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SOURCE: "In Sickness and in Wealth," in The Washington Post, Vol. V, No. 4, January 24, 1971, pp. 1, 3.
[In the following review, Edelson praises The American Health Empire as an innovative look at the problems with health care in America, although he finds some flaws in the authors' presentation.]
The American Health Empire is yet another book about the sad state of American medicine—but don't stop reading there. This one is different. It is galvanizing, irritating, flawed and fascinating, and it presents an argument that has never been touched in what can be called the standard book on the health care crisis.
The standard book has been written under a score of titles by a score of authors. The standard book's villains and heroes are unvarying. On one side, in the black hats, are the old-line doctors, whose spokesman is the American Medical Association and whose aim is to keep American medicine disorganized in the interests of personal profit. The men in the white hats are the medical liberals, working out of modern hospitals and university-based medical centers, eager to press medical research, hopeful about drastically different methods of financing medical care (such as national health insurance) and anxious to use computers and the other tools of technology to end the present "nonsystem" of medical care for the benefit of the health consumer. If we can just help the liberals beat the AMA, says the standard book, our health care problems will be over.
It is at this point, where the standard book ends, that The American Health Empire begins. Its authors are members of a group of young activists working out of a self-created think-tank called the Health Policy Advisory Center. They present the reader with an entirely new villain—the very medical liberal whom most authors present as the last great hope of American medicine.
Health-PAC dismisses the AMA briefly as a declining organization whose prestige and power are falling rapidly, chiefly interested in fighting a forlorn rear guard action against the twentieth century. (Just last year, for the first time, the AMA's membership fell below 50 per cent of the nation's physician population. The AMA is now a minority group.)
With the AMA out of the way, Health-PAC follows the first rule of investigatory reporting: Look where the money goes. It finds that the money is going chiefly to the large university-based "medical empires" that are run by medical liberals. These centers carry on most medical research, use most of the new medical technology, sponsor most of the community action medical programs.
Between 1960 and 1969, Health-PAC says, the amount of money spent on medical care in the United States doubled, but the quality of medical care for most Americans held even at best, while costs are rocketing beyond the reach of even the respectable middle class. The standard book explains the paradox of rising costs and lowered standards by the greed of individual doctors. Health-PAC blames it on institutionalized greed—the greed of the "medical empires."
Those empires Health-PAC argues are not dedicated to medical care. Rather, they are dedicated to three goals: increasing institutional profits and individual salaries, feeding medical research that often has only a tenuous relationship to any real medical needs, and insuring its own perpetuation by controlling medical education. In short, the medical empire described by Health-PAC is essentially similar to any other unit of the technocracy described by John Kenneth Galbraith.
Health-PAC goes on to set forth what can only be called an institutionalized plot against good health care. Most of the money that pays for health care...
(This entire section contains 1118 words.)
comes from Blue Cross, Blue Shield, Medicare and Medicaid, the book says. But the hospitals that get this money control the organizations that give the money, through a system of interlocking directorates. So "the Blues" never question the size of hospital bills—which means that the hospitals can raise prices as much as they please while the hospitals, in turn, are always ready to support requests for higher medical insurance rates. The medical instrument and drug companies, sensing profit opportunities, are in the conspiracy too.
Given this comprehensive plot, there is little hope for reform within the present system, says Health-PAC. National health insurance, the current bright hope of the medical liberals, is described as merely more of the same pouring larger amounts of money into the same leaky jug, with the same end results of higher-costs without any basic improvements. The only real hope, says Health-PAC, is community control and a thorough overhaul that will take medical care out of the hands of the monopolists and put it in the hands of the people.
The whole argument is stunning in its sweeping denunciation of every standard hope for better medical care. It is, in fact, just crazy enough to be true. Unfortunately, The American Health Empire has such serious flaws that its basic argument is imperiled.
To start with, the volume is full of statistics, anecdotes and quotations supporting its case. Yet it lacks supporting references for any of these. Presumably, documentation does exist for the highly personal and potentially damaging charges against respected individuals and institutions. These charges will be hotly contested. It is inexcusable to omit the documentation that would permit an objective evaluation by the reader.
Secondly, The American Health Empire is not really a book about the United States.
It is a book about New York City. All of its detailed case histories are from New York, a situation justified by the authors on the grounds that New York traditionally is a step ahead of the rest of the nation in the field of medicine. It can just as well be said that New York is so different that it cannot be compared to the rest of the nation.
Third, the Health-PAC activists are so eager to make their case that they often forget common sense and internal consistency. Firing wildly in all directions may be great for the soul, but it is not good journalism.
Finally, some functional failures. The volume is the outgrowth of a series of articles in a newsletter. Little care was taken in editing those articles, so the book is irritatingly repetitive. And it has no index; I only hope that the person responsible for that decision one day has to look up a subject in the book.
But after all the faults are ticked off, the basic value of The American Health Empire remains. Even if only half of its shots are on target—and that seems a reasonable estimate—it seems to come closer to the core of the health crisis than any other book yet published. Unreasonable and partisan as it is, it is required reading for anyone concerned with better health care.
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SOURCE: "Where the Boys Aren't," in The Nation, Vol. 236, No. 21, May 28, 1983, pp. 663-65.
[In the following review, Gitlin praises the insights and synthesis of divergent cultural icons in The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment.]
If the specter that haunts the American home is that of the woman walking out the door, Barbara Ehrenreich tells us in her stunningly subversive new book, our culture is once again deceiving us. Backlash panic has inverted the truth of the sexual war, which is that the family is threatened not because women want to get out but because men do.
Ehrenreich argues that men have been plotting their escape for thirty years because they resent having to support dependent wives and children. In earlier days, men succeeded in organizing the wage system around their breadwinner status, thereby justifying their higher pay. There was a hard economic reason why women needed to catch men and why men, having something to lose, wriggled on the hook. American popular culture has acknowledged this state of affairs in countless images: the elusive hero of westerns who rode into town only to ride out again; the grimacing Thurber husbands squeezed by grasping, all-devouring wives; Superman and Philip Marlowe and Jack Kerouac's wandering heroes.
But the breadwinner ethic has been collapsing since the 1950s, Ehrenreich maintains, and the hearts of men have been breaking away: before there were liberated women there was male flight and the threat and dream of it. This elegantly simple idea enables Ehrenreich to grasp a remarkable amount of recent cultural history. What could seem to have less in common than the Playboy philosophy and the Beat Generation? With iconoclastic glee, Ehrenreich links them not only with each other but with the cardiological hue and cry about the dangers of Type A behavior, the counterculture, the human potential movement, men's groups, the fitness cult and even feminism itself. In a brisk, witty and compact—if at times breathless—fashion, she interprets Hugh Hefner, Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, Abraham Maslow and Charles Reich as a choir chanting in unison to men: Don't let the wife and kids drag you down. Since she focuses on packaged images of mass culture, her evidence is sometimes stretched: her picture of the counterculture draws far too heavily on the Time, Newsweek, Look, and Life versions; and as she briefly acknowledges, not all men's groups conspire to leave women in the alimonyless lurch. Still, the force of an insight isn't damaged by some exaggeration. All in all, I can't think of a more compelling and ingenious assault on recent hip culture.
Ehrenreich's case is also timely, for it addresses the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. As she correctly notes, the campaign against the E.R.A. was largely a women's movement, capitalizing on women's fear of losing the economic support of men. "In the ideology of American antifeminism," she writes, "it is almost impossible to separate the distrust of men from the hatred of feminists, or to determine with certainty which is the prior impulse." She cites a 1980 speech "in defense of the Christian family" by antiabortion leader Mrs. Randy Engel, who said: "Men desire sex without responsibility. They become unmanly and frightened by the thought of having to assume economic responsibility for a family: They instinctively try to escape." Feminism, says Ehrenreich, has failed to fathom the depths of women's structural dependence; in a way, feminists have failed to reckon with the force of their own analysis of the economy's bias against women: "While the feminist analysis spoke to the housewife's anger and frustration, the anti-feminist analysis spoke to her fear—fear that she might, after all, be a parasite whose support rested on neither love nor accomplishment, but only 'obligation.' At bottom the antifeminists accepted the most cynical masculine assessment of the heterosexual bond: that men are at best half-hearted participants in marriage and women are lucky to get them."
Mainstream feminism's embrace of the goal of female financial independence has "proved to be too radical for an influential minority of women…. It is as if, facing the age-old insecurity of the family wage system, women chose opposite strategies: either to get out (figuratively speaking) and fight for equality of income and opportunity, or to stay home and attempt to bind men more tightly to them." Feminists have noted that men pay precious little alimony and child support, but (no fault of their own) haven't been able to come up with a solution, while antifeminists have "offered a way to hold on to a man." (Ehrenreich might have mentioned Marabel Morgan's Total Woman as the answer to the Vanishing Man.) Meanwhile, to use the sociologist Diana Pearce's term, poverty is being "feminized": more than two out of three adults below the official poverty line are women, many of them refugees from the middle class whom divorce sent plummeting down the class scale.
The pivot is economics, in Ehrenreich's view, and if her book has a sizable shortcoming, it's the other side of her insistence that men's hearts are out the door because their minds are on the bottom line. Admittedly, this is an important truth. There's evidence that the poorer a married man, the more likely he is to leave his wife; high salaries make for longer marriages, which is consistent with Ehrenreich's view that—most? many?—men are calculating machines doing cost-benefit analyses.
But economics is only part of the story. It does not explain why men get married—in numbers, as she wittily points out, equal to women. Men do not live by the hope of cheap domestic labor alone. Ehrenreich's scorn for pop psychology extends too far, toward a dismissal of emotional dependencies—and ambivalences—altogether. She briefly acknowledges that men, like women, marry for love and security, but doesn't incorporate this fact into her scheme of things. Likewise, men break away partly because of the psychic terrors of dependency, the ways in which long-term commitment rekindles the unnameable needs and rages of infancy. Attention to the psychology of male dependency—as in Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur and Lillian B. Rubin's new Intimate Strangers—would actually have strengthened Ehrenreich's formidable analysis of the ways culture is arrayed against love.
But this is little more than a quibble in the face of a provocative and original argument. Ehrenreich can be acerbic when her scorn is aroused, but she ends with a moving vision of "some renewal of loyalty and trust between adult men and women" on equal terms. The Me Generation has to yield to a We Generation, else we will inhabit a world in which we are left to size one another up as singles-bar consumables. Ehrenreich hopes "we might meet as rebels together—not against each other but against a social order that condemns so many of us to meaningless or degrading work in return for a glimpse of commodified pleasures, and condemns all of us to the prospect of mass annihilation." Surely that is the core of a feminist vision for the rest of the millennium—and beyond.
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SOURCE: "Who Started This?," in The New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1983, pp. 12, 31, 32.
[In the following review of The Hearts of Men, Tavris finds Ehrenreich's analysis of male/female role dynamics insightful, but criticizes her conclusions about cause and effect.]
Over the past two decades we've heard many criticisms of the housewife's lot, mostly from women, and counterattacking complaints about the breadwinner trap, mostly from men. Now Barbara Ehrenreich offers a provocative new argument: Male complaints about their restrictions and responsibilities, and their grievances about women, did not follow the women's movement; they preceded it. Indeed, Miss Ehrenreich says, men's weakening commitment to their wives and children gave rise to both feminism and antifeminism. Women, faced with the unpredictability of male commitment and the insecurity of the family wage system—which pays more to men than to women on the crumbling assumption that men support their families—had two choices. They could struggle for economic self-sufficiency (the direction of feminism), or they could try to bind men more tightly to them (the direction of anti-feminism).
Miss Ehrenreich draws these conclusions from her study of "the ideology that shaped the breadwinner ethic" and the collapse of that ideology in the last 30 years. In the 1950's, she shows, the same ideology that was directing women to become steady wage spenders, docile wives and willing mothers was directing men to become steady wage earners, docile husbands and willing providers. According to the dominant ideology, men who resisted were not being "mature," responsible or heterosexual; they were failures as men and red-blooded Americans.
Over the years, as Miss Ehrenreich wittily demonstrates, the culture shifted to an ideology that celebrates "irresponsibility, self-indulgence, and an isolationist detachment from the claims of others"—in the name, of course, of independence, personal growth, physical health and emotional liberation. Our medical and psychological experts provided a scientific rationale for the new ideology with dizzying speed. The advicemongers of the 50's are easy targets of ridicule, but Miss Ehrenreich reminds us that today's experts are no less biased, even when their judgments are "buried under the weary rubric of 'changing sex rules.'"
Miss Ehrenreich does not consider the cultural shift a phenomenon to which men succumbed passively but the product of an active protest, a "male revolt" against maturity and responsibility in general and against women in particular. If the rebels were not always organized and conscious of their goals, she maintains, they were united in their rejection of the breadwinner philosophy.
The author begins her argument with a discussion of some "early rebels": the Gray Flannel Dissidents of the 50's, for whom "conformity" was a code word for male discontent with the demands of careers; the purveyors of Playboy magazine, for whom "sexual freedom" was code for discontent with the demands of marriage; and the Beats, who resented the demands of both work and marriage. Miss Ehrenreich is at her best here. Playboy (whose very name, she observes, "defied the convention of hard-won maturity") was not the voice of the sexual revolution, which accelerated in the 60's; it was the voice of the male rebellion, which had begun in the 50's. "The magazine's real message was not eroticism, but escape … from the bondage of breadwinning. Sex—or Hefner's Pepsi-clean version of it—was there to legitimize what was truly subversive about Playboy. In every issue, every month, there was a Playmate to prove that a playboy didn't have to be a husband to be a man."
By the 60's, Miss Ehrenreich says, the male revolt had begun to pick up support from physicians who maintained that the male role was unhealthy and from psychologists who maintained that it made men rigid, up-tight and cranky. By the 70's the men's liberation movement—which Miss Ehrenreich by and large considers "the old male revolt in new disguise"—transformed male self-interest into a spiritually and politically correct way to behave.
Miss Ehrenreich concludes that men have won their revolt—and won it at the expense of women. Men have abandoned the breadwinner role while retaining their misogyny; they want women to remain submissive and nurturing while also becoming financially self-supporting. "The responsibilities that men gave up," Miss Ehrenreich says, "have come increasingly to rest with us." Feminism and antifeminism among women represent efforts to assume, or hand back, those responsibilities.
The Hearts of Men is a pleasure to read, entertaining and imaginative. It reminds us that sex roles do not apply to one sex only; that women have not been the only sex to chafe under the narrow restrictions of their "proper" place; that many men and women have been locked in a sad little dance in which each partner is doing different steps. For every wife who accuses her husband of wielding patriarchal power there is a husband who accuses his wife of parasitic pushiness. To listen to the grievances of one sex and not the complementary grievances of the other is to hear the sound of one hand slapping.
But Miss Ehrenreich's analysis falters in its confusion of causes and effects. She continually implies a sequence (first came concerted pressures upon men to conform, then male protest, then scientific legitimation of male protest) when her own evidence shows simultaneity. In the same decade that psychiatrists were lauding maturity and responsibility, there appeared Playboy, The Lonely Crowd (David Riesman's textbook for the gray flannel set), the Gestalt guru Fritz Peris and public worries about the male mortality rate. Conversely, as late as 1975, textbooks were still describing the "pathology" of men who couldn't or wouldn't choose a job and a mate. And the media she cites as pressuring men to conform in the 50's were simultaneously scaring them with the idea that too much conformity kills.
Further, to suggest that feminism came after the male revolt is to mix what people say with what they do. If rebellion is defined as what people do, then keep in mind that in 1953, the year Playboy began, 26 percent of all married women were working—far more, I suspect, than the number of men who, regardless of what they were reading, quit their jobs or remained bachelors.
In arguing that male protest preceded female protest, Miss Ehrenreich succumbs to an unhelpful, unanswerable "Who started this?" spiral. She is hampered by her decision to concentrate on only the last 30 years—an extremely lively 30 years, to be sure. But she has described one inch of a 10-foot trajectory, thereby losing sight of the antecedents of the breadwinner role, the housewife role and the disintegration of both. As the sociologist Jessie Bernard observed, the male role of "good provider" emerged about 150 years ago and ended in 1980, when the Census Bureau stopped assuming that a man was "head of household."
In addition, by looking into the hearts of men and not into their social worlds, Miss Ehrenreich cannot account for the change in male ideology (except in terms of "male self-interest"). One profound reason for the change, as obvious and as invisible as the purloined letter, has been identified in a recent book by the social psychologists Marcia Guttentag and Paul F. Secord: the greater ratio of marriageable women to marriageable men in virtually all age brackets since World War II. This imbalance alone has given men a leverage in mate selection and shifted the emotional power in relationships to men (they can always get another wife, while wives must compromise or lose), and, as Miss Guttentag and Mr. Secord document, the divorce rate and male "irresponsibility" increase in most cultures in which such imbalance exists. Conversely, when women are scarce, men tend to value romance, marriage and commitment.
Because Miss Ehrenreich doesn't have an explanation for the changes she documents so well, her point of view and conclusions shift. She pokes as much fun at the psychiatric model of maturity and responsibility of the 50's as she does at the human potential movement of the 70's, but later she laments the abandonment of the ethic of responsibility; she does not discuss how her notions of responsibility differ from the psychiatrists' (if they do). She lampoons the unverified assertion that working women are dying of heart attacks in unprecedented numbers (they aren't), but she is ambivalent about whether some aspects of the male role are hazardous to men's health or whether men simply use medical worries as an excuse for selfishness.
As she herself says, she is not sure whether the male revolt is a childish flight from responsibility, an accommodation to consumer culture or a libertarian movement for social change; in any case, she correctly adds, the consequences for women have been the same. But the book would have benefited from an effort to disentangle these three elements. More than that, it would have moved us from description to diagnosis.
Diagnosis matters if men and women are to travel beyond blaming. As it is, Miss Ehrenreich shrinks from the gloomy conclusions of her own account—that men will continue to pursue their own economic and psychological self-interest and women will have to fend for themselves and their children. Perhaps, she suggests wistfully, "the male revolt can be seen as a blow against a system of social control which operates to make men unquestioning and obedient employees. If men are not strapped into the role of breadwinners, perhaps they will be less compliant as assemblers of nuclear weapons, producers of toxic wastes, or as white-collar operatives of the remote and unaccountable corporations."
