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Barbara Ehrenreich: Best-Selling Leftist By: Kimberly Schuld
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, November 05, 2003

The academic Left is so eager to get their hooks into our kids that they start before classes even begin. Colleges across the country assign books to be read by incoming freshmen who should be ready to discuss the important socialist messages in the selected tomes. The stated goal is to encourage critical thinking and spark debate, yet the choice of books reflects little in way of debate and much in the manner of indoctrination.

More than a dozen high-profile colleges have assigned liberal summer reading lists without a balancing perspective. For example, at Duke University, incoming freshmen for the Fall 2003 semester are expected to have read Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, an “expose of the extremes of wealth and poverty in America’s public schools.” Ithaca College students are reading James McBride’s The Color of Water, a memoir of growing up in public housing. At Brandeis University the assigned reading is Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic, a critique of “backwards” Southerners still “obsessed” about this nation’s only Civil War. Students heading off to Lafayette College are reading Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s play about the scientists who created the nuclear bomb.


But one college choice has attracted a great deal of controversy because its author is one of the most controversial in America today. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students are reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, and the surrounding community is incensed.  University officials are undoubtedly pleased that this reading choice has raised hackles. Mind you, these are the same folks who assigned Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations to students in the summer of 2002.


Debate, where both sides of an issue are presented and argued, is a healthy way to teach critical thinking and logic. My favorite class in high school was debate, not (contrary to my Dad’s opinion) because I like to argue, but because I liked the structure of laying out arguments and being forced to defend a point of view or opinion with facts. That class taught me skills that helped me to understand proofs in Geometry and to write A-grade term papers all the way through college. But I could not have learned those skills without the benefit of divergent points of view, something the students heading off to UNC-Chapel Hill are not getting. As student Jason M. Crawford from another UNC school wrote, “I’ve never had a professor assign a conservative book purely for the debate value.” (Three other North Carolina schools have also assigned Ehrenreich’s book.)


On the heels of last year’s assignment, it is worth noting that Barbara Ehrenreich is a well-known socialist and the choice of her book over the thousands of other (and better) options available to university officials could lead one to wonder about her selection. Is the university as anti-American as the authors they promote? And, if not, why not assign two small books on the same topic that could be debated against each other?


Before accusing university officials of questionable motives, let’s get to know Barbara Ehrenreich. Are the critics overreacting? Determine for yourself.


As a social activist and ardent feminist, Ehrenreich has been writing on healthcare, families, class warfare, and sex since 1968. She is the Honorary Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America and a board member of NORML—the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, a pro-legalization pot lobby. Her affinity for Communism, Socialism, and Marxism is not something she takes any pains to hide. When the Communist Manifesto was re-released on its 150th anniversary, Ehrenreich satirized the capitalist system’s effectiveness in making the tome popular again with a flashy cover. She decried the window display of Marx’s book in the Borders bookstore at the World Trade Center because it was put together by workers making $7 an hour existing in a “culture of absolute hopelessness” in the shadow of a monument to capitalism. In one C-SPAN televised debate, Ehrenreich went so far as to defend the Left’s support for the crimes of Communism and its failure to create an effective governing system by stating that the Left was only about 300 years old and still learning from its mistakes. Unsurprisingly, she is less tolerant of the shorter history of our own country’s effective government because it includes the mistakes of slavery, racism and sexism—sins that have been overcome. 


During the Summer of 2003, she joined other socialists in signing onto a Campaign for Peace and Democracy statement protesting repression in Cuba—American sanctions listed as one form of repression. This statement characterized the U.S. involvement in Latin America as “criminal,” and the policy on Communist Cuba as “six decades of exploitation and imperial control of Cuba.” Ehrenreich and her fellow signatories call upon the Bush administration to withdraw completely from Cuba. 


She was a regular columnist for Time magazine between 1994 and 1998, and now writes for The Progressive, The Nation, and the socialist online In These Times. In interviews Ehrenreich has made it known that she is divorced from one labor organizer and married to another, the mother of two children, that she doesn’t expect her son to marry his girlfriend even if they have a child together, that she faced no emotional pain or grief  following her two abortions (just relief, she says). And, relevant to almost all her writing, she is a fourth-generation atheist.


Ehrenreich makes no effort to hide her contempt for those with religion, especially Christians. In a November 1999 article for The Humanist, she wrote that religions are the same as cults, the only difference being how many people are involved. She described Catholicism as “a hundred million people bowing down before a flesh-hating, elderly celibate.” According to Babs, the Republican Party is, “a few million gun-toting, Armageddon-ready Baptists.” When Germaine Greer went off the feminist reservation with her second book, Ehrenreich worried that her next error in judgment would be to, “announce her membership in the Christian Coalition.” (Greer strayed back on with her third book.) In this screed against religion, Ehrenreich also recounts her childhood horror at having to say the Pledge of Allegiance, especially after the words “under God” were inserted.


But where her ideas about religion become significant to her book assigned to this year’s freshmen is the assertion that working class people hold the tradition of atheism. (In the book, Ehrenreich also refers to Jesus as a “wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.”) According to Ehrenreich, the progenitor of the trade union movement was a working-class atheism called the free thought movement, and that it sprung from “poor people whose distrust of priests and ministers was part and parcel of their hatred of bosses and bankers.” If the people with power and money are not going to hand it over to those without, then there must be no God. As Ehrenreich continues, “If there is no God or no evidence of God and certainly no evidence of a very morally engaged god, then whatever has to be done has to be done by us.” In Ehrenreich’s worldview, that means full Socialism and the abolition of Capitalism. Where that cannot be accomplished, then we’d damn well better have a large and generous welfare program in place.


