2001's Nickel and Dimed focused on America's hardworking poor; This year Barbara Ehrenreich declared open season on a far wider spectrum of issues with This Land Is Their Land: Reports From a Divided Nation, a portrait of nation-wide inequality. This week I was lucky enough to ask Ehrenreich a few questions about the toll taken on an otherwise reasonable person by a career spanning four decades of social criticism. She may not have much optimism left, but I'd still nominate her for "Nonfiction Author Most Likely To Survive a Cormac McCarthy-esque Apocalypse..."
TB: Your writing career has spanned some very dark political times. Is it a struggle to balance your anger and your optimism?
BE: I don't think I do balance anger and optimism: I'm just not optimistic. I look at the economy and think we're headed for a depression. Then I look at the world -- at global warming, shrinking resources, mounting hunger, etc. -- and think we're headed for extinction. Of course there is the possibility that a depression would help solve the world's environmental crisis -- if you can call that a reason for optimism.
TB: Many writers find that keeping up with news becomes almost obsessive. Do you set limits on how involved you get, how many hours you work? How do you stay plugged in without getting sucked in?
BE: I read the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Nation, The Progressive, snatches of Huffington Post, and quick hits of CNN and MSNBC (especially when I'm on the treadmill at the gym.) Is that obsessive? But there's no reason to get sucked in too much, because whatever's dominating the news cycle this week will probably be gone next week.
TB: What's it like to look back at books you wrote decades ago and seeing which of your conclusions or concerns wound up being borne out by history?
BE: I don't re-read my own books, and I avoid making predictions, so this isn't likely to happen. My concerns, though, don't seem to go away. To give just one example, I was writing about the need for universal health insurance 30 years ago. That's kind of depressing.
TB: It's become more common for people to marry in order to share one partner's health benefits. Do sanctity-of-marriage conservatives, in your knowledge, condemn heterosexual couples that this?
BE: I think they've pretty much given up on love as a basis for marriage. Look at the conservative emphasis on marriage as a solution to poverty, as represented by the Bush administration's "marriage promotion" efforts. This is not about romance, it's about increasing the household income by adding a wage-earning male. The next step would be to encourage women to divorce men who lose their jobs.