This sounds like the early feminist vision of women entering the worlds of government and business and transforming them into arenas of warmth and nurturance. Still, this lively book will do much to get men back into the conversation.
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SOURCE: "Beyond the Feminist Mystique," in New Republic, Vol. 189, No. 3, July 11, 1983, pp. 26-32.
[In the following excerpt, Barber summarizes developments in the Feminist Movement that he describes as anti-women and then discusses Ehrenreich's The Hearts of Men as a fresh perspective on the dynamics of male/female relationships, but oversimplified and flawed.]
This is more than the internecine bickering of ideological purists. It issues out of a basic disenchantment—a revisionism that is ready to rewrite the history of the past without yet being ready to revise its blueprint for the future. Barbara Ehrenreich, who is a loyal and unswerving feminist in the face of Elshtain's revisionism, nonetheless perpetrates an even more startling revisionism of her own in her new book, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment. In her fresh if highly selective rewriting of American social history since World War II, Ehrenreich argues that well before the feminist revolt, men were being led into rebellion against their traditional male roles as breadwinners and mortgage-holders by a most unlikely configuration of social movements. These included Hugh Hefner's Playboy philosophy (the magazine made its debut in 1953), which urged men to prefer an irresponsible bachelorhood where women figured only as particularly delectable consumables, to the responsibilities of marriage and the family; the medical discovery of stress as a major factor in heart disease for the hard-working overachievers who, it now turned out, were literally risking their lives to keep "spoiled" wives and children in the suburban comfort to which they had become accustomed; and finally the Beat Generation, which in its apotheosizing of irresponsibility, sexual promiscuity, male bonding, and "on the road" mobility, had redefined marriage as bondage and achievers as squares.
These three strains of postwar irresponsibility, Ehrenreich argues, infected the newly fashioned suburban family and undermined its foundations in the social culture well before Friedan got around to calling it a comfortable concentration camp.
The promise of feminism—that there might be a future in which no adult person was either a "dependent creature" or an overburdened breadwinner—came at a time when the ideological supports for male conformity were already crumbling. Physicians had found men the weaker sex; psychologists were finding them perilously "rigid." The War [in Vietnam] reinforced the medical dictum that male aggressiveness was a lethal force; and the counterculture reinforced the promise, from the new psychology, of a richer life for those who could overcome their masculine hang-ups.
This is fascinating if debatable social history. Skeptics will point out that Ehrenreich picks and chooses among a plethora of possible sources, and that her actual themes come from the fringe rather than the heart of the 1950's social environment. A quite different moral emerges if one looks not at Playboy, cardiological stress, and the Beats (lesson: men were being tempted to abandon the family long before women were being tempted by feminism to imitate them), but at The Saturday Evening Post, Salk's polio vaccine, and the growth of television (lesson: marriage was great, kids were getting healthier, and everyone was staying home more—i.e., the family was flourishing as never before), or at The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the elevation of cancer into a number-one killer, and serial music (lesson: anxiety and alienation were undermining individuals and families).
There are as many lessons to be drawn from social history as there are permutations and combinations of social movements, subgroups, trends, fashions, novelties, and revolutions. To be sure, men were anxious about stress, but they also worried about communism and McCarthy, cancer and the Bomb, and on the whole they mostly stayed on the corporate ladder and limited their rebellion to Sunday football on television or chronic insomnia. Men were doubtless resentful of the pressures associated with playing breadwinner, but they did not dream of permitting their wives to work or otherwise share their "man-size" burdens. They were fascinated by the Beats and titillated by the Playboy life style, but wore button-down shirts and chinos and restricted their yen for bunnies to Easter with the kids.
Nonetheless, for the purposes of this discussion, what is interesting is not Ehrenreich's selective reading of social history but the conclusions she draws from it—or, rather, fails to draw from it. Are her 1950's dropouts heroes to be welcomed as allies in the feminist struggle against the constraints of the bourgeois family? Or cowards and narcissists to be despised for their immaturity, their materialism and their mistrust of women? Does portraying Hugh Hefner as a weird predecessor of Betty Friedan exonerate him of sexism or indict her of narcissism? If Jack Kerouac is a harbinger of liberation, then are not feminists so many latter-day hippies in search of missing selves and in flight from the responsibilities of maturity? Ehrenreich does not and apparently cannot answer these questions. She notes that the male revolt of the 1950's was "a blow against the system of social control," which flatters her socialist instincts, but she also recognizes that it was self-indulgent, materialistic, and woman-hating, which offends her feminist instincts.
In the end, Ehrenreich can neither avoid nor resolve the central dilemma of feminism: how to be free without mimicking men—how to nurture femininity without relinquishing equality. Those like Elshtain and Friedan who remind women of the joys and responsibilities of loving and generativity (the new acceptable term for "reproductivity"), end up being viewed as traitors using liberal credentials to make arguments no less reactionary than those of a Midge Decter or a Rita Kramer. (Kramer's new book In Defense of the Family, [see "What Are Families Really For?" by Peter Steinfels and Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, TNR, May 16], is a neoconservative attack on feminism that does simply celebrate the traditional woman and the traditional family.)
From the point of view of practical politics, feminism's second stage is thus an unmitigated disaster. Its honorable ambivalence, if it does not actually encourage backlash, can produce political paralysis. Its welcome confusions yield factionalism, recantation, and apostasy. Dilemmas and conundrums may occasion great literature and subtle theory, but they do little to rid the world of gender discrimination and sexual inequality.
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SOURCE: "Sex in Our Time," in The Atlantic, Vol. 258, No. 3, September, 1986, pp. 100-103.
[In the following review, Rose compares the opposite philosophies expressed in the books Re-Making Love and Willard Gayling's Rediscovering Love.]
"Higgimus, hoggimus, men are monogamous. Hoggimus, higgimus, women polygamous." My friends tell me I have got this wrong. It should be "Hoggimus, higgimus, men are polygamous. Higgimus, hoggimus, women monogamous." But I prefer my version, because it expresses a partial truth less often heard: many women have an instinct for sexual adventure, most often stifled, and many men, even promiscuous men, are at heart romantics, sexual conservatives.
These two books, with such similar titles, both addressing themselves to the unendingly interesting subject of sex in our time, could hardly be more different in outlook and intent. Moreover, they bear me out. Gaylin, a psychiatrist, is a self-confessed romantic who fell in love at sixteen, married his childhood sweet-heart at twenty-one, and has lived with her for over thirty-five years. He gives this news in the preface and refers so frequently throughout the text to the pleasures of family life that, frankly, were Gaylin not a man and a psychiatrist, one might think him defensive, or sentimental. His book's message (at one point he refers to it as a "here-and-now gospel") is that "we" need to shift our emphasis from the narcissistic pleasure of receiving love to the more mature and deeply satisfying pleasure of giving love; that in order to overcome our "mounting sense of isolation, purposelessness, and ennui," we must rediscover long-term, committed, monogamous, preferably married, and (but this goes without saying) heterosexual love.
Whereas Gaylin writes in the hortatory mode of psychoanalytic-wisdom literature and adopts unabashedly the priestly role of spiritual adviser, the authors of Re-making Love, Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs, more modestly offer an account of the sexual revolution which shows its hidden feminist content. Their thesis is that the sexual revolution beginning in the 1960s had more of an impact on women than on men. They trace the evolution of the culturally encoded "meaning" of sex from the 1950s, when male dominance and female submission were the norm in bed as in the work-place, to the present, when in various ways power is still at the heart of sexual activity but the roles of dominance and submission are not so unvaryingly assigned by gender. They believe that all revolutions in meaning present themselves initially as nihilism, an absence of meaning. They feel strongly that sex has had too much meaning in the past, always reinforcing male power, and that now, when it seems we are stripping all meaning from sex, we are merely in the process of giving it a new meaning. Students of culture, they assume that love is something we reconstruct in every age, not something we rediscover, like the lost city of the Incas.
Their materials are the materials of popular culture: Life, People, Beatlemania, Valley of the Dolls, The Hite Report, The Total Woman. In fact, this history of the sexual revolution is written cleverly in terms of key texts, so that the authors don't have to make any rash statements about what people do but can merely report on what they can conceive of doing. Sex and the Single Girl; The Feminine Mystique; Our Bodies, Ourselves; Masters and Johnson; The Sensuous Woman; How to Make Love to a Man—what a parade! Remember those sex manuals of the 1950s, which told you nothing you wanted to know about sex? How did we get from Theodoor van de Velde's Ideal Marriage and other books popular in the 1950s, which told us that women's role in sex was even easier than falling off a log, because it was being the log, to the hairy and energetic lovers illustrated in The Joy of Sex? We can't help being struck by the eerie inexorability of cultural change as we watch the ideal of female passivity in sex (can it be said?) go down.
It all began with the Kinsey report's methodology. Its literalist, quantitative counting of orgasms changed the way Americans thought about sex even more than did its shocking revelations about the amount of premarital and extramarital sex people were in fact having. The methodology implied that anything that produces an orgasm is as good as anything else, and that one orgasm is as good as another. Female pleasure began to be as important as male pleasure. Soon Helen Gurley Brown, more radical in some ways than Betty Friedan, told women they could do without marriage. The medical profession lost its monopoly on sex books. The bedroom became a place of "negotiation." The new emphasis, codified in books like The Joy of Sex, was on sexual "options." With the growing visibility of homosexuals and the divorce of sex from reproduction, heterosexuality—that is, the traditional "micro-drama of male dominance and female passivity"—seemed more and more an institution, a cult. Remaking Love brilliantly suggests why sadomasochism inevitably became the cutting edge of sex: because it plays with dominance and submission but doesn't assume that the choice of who plays which role is predetermined by gender. "For some women, S/M may have been an improvement on the old, unconscious variety of sadomasochism promoted by the marriage manuals of the fifties." Re-making Love argues that even in the Christian right, women are assuming more-active sexual roles, seducing their husbands to the heterosexual micro-drama, as Marabel Morgan suggested they should in The Total Woman. It ends by documenting a growing sexual conservatism, which began before the AIDS epidemic but was certainly reinforced by it.
While the authors of Re-making Love talk about orgasms and sexual politics, Gaylin talks about commitment. While they sponsor realism, he encourages idealism. He takes the high road and they take the low. I imagine he would see them as signs of "our" malaise. They would surely see him as a predictable mouthpiece for the current backlash—reactionary, revisionist, trying to lure women back to traditional sexual roles through that age-old instrument romantic rhetoric. I confess I'm on their side.
It's not that I don't believe in love, and it's not that I don't value it. But let me not talk about me. I will talk about "the people I know," who are very different from the people Gaylin posits. The people I know—admittedly, flaky bohemians and deviant intellectuals—still occasionally manage to stay married. Sometimes they settle for casual sex, because that's the best they can get, but they generally prefer a daily kind of love, for all its occasional tedium and its inevitable troubles. They sometimes turn to promiscuity, often to prove something to themselves about their own attractiveness or power, but it is rarely a lifetime habit. Their impulse toward monogamy may hook them up for too long with people who are less than satisfactory to them. So they go from one five-year or ten-year relationship to the next. Is this a failure of commitment or an exercise in commitment? The people I know do not fly out of their marriages as though from one cocktail party to the next but leave them, if at all, with deep reluctance, difficulty, and guilt. The last thing the people I know need to be told is to reverence love more, because they already reverence it too much and suffer from its absence too deeply. Where are these shallow narcissists on whom Gaylin's gospel is predicated? He himself is not one. Why does he imagine he's the only boy on the bus who believes in Santa Claus?
His battle is not really with us debased narcissists, frantically pursuing sexual pleasure, but with debased Freudian thought, which imagines people as motivated exclusively by the pursuit of sexual pleasure. Gaylin believes that by enshrining the sex drive as the primary factor in human activity, Freudian theory vulgarized love and trivialized sex. Freud's works contain no discussion of what Gaylin would call love, and he complains that psychoanalysts are encouraged to talk not about it but about "cathexes," "object relationships," and "attachments."
"Psychoanalytic theory created a loveless world," Gaylin writes, missing the entire point of Freud's effort to unmask love as a genteel cover for instinctual desire. To rehabilitate love and free us all from our delusion that sex is the central activity of life, Gaylin sets out to develop a notion of pleasure more sophisticated than the one he assumes we have—that pleasure is the release of tension. Pleasure results from "an enhanced sense of self," so mastery, concentration, and giving can all produce pleasure. He proves a great many things one would think didn't need proving. Human love, he tells us, is different from and higher than that of the animals. Sex is more than instinctual. It is a highly nuanced cultural activity. (This is where Ehrenreich et al. begin.)
Gaylin offers an intriguing neo-Freudian explanation for why we risk humor, pride, and sanity, spend money and time, in order to find someone to go through life with. It's more than libido. Paired, he suggests, is the natural state of humanity. We begin life as part of a pair—us and Mom, self and other—and we never feel really comfortable until we get back to that situation. To support his hypothesis, he invokes Aristophanes' myth (as recounted in Plato's Symposium) of the dual nature of man. It's a lovely story. Originally, man was a circular, two-headed, four-legged, and four-armed creature. Zeus punished man by splitting him in two, and ever after, each half was doomed to seek its original mate and to feel incomplete without it. When the two halves meet—which is rare—they feel the excitement of reunion that we call falling in love. This myth has always appealed to people, perhaps, as Gaylin suggests, because it is in some sense true. He argues that "fusion," the return to an earlier state of oneness with another, is the "central phenomenon of loving." In real love two identities merge to create something new, a third thing, a third identity, with the boundaries between self and other blurred.
The tactic of making the love between parent and child the essential experience of love in life is attractive for many reasons. It does away with what Gaylin rightly calls the trivial notion that sexual gratification impels us to love. It suggests a model for loving which is based on nurturing and giving as well as getting. Parental love may well be the most satisfying of all forms of love, and an element of maternal or paternal love within the shifting play of erotic love may be a good thing indeed. But there is danger in making the relationship between parent and child the model for the relationship between adult lovers, even if that model is modified so that the roles of responsibility and dependence can be traded off, so that each member can be the child or the parent at various times. The relationship between adults is consensual, and that between adult and child is not; therefore the parent has an unending and unbreakable responsibility for the child he has brought into life, whereas the adult has no such responsibility for his or her mate. The model is a covert argument for the indissolubility of marriage. "When presented by a quandary as to how to handle a difficult five-year-old," Gaylin writes, "we do not consider as one alternative, abandonment of the child. We are committed to her care, and we do not conceive of 'divorce' as an alternative to this commitment."
The merging of selves to form a new identity in love is another beautiful but dangerous idea. Traditional marriage has been based on this very notion, and in practice it produces dependent women with no identities, or with identities so contingent upon their husbands' that they are devastated if their husbands leave them for other "fusions." A woman these days would be a fool to let herself "merge" her identity unreservedly. Yet nothing seems more lovely to me than the notion of such a merger. I hope it will not seem bitter if I say that a certain kind of idealism about marriage and love comes easier to men than to women. Which brings us back to "Higgimus, hoggimus."
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SOURCE: "Rolling Back the Lust Frontier," in New York Times Book Review, September 14, 1986, p. 9.
[In the following review, Viorst praises Re-Making Love.]
It was women—it wasn't men—whose sexual attitudes and behavior drastically changed within the past two decades. The sexual revolution, Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs compellingly argue, is actually women's sexual revolution. Thus the counterrevolution, the sexual backlash that emerged in the early 1980's, is primarily directed against women and is a threat to women's achievements in "the remaking and reinterpretation of sex."
Much of Re-making Love is devoted to tracing these achievements over the past 20 years. The high value placed on virginity, the primacy of the vaginal orgasm, the linking of femininity to passivity, the condemnation of sexual fantasy and variety were accepted mainstream doctrine until the 60's. And although there is not much new in the parts of the book describing how we got from there to here, this intelligent, thought-provoking social history makes very lively reading.
The authors begin with Beatlemania, arguing that this shrieking, sobbing, moaning outburst of mass hysteria, this total abandonment of control, was "the first and most dramatic uprising of women's sexual revolution. "True, we had seen such carryings-on before—in the swooning over Frankie, the screaming for Elvis. But Beatlemania far surpassed these earlier teen-age frenzies, blowing the lid off a lusty sexuality that nice young girls were not supposed to possess.
The 60's were also a time, note the authors, of a rapidly emerging singles culture, as thousands of women—exploring new vistas between graduation and Mr. Right—flocked to cities. The message was growing louder that nice girls not only wanted to do it but were actually doing it. The birth control pill, commercially available in 1960, was helping them do it without getting pregnant. And the validation of clitoral sexuality was helping them do it with more pleasure.
Soon mainstream women, inside and outside marriage, were pursuing not only more but better sex, instructed by guides, available at every local bookstore, to the wilder shores of sexual rapture. As women became consumers of sexual pleasure, the marketplace offered ever more daring sex gear—vibrators, fruit-flavored lotions, ankle restraints—sometimes sold in middle-class homes at women's Tupperware-style get-togethers. Indeed, the authors say, the commercialization of sex and the search for new commodities continue to expand "the lust frontier" to the point (and I find this assertion surprising) where sadomasochism has been brought into the mainstream.
The sexual revolution has been broad enough to include radical feminist lesbians as well as Christian fundamentalist women. In her popular book The Total Woman, the fundamentalist Marabel Morgan urged wives to transform themselves into one-woman harems. Her piquant mix of sex and evangelism inspired a flood of zesty Christian sex manuals. But female fundamentalist sexual pleasure, the authors point out, is restricted to marriage, which still insists upon the submission of women.
It is clear that women's sexual transformation is not always linked to the liberation of women. Indeed, the feminist movement, which had initially embraced the women's sex revolution, is now separated from and to some extent at odds with it. Why? Because most feminists, say the authors, consider sexual issues peripheral to women's political and economic goals and because some feminists regard heterosexual sex per se as female subordination.
