Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara EhrenreichWriter and social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich has appeared in a diverse range of national publications including Time Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Ms., Esquire, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The Nation, The New Republic, Social Policy, Mirabella and more.

She has also written Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, The Worst Years of Our Lives: Irreverent Notes from The Decade of Greed, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, The Snarling Citizen, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, The American Health Empire, Witches, Midwives and Nurses, For Her Own Good, Re-Making Love, The Mean Season: The Attack on Social Welfare and a novel, Kipper’s Game.

Barbara Ehrenreich has been the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships and awards including a Ford Foundation Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

She received a Sydney Hillman Award for Journalism for a chapter of her current book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, that appeared in Harper’s. Those articles in Harper’s generated so much mail that the magazine created a special section to accommodate them. Barbara Ehrenreich lives near Key West, Florida, and is at work on at least three books.

Robert Birnbaum: This week I am talking to two people who have published books [Ehrenreich’s book and Christopher HitchensThe Trial of Henry Kissinger] that had their origins at Harper’s Magazine.

Barbara Ehrenreich: I’m so glad that I’ve discovered it. Or they’ve discovered me, or whatever, because it’s been a good place.

RB: It is a good place. You put together a charming description of the origin of Nickel and Dimed. You were having lunch with Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham in a nice, understated French restaurant and you suggested that somebody ought to do some good old-fashioned journalism on the issue of the working poor. And you described his look as “half crazed” —  is that accurate?

BE: I was pitching a story on something completely unrelated. A story on sports fandom. And then the conversation drifted to talking about welfare reform and the assumption that these single moms could just get out there in the workforce and get a job and then everything would be okay. They’d be lifted out of poverty. We were both agreeing that nobody seems to see that the math doesn’t work. That’s when I made this, perhaps disastrous suggestion, that somebody should go out there and do the old-fashioned kind of journalism, just try it for themselves and write about it. I did not expect him to say, “Yeah, great idea. It should be you.” (chuckles) So that’s how it started.

RB: That would be the sign of a great editor, matching a story with a writer. Is there any one else currently being published who could or would have done this story?

BE: Oh, why, I’ve never thought about that. Why not anybody? The big problem is, could they do the work?

RB: I agree that’s a problem. But I think you sell yourself short. There is the story, there are the facts you collect, and then there is the style of presentation. You’ve drawn on descriptions and a way of putting this story that makes it something more that a leftist tract.

BE: I should hope so. But there are a lot of great writers.

RB: Tell me who?

BE: There is a lot of good writing. What there is less of is having something really important to say. I’m not as impressed by great writing as I was when I started out as a freelance writer and I would say, “Oh my God, if I could ever write like that.” Now as a more mature freelance writer the question is, “What is there to say? What’s the story?”

RB: I recently came across a quote by Pete Seeger [from David Hadju’s Positively Fourth Street] in which he defined a good song as a song that did good.

BE: Yeah, I have read a lot of beautifully written that I could have…

RB: Taking what we have just discussed, probably there are a lot of good writers who could get the facts. Would they recognize the story and its nuances, the story of people on the economic margins?

BE: Maybe they could. I like to think what was special about me, here, was that I actually did the work. I don’t mean the writing work, I mean I did the jobs. I take great pride in that.

RB: The physicality of it?

BE: This was punishing, hard labor in almost all of these jobs.

RB: Does it take anything away from this experiment that you knew there was an end date to it all?

BE: That affected my psychological state, but that didn’t get me through the day physically, knowing it was going to end. Like many people of my actual social class, I’ve been a gym member for many years. I work out. I’m strong. But I never thought of being in the gym all day. And some of these jobs felt like that. “Like when does this end? My god, I can stand up any longer.”

RB: You made a very striking observation about the way people look at poverty…

BE: They don’t look at it as a state of emergency. The comforting thing that affluent people console themselves with, if they worry about these things at all, is, "Oh, there have always been poor people. And yes, it’s a state of relative privation and no, their kids may not go to college or not to a good college…" And you can think of all the things that they are missing. But there is still this idea somehow that they are scraping by. And of course, many are.

