In her 1990 essay collection, The Worst Years of Our Lives, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich took aim at all those deliciously deserving ?80s punch lines — yuppies, lecherous televangelists, Dan Quayle — while also presenting an impassioned critique of the decade?s rising greed and injustice. Little did she know then that things had yet to bottom out.
Ehrenreich has a new collection of satirical essays, and while the title is This Land Is Their Land, it could well have been The New Worst Years of Our Lives. Covering the first decade of the 21st century, the roughly 60 short pieces, which originally appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, andThe Progressive, are vintage Ehrenreich: sharp, scathing, rousing, and very funny — although in many cases the humor is of the laugh-to-keep-from-crying variety.
Her broader argument is laid out in an introduction that recalls the brief “spasm of unity” that followed 9/11 but then identifies the real enemy threatening the United States:
Whatever resonated with us about the idea of a “homeland” and “one nation, indivisible” was being quietly undercut by a force more powerful than terrorism, more divisive than treason. In a process that had begun in the 1980s and suddenly accelerated in the early 2000s, the ground was shifting under our feet, recarving the American landscape. The peaks of great wealth grew higher, rising up beyond the clouds, while the valleys of poverty sank lower into perpetual shadow. The once broad plateau of the middle class eroded away into a narrow ledge, with the white-knuckled occupants holding on for dear life.
If that overview sounds a little too passive-voiced for you, worry not: Ehrenreich proceeds to name names. In sections with titles like “Chasms of Inequality,” “Meanness on the Rise,” “Strangling the Middle Class,” and “Hell Day at Work,” the author skewers the Bush administration (natch), corporate CEOs, the health insurance industry, and the superrich, among others, with vigorous fury.
“Circuit City CEO Philip J. Schoonover is assured of getting a warm welcome in hell,” begins one essay, written after the electronics chain laid off 3,400 longtime employees in order to replace them with less experienced workers coming in at a lower wage. The same piece goes after New York Times economics columnist David Leonhardt for opining that such corporate moves might be necessary to prevent recession. Of Jason Furman, a liberal economist quoted in Leonhardt?s column who sees mass layoffs as part of the “flexibility of the American labor force,” she writes, “It?s fellows like Furman who put the ?ick? in the word Democratic.” Here, as in many of the essays, Ehrenreich insistently gives voice to the moral component of dispassionate news stories about abstractions like “the market.”
She likes to dig beneath tossed-around slogans, too. Take “support our troops.” In “The Cheapskate Warfare State” Ehrenreich describes the difficult financial realities faced by many military families — front-line battle troops earn a paltry $17,000 a year — and the way that recent economic policy affects them. “When the Bush administration, in its frenzied rush to transfer more wealth to the already wealthy, hurts the working poor, you can count the troops among them,” she writes, deftly measuring the administration?s rhetoric against its policy.
The flip side of her withering scorn is Ehrenreich?s compassion for society?s underdogs, honed, no doubt, while doing undercover reporting on the working poor for her 2001 bestseller, Nickel and Dimed. This collection is particularly strong on illegal immigrants and the uninsured. “There may be reasonable arguments for limiting immigration, but it wasn?t a Mexican who took away your pension or sold you on a dodgy mortgage,” she observes in an effort to redirect American rage toward more appropriate targets.
She also points out the increasingly disturbing extremes in American society, pairing ballooning pay for CEOs (she cites departing Home Depot chief Robert Nardelli, who was given $210 million just to go away) with the bizarre cases of forced servitude recently prosecuted in the U.S., including a wealthy Long Island couple charged with keeping two Indonesian women as slaves for five years. “If the new ?top? involves pay in the tens or hundreds of millions, a private jet, and a few acres of Nantucket, the new bottom is slavery,” she notes. Elsewhere, she juxtaposes the rise in sophisticated health care treatments for pets (including dialysis, MRIs, and chemotherapy) with the rise in the number of uninsured American children. Here she cites the well-publicized case of a 12-year-old uninsured boy who died from an infection brought on by an abscessed tooth. “Could a vet have handled this problem? Yes, absolutely,” she writes drily, suggesting the poor seek less costly pet insurance for their children.
The format here doesn?t showcase the narrative journalism skills that Ehrenreich deployed to such effect in Nickel and Dimed. These are tightly crafted pieces, and they pack more punch when read in short bursts than in long stretches. But any one of them is likely to include incisive analysis and produce rueful laughter. An essay mocking abstinence education mentions that it has been subsidized by the federal government “since President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill of 1996, which provided abstinence training for impoverished women (though not, alas, for him).”
Despite her humor, one gets the sense that Ehrenreich?s patience is flagging. “How many ?wake-up? calls, do we need, people?” she asks. “How many broken levees, drowned cities, depleted food pantries, people dead for lack of ordinary health care?” And elsewhere: “Why are American students sucking their thumbs while the Bush administration proposes a $12.7 billion cut in student loans? Where is the outrage over the massive layoffs at Ford, Hewlett-Packard, and dozens of other major companies?”
For most readers, this book will provoke some form of outrage. If you?re part of the choir Ehrenreich is preaching to, there will be plenty here to rile you up, whether it?s her stinging take on decreased social spending, increased outsourcing, or profit-driven health care. But if you sit on the other side of the aisle from this self-described Democratic Socialist, you might agree with New York Times columnist David Brooks, who, Ehrenreich reveals in one essay, “has chided personally for taking ‘an overly negative view of reality.’ ” The latter group may shudder at the author?s ultimate prescription for our nation?s ills: “We?ll need a new deal, a new distribution of power and wealth, if we want to restore the beautiful idea that was ‘America.’ ”