In the last chapters the authors move into a fascinating, disturbing discussion of women's reactions to their own revolution. They note that women have for the most part failed to claim their victory the transformation of physical sex from phallocentric intercourse to a variety of erotic possibilities, from an act burdened with meanings like love and surrender to one that might be engaged in simply for pleasure. They find that while women enjoy their expanded sexual opportunities, they are also afraid of sexual liberation. For if sex is not to be bartered for a relationship, more women may wind up going it alone. More often than men, they will face the prospect of economic hard times, of depreciation of their sexual value in the marketplace as they age and of life without sex.
The sexual backlash—urging less promiscuity, more restraint—has been able to feed on these real anxieties. The authors, giving too little weight to both sexes' fears of herpes and AIDS, take the view that this counterrevolution is "a campaign against women and their sex lives. "They conclude with an eloquent plea to feminism to involve itself with sexual liberation, to acknowledge the great victory that women have achieved, to protect it from being trivialized or rescinded, to assert that pleasure for women—sexual pleasure unburdened by meaning—is a legitimate social goal.
The authors, all of whom have written widely on feminist topics, present their views with clarity and forcefulness. They ask us "to set aside, at least temporarily, both feminist and conservative dogmas about what is good and bad or right and wrong when it comes to sex." If anyone needs reminding of the distance women have come, this is the book to read—and then to wrestle with. For Re-making Love requires us all to think about the meaning of sex in our lives.
I find the authors persuasive when they claim that a broader view of the physical sex act is sexual progress. But I find myself resisting their wish to free sexual pleasure from larger meanings—not because such divestiture is immoral but because it is a gyp. There are plenty of pleasures around that can be savored with little emotional investment. I think everyone gains if we—men and women—regard sex both as a pleasure and a big deal. Barbara Ehrenreich, in a brilliant earlier book, The Hearts of Men, called for "some renewal of loyalty and trust between adult men and women." Can casual sex be the answer to that call? The old male styles of careless love need not remain the model for female—for human—sexual liberation. Linking erotic pleasure to genuine concern for one's sexual partner may be a better way of remaking love.
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SOURCE: "Not My Revolution," in The Nation, Vol. 244, No. 8, February 28, 1987, pp. 266-67.
[In the following review, Abraham finds the source material in Re-Making Love too superficial, and the resultant conclusions over-generalized.]
Singles in the cities, paraphilias in the suburbs and sex aids in Ohio: according to Re-making Love, these are all manifestations of a women's sexual revolution that far outweighs the male-dominated phenomenon known as the sexual revolution. The latter, as Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs describe it—"what Gay Talese found when he set out on his quest to see what middle-aged, middle-class men had been missing all these years"—was no revolution at all. The revolution that did occur, and that they follow from Beatlemania to the G-spot, was marked by dramatic changes in women's sexual expectations and experience.
Much of their evidence for this transformation is familiar: the appearance of clubs featuring male strippers for female audiences; Marabel Morgan's Total Woman; "home parties" where sexual paraphernalia rather than tupperware are sold; the results of surveys done by magazines like Redbook, Playboy and Family Circle. But, they argue, the sweeping change in women's sexual behavior that this evidence represents has not been acknowledged. Once again, "men have evaded a feminine innovation they found vaguely troubling—or perhaps even overtly disturbing."
The purpose of Re-making Love is overtly political: to help women to claim and build on the gains that have been made, especially in the face of the 1980s backlash against sexual freedom. Ehrenreich, Hess and Jacobs argue that the development of the women's liberation movement in the late 1960s was closely connected to the women's sexual revolution and insist (contrary to activists' fears at the time) that feminism's acceptance and promotion of sexual liberation was crucial to its course:
Instead of narrowing the movement to a subculture of politicized, urban women, sexual liberation contributed to the populist outreach that eventually brought the movement itself into the mainstream of American culture and politics.
The authors' goal is a reunion of sexual liberation and women's liberation, for the renewed benefit of each. Sex will save feminism as feminism saves sex, and Re-making Love will have served both as contemporary history and as organizing tool.
Unfortunately, the book's version of story is based on flimsy anecdote her than solid evidence. Ehrenreich, Hess, and Jacobs begin in the early 60s, with glances back to such postwar gems of advice as this, from Ferdinand Lundberg and Maryina Farnham's 1947 Modern Woman: The Lost Sex:
For the male, sex involves an objective act of his doing but for the female it does not … her role is passive. It is not as easy as rolling off a log for her. It is easier. It is as easy as being the log itself.
After that, any acknowledgment of women's sexuality can be made to seem revolutionary, from The Joy of Sex to pornographic videos marketed for female audiences. The authors' eagerness to claim every possible victory for women leads them to some unduly positive readings. It might be original to include Total Woman as a contribution to the women's sexual revolution, but as anything but a worst-case scenario, it is not convincing.
Re-making Love is a self-consciously popular product of the debate about sexuality that has been going on in the feminist community for the past five years. Ehrenreich, Hess and Jacobs address that debate briefly, but the effect of their book is to gloss over it by distorting its history and origins. Early feminist critiques of the male "sexual revolution" co-existed with an equally important insistence on women's right to sexual pleasure. Those two strains are still evident in recent disagreements over much matters as pornography and lesbian sado-masochism. By dismissing the male sexual revolution as a non-event, the authors have pulled the rug out from under the antipornography position in contemporary feminism—a rhetorical if not an analytical coup.
Re-making Love also glosses over other differences between women. The text is interspersed with brief fictionalized character sketches and the statements of nameless informants: Jane Cooper, a Washington housewife; Ellen, who works for the telephone company; a Beatlemaniac who grew up to direct a public-policy interest group. The authors' willingness to generalize on the basis of these voices is breathtaking. They seem not to have noticed that speaking for women as a group has become a questionable practice over the past fifteen years.
Ehrenreich, Hess and Jacobs state explicitly that their interest is in the "mainstream," and their representative woman is white, middle-class and heterosexual. They quote lesbian writers, refer to lesbian sado-masochism and admonish their readers that gays and lesbians should be honored as the sexual vanguard. But while there are, for example, extended discussions of heterosexual sado-masochism and the sexual plight of fundamentalist wives, lesbians are not seen as women who might have been part of this women's revolution. They are merely invoked from time to time to signify sexual radicalism in a book about options for ordinary people.
By the time the reader gets to the feminist call to arms in the book's conclusion, the authors' vision of "the public" has seriously undermined their purpose. The questions they raise about contemporary sexual experience are particularly urgent in the face of a conservative onslaught that has found a new excuse in AIDS. But they have not talked to enough people, or considered the complex interactions between sexual and social change that even their own writing illustrates. Ehrenreich, Hess and Jacobs themselves don't seem to believe in the revolution they claim.
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SOURCE: "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" in New Statesman, Vol. 114, No. 2950, October 9, 1987, pp. 25-26.
[Below, Dick gives a negative review of Re-Making Love.]
In 1964, when we were nine, my best friend and I played a secret game, enacting elaborate adventures in which we would take turns to be Paul McCartney or John Lennon. The story always ended with us "falling in love": we would roll around on the floor, kissing passionately.
In Re-making Love, the roots of the Women's Liberation Movement are found in the rebellion against the female sexual predicament of the early 1960s, as evidenced by Sex and the Single Girl-ism (nice girls in big cities having affairs) and Beatlemania (which the authors see as a proto-feminist outburst against rigid gender roles and teenage sexual repression). Later, Cosmopolitan magazine and manuals like The Joy of Sex, with their "reassuring" injunctions to experiment, to seek out the ideal orgasm and assert your "right" to sexual pleasure, apparently brought non-feminist women into contact with euphoric feelings of self-determination and control. Indeed the authors claim it was at least party due to the "sexual revolution" that feminism was not limited to a "subculture of politicized, urban women", but moved into the mainstream of American culture and politics.
The book is only concerned with mainstream America—and one quickly longs for an interrogation of the whole idea of the "mainstream", with its connotations of the Normal and the Average. The "housewife in Ohio" reappears often, as does her counterpart, the "professional" single in the city—it goes without saying they are both white, middle-class and heterosexual. In a sense the book is both about these women and addressed to them, despite their status as convenient sociological fictions. The authors state they will not tackle the thorny issues around homosexual and lesbian love, except as a "sense of possibility", or source of sexual fantasy for the (normal) heterosexual woman.
That silent "(normal)" is present throughout the book, obscured by overt denunciations of 1950s sex manuals and their insistence on female sexual passivity. But the fundamental implication of all sex manuals is that sex can be (must be?) defined, "fixed" and quantified, that there are achievable goals, definable expectations, alphabets and menus of sex: "Twenty years ago the woman dissatisfied with sex was made to believe she was lacking something … Today … it is the woman who does not know how to negotiate or find her own way to pleasure who wonders if she is different, abnormal." We call this liberation?
A grim picture emerges of the dutiful pursuit of sexual pleasure, as all over America "equal partners" enter into bedroom negotiations over the exchange of labor necessary to produce this elusive thing, this final goal, the female orgasm. (Of course male sexual pleasure is supposed to be as simple as abc, but that's another story …) In the 1970s, one expert suggested that each couple acquire two copies of The Joy of Sex, his "n" hers, and work their way through all the positions, scoring each with marks out of ten, and then exchange books. In this scenario, it's impossible even to say "gee, I like that", as the sex manual becomes both the source of sex and the means of communicating a response.
Which is not to imply there's some natural sexuality somewhere that doesn't "need" all these instructions; the hard information produced by the Kinsey Reports of 1948 and 1953, and the Hite Report of 1976, backed up by the purely physiological researches of Masters and Johnson (1966), was extremely useful to women long oppressed by myths of the vaginal orgasm, female sexual passivity, etc. One problem is that if you're going to be scientific about sex, you have to have something to count, something to measure: orgasms. Who dares say pleasure is not equivalent to orgasm? Stephen Health's book The Sexual Fix (1982) shows how the official approval of experimentation in pursuit of the orgasm ("just so long as nobody gets hurt!") both functions as a definition of sexual expectation and overlooks the fact that psychic pain, like pleasure, isn't measured by electrodes and dials.
Nevertheless, Re-making Love presents an entertaining survey of sexology, from the 1948 book that describes sex for women as easier than falling off a log ("it is as easy as being the log itself"), to the 1982 "G-spot" and its resurrection of penetration as the way to ultimate female orgasm. The authors analyze the 1970s movement of S/M style and paraphernalia from the cities into the suburbs. Once everyone had bought their vibrators, S/M allowed a whole new range of sexual commodities to be marketed and consumed: "From a strictly capitalist viewpoint, it is the ideal sexual practice." Equally fascinating is the chapter on sex manuals for born-again Christians, which encourage the devout wife to dress up in costumes (thus sustaining her husband's interests and preserving monogamy) and to imagine herself as a "love-slave to Christ", delighting in sexual submission.
Tragically, Re-making Love appears at a historical moment when the repercussions of the AIDS epidemic are changing the parameters of this debate. Biology wreaks havoc with ideology; as feminists we must continue to celebrate sexual pleasure, without ceasing to question the terms of our "sexual liberation".
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SOURCE: "The Discreet Anxiety of the Bourgeoisie," in New York Times Book Review, August 6, 1989, pp. 12-13.
[In the following review, Morley praises the insights in Fear of Falling.]
I was a teen-age neoconservative, I came of age politically in the 1970's with a low tolerance for the foibles of my parents and an all-too-cool critique of the 1960's, especially of the decade's "permissiveness." The cultural contradictions of capitalism seemed less disturbing (and more fun) to me than the cultural contradictions of Communism, and I imagined I was rejecting middle-class culture. But in fact, as Barbara Ehrenreich's Fear of Falling makes clear, it defined my every thought.
For me, not the least of this book's achievements is its explication of my peculiar coming of age. But any citizen of the educated middle class will find something even more useful here: a persuasive account of an intellectual dispute that has been simmering in the superego of the American professional-managerial class for the last 30 years or so. This dispute has helped shape American politics.
Ms. Ehrenreich, an intellectual journalist with a gift for aphorism and the author of several books, picks up her story of middle-class anxiety in the late 1950's. At the time, it was claimed there was no need for a major political restructuring of society, although divisions of class and race remained powerful elements in American life. Frequently, conflicts were dealt with euphemistically. Affluence, Ms. Ehrenreich notes, became "a way of talking about, wealth without talking about class."
A larger problem was "discovered" in the early 1960's: poverty. After millions of Americans were revealed to be impoverished, a number of leading sociologists, together with a spate of cover stories in the news weeklies, blamed the conditions not on class but on a lack of character, deficient morals among the poor. This explanation, Ms. Ehrenreich observes, served as a kind of psychological projection. The poor represented "what the middle class feared most in itself," she says—a "softening of character, a lack of firm internal values."
The emergence of the counterculture in the mid-1960's, however, mocked the pretensions of the American middle class. There was no longer any need for it to project its anxieties onto the poor. Its own children were softening up the sturdy internal middle-class values with large dosages of drugs, sex and rock music.
The latter, Ms. Ehrenreich says, was especially important. "If theories of the 'culture of poverty' were the middle-class critique of the poor, rock was a critique of the middle class, bubbling up from America's invisible 'others.'" Rock, she notes, was the music of the underclass, and by the late 1960's its influence extended literally everywhere in America.
As a result of this youthful upheaval, several leading writers of the intellectual middle classes took up the theme of "permissiveness," and this, according to Ms. Ehrenreich, has been the central insight of American conservatism since the 1960's Ivy League professors, intellectuals of the Old Right, astute bureaucrats in corporate public relations and all manner of aspiring Washington policy makers built a school of political thought around the permissiveness problem.
Concurrent with the emergence of permissiveness in mid-70's intellectual discourse was the discovery of the working class, especially in its "silent majority" incarnation. This group was said to be imbued with traditional values, scornful of countercultural foolishness and confident of American purpose abroad. Increasingly. It was argued that the intellectuals of the educated middle class would do well to emulate these folk. I can personally attest to the appeal of this argument, at least to the adolescent mind.
Ms. Ehrenreich is again on firm ground in diagnosing projection. The anxious middle class was once more seeing what it wanted to see. Yes, there was an emerging Republican majority, at least in Presidential elections, but the working class in the late 1960's and early 1970's could not be neatly encapsulated, particularly when it came to the war in Vietnam. As Ms. Ehrenreich points out, the American working class was more, not less, opposed to the war than was the population as a whole, and more, not less, inclined to regard the conflict as a criminal enterprise and not an exercise in mistaken idealism.
But middle-class scholars and analysts, Ms. Ehrenreich insists, were not eager to perceive rebelliousness in the working class. "Its activism—the upsurge of strikes and militant job actions in the late sixties—was scantily covered relative to the movements of students or minorities, and was never framed as a 'crisis,' a challenging new phenomenon with its own media heroes and personalities."
Instead, the conservatives among middle-class intellectuals, with an impressive sense of self-importance, blamed intellectuals in general for society's permissiveness, employing a rather simplified version of Milovan Djilas's notion of the New Class. Mr. Djilas, a Yugoslav dissident, noted that under Communism a new class, whose authority was based on its command of ideas, had come to power in Eastern Europe. In the United States, neoconservatives argued, a permissive New Class was dismantling the traditional American value system and substituting its own secular and countercultural, if not socialistic, values.
By making this argument, Ms. Ehrenreich declares, the conservative intellectuals were defending their own professional interests. Black nationalism, rock music and other cultural innovations were entirely in the American grain. But they called into question the relevance of the work of middle-class intellectuals, who were afraid of falling out of positions of authority.
Even in the late 1970's, the inadequacy of the neoconservatives' diagnosis was plain. The kind of mindless hedonism that could ruin character did not originate solely in the 1960's counterculture, as any student of disco and cocaine could see. In American society, the tensions between modernism and tradition, consumerism and self-discipline were being played out not among the isolated left-wing intelligentsia, but in the marketplace. The multi billion-dollar cocaine industry, to cite but one example, is hardly the work of permissive Ivy League intellectuals. It is the creation of profit-seeking entrepreneurs—many of whom have impeccable right-wing credentials.
The American working class, as the object of the conservative intellectual's affections, fared pretty badly once the conservative agenda was enacted under President Ronald Reagan. Ms. Ehrenreich explains that capital was shifted from manufacturing to speculation; that the maldistribution of income grew worse; that the possibility of buying a house receded, and that well-paying jobs grew scarcer. There were, however, plenty of job openings for New Class conservatives in Washington. And the problems of permissiveness had spread to Wall Street, to the savings and loan industry, to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Ms. Ehrenreich blames the conservative intellectuals for discrediting the idea that the educated middle class has any duty or ability to contribute to public life. She insists it does—if it puts aside status anxieties and the sometimes strange language of current political debate. At present, American society seems divided between its allegiance to the speculative free market and its yearning for productive work. The intellectual can make a contribution to the debate over the market place, she says, simply by asserting the value of pleasurable work. "The pleasure of work is the middle class's tacit rebuttal to capitalism," she says, "a pleasure that cannot be commodified or marketed, that need not obsolesce or wane with time." It is a modest, humane and (I'm tempted to say) neoconservative suggestion.
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SOURCE: A review of Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 81, September 11, 1989, p. 13.
[In the following essay, Marien praises Ehrenreich's perception and compassion in Fear of Falling.]
The recent death of Michael Harrington was taken by many to symbolize the end of socialist influence in American political thought. Through his many books, including The Other America (1982), the work said to have sparked the War on Poverty, Harrington served as the conscience of the left. "I see Michael Harrington as delivering the Sermon on the Mount to America," Senator Edward M. Kennedy once said.
There may never again be a voice like Harrington's, one that could make claims on the heart without hectoring. But those who think that socialist idealism has passed from the American landscape should consider Barbara Ehrenreich.
As she did in her controversial book on gender and family life, The Hearts of Men (1983), Ehrenreich uses her current text to trace a psycho-history of the professional-managerial middle class. The result is an alternative anthropology of American social relations from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Ehrenreich's reliance on the notion of class is a socialist legacy, but in the broader sense it also owes to 19th-century authors, like Balzac and Zola, who struggled to lay open the mental life of a class in order to expose the defining experiences of a nation. Her thesis, that middle-class life in our culture is taken as a social norm, has formed the basis of some of America's most influential books. Both David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1951) and Charles Reich's The Greening of America (1970) rest on the assumption that middle-class behavior is the mirror of society. More recently, Robert N. Bellah and his colleagues portrayed contemporary moral values through a surprisingly popular study of the middle-class mores entitled, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985).