What there is not enough awareness of is the immediate hardship, hardship in a biological sense. Missing rent, for example. That can get you in trouble, get you thrown out. Missing meals. That is where it gets kind of biological and basic. I don’t understand how some of the people I worked alongside could get through an eight-to-nine-hour shift without eating. It took me a long time to realize that they weren’t dieting. It was not that at all. They actually did not have fifty cents in their pockets. The way I found that out in that particular [housecleaning] job was, we would drive from house to house in a company car and it was a crisis when we had to go through a toll booth.

“Who has a quarter?”

“Well, I don’t know. How fast do you think the boss is gonna reimburse me? Will I get it back today? Last time he made we wait three days.”

It’s crisis digging in your pocket for a quarter? That certainly made me think of about my own usual perspective. A quarter is not an amount of money that I miss.

RB: You worked in Key West for a month, Maine for a month, and Minneapolis for a month, and eschewed going to California because you thought that the Latinos had hogged all the low-paying jobs and substandard housing. Do you think this experience would have been easier in more temperate climes…well, I guess Key West is warm.

BE: I was in warm places. It was always the beginning of summer, end of the summer. Key West, it was summer, it’s just too hot. That’s actually a bad time to be trying this in Key West because it was off-season that’s why I had such a struggle making it as a waitress…

RB: Let me ask that from a different angle. Is there a regional distinction with which people approach subsistence survival? Are people working on the margins faced which pretty much the same stuff in Florida, Maine, Minnesota, Texas, etc.?

barbara ehrenreich BE: I think it’s pretty universal. For example, on the housing issue, everybody thinks where they live has a unique crisis. Like in the lower keys, “Oh well, it’s impossible here, it’s a tourist area.” Actually, I found more housing possibilities there than in the other places I went to. And I deliberately did not go to, say Boston, or the Bay area, because I knew I will never find a place to live and I am not doing an experiment in homelessness. So forget about it! So I picked places that I figured would be kind of manageable. And still there were all these problems. So, no I don’t think there are huge regional differences.

RB: This a universal national problem?

BE: There are certainly places that have lower rents, some non-urban spots in the Midwest or in the Rockies…well, I don’t know, I take that back, the Rockies, well you have tourists again. So I don’t know where you go for a cheaper place to live.

RB: When did you complete this book?

BE: I turned it in September 2000.

RB: And is the book different than the published Harper’s piece?

BE: Only one chapter was published in Harper’s, the one about Key West. I added some things in the book that weren’t in the chapter.

RB: It’s not been quite a year since you completed this book. You finished in Minnesota about a year ago. How much has this book stayed with you?

BE: It certainly influences my agenda as a writer and as, in some small scale, an activist. Yeah, you have to come out of these situations and say the only way to justify going back into a middle-class style and everything — well, I say justify, but I was desperate to go back to middle class life style — [is to ask] what am I doing for change, what am I doing to make this a less brutally unequal society.

RB: On a daily basis, when you go to a restaurant, are you more conscious of the workers?

BE: Oh yeah. In small ways, you know. I was one of those messy shoppers. At least until I worked at Wal-Mart and was the person picking up after the messy shoppers. Now you find me neatly folding the garment I have just tried on. I tip better. I don’t think I was ever stingy in that respect, but now I may be a little unusual. Those are small things…

RB: I would expect that in the bigger picture your consciousness of this issue will continue and, as you say, be part of your agenda. But thing is, this is not new news or surprising. Neither is the Kissinger war criminality issue new or surprising. Who is paying attention?

BE: Anything about poverty should not be surprising news. But there has been almost an embargo on any kind of discussion of poverty. I read recently, in Guatemala, after the US backed coup that overthrew Arbenz in ’54, the right-wing government came in forbid discussion of poverty. You couldn’t say the word, you couldn’t write about it, you couldn’t talk about it. I thought well, “It’s not that bad here, but it’s been almost that bad.”

