsides and lies of objectivity or “both sides-ism,” were widely discussed. “I have never seen a conflict between journalism and activism,” she said. “As a journalist, I search for the truth. But as a moral person, I am also obliged to do something about it.”

Barbara understood that there was a bright line between advocacy and journalism that could mask ideological intent. Her knowledge of the distinction between reporting neutrally and reporting biased could reinforce the status quo. She also knew that recording only what’s already there can be a way to record it in language accepted by government officials and naturally translated into English. It doesn’t capture what was once or could soon be a reality. Also, she was critical of the popular writers who, for example, mused from laptops about deadbeat fathers and traded false equivalencies with pieces that were tossed on their way to second homes. TIME essayist, for many years, tried to portray the antithesis of this archetype. She wrote with panache, clarity, and support for Ralph Nader.

However, in the days since her death, these details didn’t tend to make the obituaries of the major publications. It seems that this is more than an accident. Her political involvement was what defined her quality work. She emerged from activist and unionist culture rather than the hyper-professionalized zones of the newsroom or the journalism school.

In 2001, her book “The Book of Hers” Nickel and DimedBarbara undercover labored at low-wage jobs like cleaning up after guests. Although it was a bestseller, the book can now be misunderstood into only a series of yarns about poor people. Her point and format were in fact completely original. She also wrote a volume about witches, midwives, music, dance, and the commercial world that has developed around her being cancer-survivor. Fear of FallingAbout the anxiety that the middle classes feel about their status.

Because she wasn’t a technocrat or a hidebound reporter, but a data crunching techcrat, her ability to forecast trends was partly why. In her place, she combined science (she has a Ph.D. in biology) and lyrical Leftism. It was an approach that began in the 1970s. It’s partly an understanding that everyday life, even popular culture, can lead to political sea changes. Because she grew up in blue collar surroundings, her unique mindset stems from the fact that she was raised in a town with many mines and not one where you could see everything.

Her distaste for the white collar and distanced jargon caused her to be upset about so-called policy neutrality. Nickel and Dimed, too. It was one of the first books to represent America’s working poor as an emergency. This calculation was slightly altered by the 2008 financial crisis. This reality is still not fully accepted by America to this day. As Barbara wrote, these workers were in truth “the major philanthropists of our society.” How? “They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect.”

I think—and I believe Barbara thought—readers had forgotten 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 for their entire lives—haven’t you noticed them?” In addition, the 1980s and 90s media and political leadership purveyed a bootstrapping Yuppie narrative, actively excluding those who weren’t white collar from their studios and podiums. Her book became the one to revive people’s interest in the majority experience partly because she used the approach of the relatable person going “undercover.” This made everyday horrors that had been naturalized shocking and engaging to readers.

Because of her strong voice, 21 books, and many essays are among the best literature on class. That’s also some of why, after her death, there has been a very personal outpouring of feeling about her on social media. The posts of people who read her work struck me the most. Nickel and DimedWhile they were still waiting. One reader tweeted that that book “came out the year my life blew up, the dotcom bubble burst and I went to work as a graveyard waitress…couldn’t have done it without her.” Barbara’s work evoked such a sense of fellow feeling from readers because of how unshakeable her voice was—full of sympathy for the ordinary people she met, always darkly humorous, willing to call out everyone from New Age gurus to powerful politicos on both sides of the aisle.

Fear of FallingBarbara previously wrote the following: Nickel and Dimed, and published in 1989, cast her typical ultraviolet light on what she described as America’s managerial class and their anxieties about slipping out of the middle class. “Money does not bring happiness,” she wrote, “only the wherewithal, perhaps, to endure its absence.”

My story overlaps with hers in another one of her activist-meets-journalist moments—her attempt 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 that have bought up newspapers and laid off reporters as they chased higher profits. Barbara chose to act, rather than traditional journalists who would simply write about a problem then move on. She set up a nonprofit journalism group to support underpaid voices in America.

She founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (which she started in 2012 to respond to the fallout from the recession) and supports and edits writer experiencing poverty. Indigent writers sometimes needed our contributor checks wired to them to cover the cost of hotel and car rental while they were reporting. Barbara was not one to be formal, so she would often issue the payments using her personal bank account. You can imagine a typical editor of a newspaper (many have trust funds access) making these payments in this fashion. Even her managerial practices were radical and edgy, sometimes humorously so: she’d ask to meet me in cheap diners where she’d order just a cup of black coffee and give the waitress a $10 tip; she got potential granters to our organization to convene with us in rundown midtown hotels far from any glass-enclosed offices; she’d show far more interest in writers who couldn’t pay their rent than in the most famous television news show hosts. Barbara never smiled when we first met.

Barbara, who was one of few journalists today to be concerned about human solidarity was a constant concern.

She was so strong, even despite some recent setbacks in health, that she looked like a cave painting. Although it would have seemed fitting for her to die just before Labor Day, her passion for myth-busting would make her scoff at any notion that a news hook would be her passing. She could say out the side of her mouth something like “news pegs are products of the Hallmark Media Industrial Complex, Alissa.”

My thoughts now shift to her essay on the experience of religious faith in her book. Live with a Wild God. From a young age, she wrote, she thought of the conundrum of being as what she dubbed “the situation.” She described it as the fact that we all share “ecstatic springtimes and bitter winters,” and also that our lifetimes of beautiful experiences all ultimately end in death. This wasn’t some kind of late-life spiritual kick that took her away from her radical inclinations. It was a further sign of her devotion to materialism. Individual deaths were part of the story of social struggle, she thought. “The situation,” she wrote, led her young self to wonder, “What is the point of our brief existence?”

To find out, she was as close as anyone.

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