Ehrenreich's chronicle begins in the late 1950s, before poverty was "discovered," at the point where the perceived boon of American affluence was beginning to feel like a burden. She recounts that leading intellectuals, like David Riesman and Daniel Bell, were beginning to suggest that problemlessness was itself a problem. In the postwar period, the middle class worried that it might lose its creative energies and suffocate in a sea of consumer goods.
The War on Poverty provided the middle class the challenge it needed to rouse itself from malaise and a generalized fear of decadence. Ehrenreich notes that the rhetoric of renewal grew so fiercely uplifting, so focused on stirring the middle class, that it frequently lost sight of the objective fact of poverty.
It was, Ehrenreich suggests, a misfortune for the poor to be discovered by a middle class tormented by the forebodings of its own decline. Fear of falling grew more intense during the student movement of the late 1960s, when America's children of privilege seemed to be rejecting middle-class values. Ehrenreich sees the student movement as a pivotal time, a period in which the middle class became more defensive and a lot less liberal. It was also the moment when the middle class made another discovery, or one should say, created another temporarily soothing symbol. This time it was the working class who suffered the anxieties of middle-class insecurities.
Working-class stereotypes came to stand for traditional American values, like hard work, independence, and self-discipline, which the middle class felt were slipping away. At the same time, the liberal elite, disparagingly called the "New Class" by neoconservatives, came to be seen as less American, that is, as selfish, slothful, and ineffectual. To neoconservatives and their growing number of supporters, cutting social programs was a way to reduce the bloated roster of New Class bureaucrats. To the New Right, the New Class had generated poverty by inducing dependency on federal programs. To end poverty, then, one had to reduce social spending.
The yuppie phenomenon-hard work, hard spending, and high seriousness-drew on neoconservative values. Ironically, in Ehrenreich's view, the yuppies have brought the saga of the middle class almost full circle. She characterizes the present moment as one of anxious affluence and pent-up idealism.
What will be the next great shift for America's definitive class? Ehrenreich hopes that contemporary middle-class anxiety over consumption will spur greater class consciousness, and ultimately lead to revisioning the middle class not as an elite, but as a class bearing strong affinities with the poor. Just as the middle class in the past discovered poverty and the working class, she hopes that it will discover the rich in the 1990s.
Overall, Ehrenreich's analysis of the psychic tides of middle-class life is on-target. Her writing, spiked with aphoristic observations of modern life, is always entertaining. When, in her conclusions, she recommends that the middle class undergo an implausibly abrupt change of heart, one still admires her moral purpose, and the principles of equality and social justice that give the book its bearings.
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SOURCE: "A Touch of Class," in The Nation, Vol. 249, No. 17, November 20, 1989, pp. 607-09.
[Although critical of several of Ehrenreich's conclusions, in the following review, Henkin finds much to like in Fear of Falling.]
Most books that make sweeping assertions about American culture, Barbara Ehrenreich argues, are really only about the middle class. When authors tell us that "Americans" are becoming "more self-involved, materialistic, spineless, or whatever," they are really referring to the relatively small "professional … middle class … from which every other group or class is ultimately [considered] a kind of deviation." In Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, Ehrenreich claims to do consciously what others have done unwittingly.
Fear of Falling is an attempt to demythologize the professional middle class, to portray it as it is: one class among several, with its own interests, fears and obsessions. But the book is not simply an exercise in cultural anthropology. The professional middle class, Ehrenreich notes, "plays an overweening role in defining 'America': its moods, political direction, and moral tone." By tracing the attitudes of the middle class from the late 1950s through the late 1980s, Ehrenreich hopes to understand America's move to the right.
According to Ehrenreich, the middle class is preoccupied with the fear of growing soft, of losing discipline, of submitting to "the imperatives of consumption, the tyranny of affluence." This is so because the middle class must rely on hard work and deferred gratification in order to retain its privileged position. The rich can almost always expect to maintain their status for life. The same, unfortunately, is true for the poor. Only the middle class depends, in Margaret Mead's words, "not upon birth and status, not upon breeding or beauty, but upon effort."
This struggle to maintain discipline is, according to Ehrenreich, particularly difficult under modern capitalism, whose success depends on self-indulgence. Barraged by advertisers, afflicted with consumption overload, the middle class both craves and distrusts affluence—hence its almost schizophrenic relationship with material goods and its enduring fear of falling. In Ehrenreich's opinion, this fear is the principal force guiding middle-class life. It helps explain the way members of the middle class think, the goods they buy, the people they vote for, the relationships they seek out.
But why so profound a fear? And why the last three decades, in particular? Here Ehrenreich turns to the 1960s, which proved to be a watershed in middle-class consciousness. The student protest movement shook middle-class foundations. A radically egalitarian future would have meant that "education and intellect would be valued no more than, say, the skills of a mechanic or the insights of the downtrodden." The university, the bastion of middle-class power, was under attack and the middle class began to see itself not as an amorphous, all-inclusive body but as an elite with interests to protect. More important, most of the student radicals came from the middle class and were supposed to grow up and assume their parents' positions of power. When it turned out that these kids had other things in mind, their parents grew introspective—and self-critical.
The most frequent (and flawed) explanation for student radicalism was that middle-class parents had been too permissive. Childrearing techniques underwent massive scrutiny. "Is It All Dr. Spock's Fault?" read one New York Times Magazine headline. Neoconservative journalist Midge Decter said that the younger generation had no "capacity for deferred gratification." Permissiveness led to hedonism, which led to trouble. It also became an all-purpose charge against liberalism, an epithet that helped cement the strange relationship between the neoconservatives and the New Right.
By the late 1970s conservative intellectuals were defining and excoriating the so-called New Class—middle-class professionals working in the media, in universities, in think tanks, in the upper echelons of government bureaucracies. The New Class, in the eyes of its detractors, was liberal and elitist. Although the New Right distrusted the neoconservatives, suspecting, correctly, that they were themselves thinly disguised members of the New Class, it didn't hesitate to crib neoconservative theories. But it added a twist. While the neoconservatives had described the New Class as power hungry, the New Right portrayed it as immoral and hedonistic, too. The problem, again, was permissiveness. With the New Class playing the role of enemy, the ultimate miracle took place in 1988: a millionaire Republican, straight from Skull and Bones, winning the Presidency by portraying his middle-class rival as an elitist.
How did it happen? Again, Ehrenreich points to the middle class's fear of falling. Middle-class liberals failed to respond to right-wing attacks because these attacks struck chords of middle-class self-doubt. The charge of permissiveness was inaccurate, but it "rang true because it touched on that perennial fear within the professional middle class of growing soft, of failing to strive, of falling into the snares of affluence."
Ehrenreich admits that her overall argument is "rashly speculative." That, in itself, need not be a problem. But speculation calls for more qualification, more caution than she usually displays.
Ehrenreich's definition of the professional middle class covers "all those people whose economic status is based on education, rather than on the ownership of capital or property." Included, among others, are "schoolteachers, anchorpersons, engineers, professors, government bureaucrats, corporate executives (at least up through the middle levels of management), scientists, advertising people, therapists, financial managers," and Ehrenreich herself. Wow. This is a very diverse bunch, particularly when it comes to Ehrenreich's principal concern: attitudes toward consumption. It is unlikely that people whose tastes run from Beethoven to Bon Jovi, Fiorucci's to Filene's basement, Windows on the World to Wendy's, are all going to have more or less the same perspective on hedonism. It is hard to believe, in other words, that for all these people the fear of consumption is all-consuming.
Much of what Ehrenreich says has a grain—often many grains—of truth. But she tries to turn her theory into the whole truth, and in so doing she is on shaky ground. Her monolithically psychological approach comes close to reducing conservatism to a neurosis. Tempting but insufficient.
The specifics of Ehrenreich's theory are equally troubling. Does the middle class hold stereotyped conceptions of the poor simply, as Ehrenreich claims, because the poor have "come to represent what the middle class fear[s] most in itself: softening of character, a lack of firm … values"? Or might there be other reasons, such as fear of crime or plain ignorance? Has "yuppiehood" fallen into disrepute because "the upwardly mobile middle class began to lose its own fragile sense of identity"? Or might it be simpler: that middle-class people, like others before them, found excessive materialism unfulfilling? Is the fear of falling the only, even the principal, cause of internal conflict between indulgence and self-restraint, between spending and saving, between the present and the future? What about divorce, loss of community, political unrest, the threat of nuclear war? All these shake our sense of stability and may send us reeling from cautious preparation for tomorrow to extreme focus on today—and back again.
Moreover, to the extent that a fear of falling does play a role in the inner life of Americans, it is not clear that the middle class has a monopoly on it. The working class and poor, it might be argued, are even better candidates for this fear. Although the precipice on which the middle class stands is higher, the pit into which the lower class falls is deeper. Family and friends can almost always insure that a middle-class person in trouble does not go homeless, does not starve. Not so for a member of the lower class.
Finally, Ehrenreich's understanding of George Bush's campaign success, and her explanation of the right's ability to paint liberals as elitists, is unconvincing. It is true that some liberals, to their detriment, failed to respond to right-wing smears. But the relevant question is how the charge of elitism became credible in the first place.
Ehrenreich seems intent, for the most part, on avoiding this question, perhaps because she realizes that, when the charge comes from Norman Podhoretz and George Bush, the pot is calling the kettle black. But it is not sufficient to argue that the right is more elitist than the left.
In fairness to Ehrenreich, she does, at one point, admit that there is a "grain of … disturbing truth" in the right's attack on the liberal elite: "Middle-class-led reform movements, from the Progressive Era to the War on Poverty, have been marred by an elitist distance from the would-be beneficiaries of reform." But this is a departure from an argument that focuses almost exclusively on the middle class's internalization of the charge of elitism, not on the substance of the charge itself.
The charge's effectiveness comes from the fact that the university, which has long been associated with snobbery and elitism, with lofty theories untested by real-world problems, is also associated with liberalism. To a great extent, this is a consequence of the 1960s. But even today, many universities are liberal strongholds. Conservative intellectuals, despite their prominence, are a relatively strange sight. And although, as Ehrenreich notes, students in general are now as conservative as the rest of the population, in the more elite universities, the universities that produce many of the most prominent members of the professional middle class, the student body remains predominantly liberal. Polls of Ivy League students in 1988, for example, showed disproportionate student support for Dukakis.
The attitude of some middle-class liberals has helped strengthen the charge of elitism, and Ehrenreich's theory about the middle class may help us understand why. Ehrenreich notes that knowledge and expertise are the "capital" of the middle class. Without them, middle-class members would indeed fall. But this argument suggests something deeper. The professional middle class, which is constantly reminded that it lacks the influence of the truly powerful, can console itself by flaunting its "intelligence," its superior knowledge. And in doing so, it reinforces the charge of ivory-tower elitism.
Take, for example, Ehrenreich's response to a Nixon diary entry that lambastes the New Class and praises "middle America" for its guts and character and patriotism. She writes: "There, in ungrammatical outline, was the germ of the New Right's eventual strategy."
Now, Ehrenreich can surely be forgiven for taking a jab at Nixon's syntax. Still, she inadvertently explains his attitude. What Nixon likes about middle Americans is that they don't care about his grammar. The people who do care are, in George Wallace's words, "the over-educated ivory-tower folks with pointed heads looking down their noses at us." In the public mind (and often in reality), these pointy-heads are liberals.
Despite these problems with Ehrenreich's central argument, there is a good deal to recommend in Fear of Falling. The book is elegantly written, and the insight and wit that characterize her journalism are also abundant here. Ehrenreich's chapter on the New Class is particularly good, as she dissects neo-conservative dishonesty and hypocrisy. She is equally incisive when attacking the permissiveness theory, noting that capitalism, the main source of permissiveness, is never a right-wing target. Throughout, she has a keen eye for the contradictions of our culture. Her book, its faults notwithstanding, is worth a careful read.
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SOURCE: "High Anxiety," in Commentary, Vol. 89, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 64-7.
[While praising Ehrenreich's writing, in the following review, McClay finds many flaws in the thesis of Fear of Falling.]
The debacle of the 1988 presidential election not only left the very word "liberalism" badly battered, but may have administered the coup de grâce to the only opposition movement with a shred of intellectual and political vitality: the so-called "neoliberals." Hence, in 1992, the Democratic party will find that it once again has to face the relentless demands of its Left; and that Left, if it is feeling any vestigial desire to win elections, will have to come up with a plausible strategy for attracting middle-class voters, rather than continuing to invoke the deus ex machina of the unregistered and nonvoting masses—a strategy that might better be called "waiting for Godot."
Such is the very problem that Fear of Falling is designed to address. Stitching together an elaborate account of the changing structure of classes and class perceptions in postwar America. Barbara Ehrenreich hopes to provide arguments that will persuade the middle class, particularly that part of it she calls "the professional middle class." to make common cause with the working and "lower" classes, and thereby reinvigorate the Left's prospects in contemporary American politics.
The principal obstacles standing in the way of such solidarity, she believes, are the persistent misunderstandings and phantasms infesting the mind of the middle class. She intends to dispel these elements of false consciousness, in particular by persuading the middle class of two things: first, that its persistent fears, since the end of World War II, of "going soft" or "losing ground," and thus "falling" into the lower classes, have been selfish and harmful delusions; and second, that its position in the structure of the U.S. economy is infinitely more insecure than it appears to realize. It is hard to see how both these propositions can be true.
One would be justified in hoping for a more compelling thesis from Barbara Ehrenreich. She is a graceful and often witty essayist, usually at her best in writing of everyday, commonplace things—food, dieting, fashion, leisure, "relationships," and pop culture—from a mildly heterodox feminist position. As a prominent figure in the "communication" Left, she seems to have a genuine, if somewhat abstract and overly economic, appreciation of the forces that hold a community together. Beneath her rather conventional attacks on "consumer culture" lies a grudging admiration (an admiration one sees more clearly in a cultural critic like Christopher Lasch) for the old-fashioned Victorian virtues, especially work, family, thrift, and self-restraint.
But it is a grudging respect at best, deriving more from hatred of contemporary consumerism than from genuine regard for bourgeois values. Indeed, she finds consumption all-consuming, and attributes enormous coercive and hegemonic power to the "consumer culture." One never knows quite what to make of this fashionable term, which seems to designate what Poles, Russians, Chinese, and much of the rest of the world so ardently desire. But its use seems especially peculiar in a writer whose prose and thinking show so conspicuously the marks of the slick "lifestyle" journalist.
In the 50's, Miss Ehrenreich begins, all middle-class Americans believed themselves to be living in an affluent, classless society. A comfortable middle-class suburban existence was thought to be the American norm. But despite their wellbeing, members of the middle class were nagged by a persistent "fear of falling" out of their station (an understandable feeling, one would have thought, for those who could remember the Depression and the war).
Such anxieties, the account goes on, found a diverting outlet in the obsession with juvenile delinquency, which "gripped the public imagination in the 50's," and at the same time served as a "comforting distraction" from the "issue of class." Then, with the burgeoning civil-rights movement, and Michael Harrington's The Other America (1962), the middle class was induced to "discover" the existence of poverty. But instead of extending the range of its sympathies, the middle class merely projected its fears of downward mobility onto the poor, whom sociologists had conveniently taught Americans to think of stereotypically as "infantilized" products of a "culture of poverty."
According to Miss Ehrenreich, these condescending misperceptions of the "lower" classes were but the first in a parade of similarly self-protective illusions. Next came the charge of "permissiveness," directed especially against the "class traitors" who populated the student movement of the 1960's—traitors because they challenged the "class fortress" of the professions by their disdain for authority and expertise, and because they adopted rock and roll, the subversive "invention of the poor," as their own. Now the middle class was projecting its intense "fears of falling" onto its very own unruly youth.
But there arose an unexpected source of self-exculpating relief. Thanks to the well-publicized anti-antiwar militancy of the "hard-hats," and the presidential candidacy of George Wallace, the middle class suddenly "discovered" the existence of the working class, and promptly projected onto it all manner of contradictory urges: on the one hand, the working class could be a reservoir of traditional values in a time of cultural upheaval; on the other hand, it was a cesspool of authoritarian personality traits, bigotry, and hopelessly bad taste.
The working class could thus be seen as a bulwark of "middle-American" values, at a moment when middle-class kids were deserting those values; and simultaneously the Archie Bunkers of the world could still be regarded with a comfortable sense of superiority.
The middle class also found that it could project onto the "liberal elite" or "New Class"—media elites, university professors, Washington intellectuals, foundation bureaucrats, etc.—all the "permissive" qualities that it most feared in itself. For the neoconservatives and the New Right, in particular, the concept of an ambitious and arrogant New Class became a "bludgeon" with which to beat opponents into submission—and self-contradictorily so, for what were the neoconservatives themselves but denizens of the New Class?
Finally, inevitably, came the yuppie. Emboldened by the intellectual Right's discrediting of anti-business attitudes, and freed from the sense of moral responsibility which professional status once entailed, the yuppie simply threw in his lot with the corporate elite, displaying the seasoned cynicism of the well-paid courtesan. He accepted the fact that his class was a privileged one, and intended to make the most of those privileges, gorging himself at the cornucopia of consumerism while also working excessively hard at his job and exercising compulsively at the health club—all to prevent "going soft," to allay the "fear of falling."
Fortunately, however, the reign of the yuppie was brief, punctuated by the stock-market crash of 1987. His extreme self-centeredness was just too much for the middle class to take as a plausible image of itself; and the yuppie has crawled back into the mahogany wood-work. But the "fear of falling" remains, reassuming much the same form it took in the 1950's.