The last few years, like the years when I was doing this, were known as a time of “unprecedented boom.” Twenty-seven-year-old millionaires all over the place, in the dotcom industry and it was like this disappeared, it was never discussed. And I think also there was a reluctance on the part of many liberals to talk about this while Clinton was in office. Out of some sort of loyalty to the Democratic Party. But the years that I was doing this work were Clinton years. Boom years, Clinton years. In general there is a taboo about talking about class in America. We can’t do that. Or it can only be approached as temporary individual misfortune. The fact that there is anything systematic going on is very hard to talk about. Or not welcome in a lot of mainstream media.

RB: Except when the Republicans want to talk about class warfare…

BE: Whenever anybody talks about inequality they — I mean on the left side, the Democrats — they get accused of class warfare when actually there has been a class war going on for quite a while now. It’s a particularly aggressive war since the 1970’s, from the corporate elite against working America and they’re the only side that’s been fighting, really. The other side has barely been fighting back. Barely.

RB: What’s the evidence of resistance?

BE: There have been some union organizing successes. In California among janitors, home health aides — very low-paid people.

RB: Is the recent Harvard strike considered a victory for workers?

BE: Uh huh. Well, at least Harvard agreed to think about dipping into its piles of lucre…

RB: 19 billion dollars…

BE: 19 billion dollars, right. Yeah, so that’s a little victory. There’s just not been enough…and I will be critical of unions. I think they have not put enough priority on the lowest paid workers. They have been more attracted to somewhat more glamorous-seeming workers, like airline workers. That’s fine, they need it, too.

RB: Want to venture an opinion as to why unions haven’t organized low-wage earners?

BE: Dues are higher, if you are getting slightly more affluent workers. It’s hard work, organizing. And they are not doing enough organizing in general. I also understand why. How hard it is, how expensive. The only way this will be accomplished, the only way unionization will begin to be a force or unions will begin to be a force in this society is if they undertake organizing in the spirit of an evangelical crusade. This is not business-as-usual. It has to be a crusade. It has to draw on people who are burning to do it. And who will make huge sacrifices in their lives to do it.

RB: The big trick that corporations pulled off was to convince the public that the unions were mirror images of big business. Big, bureaucratic and wasteful. Certainly, no one calls for the repudiation or tearing down of corporations in the way that that call is sounded against unions.

BE: I have to laugh when people talk about “big labor.” Where is big labor? It’s so tiny, unfortunately, compared to what it’s up against.

RB: You conclude Nickel And Dimed with: “The ‘working poor’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for: they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.” Is anyone going to hear this, do you think?

BE: (laughs) I don’t know. We can keep saying it.

RB: You were to be in Boston some weeks ago and were called to do the Oprah show…

BE: Yeah, I was on the Oprah show, and I’m sorry but Oprah is bigger than Boston. When she calls, you know, the publisher drops everything, whole cities are forgotten and left in the dust and off you go.

RB: It’s an amazing thing. Tell what the Oprah experience was like.

BE: Well it was kind of fascinating…to see the audience reaction to her. It’s like as if a goddess were in one’s midst when she comes out. People get very emotional. It was interesting.

RB: In other times people have done badly with that kind of adulation and power.

BE: She seems to be pretty level-headed. In so far as I know, and what do I know about her other than from the tabloids? Everybody says she’s really smart, and she impressed me that way, too.

RB: What did she talk to you about? Had she, in fact, read your book?

BE: I think she had. She said personally, before we went, something about that she had read it and enjoyed it… The standard questions. And she also had three women in poverty — one who was struggling up from welfare and not doing all that well, I would say — on the show. So that was good, it shouldn’t just be journalists being your tour guide.

RB: Any sense of the after effect from being on the show?

BE: I don’t know.

RB: Are you called to do readings and speaking?

BE: I do a lot of lecturing in my normal life, yeah.

RB: What kinds of places do you lecture at?

BE: You mean in real life (as opposed to book tour)? Colleges, sometimes churches or unions. Usually campuses.

RB: You have a basic text or speech, or do you create one for each engagement?

photo barbara ehrenreich copyright robert birnbaumBE: It depends on the subject. Oh yeah, they’re specific. Some subjects I have done several times. It’s like writing an article, preparing a talk.

RB: Your previous book was Blood Rites, an investigation of aggression…

BE: Not aggression really. The thrill of war, the psychology of war.

