Barbara Ehrenreich | Articles

Rationalists tend to frown upon group activities that seem to serve no evident biological or political purpose, like the drumming and masking so often indulged in by protest movements like Occupy Wall Street. Or, for a more historically venerable example, consider the reaction of European conquerors and missionaries to the shocking spectacles they encountered during the “age of exploration.” Almost everywhere they went—from Africa to the Western plains of America, from Polynesia to the Indian subcontinent—Europeans came across native peoples engaged in ecstatic rituals involving dancing, drumming, body-painting, masks, costumes, and feasting. Failing to notice the parallels between these exuberant native rituals and the traditional carnivals of Europe, missionaries tended to explain them as outbreaks of demonic possession, or as proof that the natives were not human at all, only “savages.”

Later, twentieth-century anthropologists bewailed the apparent waste of energy and resources represented by these ubiquitous practices, and not just the excesses of calorically profligate dances. Painstaking preparation went into the design of costumes and masks, the invention of new tunes and dance steps, the production of favorite foods—all representing sunk opportunity costs, in this zero-sum view: energies that might have been more rationally expended on hunting, gathering, or horticulture. There had to be some purpose, or at least some function, for these costly and economically nonproductive rituals, and anthropologists soon hit on the notion that they were required for “social cohesion.” Obviously, doing something together, something that was fun and sometimes ecstatic to the point of trance, deepens the ties among individuals, perhaps facilitating productive collective enterprises, such as agriculture or defense. This was fine, from the anthropological point of view, as long as the festivities remained “liminal,” as in Victor Turner’s judgment, or peripheral to a society’s more serious undertakings.

Read more at The Baffler

Most critics have regarded Ridley Scott’s Prometheus in much the same way that Arthur Miller probably thought of Marilyn Monroe—gorgeous, but intellectually way out of her depth. No one denies the film’s visual glory, which begins the moment a giant chalk-white alien strides out into the Icelandic wasteland, guzzles some gunk from a can, and splits open to release thousands of wriggling worm-like DNA strands into a waterfall. But when it comes to metaphysical coherence, the critical consensus is that Prometheus has nothing to offer. “There are no revelations,” the New York Times opines, “only what are called, in the cynical jargon of commercial storytelling, ‘reveals,’ bits of momentarily surprising information bereft of meaning or resonance.” In its refusal to offer an adequate accounting of the universe and our place in it, the film can even be accused of anti-intellectualism. “We were never really in the realm of working out logical solutions to difficult problems,” Geoffrey O’Brien complains in the New York Review of Books, just a “cauldron” of “juicily irrational ingredients.”

But Prometheus does have a clear-cut metaphysical proposition to offer, one so terrible as to be almost inadmissible. Consider the basic plot, minus the many alien invasions of human flesh, the references to corporate greed and alien WMDs, and the enigma of the devious HAL-like android: Guided by archeological clues found in prehistoric rock art, a group of humans set out on a trillion-dollar expedition to visit the planet (actually a moon) that the giant white alien came from. There, among innumerable horrors, since under its bleak surface this moon seems to be a breeding ground for lethal predators of the dark and squirmy variety, they find a cryogenically preserved clone or sibling of that original alien “creator” who seeded earth with DNA. The humans foolishly awaken him, perhaps expecting some sort of seminar on the purpose of life. Instead, the alien starts knocking heads off and strides away to resume his pre-nap project of traveling to and destroying the planet earth. This, and not the DIY abortion of a squid-like alien fetus, is the emotional climax of the film, the point when Noomi Rapace screams at the homicidal alien, “I need to know why! What did we do wrong? Why do you hate us?”

Read more at The Baffler

How government and corporations use the poor as piggy banks.

Individually the poor are not too tempting to thieves, for obvious reasons. Mug a banker and you might score a wallet containing a month’s rent. Mug a janitor and you will be lucky to get away with bus fare to flee the crime scene. But as Business Week helpfully pointed out in 2007, the poor in aggregate provide a juicy target for anyone depraved enough to make a business of stealing from them.

The trick is to rob them in ways that are systematic, impersonal and almost impossible to trace to individual perpetrators. Employers, for example, can simply program their computers to shave a few dollars off each paycheck, or they can require workers to show up thirty minutes or more before the time clock starts ticking.