This, then, is Barbara Ehrenreich's walk through recent American history. It is like a stroll through a hall of funhouse mirrors; one finds oneself surrounded by a crowd of grotesque images whose apparent agitation and movement exist only in the eye of the beholder. We learn little about the lives of real Americans except that we do not know what we thought we knew about them. We learn little about the inner life of the middle class, other than a glimpse of its alleged fears, obsessions, and delusions. Readers who doubt whether the terms of individual psychology are so fully applicable to groups will have to suspend disbelief and enjoy the show; for this is one of those books that must be believed to be read.
Of course: middle-class people seem to have certain characteristic anxieties. But that is not exactly a new discovery. The "fear of falling" has always been a defining characteristic of modern middle-class life, as Tocqueville recognized a century and a half ago, long before the "consumer culture" or the solipsism of the suburbs.
Nor is there much that is persuasive in Miss Ehrenreich's oddly conflicted view of the professions. For the most part she accepts the standard radical critique: with their high educational demands, long periods of apprenticeship, and absolute control over accreditation and access, the professions are artificial barriers thrown up by ambitious middle-class "experts" for the purpose of monopolizing cultural authority and keeping out intruders and poachers, particularly those of the "lower" classes. There is an element of truth in this view, but like Miss Ehrenreich's favorite notion of "projection," according to which ideas of reality are only so much evidence of psychic delusion, it is rendered false and pernicious if carried too far.
For one thing, the radical critique ignores the degree to which the internal discipline and cultural authority of the professions contribute to, and in turn derive from the genuine pursuit of real knowledge. Ehrenreich prefers to think the middle class erected steep barriers to the professions solely to make and protect a fortress. Yet she also argues that a major source of anxiety for the perpetually anxious middle class lies precisely in its fear that its own children will be unable to mount those very walls; hence its "obsession" with "permissiveness" and with "going soft." A less tendentious writer might have conceded that the professions deserve high marks for attempting to impose rigorous and impartial standards for admission to their "fortress"; in Miss Ehrenreich's account, it looks more like the story of the class that couldn't shoot straight.
What is most disappointing about this book, however, is its total unwillingness to take its opposition seriously. One would never guess from Miss Ehrenreich's account that a lively and wide-ranging debate over the means and ends of the welfare state has been taking place in this country over the last two decades. In her rendering, writers like Charles Murray have not been engaged in a reconsideration of public policy; they have merely been—guess what?—projecting onto the poor (and the fictive New Class liberals) "the anxieties of their class." And as for the liberals who ought to have been countering them, well, these "tortured" souls have suffered a failure of nerve and need to "regain the use of their backbones." This is bizarre, ostrich-like way of reading recent American history.
But enough of the sordid past. What lies ahead for the feckless middle class, which this book means to woo as well as to indict? Perhaps, Miss Ehrenreich opines, echoing the cyclical sentiments of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a release of its "pent-up idealism"—but first it must clearly understand where its interests lie. That understanding will begin with one central fact: "the discovery of the rich" as the main enemy. So long as the middle class does not recognize the degree to which it, too, like the working and lower classes, is putty in the hands of capital, so long will the middle class remain separate from its "natural" allies.
Now we can see where all this has been leading. By cultivating a loathing for the Trumps, Forbeses, Iacoccas, and Helmsleys who run the world, the middle class will shake free of the insubstantial projections flitting across the walls of its Platonic cave. In alliance with the classes below, it will walk in the sunshine at last, and no longer fear falling. For all the conditions engendering that fear will have withered away. Nor, in a truly egalitarian society, will the professional middle class disappear—far from it; it will expand and expand, "until there remains no other class." Huey Long's slogan, "Every Man a King," will be updated for the 90's: "Every Person a Professional." And all the children, presumably, will be above average.
Idealism is generally to be preferred to cynicism; and there is nothing cynical or insincere about this earnest effort to reunite the appeals of democratization and expertise, populism and progressivism. Whether it is any more realistic than the other phantasms haunting this book, however, is another matter. If, for example, the structure of the professions is a specific cultural formation which reflects and aids the ascendancy of a particular class, then why would that class willingly open its "fortress" to the classes below? What would make it willing, Barbara Ehrenreich answers, is a more richly informed and visceral hatred of the rich. But it is hard to understand why she is so sure the middle class has nothing to fear from such blatant appeals to class-conscious resentment. As the example of Weimar Germany suggests, hatred, once released, can be exceedingly difficult to contain or direct.
It is more than a little discouraging to see the argument finally descend to this level. Henry Adams—who was something of a cynic, albeit a less than sincere one—asserted near the end of his life that politics is "the systematic organization of hatreds." But that formulation, like much about Henry Adams, was more clever than wise. What has been valuable about the communication Left today has been its willingness to question some of the Left's longstanding assumptions, in the pursuit of a more elevated definition of politics and the public realm. A book like this one raises doubts about how deep that willingness runs.
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SOURCE: "Wake Up, America," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 137, No. 3, March 1, 1990, pp. 14-15.
[In the following excerpt, Fallows examines the correlation among culture, prosperity, and security and their place in Fear of Falling.]
Economists don't like to talk about the effects of culture or of ethics on economic development, since these are such subjective and imprecise matters. But most people, including economists off-duty, assume that there is a connection between the kinds of everyday behavior a society encourages and its stability and prosperity.
In nearly every discussion about Europe's future, for instance, all sides take it for granted that a reunited Germany would be truly powerful. This has to do only partly with measurable factors like investment rates or manufacturing productivity. It also reflects widespread awe, or dread, of Germany's record of organizing human energy. For a variety of reasons having to do with national history and personal status, jobs in the government bureaucracy are among the most desirable in Korea, Japan, Singapore, and other East Asian societies with Confucian influence. Ambitious young graduates compete for positions with the Japanese Ministry of Finance or the Korean Economic Planning Board the way ambitious young Americans compete for jobs at what we drolly call "investment" banks. (This spring, 36,000 American graduating college students applied for eight positions at Wasserstein and Perella, the mergers-and-acquisition house that was spun off from First Boston. The obituaries for the Eighties may be a bit premature.)
The ability to attract talent gives these Asian governments more legitimacy—and more competence—in dealing with businesses than the US government can bring to hear, and it has helped to build more successful economies than those in the Philippines or Latin America, where government power has largely been a route to personal wealth. In a forthcoming book called Tropical Gangsters, the economist Robert Klitgaard wryly describes his two years of work as an adviser to the government of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny enclave on the west coast of Africa that has become one of the most hopeless economies on earth. Taken one by one, many of the ministers he dealt with were both honest and competent, Klitgaard says; but their country's history, and their degrading relationships with international aid organizations tempted nearly all of them to act in their own interests first. In Japan, those who have sacrificed their own interests for the nation's welfare have been seen as cultural heroes; whereas in the Philippines they have been easy prey for the likes of the Marcoses.
It's easy to make too much of cultural influences on economics—and whatever group is on top at a given moment tends to make too much of them, by moralizing about the reasons for its own success. Until the last decade or two, Westerners observing Asia have usually concluded that its culture could never be adapted to modern industrial capitalism. Confucianism, the Japanese willingness to sublimate individual interests to the group, and other traits that are now cited in the West to explain East Asia's boom were used earlier in this century to prove that Asia would never catch up. ("My impression as to your cheap labor was soon disillusioned when I saw your people at work." an Australian expert reported to the Japanese government before World War I. "To see your men at work made me feel that you are a very satisfied easy-going race who reckon time is no object.")
Still, there are two cultural traits that most successful capitalist economies have shared, however much the societies may differ in other ways. One is an emphasis on deferred gratification. Capitalism requires people to consume, but it also requires society to set aside some share of its income for further investment. The other is some recognized link between individual and collective well-being. Anyone who has lived in the third world recognizes what happens when this link does not exist. No one can afford not to press his own advantage as far as possible, since everyone else will be doing the same: if a bureaucrat does not take bribes, he's merely robbing his family. The most impressive postwar recoveries, those in Germany, Korea, and Japan, have been propelled largely by the belief that improvements in the nation's welfare will pull everyone up together.
When American commentators have examined their society, they have usually concluded that its values served capitalism very well. Apart from the worry that capitalism would eventually make people too rich, spoiled, and hedonistic to be good, forward-looking capitalists (a fear classically expressed by Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, published in 1976), the main cultural problem with American capitalism has seemed to be its exceptions—the pockets of people who haven't decided to pitch in and get ahead. In the mid-nineteenth century, Irish immigrants were thought to be the problem; since the 1950s, we've heard repeatedly about the "culture of poverty" affecting rural Appalachian whites, Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants, and now of course the urban black underclass. The pattern of behavior in this culture has been described with sympathy by Oscar Lewis and Michael Harrington and with scorn or alarm by Edward Banfield and Charles Murray. But their descriptions all boil down to the opposite of what it takes to succeed as a capitalist: short-term gratification rather than stolid investment and planning, fatalism and resentment rather than a Benjamin Franklinesque belief that God helps him who helps himself.
Arguments about the "culture of poverty" are old and familiar ones in America. They are now taking on an intriguing twist. In much of the rest of the world, especially Asia, they are being applied not to defeated enclaves within America but to American society as a whole.
For instance, instead of listening meekly as American negotiators criticize them for keeping out imports from the US, Japanese officials have recently taken the offensive and said that America's culture is America's main trade problem. Late last year, the United States and Japan began a bizarre series of negotiations known as the "Structural Impediments Initiative." The original idea, on the American side, was to concentrate attention on the structural factors, such as a prohibition on discount stores, that made it hard for outsiders to penetrate the Japanese market. The Japanese government deftly switched the focus of the meetings to the structural problems that made American exporters ineffective, and began speaking to the United States much as middle-class whites typically talk to the shiftless poor. It's time to work harder, study more, hit the books, and think of the future for a change, the Japanese government now says. The secret of success is to pull yourself up by your own boot-straps; no one ever got rich by blaming other people for his failures.
Akio Morita's speeches about America's business failures, summarized in the notorious "No" to leru Nippon, or A Japan That Can Say No, follow quite similar "culture of poverty" lines:
As I told the Americans, we are focusing on business ten years in advance, while you seem to be concerned only with profits ten minutes from now. At that rate, you may well never be able to compete with us.
Japan is telling America: "Stop loafing, get a job!"
Even the things the rest of the world admires about America increasingly fit the same pattern:
Living in the present [one] may develop a capacity for spontaneity, for the enjoyment of the sensual, which is often blunted in middle-class, future oriented man.
In one way, and no doubt to their mutual consternation, Barbara Ehrenreich is on the same side as [George] Gilder. The resemblance is peculiar, because in so many other respects these books (and their authors) are each other's opposite. Ehrenreich is as established a figure of the left as Gilder is on the right. While the strength of Gilder's book [Microcosm] is its reporting and anecdotes, [Ehrenreich's] Fear of Falling contains very little original research and is strongest when Ehrenreich analyzes familiar cultural patterns expressed in movies, books, and TV. Gilder keeps leaping for the cosmic; Ehrenreich's tone is consistent, understated, dryly amused.
The point of convergence is the idea that the stolid corporate men in Brooks Brothers suits are ruining America. For Gilder, they reflect the dead weight of bureaucratic caution and staleness. For Ehrenreich, they are a distinct, relatively small class, whose interests are at odds with those of the great majority beneath them, and whose self-absorption has warped the class politics of the postwar era.
Ehrenreich's argument turns on the strangely insecure position of the American middle class. The term "middle class" itself illustrates the problem; it suggests a condition typical for Americans, but Ehrenreich says it has been appropriated by a smaller group that should more accurately be called the "professional class." These are people whose position in society fundamentally depends on their education. She never makes clear exactly how many people she is talking about, but says they are an assortment including
such diverse types as schoolteachers, anchorpersons, engineers, professors, government bureaucrats, corporate executives (at least up through the middle levels of management), scientists, advertising people, therapists, financial managers, architects, and, I should add, myself.
People in such jobs can tell themselves that their privileges are based on the American ideal of reward for effort. They studied, stayed in college, got degrees. Ehrenreich is of course aware that professional privilege is not fully "earned" in a moral sense, since children of professional-class parents have a head start toward the schooling that will keep them in that class. But the fact that it's only a head start, not a guaranteed inheritance (as it would be for the truly rich, or in a more deeply class-bound society), creates a destructive mixture of smugness and insecurity in the professional class. His belief that he has earned his status limits the professional's sympathy for those who haven't made it, Ehrenreich says, but also increases his fear that he or his children will fail to keep earning their place. Because this class dominates discussion of the American condition. Ehrenreich says, its increasing nervousness has intensified the crabbed, ungenerous tone of political and cultural debate.
The class anxiety Ehrenreich is describing was probably most vivid in the mid-nineteenth century, when today's professional class was just beginning to form. In those days, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and professors were just variants of tradesmen, without professional guilds to protect them or educational requirements to keep newcomers out. In his classic book on the subject, The Search for Order (1966), the historian Robert Wiebe said that a century ago,
The concept of the middle class crumbled at the touch…. The so-called professions meant little as long as anyone with a bag of pills and a bottle of syrup could pass for a doctor, a few books and a corrupt judge made a man a lawyer, and an unemployed illiterate qualified as a teacher.
In the century since, the professional class made the American school system into a vehicle for greater fairness and greater rigidity at the same time. Schools were in principle opened to all, and virtually anyone who stayed in school long enough could eventually enter the professional class. But with the rise of formal professions, those who didn't stay in school were more trapped than before. Thomas Edison, who dropped out of elementary school, could conceivably still find a place in the oddball world George Gilder describes, but not within the respectable, meritocratic, professional class.
"The professional and managerial occupations have a guildlike quality," Ehrenreich says, following Wiebe.
They are open, for the most part, only to people who have completed a lengthy education and attained certain credentials. The period of study and apprenticeship—which may extend nearly to mid-life—is essential to the social cohesion of the middle class.
One of the few parts of American life that is becoming less tied to credentials is public school teaching. During the 1980s, half a dozen states decided to permit the hiring of teachers who didn't have degrees from education colleges but who knew about French, math, science, or whatever subject they were supposed to teach. But the larger trend is the other way. Because of the reliance on education and credentials. Ehrenreich concludes, the professional-class system is rigged enough to keep most members of the working class out—but not rigged enough to make its members feel secure.
Ehrenreich devotes most of her book to an examination of how this mixture of complacency and anxiety affects the behavior of the professional class. The complacency shows up in the repeated "surprise" revelations that not all of American society is made of people with white-collar careers and orthodontists for the kids. In the 1930s, she says, people who still had jobs knew many others who didn't: the poverty of the Great Depression was not merely a theoretical concern to the opinion-making classes. By the 1960s, she says, professional-class life had become insulated enough that people could be astonished by Michael Harrington's "discovery" that some forty million Americans lived in poverty. A decade later the big surprise was that the white working class was angry—angry because its children were dying in Vietnam while privileged children were protesting in college; because judges who lived in the suburbs were handing down bussing orders for working-class schools; because managers of big companies seemed to view workers as disposable parts of the industrial machine. Since then, of course, American life has seemed designed to spare members of one class routine contact with members of another. The two great institutions of postwar class mixing, the public schools and the pre-Vietnam drafted military, no longer function that way, and many other institutions keep people apart.
The most powerful parts of Ehrenreich's book, I think, demonstrate how this continuing class tension has spread, showing it as reflected in books, movies, and the news organizations. "The pundits who dominate the talk shows are, to a man and an occasional woman, all members of this relatively privileged group," she says.
When we see a man in work clothes on the screen, we anticipate some grievance or, at best, information of a highly local or anecdotal nature. On matters of general interest or national importance, waitresses, forklift operators, steamfitters—that is, most "ordinary" Americans are not invited to opine.
Ehrenreich says that in movies and TV shows it has become unacceptable to use stereotypes in portraying blacks, gays, or other minority groups, but not the working class as a whole. The overall message of movies such as Joe, Taxi Driver, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and The Deer Hunter, she says, was that working class whites had ended up in the station of life that they deserved.
To middle-class men, the blue-collar stereotype could never be such a distant "other" as the poor, especially the black poor. Here were blood brothers, personified, in personal memory, by the high-school teammate left behind in one's hometown pumping gas…. Yet the blood between the classes, as anyone could see through the lens of the media discovery, was mostly bad.
The discovery that it was unloved, Ehrenreich concludes, made the professional class even more narrowly self-protective more intent on insulating its children from the public schools, more determined to show its sophistication by not buying products that the ordinary Joe might use. Ehrenreich nicely describes the way almost every consumer product cars, beer, cereal—not to mention entire store chains have split into an upscale and downscale version, further weakening the sense that Americans of different classes might have anything in common. She quotes a market analyst on redundant buying patterns among the professional class:
When they have friends over, these people do not want those friends to see names like Sears or Kenmore. They want people to see names like Sony or Kitchen Aid.
She emphasizes that even the women's movement, while making life somewhat fairer between men and women, has pushed the working and professional classes farther apart. In the old days, a male doctor might marry a female nurse; now, she says, two doctors are likely to marry each other. In 1987 the median income for men with at least one year of graduate-school education was $34,731, and for women with the same education, $26,399—$61,130 for the median professional-class couple. The median for a working couple with high-school education was only $36,888.
Ehrenreich's book is more valuable for its incidental perceptions than as a sustained thesis. (To put it another way, this book seems to have been a convenient vehicle for a number of class-related subjects Ehrenreich wanted to discuss, even though some subjects aren't clearly connected to the others.) Her main political conclusion is that the professional class should overcome its sense of precarious isolation and make common cause with the workers against their mutual enemy, the truly rich.
In a symbolic sense, this is certainly right: people like the Helmsleys and Michael Milken greatly damage the idea that American society is in any way fair. But, as economists have pointed out for years, there is not as much money in the hands of the truly rich as the rest of us would like to think: most tax money must come from professional and middle classes largely because that's where so many people are.
Ehrenreich's other large ideal is a society that has outgrown consumerism, and that offers everyone a professional-style job, one that can be enjoyed rather than endured. There are a few missing pieces to this argument, of course. The societies that have the most professional jobs are usually those with the most productive industries, and with strong consumer cultures too. Ehrenreich is so reluctant to say anything positive about business, industry, or productivity that it's hard to know exactly what economic base her new society would stand on: she gives only a hazy idea of the jobs most people would have, the products they would make.