RB: And what’s next for you?

BE: There are a few things. One which bears very much on Nickel and Dimed, a fairly short book with Francis Fox Piven, the political scientist who is an expert on welfare. We are going to be looking at what is really going on with welfare reform and what — not to be conspiratorial about it — almost looks like a cover-up…it is a cover-up of all the unpleasant results. And the increase in hunger and homelessness that have been observed.

RB: Who is charged with monitoring and issuing reports on the results of welfare reform?

BE: No one. Welfare reform was passed without any provision in the legislation to study its effects. So the Federal government has no official interest in finding out what happened to both those who get kicked off of welfare and those who never get on, now. Who are turned away at the door.

RB: In your book you indicate a study in Minnesota that was used to support claims of success for welfare reform…

BE: That’s the kind of thing that looks like to me like outright deception. Minnesota was being touted a year ago as having this wonderfully successful welfare reform program. A study had shown that people had gotten out of poverty…all these good effects were cited. I believed it until I found out, which took a little research, that, in fact, what was being touted was not Minnesota’s welfare reform program, but a pilot study affecting only seven counties in Minnesota, which had pretty enriched transitional benefits and counseling and help and all kinds of things…childcare and all this support for the participants, which had been ended in 1997. It was not about Minnesota’s welfare reform program. It just happened to have the same name and yet Time magazine and all these national publications [used it to say] “Look welfare reform works.” And nobody from the statehouse in Minnesota called up the media to say, "Oh you’ve got it wrong. It was just a little thing and it’s over…" So, I think that’s deceptive.

RB: Since the Harper’s article and the book, have you seen many articles on poverty?

BE: Nope, No I don’t think so…

RB: Has your book been broadly reviewed, reviewed in a lot of places?

BE: Oh yeah. I’m really amazed at the amount of attention it’s gotten. My experience as a freelance writer was that it’s just really hard to get into media with these issues. There’s a structural reason for that…in the case of magazines for example, the advertisers have a lot of pull and they want, quote, good demographics, unquote. That is they want to think that the readers are all upscale and have a lot of discretionary income. They don’t want to see a lot of depressing articles about poor people…

RB: I just read an exception that may prove that rule. In the July Men’s Journal, amidst the ads for luxurious personal appliances and conspicuous accessories, Jim Harrison’s article called “Life on the Border.” In any case, is your book selling?

BE: Uh huh.

RB: So do we conclude there is an audience out there who will read about the harrowing lives of low-wage workers? Unless they think this is something else?

BE: Yeah, investment advice. It’s been on the best seller’s list for three weeks…that’s pretty amazing to me.

RB: Did you ever imagine that?

BE: No, this book is such a departure for me. I have written books which are really collections of humorous or satirical essays and Blood Rites was theoretical, an attempt to come to a new understanding about human nature and human history. So this is completely different. This is not library research. And I don’t usually do reporting. This is reporting. I don’t usually write in the first person. This is all in the first person.

RB: You made mention of the ’60’s trend of middle-class college students going to factories and…

BE: In the ’70’s there was a vogue of proletarianizing yourself…

RB: You then talked about how you were not that far removed from that and you go on to say that you felt a sense of responsibility to sit at your desk and write for all those people who had never been able to get their story told.

BE: People in my family. They stick in my mind. People of quite heroic proportions in family myth who were miners or railroad workers and smart people. Interesting people, but nobody ever listened to them. Nobody ever sat down like we’re sitting down here and asked them a lot of questions.

RB: Studs Terkel.

BE: Well, yeah, right, that’s true. But it’s so unusual to be listened to in our society if you are a working person… So I remember this vogue among young radicals of going to work in factories came up, I thought, “Are you kidding?” Enough family and my lineage, my parents and so on have done terrible work like that, and I wasn’t going to. It was never in my mind that I would walk away from my books and my computer and do something like this. And I, of course, didn’t do it to “proletarianize” myself but just as a reporter.