After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and the war on terrorism had begun, Ehrenreich defended her view that the real threats to America were not terrorists, but poverty, illiteracy, and environmental degradation. In an interview for On the Page magazine, she recoiled at the characterization of the terrorists as evil. “The word evil always makes me nervous. It’s not just a more intense form of bad; it’s usually a signal that we’ve stopped thinking.” What Ehrenreich is implying here is that if we make a value judgment about the nature of the 19 individuals who killed 3,000 innocent people, we are a bunch of brainless idiots (who must be Republican Christians to boot.)


Before you think I’ve overreached with this line of thinking, read on to more of her response. “And yet the real challenge is to look at the terrible acts and try to work our way towards an understanding of how a human being might undertake them.” The interviewer asked, “Which would involve some level of compassion?” Ehrenreich responded, “Maybe not compassion, but an empathetic ability.” So, despite the horrific loss of innocent life, we are to tolerate the mindset of the terrorists rather than fight terrorism. When asked about the courage of warriors talked about in her book Blood Rites, Ehrenreich characterized the self-sacrifice and altruism of soldiers risking their lives as morally equivalent to the self-sacrifice and altruism of anti-war protestors risking getting their Birkenstocks wet in the rain.  


Ehrenreich wrote in The Progressive in January 1999 that “the business of the left has always been to produce thinking citizens, not happy automons.” The implication, again, is that if you are a conservative, you have no brain. Ironically, this is written in an article about how “political movements should be emotionally engaging.” So, is it better to feel or to think? Feelings mean a lot to Ehrenreich. In a Harper’s Magazine June 1999 debate with Lionel Tiger on the decline of males in American society, Ehrenreich becomes apoplectic when Tiger won’t get emotional in his arguments. The exchange is too delicious to paraphrase:

EHRENREICH: I want to get at another level here. I want to explore your feelings about these things. You say the "decline" of males--there's a sad tone to that. I would feel sad, as a mother of a son, if males suddenly started "declining" in some serious way. Do you reel loss and regret and nostalgia? Why call it a decline? Why not say, Let's go boldly forth in this more egalitarian and somewhat de-gendered world?

TIGER: A more attractive picture to be sure, but not, however, I think, quite as accurate a rendition of the emotional consequences of what's happening. I'm not interested in characterizing my own personal psyche in this matter, solely because I think it's of zero interest to anyone. What is of interest is the fact that, as you suggested, young men and women are very concerned about these matters, one reason being that they no longer have a set of rules that they think are emotionally and morally worthwhile. Now, why should people have rules? If you study anthropology, you realize that human beings generally try to have rules, notions of how to behave. What we saw in the Clinton-Lewinsky business was some astonishing confusion between personal and public life.

EHRENREICH: You certainly got away from the issue of how you feel about it. See, I'm willing to say how I feel.

 TIGER: I'm wholly uninterested in your feelings.


 EHRENREICH: But I think it lends energy to what I say here, because I do feel strongly about this…


So, as long as you feel strongly about what you agitate for, you must be on the side of goodness. Going back to The Progressive column, Ehrenreich talks about this as a “pleasure” known only to the Left: “But there lies deep within the socialist (and feminist, and civil-rights) traditions the insight that some of the most profound pleasures are available to our species are those we apprehend collectively—the pleasures of solidarity and unity in the struggle.”


In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich preys upon the sympathetic feelings of the readers by relating scenarios where we can empathize with the poor woman struggling to make it on two part-time jobs. Indeed, Chancellor James Moeser of UNC-Chapel Hill said that Ehrenreich’s book “provoked in him more sympathy and empathy for people in low-paying service jobs.” To write the book, Ehrenrich posed in a handful of low-skill, low-paying jobs to prove that the working poor cannot make it in American society. She worked as a maid, a waitress, and a Wal-Mart clerk. Of course, her point is that you can’t get by, support a family, or purchase top-end consumer goods on the minimum wage job. The point of her book—and much of her writing—is that the Capitalist system oppresses the people. The “system” forces them to remain in low-wage, low-prestige, jobs and the rest of us have no appreciation for the sacrifices these people make on our behalf. Ehrenreich uses her brief forays into the world of real workers to again rail against Capitalism, Republicans, religious Americans, and corporations in general while she weeps for an expansion of the welfare state.


But rational debate about the relative value of the functions performed by waitresses, maids, and Wal-Mart cashiers would also require that we look at the market factors surrounding these same workers. If there was a shortage of people able and willing to run the cash register at Wal-Mart, it is a function of the market that Wal-Mart would pay more to retain the fewer number of people available for its check-out lines. The reality is that cashiering is a task a wide range of people can perform, thereby dictating its lower wage value in the market. Such a debate could be set up for freshmen to discuss if they were to also read Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose. 


If university officials were more interested in Ehrenreich’s call for a larger welfare state to subsidize the wages of these low-skilled workers, they could pair her book with Myron Magnet’s The Dream and the Nightmare. If they are swept off their feet by the callousness with which Americans treat their low-wage workers and welfare recipients, Ehrenreich’s book could have been assigned against Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of Compassion. Or let’s just say that the administration wanted to educate incoming freshmen on economic matters. Why not pair Ehrenreich’s emotional screed with Thomas’ Sowell’s rational Basic Economics?

Are the officials at UNC schools clueless or calculating? Who really knows? But we know, without a doubt, where Ehrenreich stands on a wide variety of social issues and that makes this assignment worthy of the controversy it has unleashed.

Miss Schuld is author of the Guide to Feminist Organizations published by the Capital Research Center.

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