Still, her book is insightful and sensible, and—to come back to the original question—it establishes two central points about America's productive culture. One is that people are devoting more and more energy to defending what privileges they have and to protecting their status within the class system, instead of creating new opportunities or strengthening the US economic system as a whole. The fundamental source of anxiety is the widespread sense that today's young adults—those born in 1960 or later—may never live as well as their parents did. In 1950, a median-price house cost the average wage earner 14 percent of his gross monthly wage; in the mid-1980s, it cost 44 percent. On the whole, today's houses are bigger and better-equipped, but despite the recent softening of prices they are not automatically available, as they seemed to be for two decades after World War II. It is hard for a family to do anything about housing costs, and so the struggle to avoid decline has concentrated instead on the schools, and in a peculiar way.
The one "school crisis" that affects the professional class directly is the competition for places in the right elementary (or even nursery) schools, which feed into the right prep schools and in turn the right universities. Many readers of this journal will know how much time, money, and emotion go into this competition—yet from the larger perspective, it's a meaningless exercise. The proliferation of prep schools and SAT cram courses is the moral equivalent of bond trading, an activity that shuffles temporary advantages while adding nothing to the common wealth.
Only about fifty of the nation's nearly two thousand colleges have serious competition for admissions. In the United States, unlike Japan, it is still possible for people who don't go to those three dozen colleges to rise to the top in business and politics. Between our last two Ivy League presidents. John Kennedy and George Bush, our presidents have come from Southwest Texas State. Whittier College, the University of Michigan, the Naval Academy, and Eureka College. In contrast, nearly all of Japan's postwar prime ministers have been graduates of the University of Tokyo.
The academic standards in the best American colleges, and the schools that feed them, are already above those of their Japanese, Korean, or Singaporean counterparts which suggests that raising the standards and increasing the pressure in these schools probably won't do much for America's overall strength. Most scholars of Japanese education, including Thomas Rohlen and Merry White, emphasize that the Japanese elementary and high schools succeed precisely because the worst graduates are so well educated. But applying that lesson to America, with a crusade to improve ghetto schools, is not seen as an urgent task by the American professional class, Ehrenreich rightly suggests that it should be.
Ehrenreich's other fundamental point is that as professional-class consciousness has risen, the sense of the public good has declined. A few days after I moved back to the United States from Japan last fall. I tried to use a pay phone in midtown Manhattan. The first one I tried was full of gum: with the next the booth smelled of urine: in the next the handset was ripped off its cord: the next would not take coins. Mean-while, people were driving by happily talking on their cellular car phones. It was a depressingly neat symbol of the shift from public to private well-being: as the public facility was left to crumble, people with money tried to recreate it on their own.
In larger ways, Ehrenreich shows, the professional class has followed the rich in insulating itself from public institutions. The public schools may be bad, but you can keep your children out of them. The parks may be run-down and dangerous, but you can join a private health club. Powerful Americans learn to prosper even if the whole society is weakening. Without belaboring the obvious this is not a sign of social health.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832
SOURCE: "A Plague of Gray Caterpillars and a Preacher," in The New York Times, July 13, 1993, p. C18.
[In the following essay, Kakutani negatively reviews Kipper's Game.]
It's no surprise that science-fiction and futuristic novels are a favorite forum for social critics: after all, they provide an easy means of extrapolating and satirizing the problems of the contemporary world. Certainly, this is what the author and magazine columnist Barbara Ehrenreich seems to be up to in her first novel. "Kipper's Game," a dark, convoluted piece of apocalyptic fiction that enables her to combine her scientific training (she holds a Ph.D. in biology from Rockefeller University and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from Reed College) with the moral outrage she has cultivated as an essayist and observer of the American scene.
Set in a faintly futuristic world that bears a decided resemblance to the present-day United States, Kipper's Game begins with a series of unsettling portents: the trees in Ms. Ehrenreich's unnamed city have been devoured by a plague of bizarre, gray caterpillars; a faintly sinister preacher known as Sister Bertha has begun to haunt the airwaves on a pirate frequency, and hazardous wastes have begun to leak from the local Human Ecology Complex.
Both Ms. Ehrenreich's main characters work at the Human Ecology Complex, otherwise known as HEC, or, as its disgruntled employees refer to it, as "hell." Della Markson, who has had to get a job after her recent separation from her husband, works as a low-level clerk in the office of Dr. Hershey, a medical researcher on the trail of a mysterious and deadly new virus. Alex MacBride, Della's former professor, works there as a sort of all purpose gofer for Dr. Leitbetter, the head of HEC and a well-known television personality.
Dr. Leitbetter, we soon learn, purveys an eccentric, New Age view of science and religion. He believes or says he believes that knowledge yields pleasure, that human beings have an innate drive toward knowledge and that knowledge must be assembled and distilled in preparation for the arrival of a visitor from outer space, a superior being who will one day redeem the fallen creatures of earth.
Dr. Leitbetter's latest assignment for Alex is to research the life and work of an obscure physiologist from New Jersey, Henry Relnik, who may or may not have had Nazi connections in World War II. Much to his dismay, Alex soon discovers that mysterious others are also in pursuit of Relnik's missing papers: not only is his apartment ransacked, but he also receives death threats from gangsters, apparently working for an enormously powerful computer and information-gathering organization.
Della, meanwhile, has been preoccupied with a search of her own: her college-age son, Kipper, has been out of touch for a year, and when two of his computer-hacker friends turn up dead, she starts worrying that something terrible has happened to him, too. Her search for Kipper, strangely enough, begins to overlap with Alex's search for Henry Relnik's papers; both Kipper and Relnik, it seems, have been drawn into a utopian but diabolical quest that could save or redeem humanity.
Although Ms. Ehrenreich's narrative method of manically cutting back and forth between several story lines seems intended to build suspense, it has the effect of making the reader feel manipulated. We suspect that information is being deliberately withheld from us to tease our curiosity and that other events have been concocted for the simple purpose of raising further questions. Indeed our suspicions are confirmed by the novel's contrived and overly melodramatic conclusion, an ending that lacks the organic sense of completion possessed by successful novels of suspense.
Both the plot and conclusion of Kipper's Game are meant to underscore a few simplistic themes; that science can be used for good or ill, that the pursuit of knowledge can be turned into a Faustian bargain with nature, that madmen and philistines alike can exploit the interface between science and metaphysics.
Unfortunately, little of the irreverent wit that animates Ms. Ehrenreich's essays is in evidence in these pages: instead of beguiling and provoking the reader, she makes her points with the solemnly and portentousness of a third-rate preacher. The novel is filled with lugubrious disquisitions on computers and information-retrieval systems, ponderous speeches about the coming millennium and ridiculous discussions about extraterrestrials.
Where Kipper's Game does display flashes of Ms. Ehrenreich's usual verbal agility is in its all too rare descriptions of ordinary life: the liberating but frightening experience of driving along a highway late a night when none of the usual rules seem to hold; the oddly soothing, if numbing, experience of going to a shopping mall to have a solitary meal; the Kafkaesque experience of working in a huge modern building filed with dozens of identical, dimly lighted corridors and hallways.
It is with such descriptions of the everyday that Ms. Ehrenreich is able to display her generous gifts as an observer. One hopes her next novel does more justice to these talents.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2114
SOURCE: An interview in Publisher's Weekly, Vol. 270, No. 30, July 26, 1993, pp. 46-47.
[In the following interview, Ehrenreich discusses the writing of her first fiction book.]
"I feel like a criminal," says Barbara Ehrenreich. "I didn't mean to do it!" She's not referring to an act of civil disobedience from her anti-war past (about which she'd be unlikely to repent); she's talking about the reckless act of writing a novel. Kipper's Game (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Fiction Forecasts, Apr. 26), an adventurous tale involving a computer game, Nazi scientists and a mysterious illness that causes uncontrollable bleeding, is indeed not the book you'd necessarily expect from a 51-year-old writer best known for her journalism and such works of social and cultural analysis as The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment and Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, all written from a bracingly leftwing point of view.
That was the idea, she says. "It was escapism. I started the novel when we'd had two terms of Reagan, Bush had just been elected, and I was constantly grinding out columns and articles trying to make my good little moral points: don't fight, share things, all that stuff." (You can tell she's a mother, although Rosa, 22, and Benjamin, 20, presumably no longer need to be told to share.) "I just felt that I had to go into another dimension for part of the time."
The decaying suburb of the near-future in which Kipper's Game is set may not strike everyone as the perfect place to flee to. Its trees have been stripped bare by a plague of caterpillars, brownouts are frequent, escaped laboratory animals roam the halls of the decrepit scientific complex where the heroine works and radio evangelists warn of the coming apocalypse. Even when she's getting away from it all, Ehrenreich can't abandon habits of social observation she's honed over three decades: her unnamed locale is based on some of the grimmer sections of Long Island, where she lives and her protagonist, whose husband leaves in the novel's first scene, "is a character I had been thinking about for quite a while, because I had written a few articles about middle-class women who are suddenly divorced and completely unprepared to enter the world.
"I'm not grinding an axe; there's not a feminist point or a humanist point—that I know of," the author comments. "But it wasn't going to work as escapism for me unless it was a very challengingly complex sort of plot, with too many subplots and lots of mysteries I wasn't sure they were all going to come together at the end; there were many points when I really thought it wasn't going to work."
Fiction, she discovered, "is completely different; it didn't seem like anything I'd learned writing nonfiction particularly applied. Fortunately, I've read a lot of novels, so I started studying whomever I was reading to see how they did it I would say, 'Hey, wait a minute: how did this author get the characters from place A to place B?'"
Crowded with intellectual characters who consider issues like the nature of truth, the role of religion and the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors, Kipper's Game is an ambitious project for a first-time novelist. "There are certain books I've admired enormously that gave me permission to do this. I don't like family dramas; I like books that have insanely complicated plots and deal with major philosophical themes: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, which I'm going to have to read again to understand; Unassigned Territory by Kem Nunn, borderline SF with a very paranoid plot; Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star—that's a really loony book; it's wonderful A lot of the ideas my characters explore are real thoughts I've had that could potentially have been expressed in a nonfiction way, if I could have figured out what that would have been. We don't have a big market for metaphysical speculation, so you're almost forced to put it in another form."
The novel's scientific material was no problem for Ehrenreich, who graduated from Reed College in 1963 with a B.A. in chemical physics and received her Ph.D. in biology at Rockefeller University in 1968. How did she get derailed from her training "to be a seven-day-a-week, 14-hours-a-day scientist? I got swept up in the anti-war movement, as so many people did. I went into college as someone who loved the existentialists, had a soft spot in my heart for Ayn Rand, had no social or political views of any kind. Then I saw a little more of the world, read some newspapers—the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, those got me involved.
"I was more of a science appreciator than a scientist, and I knew as I got more involved in the movements of the time that I didn't want to be a professional scientist, that whole macho ethos of being at the bench all the time. So I started with little journalistic things, but I didn't really think of myself as a writer until the late '70s, when I noticed that's how I was earning my living—not much of a living!" she adds with a laugh.
In the late '60s, Ehrenreich and her first husband were asked to write a book about the international student movement ("the publisher paid our way to Europe and would have made bail if necessary"), and in 1970 they co-authored a scathing critique, The American Health Empire. Medical issues remained her focus in two pamphlets she wrote for the Feminist Press with fellow activist Deirdre English, who also collaborated with Ehrenreich on For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of Experts' Advice to Women (Doubleday, 1978).
"I was making the transition to being 'socially relevant,' as we called it in the '60s, and the obvious thing to write about was medical and public health issues. My background in biology meant I wasn't intimidated by doctors or their pronouncements about how the medical system should work, because research biologists look down on doctors!" She continues to keep up to date in the field and recently completed an essay about the current debate over health insurance; after reading voluminous material by the proponents of "managed competition," she professes herself "appalled: it's like turning everything over to Empire Blue Cross."
Ehrenreich was past 40 when she wrote her first book solo. "I guess I'm a real slut when it comes to collaborating," she comments jokingly. "I've been promiscuous in doing it all my life! I got a lot out of it, but now that I have my own style I probably won't be collaborating much anymore. It wasn't that I had to shake anybody off for The Hearts of Men; I just had this idea and knew exactly what I wanted to do with it." Published by Doubleday in 1983, the book argued cogently—and controversially—that men's abdication of the breadwinner role was at least as responsible as the revived feminist movement for the break-down of the American family. "People thought that I said this male revolt caused feminism, but I just pointed out that it came earlier."
Although she had an amicable relationship with Loretta Barrett, who edited For Her Own Good and The Hearts of Men, Ehrenreich found herself less comfortable at Doubleday after it was purchased by Bertelsmann. The publication of Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex, a return to collaborative writing with Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs that appeared in 1986, led to a break. "It got completely lost in the corporate shuffle. I don't blame Loretta; it just seemed better to go to a smaller place where they watched each project carefully."
That smaller place, ironically, was Pantheon, which in early 1990 caused an enormous uproar over corporate interference in publishing matters. Ehrenreich, along with fellow Pantheon author Todd Gitlin, spearheaded the determined protest against the forced departure of managing director André Schiffrin, which prompted fears in the literary community that profitability had become such an overriding goal at the major houses that it might preclude the publication of the kind of provocative, socially conscious books for which Pantheon was known.
"Todd and I got on the phone to lots of people; we had a demonstration—it was the first time a major publishing house had been picketed by authors—and we published a letter signed by hundreds of famous writers. I had done a lot of organizing, but never of hot-shot intellectuals; we were very proud of all the big names we were able to get on the letter. Along with the support for Salman Rushdie a year earlier, it showed that the intellectual community could come together, which was good, because by and large the New York literary world is pretty stuffy and conservative; it's not a lively or politically active bunch.
"I didn't have any illusions that we were going to get Random House to change its mind about Pantheon, but I did think it would be good to create some cost. Writers are so powerless compared to these guys who run the mega-corporations that control so much of publishing that all we can do is now and then bring a faint blush to the pinched cheeks of these Scrooge-like fellows!" She gives a short laugh, acknowledging the hyperbolic tone of her comments, but standing by their substance. With her blonde hair pulled loosely back by a barrette, wire rimmed glasses framing a makeup-free face, clad in jeans, a royal blue shirt and sneakers, Ehrenreich has abandoned neither the look nor the political attitudes of her student days.
The author followed Sara Bershtel, who had edited Fear of Falling and a collection of Ehrenreich's articles entitled The Worst Years of Our Lives, from Pantheon to FSG. "Sara's a very involved editor, maybe the hardest working editor on earth, and I think she improved Kipper's Game a lot. There were about 20 more subplots until she took a look at it, and she made Kipper appear at the end—he wasn't going to, there was another ending, but she felt that he should. I actually enjoyed the revisions, because I didn't want to leave the book; I probably could have gone on forever."
Peter Biskind, executive editor of Premiere magazine and an old friend, also commented on the first draft, and Ehrenreich discussed nearly every chapter with her son, now a religious studies major at Brown. "Benjamin was a big supporter of my writing a novel; I kept losing confidence, but he would read things almost as I was writing them, we would discuss it and that kept me going." Her daughter is also an author; Rosa's book about her experience as a female student at Oxford will be published in England next year. Ehrenreich's husband of 10 years, Gary Stevenson, "is just reading the novel now. He's a union organizer, which is like being an elevator operator: up and down." Thrown out of the Teamsters by its previous corrupt administration, Stevenson came back with the current, reforming leadership and now serves as Eastern regional director of organizing. Fear of Falling was dedicated "To Gary—and the old-fashioned struggle against class injustice that he so ably serves."
Ehrenreich's current project is, typically, a radical change of pace. "It's about theories of war, and it's serious: I'm reading 18th-century treaties and learning about cross-bows! You have to know the details, and there's a tremendous amount to learn. All my previous history work was social history, women's things, so now I'm finding out what men have been doing all this time. I like to learn a completely new area; I don't think that constitutionally I could specialize in an academic way. People have sometimes thought was a sociologist or a historian, but since I have no formal education in any of these things, I'm not tied to a discipline, so I can rampage through any kind of material I want."
Ehrenreich continues to produce a monthly column for Time magazine and whatever other journalism strikes her as necessary. "I like to do both. They're completely different ways of thinking and living for me: journalism is a more frenetic lifestyle—I'm switching on CNN all the time and maybe going on television myself to argue with somebody—and writing books is more solitary, contemplative, reclusive and obsessional." She also remains active in the Democratic Socialists of America, formed in 1983 out of the union of two earlier left-wing groups ("an anti-corporate merger, as it were"), which like all political organizations requires time-consuming meetings and discussions. "Too bad there aren't 48 hours in the day!" she comments wryly.
Somehow, you get the feeling that Barbara Ehrenreich will always manage to squeeze it all in.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3983
SOURCE: "Ehrenreich's Game," in Michigan Quarterly, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 375-84.
[Below, Kellman offers a mixed review of Kipper's Game.]
"When a scholar of John Kenneth Galbraith's immense sagacity has a tale to tell, it is time to put away our toys, sit quietly and attend with great care," wrote Barbara Ehrenreich in The New York Times Book Review of February 11, 1990. It is the opening sentence to the enthusiastic account she gave of A Tenured Professor. The book was Galbraith's third published novel, but he is much better known for his nonfiction, including The Affluent Society, The Liberal Hour, and The New Industrial State. Although he has been a tenured professor, at Harvard, for many decades, Galbraith's authority derives from his ability and propensity to address public issues in a manner that has engaged educated non-specialists. When an intellectual of Galbraith's immense accomplishment turns to fiction, it is time to wonder why and how, questions not directly addressed in Ehrenreich's discussion of his novel.
Six months later, Farrar, Straus & Giroux announced the signing of a two-book contract with Ehrenreich. The first would be a novel, the author's first, while the second would be the ninth volume of nonfiction that Ehrenreich has published alone or in collaboration. The novel, Kipper's Game, was published in 1993, while the nonfiction book, on theories of war, is still in preparation. Like the octogenarian Galbraith, Ehrenreich, who was born in 1941, belongs to the endangered species of public intellectual: an essayist who may or may not be affiliated with a university but whose constituency is the general reader and whose matter is the commonweal.