RB: You noted that in these various work situations no one looked at you and identified as too educated or too skilled or different from other low wage workers…

BE: I’ve been asked that a lot. “Couldn’t people tell you were different?” I wish that I could say that just once some co-worker or manager had taken me aside and said, “Barbara there’s something special about you. Some indefinable quality or something.” Never! The only thing special about me was I was inexperienced, I was new. This is another comforting myth of the affluent. That those who are toiling away, unrecognized and underpaid and so on, are kind of dumb and so that’s all they can do and too bad about them. When, in fact, they are just as various and interesting and different as any other stratum of people or segment of people. Which is something I knew because there were so many people in my family who had been blue-collar workers.

RB: Where is that comforting mythology coming from?

BE: I think it takes very organized forms in books like The Bell Curve, a few years ago. Which set out the poor, especially the black poor, are stupid. The book turned out, as one would suspect, it was based completely…it was really…what’s the best word here? What’s a word for fraud? I don’t want to be sued here. I’m looking for a nicer way for saying fraud.

RB: Hoax?

BE: All right you said that, sue him. Some of us went through high school in mixed class and racial situations. I know as high student I felt like, “Hey, I’m not like those other kids [in the vocational track]. They may put me down for being so nerdy, but hey, I’m not going to be carrying trays in five years, that’s for sure.” It starts there. It’s as if they hadn’t tried and you did.

RB: I remember reading Paul Goodman and his attention to a bye-gone time where there was a possibility of being poor with some dignity, you could live without being stigmatized for bring poor…doesn’t exist anymore.

BE: Yeah, that’s the culture my parents came out of, was the honest, dignified poor. But that’s gone. One part of the change was deindustrialization, which we talked a lot about in the 1980’s. We don’t talk about it anymore now. But those relatively well-paying unionized jobs, mainly for white men (but not entirely) just disappeared so fast. Those were jobs you could get right from high school and if you were a man of my father’s generation you expect to support your family without your wife working. That’s all gone. That’s all over. That’s one part of the change. The other part of the change is in the culture itself. Which in the ’80s and the ’90s has just glamorized the wealthy so much. Of course the wealthy are always supposed to be more glamorous than the rest of us. You could think that all the work in this country in the last few years has been done by software designers and dotcom entrepreneurs. They’re working hard and skateboarding around their offices and inventing new stuff. Completely left out is the fact is that somebody makes those computers.

RB: Somebody making those chips in Mexico or Malaysia or…

BE: Probably some teen-age girl in fact. So we have just turned into celebrities — in the ’80s, it was the arbitrageurs and the stock broker investment bankers, in the ’90s, it was the internet people. They get glamorized, and you just forget that somebody is actually making things happen everyday. Getting stuff delivered from place to place in trucks and cleaning the offices and…there may be less manufacturing but all these services are easy enough to invisibilize in the media.

RB: In your last chapter, "Evaluation", you say, “Corporate decision-makers and two-bit entrepreneurs tend to fear and distrust the category of people from which they recruit their workers. Hence the perceived need for repressive management and intrusive measures.”

BE: I don’t know the real reason, that’s my guess. It certainly looks that way. I think that assumption of management is that their low wage workers are criminals. Or will be given half a chance. First there’s the drug test. Which I have many reasons for opposing. It’s an indignity, it’s an invasion of privacy and a violation of the 4th amendment. I thought that before I had to undergo them. Then I began to realize something else about it. It’s a ritual of humiliation. It puts you in a one down position, even though they need workers desperately, they have to put you through that little humiliation. I was warned very early on in one of the first places I worked to be careful what I carried in my purse because management could search it without any notification.

RB: But that never actually happened to you?

BE: No, it never happened. That, I just could not believe that.

RB: What do you think you would have done?

BE: Nothing. I was a very obedient worker.

RB: You would have played along with the role you were in? It wouldn’t have snapped something deeper?

BE: Well, yeah there would have been a very strong feeling that I’d like to bat over the head with a purse. The idea was stolen goods, I guess. And then ridiculous rules like no chatting with fellow employees even when there was a quiet time or when you were working side-by-side. That’s a very important thing. I didn’t think about really until a month ago, long after the book was written, how important things like that are to preventing unionization. You make illicit casual contacts among workers. Now what’s the point of that? Well, they’ll say, “We don’t want you wasting our time.” Well, there are times while you are working with your hands while you are talking. They don’t want you griping together.

RB: Seems like prison rules.

barbara ehrenreichBE: Well, perhaps. I guess the prison movies I’ve seen are getting out of date. I did think of prison now and then in these jobs, because you really check your civil rights at the door when you go into some of these jobs. Your freedom of speech, forget about freedom of assembly, any kind of privacy rights. All gone, [when] you enter there. You leave what you thought was America behind and you enter a totalitarian state where you have these rules, where you are being watched, where you are punished for little things. I did not respond to a manager when she said something really rude in front of an immigrant dishwasher, about the immigrant dishwasher. And said something rude and dismissive. I guess she was expecting me, as a native-born white American to say, “Heh heh, heh, yes you’re right.” And I didn’t smile, didn’t speak, looked away and walked right past her. Very bad. My punishment was: when it was time for me to leave that night, she said, “Hey you, you’ve got to start mixing the new 4-gallon batch of blue cheese dressing.” And that’s…I don’t know what I can say on the web, I almost said a word I can’t say on the radio…

RB: Say anything you want.

BE: Well, that’s bullshit. I’d done my work and so what if I didn’t kowtow to her when she was being insulting to a co-worker. The point is that I could be punished. You are in this strange realm where people have arbitrary powers over you.

RB: Doesn’t that imply the greatest myth? Someone might observe, “You don’t have to work there. You are not a slave. You can leave if you don’t like the conditions.”

BE: Sure, and you can, of course. I was often urging co-workers to get out of these jobs. Especially very young people, who I had developed a maternal interest in. But I could also see how difficult it is. Changing jobs is going to cost you two, maybe three weeks of pay. And it’s going to mean driving around for applications, more drug tests, more interviews. People look at those drives now in new way because of gas prices are so high. You have to think about all that. Maybe you have to have a babysitter while you do it. So there are things that keep people stuck more than they should be. It’s not so easy to move to the best place.

RB: You point out that in lab animals, a certain level of depression sets in, then they don’t even have the ability to fight for themselves.

BE: Moving over to my biological part of my brain…yeah, if you put rats and many other kinds of animals in hierarchical situations — all we are talking about is hierarchy — the ones at the bottom, the very undominant ones, develop a kind of syndrome which looks like human depression. They become passive, don’t move around as much, and they are less likely to defend themselves. Some like that can happen over the years in jobs. This is a price that you pay for being in a hierarchical society and not being anywhere near the top of it.

RB: Would you characterize the behavior of your co-workers in these jobs as being depressed?

BE: Not on the face of it, from what I saw of them. In fact, I was very struck by how much pride people took in their jobs. The one that this did not apply to so much was the house cleaning job. Where there was a certain amount of palpable resentment, in some cases, of the really rich people whose houses we cleaned. Waitresses really want the food to look nice when it comes to the table. They want it be hot, to be good, they want to please the customer. Even in this Wal-Mart job where we were getting no strokes or praise or anything, we took quite a bit of pride in our department and how it looked. I maybe got a little carried away and began to think of it as my place. I didn’t want customers coming into it and messing it up. (laughs)

RB: Resentment (toward the rich) by house cleaners seems like such a mild reaction. Perhaps in other times or places there would be revolutions as a reaction.

BE: That’s the risk you take when you have such a divided society. It’s a very interesting situation, the servant economy that arising. Particularly so in the kind of situation I worked with, which is not working as an individual housecleaner, but you are with a team, it’s very industrialized. You have a system and it’s not a personal relationship with the customers. They don’t know you. Very often if they were home they might open the door and step aside and not even say hello to us. We were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. And yet as a housecleaner, you know all about them. They know nothing about you, but you, especially with dusting — that chore involves all the items — you see the whole family history, whole biographies unfold in front of you. One of the women I worked with was really fast, I don’t know how she did it, she’d have enough time to stand around and read people’s letters. I’m not revealing her name, she’s safe. It’s true in general, the rich know almost nothing about the poor. They don’t clean their houses. Whereas the poor can turn on TV, not only house cleaners, and see how the rich live. And if you are a house cleaner you know exactly how individual rich people live. There are risks in that.