Edmund Wilson is the prototype of the American intellectual. "A professor without a university, a critic without a 'field,' a historian without a 'period,' he became the exemplary intellectual of his generation," wrote biographer David Castronovo. Wilson did publish a novel, I Think of Daisy (1929), but few think of that book—or his volumes of poetry, short fiction, and drama—when they ponder Wilson's vigorous contributions to the national dialogue. Though she left her last tenure-track position, assistant professor of health sciences at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, in 1974, Ehrenreich has become one of the most prominent intellectuals in the United States, heir to the mantle of Wilson, H. L. Mencken, Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy, Michael Harrington, and Irving Howe. If she—or Noam Chomsky, Garry Wills, Irving Kristol, Christopher Lasch, Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Bell, or Cornel West—abandons polemical discourse for literary invention, Samuel Johnson's abusive analogy between a woman preaching and a dog walking on its hind legs applies: You marvel not so much at how well it is done but that it is done at all.
"I feel like a criminal. I didn't mean to do it," replied Ehrenreich when an interviewer for Publishers Weekly questioned why the essayist had just committed fiction. In 1973, Tom Wolfe announced the triumph of the New Journalism, boasting that the nonfiction of Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, George Plimpton, Michael Herr, Wolfe himself, and others had succeeded in "dethroning the novel as the number one literary genre." But Wolfe's own reversion to the antique form, with The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), demonstrated that the monarchy of the novel was never truly overthrown. Fiction is the tribute that sober thinkers pay to the glamour of imagination. Interring the novel has been a familiar ritual since Cervantes closed the coffin on the preposterous Amadis de Gaula, yet, even in 1994, no literary career seems complete without one in the corpus. Though William F. Buckley, Jr. and Susan Sontag are best remembered for their essays, they also indulge in the atavistic narrative. With Kipper's Game, so, too, does Ehrenreich.
Like a veteran jurist nominated to the Supreme Court, an intellectual who writes a novel leaves behind a paper trail. In the prolific case of Ehrenreich, contributing editor to Ms. and Mother Jones, columnist for Time, and occasional contributor to The Nation, The New York Times, The New Republic, and other prominent publications, the trail is a veritable highway. The trendy trinity of race, class, and gender are her cardinal themes, but the greatest of these, for her, is class. The white-collar descendant of a clan of "small farmers, railroad workers, miners, shopkeepers, and migrant farm workers," Ehrenreich retains inherited class suspicions of affluence; she recalls learning from her blue-collar parents that "wealth always carried a presumption of malfeasance." She is a copper-miner's daughter, and proud of it. Fear of Falling, Ehrenreich's most considerable work, is a study of the beleaguered American bourgeoisie. Co-chairperson of the Democratic Socialists of America, she defines herself as "socialist and feminist" and contends that: "Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots." Her patriotic prose is leavened with personal references, to her two husbands, two children, and two abortions. Though she now lives in Syosset, Long Island, she was born in Butte, Montana, where her father Ben Howes mined copper and worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. Ehrenreich received a B.A., in chemical physics, from Reed College in 1963 and a Ph.D., in biology, from Rockefeller University in 1968. Long after her 1966 marriage to John Ehrenreich came to an end, she was still, in the 1989 Fear of Falling, acknowledging that: "Some of his ideas persist here, and, I hope, some trace of his clear and logical approach to things." But the book is dedicated to Gary Stevens, the Teamster organizer she married in 1983: "To Gary—and the old-fashioned struggle against class injustice that he so ably serves." Ehrenreich comes from an upwardly mobile mongrel family "of blue-eyed, Scotch-Irish Democrats" and other strains and, dissenting from the ethnic chauvinism now rampant on the left, celebrates skepticism toward jealous tribal deities. An avowed atheist, she venerates democratic socialism as "an evangelical, visionary cause, and the only one ultimately capable of reclaiming the lost language of human solidarity."
Ehrenreich's most pungent use of language is displayed in The Worst Years of Our Lives, a screed against the "decade of greed" for which she portrays the Reagan presidency as cause, symptom, and syneedoche. A collection of essays previously published in magazines and newspapers, the book employs Swiftian hyperbole to lampoon and lambaste the mores and amorality of recent American culture. Surveying the contemporary scene, she is inspired to witty indignation by consumer self-indulgence and political self-righteousness. Observing "traditional values" exploited by partisan opportunists to discredit their opponents and advance their own careers, Ehrenreich thunders: "From the vantage point of the continent's original residents, or, for example, the captive African laborers who made America a great agricultural power, our 'traditional values' have always been bigotry, greed, and belligerence, buttressed by wanton appeals to a God of love." Always be wary of pronouncements with "always." The nascent novelist demonstrates a creative flexibility toward precision in her proclamation that "there can be no more ancient and traditional American value than ignorance." In the May 24, 1993 issue of The Nation, Ehrenreich dramatized the dangers of military intervention in Bosnia by concocting a caricature: "A uniformed American with firepower is much like a three-year-old with a garden hose; someone in whose presence no one can expect to remain dry and composed for long."
Whether mocking yuppie food fads or rupturing the myth of a dearth of marriageable men, Ehrenreich's prose is neither dry nor composed. Proudly engagé, a moralist whose prose is fecundated by conjugating the verb ought, she has developed a style of discourse that is both passionate and playful. Fear of Falling, her previous book of nonfiction, even adopts the coloration of a novel. If The Worst Years of Our Lives (1990) is—like Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From (1988), also an exposé of desolation during the chipper interregnum of the Gipper—a compendium of short stories, Fear of Falling, a book length work of sustained argument, is novelistic in ambition. Its title echoes Erica Jong's randy 1973 novel, and its subtitle promises, like Middlemarch, The Awakening, and To the Lighthouse, to reveal The Inner Life of the Middle Class. Ehrenreich explicitly presents her thesis—that, contrary to its self-deceptions, the American middle class is embattled, puritanical, intolerant, and elitist—as if it were a narrative, "a more or less coherent story."
But before chronicling how, during the past three decades, the middle class became conscious of itself as a class, Ehrenreich pauses to introduce the protagonist of her plot: "Before this story can be told, I must first introduce its central character, the professional middle class." After specifying the occupations, defining experiences, income levels, and "lifestyle and tastes" of her collective anti-hero, Ehrenreich proceeds to trace its development, "from the naive solipsism of the middle class in the fifties to the thoroughly pessimistic self-assessment that accompanied the conservative mood of the eighties." Much of that story is understood in terms of inadequate or inaccurate fictions—that the middle class in permissive, that the proletariat is reactionary, that yuppies are hedonists. Ehrenreich's larger story absorbs and supersedes these, as if she were constructing an elaborate frame narrative. When, at last, her protagonist begins to repudiate its ethic of avarice and revert to the idealism it abandoned earlier, Ehrenreich can conclude: "So, in some sense, our story has come full circle."
Ehrenreich deplores the middle-class tendency to obscure social realities through abstract, impersonal rhetoric. She berates professional jargon for being disingenuous and, by privileging the general over the individual, undemocratic. "Is there a way to 're-embody' the middle class's impersonal mode of discourse, so that it no longer serves to conceal the individual and variable speaker?" she asks, "For we may need to find ourselves in the language of abstraction, if we are ever to find the 'others' in the language of daily life."
Academic sociology rarely speaks that lucid, supple language, but Ehrenreich has, through eight books of social observation and admonition, evolved an idiom that is accessible to the general reader and responsive to the individual instance. Even without inspiration from the versatile intellectual whom, in a 1988 essay in Mother Jones, she called "the perennially clever John Kenneth Galbraith," Ehrenreich was ripe to write a novel, the form with enough residual prestige to remain the number one literary genre. When a tycoon's jilted wife or a president's disgraced aide writes a novel, the result is likely to be a roman à clef whose key is in the events of the author's public frustration. When an intellectual indulges in fiction, we expect a roman à thèse, in which the novel becomes the conflict of ideas through other means. In that, Kipper's Game does not disappoint.
At the outset of Fear of Falling, Ehrenreich, decrying the myopia of current culture, includes recent novels in her censure. "Much, though certainly not all, contemporary fiction shows a similar narrowness of focus," she complains. "A typical 'quality' novel of recent vintage will explore the relationships and reveries of people who live in large houses and employ at least one servant to manage all those details of daily living that are extraneous to the plot." It is hard to credit Ehrenreich as a literary critic, or even to determine just which "quality" novels she has in mind, unless they be by Judith Krantz, Sidney Sheldon. Danielle Steel, or other popular fantasists of material gratification. It is hard to think of a recent "quality" novel whose main characters lead privileged lives insulated from the material needs of others. The description certainly does not apply at all to the works of William Kennedy. Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Smiley, Louise Erdrich, or Oscar Hijuelos, and only rarely to those of Saul Bellow, John Barth, John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, or Joyce Carol Oates. Fear of Falling offers itself as an alternative vision to the otiose fiction that Ehrenreich imagines, in order to denounce. So does Kipper's Game.
It begins in a drear suburban landscape that is the physical correlative of the moral devastation diagnosed in Fear of Falling, where, at the outset of the nonfiction story, the 1950s middle class is seen as suffering from malaise, some indeterminate dread. In the opening pages of Kipper's [Game], set in an undefined near future in an unnamed American locale, the sky is permanently dimmed by haze, the vegetation has been devoured by a plague of grayish caterpillars, and electrical brown-outs are commonplace. Anthropologists at the local university have devised an Index of Mass Anxiety, and the signs are not salutary. Even the shopping mall has "reached a steady state of disrepair and abandoned promises. Huge drapes of plastic sheeting hung from the see-through plastic ceiling, which let in rain now, and starlings. Paper cups and Styrofoam containers drifted along on the floor, piling up against the benches made deliberately uncomfortable to discourage teenagers and vagrants. From the aggressive interiors of the clothing shops, clerks looked out on the fake outdoors of the mall interior—a part of the world that had died, somehow, in captivity." Della Markson's twenty-year marriage dies, as well, when she picks up an extension phone and accidentally overhears her husband Leo in passionate conversation with another woman.
Assisted by their black maid Maisy, the Marksons might, before the start of Ehrenreich's novel, have been precisely what the author deplored in current fiction—"people who live in large houses and employ at least one servant to manage all those details of daily living that are extraneous to the plot." But Della immediately moves out and into a modest apartment of her own, in a subdivided former private house. She obtains a low-paying job at the Human Ecology Complex (HEC), a vast, dilapidated research empire oozing with toxic waste, on the campus of a nearby university. Della serves as an assistant in a laboratory where scientists are closing in on the virus that causes a mysterious and fatal new disease. The entire HEC is run by Richard Leitbetter, an academic celebrity adept at raising funds and enhancing his own reputation by appropriating the work of others. Through an insidious system of internal espionage, Leitbetter keeps tabs on the work in Della's laboratory and ends up claiming personal credit for its discoveries.
Meanwhile, Della is intent on tracking down her missing son Steve, a twenty-one-year-old computer genius who used to work for Leitbetter and who walked out on his parents a year ago. Within the underworld of hackers, Steve goes by the code name Kipper and is said to have been developing the consummate cybernetic game. Her search parallels and intersects with one conducted by Alex MacBride, a bibulous academic hack who is described as being "suspended between whiskey and science." Deprived of grants and any prospect of scientific accomplishment, Alex has become Leitbetter's factotum. Leitbetter, who plans to survive the story through cryonic technology, dispatches Alex to track down the papers of Henry Relnik, a brilliant scientist who died in the fifties and was involved with Nazi experiments conducted on involuntary Jewish subjects. The ultimate goal of both Relnik and Kipper is both inclusiveness and concision—to condense the entirely of human knowledge into the most compact portable form, in order to pass it all on to an alien visitor.
This is no ordinary potboiler. For the plot of her first novel, Ehrenreich has cooked up a bizarre bouillabaisse, but, concludes the psychiatrist in the hospital where a distraught Della is finally confined, "when you mix together Nazis and extraterrestrials and mind-altering computer technologies, you are traveling down one of the main thoroughfares of the contemporary mind." That is a thoroughfare that Ehrenreich has been attempting to navigate throughout her career as a writer. Is fiction her most efficient vehicle?
"The chief defect of a novel of ideas," observes Philip Quarles, the intellectual protagonist of Aldous Huxley's 1928 novel of ideas Point Counter Point, "is that you must write about people who have ideas to express—which excludes all but about .01 percent of the human race." Such exclusiveness would seem at odds with Ehrenreich's populist sympathies, her mistrust of fiction that centers on an affluent minority whose exploitation of others labor allows them to indulge in cogitation. But Ehrenreich clearly has ideas to express, and she has constructed Kipper's Game as a medium to express them. Despite the dishwashers, charwomen, and bartenders who lurk at its peripheries, this is an academic novel whose erudite and articulate characters obsess over difficult ideas. This is intellectual debate by other means, though it is unlikely that the book will reach the wide readership that Ehrenreich commands in Time.
In the May 20, 1991 issue of that weekly newsmagazine, Ehrenreich published a column, "Science, Lies, and the Ultimate Truth," that addresses the ethical issues raised by the David Baltimore scandal. A Nobel laureate and president of Ehrenreich's alma mater, Rockefeller University, Baltimore published the defective results of a research project in which a zealous subordinate had altered the data to fit what they were seeking. Occupied with a wide range of activities, Baltimore claimed to be unaware of what had been done in his name, but he did attempt to intimidate and stifle the whistleblower who first challenged the validity of the published study. "If a Nobel laureate in science could sink to the moral level of Milli Vanilli or a White House spin doctor," raged Ehrenreich, "then maybe the deconstructionists are right and there is no truth anywhere, only self-interest masked as objective fact." As if to test that hypothesis, Ehrenreich inserts a deconstructionists into her novel, a trendy interdisciplinary scholar named Caragiola who gives a televised guest lecture at the HEC on the analogies between science and literature. Deconstructing both, she notes that the prevailing criterion for scientific truth is an aesthetic one: the elegance and economy of a proof. The rest of the novel unmasks the self-interest that motivates the scientists at the institute that Dr. Caragiola visits.
The megalomaniacal charlatan Leitbetter, who even describes himself as "a narcissist, a martinet, a vain and callow bully," is Ehrenreich's cautionary caricature of Big Science run amok, a way to extend her indictment of David Baltimore without courting libel. He is an empirebuilder as ambitious as Robert Gallo, the powerful AIDS researcher reportedly more intent on humbling a rival French laboratory than curing the disease. But Leitbetter, the host of a TV series called The Limits of Knowledge and a frequent guest on a news program called Nightzone, is a flamboyant showman and in that resembles the more benign Carl Sagan. Like Sagan, a champion of the SETI (Search For Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program, Leitbetter is obsessed with making contact with a being from beyond the earth.
"Through research," wrote Ehrenreich in her Baltimore column, "we seek to know that ultimate Other, which could be called Nature if the term didn't sound so tame and beaten, or God if the word weren't loaded with so much human hope and superstition." Through Kipper's Game, Ehrenreich seeks to illustrate the ways in which the scientific spirit, even when corrupted and distorted, approaches the ultimate Other. Kipper's search for artificial intelligence becomes a search for extraterrestrial intelligence, for a celestial visitor who patrols the cosmos collecting information about each world. The project on which Relnik was working, like the program Kipper is developing, would provide a transistorized rendition of all earthly information for the benefit of a foreign intelligence. "The whole point of the Human Ecology Complex," according to Leitbetter, "is to put together all knowledge of human life. In case we should be asked."
To be both complete and concise. It is the ancient dream of poets and of scientists, and nothing perhaps fulfills it as well as the microscopic threads that write the genetic code. Like everything else, even the strange new virus isolated in the HEC aspires to the principle of condensation: invading the brain, it forces linkages and mergers among all nerve cells. In 1937, in a nonfiction book he called World Brain, H.G. Wells declared: "There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge, ideas and achievements, to the creation, that is, of a complete planetary memory for all mankind. And not simply an index; the direct reproduction of the thing itself can be summoned to any properly prepared spot. "Wells was reformulating the encyclopedic quest of epic bards and lexicographers, even as he was anticipating current work by computer scientists, geneticists, cosmologists, and even conceptual artist On Kawara, whose One Million Years (1970) is a ten-volume list of all the years that humans have inhabited the earth. Ehrenreich makes no reference to Wells, but her contribution to the theme is to join pleasure to comprehensiveness, to suggest that gratification is the basis of both our urge to know it all and what we want to know. The joy of science, "the unbridled hedonism that impels the search for truth" according to Relnik, has its echo in the fact that, as a relative of his puts it, "the universe desires to be known." If only they can find and activate the brain's pleasure center, the men in charge of the HEC hope to consolidate all knowledge into a form appropriate to the advent of the Visitor.
For all her militant skepticism, Ehrenreich is flirting with messianic mysticism. She is not entirely contemptuous of Claire, the stridently Christian lab assistant who loudly denounces her bosses as infidels. A radio preacher named Sister Bertha pronounces oracular gibberish, and the author seems to take her almost as seriously as do Kipper and Della, who are willing to follow Bertha's babble anywhere. They manage to track her down with merely a portable radio and the confidence that the clearer the transmission the closer they are to its source. The FCC could save considerable time, energy, and money if technology so primitive sufficed to pinpoint pirate broadcasters.
Ehrenreich peppers her plot with abductions, murders, and enough conspiracies to earn her a fellowship to the Academy of Fiction as Cosmic System run by Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, and Joseph McElroy. "In many ways," maintains Dr. Hershey, determined to isolate a lethal new virus, "science was a test, perhaps the highest test, of man's mettle and will to survive—a game, the ultimate game perhaps." Often, however, Della Markson's amateur sleuthing about the fate of Kipper and the truth behind the HEC resembles a Nancy Drew caper. Ehrenreich's game can sometimes seem metallic, like a test of the reader's will to persist.
Devastated to find herself suddenly déclassée and divorcée, Della is a figure familiar to readers of Ehrenreich's social commentary. She is another reminder of the fragility of middle-class security and the frailty of feminine power. The author described Della to Publishers Weekly as "a character I had been thinking about for quite a while, because I had written a few articles about middle-class women who are suddenly divorced and completely unprepared to enter the world." She has also written articles about ethics in science, environmental degradation, spiritual hunger, academic fraud, and other contemporary issues now kippered together to produce her first novel. "Maybe this is all crap, invented by someone who thought I was running out of conversational topics," suggests Alex about the outlandish story he has assembled linking Holocaust experiments with artificial intelligence, epidemiology, spiritualism, commercialism, and the search for life on this and other worlds. A reader is likely to run out of patience before the clever Kipper's Game runs out of topics. "Trouble with you," says the bartender Chris to his devoted patron Alex MacBride, "professors and so on, think everything comes from ideas." In Ehrenreich's compelling prose, everything does indeed come from ideas. Because the essay form has offered her the best forum for her ideas, an opportunity to exercise her wit, acumen, and moral indignation, Ehrenreich might be more temperamentally suited to the short story than the novel. She has yet to master the mystery of completeness and concision.
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SOURCE: "Lamb Stakes," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 303, May 20, 1994, pp. 37-8.
[In the following review, Hutchings provides a summary of the plot elements in Kipper's Game.]
Like the famous trick with mirrors, this book endlessly repeats itself in different sizes. The leitmotif is the search for understanding. It starts with an addictive computer game condensed on to three disks: you have to get the scrolls to the wise woman, past the black knights, past all the obstacles in the way. The game is also a pedagogical tool, a summary of all that we are capable of and all we have learned. Hey, these disks can lead to "Enlightenment, the mystic goal of mankind".
The novel follows the same path: Steve, or Kipper as he calls himself, happy hacker and the game's creator, tries to keep the disks out of the clutches of his former employers, the drug-dealing, New Ageish Harvest Enterprises, scientist-descendants of the Nazi Erntegruppe who once experimented on Jews. His dream is to give them to Sister Bertha, the pirate-radio preacher, who says that "everything we have is worth giving away". Could Sister Bertha, perhaps, be the Visitor Harvest is expecting: one of the extra-terrestrial Others who "programmed us, through the wiring of our brains", come back for the pay-off?
When you play the game, "everything is a clue". Just like the book. And so we come full circle. This is Foucault's Pendulum territory without the laundry list, but now it's the reader who is searching for enlightenment.
Here are a few pointers: Claire predicts that "The Lamb shall rise up and slay the lion"; Harvest designs a deadly virus in its labs, whose symptoms unaccountably are the stigmata; the fish is a Christian symbol; Stephen was the first Christian martyr. After Kipper kills his father Leo, in cahoots with Harvest, he later dies, blood oozing from his palms.
Now let's turn to some of the characters associated with Harvest: Kentwell Brabant, has a "pink glow" in his eyes; Doctor Leitbetter, in its pay, smells of something "rare and stratospheric like ozone"; the Human Ecology Complex he heads is nicknamed Hell. Have you had enough clues yet?
"There are two times only that He comes for us," says Sister Bertha. "The first time was the sowing, the planting of His flesh. The next time is the reaping, and the next time is the last." And the next time, it seems, She is a woman.
By the end, Kipper's mother Della is in therapy, coming to terms with the death of her husband and son, and her encounter "with the Visitor … with God, if we're to call it God." The psychiatrist is rather underwhelmed by Della's story: "When you mix together Nazis and extra-terrestrials and mind-altering computer technologies, you are traveling down one of the main thoroughfares of the contemporary mind. A well-worn path, not to say trite. Oh yes, the second coming too: that's fine, that's usually in there. Some people think reality is boring and oppressive. They should have to sit in [my] chair and hear the same fantasy ingredients … again and again." Most people will know Barbara Ehrenreich from her column in the Guardian. This is her first novel. A lot of readers may not like these fantasy ingredients. But Kipper's Game is also sharp and funny, in a dry sort of way.
Sometimes the observations make your hair stand on end. The scene when Della accidentally picks up the phone and overhears two voices "which seemed to know each other far better than she knew anyone, including her husband, who was one of the voices" is one of the finest depictions of the end of a marriage I have ever read. The bastard deserved all he got. This is Virago at its best.
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SOURCE: "The Heat and the Intimacy," in Chicago Tribune, May 28, 1995, sec. 14, p. 3.
[In the following review, Mesic compares the essay styles of Ehrenreich and Joseph Epstein.]
Other than a review, these two collections of essays by Joseph Epstein and Barbara Ehrenreich deserve something more closely resembling a National Geographic Special. For no team of Sherpaled climbers or divers finning through the crannies of a coral reef, ever discovered more diverse or improbable life forms thriving in a single culture. Well-adapted to the hot, volcanic slopes of national politics we find the highly colored clusters of barbed remarks known as commentarius Ehrenreichii. At a more rarefied elevation, flowering profusely in a sheltered nook, are the exquisite blooms of Epstein's mots, called anglophile's necktie.
Ehrenreich is passionate, public and politically engaged, with a style as subtle as a hand grenade. Epstein is intensely private, and succeeds when he has, with the smallest pressure, extracted the essence of the quietest moment of ordinary life. Their very virtues are at war with one another. Thus the same sense of wonder that comes to the naturalist confronted with life's variety, is aroused in the reader. We marvel that our much maligned American society, supposedly homogenized by the mass media, can sustain two such fiercely distinct personalities.
Most of the essays in Ehrenreich's The Snarling Citizen first appeared in Time or the English Guardian. They startle and invigorate because those who espouse liberal causes feminism, day care and a strong labor movement—all too often write a granola of prose: a mild, beige substance that is, in a dull way, good for us. Ehrenreich is peppery and salacious, bitter with scorn, hotly lucid. She can find something shocking to say about cleaning house, exulting in the fact that working women, after "decades of unappreciated drudgery" are no longer measuring their worth by keeping their homes "cleaner than a motel room." Moving to a bigger, dirtier House—of Representatives—she cheerfully lambastes it as a "half-way house for long-term miscreants and un-indicted felons."
In "S & M as Public Policy" she blisters those eager to build punitive measures into the welfare system, writing, "For poor males we have prison; for poor females, welfare—and there's no reason why one sex's punishment should be any less onerous than the other's." Her further, Swiftian recommendation is flogging indigent mothers—"it will make the hawks and wonks feel much better without starving a single child."
More gently mocking the "celebrants of Purim and Kwanzaa and Solstice" who overstress their ancestral traditions, she remarks that when asked to fill in a blank for ethnic background, she always writes "none," and dryly notes, "Skepticism, curiosity, and wide-eyed ecumenical tolerance are also part of the human tradition."
Show Ehrenreich a sacred cow and she will tie its tail in a knot. Writing of Salmon Rushdie, she feigns envy: "for what writer has not dreamed of enjoying global fame while his publishers are picked off one by one?"
Occasionally, Ehrenreich relents, admires and bestows sober praise. This is most apparent when she writes about the separation of church and state, pointing out that "not all the founding fathers believed in the same God, or in any God at all." She goes on to remind us that the real issue is not that of giving the church too much power, but of giving the state too much power. To associate government intimately with religion, is to endow it with more than earthly legitimacy: "By stripping government of supernatural authority, the Founding Fathers created a zone of freedom around each individual human conscience … They demystified government, and reduced it to something within reach of human comprehension, protest, and change."
These moments, when Ehrenreich lays mockery aside, are rare. In general her essays are slash and dazzle, outrageous generalization with an underpinning of scrupulously accurate fact—designed to fix our attention and hold it by force. These pieces are indeed wonderful, but they were designed to be read in the public press, against a background of border wars and plane crashes. This is a voice lifted to carry to the back of a crowd.
A voice in every way more intimate is Joseph Epstein's. As the Godfather Don Corleone once said, "Everything is personal," and reading these essays we feel Epstein would say much the same thing but with a more benign inflection. Like the first essayist Montaigne, Epstein tells us a good deal about himself. He is something of a dandy, at least in his choice of neckties. He abhors the notion of carrying other people's business slogans and logos on one's person and can't see a poor fish in clothes emblazoned "Ralph Lauren," without thinking of Art Carney on the old Honeymooners show exclaiming. "Yo, ho, ho, Ralphie boy!" He loves colored paper clips, fine-leaded mechanical pencils and is in general, as many authors are, "quite nuts about office supplies." In the course of two pages he can, and does, quote Evelyn Waugh, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Goldwyn, Gustav Mahler, Arnaldo Momigliano, the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron, Clifton Fadiman and his own mother, thus giving the impression that his solitude is like most people's cocktail parties.
But the point of Epstein's kind of essay is neither to press quotations into a sort of bouillon cube of experience nor to make a collage of one's foibles. It is to capture ordinary life and thought and render it significant without robbing it of its freshness—in other words, an impossible task. The great danger in the enterprise is creating the same triviality life itself is often guilty of, producing well-turned phrases on a so-what theme. To this danger Epstein occasionally succumbs.
But more often he uses his elegance and beauty of cadence humbly, in the service of his affections. In the essay "Here for Mink" he writes of his mother, a "woman without sentimentality or nostalgia," who "granted [him] enormous freedom," and of whom Epstein says: "We were beyond intimacy. We were at that stage of affection where we understood each other without having to explain much, where we knew we could rely on each other without any qualification, where we loved each other so much that we didn't have to display our love in outward endearments. I miss her, like mad."
By offering us this vision of a reciprocal and uncomplicated love, he is following his own advice: "If everyone seems to be rushing to blow out the trembling match of culture and leave us in darkness … then those who love life are under the obligation not to desert it not yet anyway. Best not to concentrate altogether on the sycophancy, cowardice, and fraudulence of a society that feels as if it's in decomposition … Better to think instead of large-hearted men and women who refused to be daunted in much darker times than ours."
For all their differences Epstein and Ehrenreich have this much in common: they scorn the generality of human conduct, its veniality, its spite and dumbness, precisely because they have worked to keep before them an image of what is better.
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SOURCE: A review of The Snarling Citizen, in The American Spectator, Vol. 28, No. 8, August, 1995, pp. 66-7.
[In the following review, Ferguson suggests that Ehrenreich's writing is rife with factoids and faulty syllogisms.]
Barbara Ehrenreich's career as a journalist has followed an interesting trajectory. She is a witty, graceful stylist who first came to prominence in the Nation, Ms., and Mother Jones. Unlike Molly Ivins, she's a mom—a working mom!—and unlike Anna Quindlen, she never whimpers. The fat cats of "main-stream" journalism do not allow writers with Ehrenreich's attributes to languish on the leftward fringe, and so for the past several years she has been a featured essayist on the back page of Time magazine, where her unabashedly left-wing views make a pleasant contrast to the abashedly left-wing views found in the pages preceding it. She is now so certifiably mainstream that mainstream publishers are happy to get out collections of even her most quotidian pieces. Hence The Snarling Citizen, a loosely packed duffel of Ehrenreichiana previously published in Time, the Nation, the Guardian, and elsewhere.
The essays here are brief without exception; the longest couldn't be longer than 1700 words. To impose coherence she has grouped them under chapter headings: "Trampling on the Down-and-Out," "Sex Skirmishes and the Gender Wars," and so on. The collection begins with "Life in the Postmodern Family," raising the question, right at the start, of what a postmodern family might be. I don't know, and neither, I suspect, does Ehrenreich, but "postmodern" is one of her favorite words, recurring even more often than such phrases as "apocalyptic frisson," "post-Judeo-Christian generation," "posttrend era," "post-feminist era," and "advanced capitalism"—the big, blowy tropes that dazzle editors while allowing a writer to elide from the concrete to the dubious, and from the self-evident to the debatable, without debate.
This stylistic trick is essential to her appeal as an essayist, for when Ehrenreich does offer a straightforward observation or assertion of fact, she tends to wobble. Her facts, for example, aren't really facts. She opens her first essay on the family with the statement: "The U.S. divorce rate remains stuck near 50 percent." This is a chestnut of newsmagazine chin-waggers, but in fact the divorce rate is 4.8 percent per 1,000 Americans. "According to surveys [block that phrase!], somewhere between 26 percent and 41 percent of married women are unfaithful." The most recent and exhaustive survey, Sex in America, puts the figure at less than 15 percent. She writes: "Studies show [ditto!] that teachers tend to favor boys by calling on them more often, making eye contact with them more frequently, and pushing them harder to perform." Actually, "studies show" that teachers don't "call on" boys more often, they call them out more often—reasonable enough, since schoolboys make more trouble than schoolgirls, requiring more frequent eye contact and more pushing to perform.
Ehrenreich's journalism is filled with such casual misstatements—little wisps of faulty data upon which she builds whole cathedrals of commentary. The errors of fact don't make much difference to the quality of her arguments, for Ehrenreich, as an ideologue, is impervious to any data that don't serve the larger points she wishes to make. And her points are larger than you can imagine. When she deals with "the family," as she often does, she can be funny but uncomfortably bitter—imagine Erma Bombeck, if Erma Bombeck's husband ran off with a call girl and her son decapitated the family cat. Erma's treatment of the family, jaundiced as it was, was at bottom affectionate, confined to small but endearing frustrations: Ehrenreich's balloons into a genuine, ill-disguised hostility toward civilization itself. When she makes an argument she tends to jump around.
Americans act out their ambivalence about the family without ever owning up to it. Millions adhere to creeds—religious and political—that are militantly "pro-family." But at the same time, millions flock to therapists and self-help groups that offer to heal the "inner child" from damage inflicted by family life. Legions of women band together to revive the self-esteem they lost in supposedly loving relationships and to learn to love a little less. We are all, it is often said, in recovery. And from what? Our families, in most cases.
It would be difficult to write a paragraph with more confusions than this one. "Act out" is a cant phrase, coined by counselors and facilitators. The two sentences about millions being religiously pro-family and millions flocking to self-help groups are logically unrelated, but the juxtaposition is meant to imply that the second sentence discredits the first. And what's an "inner child"? How do you "learn to love a little less"? It is indeed often said that "we are all in recovery," but that doesn't mean it's true, or that the phrase has any content at all. This is Oprahspeak, unbecoming a writer who fancies herself a skeptic.
But here in postmodern, postfeminist America, Oprahspeak seems all that's left to the left. "There is a long and honorable tradition of what might be called 'anti-family' though," she writes, invoking authority to buttress her case. But the line of authority trails off. Ehrenreich traces the tradition to the Rousseauian philosopher Charles Fourier, through unnamed "early feminists" and "radical psychiatrists," to the renowned British crank Edmund Leach. As an intellectual genealogy it's not quite Aristotle-to-Aquinas-to-Kant, but it will have to do. We live in a post-traditionalist age.
So where is a left-wing polemicist to turn—when facts fail you, when the "surveys" don't "show" what you want them to, when your intellectual tradition is neither long nor particularly honorable? There will always be straw men, and the book is overstuffed with them. One essay—to choose a typical instance—attacks the "dangerous" idea that "history repeats itself." She writes: "Everything that happens, we are led to believe, is a historical reenactment," and the belief makes us putty for the forces of reaction. Ehrenreich herself is undeluded. She argues against the notion with great force and indignation, mustering facts and examples, moving elegantly from the specific to the general, from the personal to the universal and back again, without once stopping to consider that nobody in his right mind takes the idea literally. It's like watching Fred Astaire dance with a mop.
She has her gifts. She's good with a joke—about that most public recluse, Salman Rushdie, she writes: "What is it with these fatwa guys—can't they get a copy of Rushdie's schedule from his publicist, like everybody else?" And you can't completely write off a woman who has the taste to call Jack Valenti an "ancient lounge lizard." (Query to Time editors: Ageist? Offensive to the amphibian community?) She knows that caricature can be a verbal art, with the capacity to expose an essence more quickly than a dozen arguments, but too often her fondness for exaggeration and hyperbole drags her into mere buffoonery. Why do we watch the Academy Awards? "We watch for what might be called political reasons: because everyone knows that the movie-star class now rules the earth." How clever, how unconventional, how not even remotely true!
Even so, I agree with the many blurbsters on the dust jacket—Susan Faludi, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Ellen Goodman among them—who suggest that Barbara Ehrenreich may be the best polemicist the left-wing can produce nowadays. This alone makes her stuff worth reading. For liberals she distills contemporary liberalism down to its essence, which by now is nothing more than a series of attitudes and poses and sneers. For conservatives she is cause for rejoicing, a knowledgeable, highly credentialed, top-of-the-line tour guide to the Potemkin Village they hope to overrun.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329
SOURCE: A review of Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXV, No. 6, March 15, 1997, pp. 432-33.
[Below, the reviewer describes Blood Rites as an iconoclastic study in which social commentator and Time essayist Ehrenreich challenges accepted notions of why human beings wage war.]
In her tenth book Ehrenreich (The Worst Years of Our Lives, 1990, etc.) takes a multidisciplinary approach in her investigation of "the feelings people invest in war and often express as their motivations for fighting." She makes a thorough examination of a wide range of historical, psychological, sociological, biological, and anthropological literature to come up with her unique theory: that the accepted view that human beings engage in wars because of an innate aggressive, warlike instinct—especially in men—is untrue. Instead, Ehrenreich persuasively argues that the "roots of the human attachment to war" can be found in feelings and emotions that are imprinted on all of us due to events that took place many millennia ago, when our earliest ancestors spent most of their waking hours in fear of being devoured by predators. What Ehrenreich calls humankind's "sacralization of war" (the tendency to invest the emotional trappings of religious fervor in war) stems from the evolution of humans from prey into predators, the feelings engendered in "a creature which has learned only 'recently,' in the last thousand or so generations, not to cower at every sound in the night." The human predilection for war, as Ehrenreich puts it, can be viewed "as a way of reenacting the primal transformation from prey to predator." Also key was "a global decline in the number of large animals, both 'game' and predators, for humans to fight against." In making these original arguments, Ehrenreich challenges long-held theories of evolution and psychology promulgated by Darwin, Freud, and other scholars.
Ehrenreich's work is convincing, at least to the general reader. Her ideas likely will be challenged by those whose theories she seeks to discredit.