RB: Has it occurred to you, as we endure Bush II, to write a sequel to The Worst Years of Our Lives?

BE: The Even Worst Years of Our Lives. I haven’t been doing that same kind of short humorous essays. I’ve been doing longer pieces.

RB: Where has your work been appearing?

BE: I write a column for The Progressive, almost every month.

RB: You were, for a long time, a back page essayist at Time magazine.

BE: Yeah, I’m on the masthead still as a contributing writer, but it might be every six months or four months. It’s more an ad hoc arrangement now. They’ll call me. I seldom dare call them because I am more likely to get it accepted if it was their idea. It’s hard to get by them.

RB: Anywhere else?

BE: I’m a real slut when it comes to freelancing. Last year I did something for Aperture, the fancy photography magazine, about capital punishment.

RB: I read it…

BE: Somebody read it.

RB: I read it because it was tied to the Benneton death row ad campaign. And I was interested because Lou Jones, a Boston photographer, has published a book of death row photos and I was hoping a serious photography magazine might give him credit for what he had done…ahead of the very suspect Benneton project.

BE: Yeah, that was what I was supposed to be writing about. Though I was invited to a vigil outside of San Quentin that turned out to be a much more disturbing experience than I had bargained for. I’ve written for Civilization in the last year. Got an assignment at Oprah (chuckles) and you know that’s what you do when you are a freelance writer.

RB: It’s a tough job.

BE: It was good preparation for my low age life. Not in the economic way, because I do all right most of the time. But for humiliation. (both laugh) You’ve gotta take it.

RB: I proposed a piece on internationally known and celebrated photojournalist James Nachtway to The Boston Globe when Nachtway was here for a lecture coincidental with the publication of his incredible photo book, Inferno. I wrote seven hundred words in newspaper journalese tying in the book and the lecture. The response from the Globe arts editor was that they had done something on Nachtway three years ago. Anyway, no Worst Years II? You wouldn’t chronicle this administration?

BE: Worst Years I was a collection. I don’t know, I have so many other things to do right now. One is the book about welfare reform. Another is an anthology with Arlene Hofshuld, a well-known sociologist, about immigrant women — nannies, domestics and sex workers — women coming from poor countries to rich countries to do what was women’s work in those rich countries. We’re not writing, we’re editing. That’s fascinating, I’m learning a huge amount from that. And then I have another book project which I get to every now and then. Which is about ecstasy, not the drug. But collective ecstasy, as in festivities, ecstatic rituals and its suppression in and by western cultures. I love history, so I’m having a good time with that.

RB: In the ’60s, there was interest in Sufism and certain kinds of mysticism…

BE: I’m not really interested in mystical things. For a contemporary example: like a rave. Danced ecstatic ritual have been very much a part of human culture, almost universally and have been pretty much wiped out.

RB: How far back are delving?

BE: The ancient world all the way up. Those things get driven out marginalized, forbidden. Puritanism within European and American history is a big force in squelching rituals. Squelching fun and festivities.

RB: Don’t Latinos have such rituals besides festivals?

BE: Some of the surviving religious remnants in the Western Hemisphere include Voodoo, Santeria and Condomble, where the point of the ritual is to go into an ecstatic state and merge with a diety. People can also just have a great time at carnival, and you might not call that ecstasy, but it’s certainly a self loss and a feeling of union with others we don’t commonly have in our culture.

RB: You’ve written a book about the war impulse, and you are writing about the ecstatic impulse, is there another piece to this?

BE: I don’t know what it is yet. I haven’t figured out beyond that book.

RB: Does writing come easy to you? Is it a chore?

BE: If it’s a chore, there’s something wrong. If it feels like a chore, it’s because I haven’t done enough research or haven’t figured out what I want to say. I think there is no such thing as writer’s block. It just means do more research, think more. And I love research. Any kind of research.

RB: Well, thank you.

BE: Well, you’re welcome.

Copyright 2001 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz/ Duende Publishing

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