Lenders, including major credit companies as well as payday lenders, have taken over the traditional role of the street-corner loan shark, charging the poor insanely high rates of interest. When supplemented with late fees (themselves subject to interest), the resulting effective interest rate can be as high as 600 percent a year, which is perfectly legal in many states.

Read more at The Nation

Encounters with lions, mountain goats, grizzly bears, dolphins, and whales are not least among the exotic experiences offered by the tourism industry. The attractions are obvious: a chance to be outdoors in stunning scenery, to see creatures you may have known only as two-dimensional images, and to feel ecologically high-minded in the process.

But current marketing for the wildlife encounter industry offers something grander, something that people have more commonly sought through meditation, fasting, or prayer. Surf the numerous websites for the booming worldwide whale-watching business, for example, and you will find companies from Baja to Sydney to Reykjavik promising whale-mediated “spiritual experiences.”

Satisfied customers report having undergone life-altering changes, or at least fighting back tears: the vacation as vision quest. Or, within Britain, you can experience the “spiritual event” of a Big Cat Encounter—with the big cats conveniently caged. After treating wild animals as nuisances or meat for many centuries, humans are elevating them to the status of the numinous.

Read more at The Baffler

In most parts of the world, from Paris to Beijing, mass unemployment brings the specter of mass social unrest. Not here, though, where 13 million people have accepted joblessness with nary a peep of protest.

Many reasons — from Prozac to Pentecostalism — have been cited to explain American passivity in the face of economic violence. But the truth may be far simpler: In America, being unemployed doesn’t mean you have nothing to do but run around burning police cars. Unemployment has been reconfigured as a new form of work.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the white-collar world, where the laid-off are constantly advised to see job searching as a full-time job. As business self-help guru Harvey Mackay advises: “Once you’re fired, you already have a job. The job you have is tougher than the last one. It’s more demanding.” How demanding? He says you need to “plan on 12 to 16 hours a day.”

Picture it: People across America rising at the usual time, suiting up in full corporate regalia and setting themselves down at their laptops to fiddle with resumes, peruse and pester everyone on their address lists for leads.

Read more at the LA Times

Occupy Wall Street at Duarte Park © Adrian Kinloch all rights reserved

What the Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover, and homeless people have known all along, is that most ordinary activities are illegal when performed in American streets.

As anyone knows who has ever had to set up a military encampment or build a village from the ground up, occupations pose staggering logistical problems. Large numbers of people must be fed and kept reasonably warm and dry. Trash has to be removed; medical care and rudimentary security provided—to which ends a dozen or more committees may toil night and day. But for the individual occupier, one problem often overshadows everything else, including job loss, the destruction of the middle class, and the reign of the 1 percent. And that is the single question: Where am I going to pee?

Some of the Occupy Wall Street encampments now spreading across the US have access to Port-o-Potties (Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC) or, better yet, restrooms with sinks and running water (Fort Wayne, Indiana). Others require their residents to forage on their own. At Zuccotti Park, just blocks from Wall Street, this means long waits for the restroom at a nearby Burger King or somewhat shorter ones at a Starbucks a block away. At McPherson Square in DC, a twentysomething occupier showed me the pizza parlor where she can cop a pee during the hours it’s open, as well as the alley where she crouches late at night. Anyone with restroom-related issues—arising from age, pregnancy, prostate problems, or irritable bowel syndrome—should prepare to join the revolution in diapers.

Read more at Mother Jones • Photo credit Adrian Kinloch

The latest group to claim victim status is the rich. Actually the super-rich, whose wealth ordinarily exempts them from pity. While they are not yet subjected to airport profiling (except for early boarding and club access), they sense that the public is turning subtly against them — otherwise how could President Obama propose raising their taxes?

Admirers of the rich, led by pundits and politicians on the right — from Laura Ingraham toLarry Kudlow — have long derided the victimization claims of African Americans, women, gays and the unemployed, but now they’re raising their voices to defend the rich against what they see as an ugly tide of “demonization.”

At a time when poverty is soaring, unemployment hovers grimly above 9 percent and growing numbers of Americans suffer from “food insecurity” — the official euphemism for hunger — this concern may seem a tad esoteric. At a time when executive compensation is reaching dizzying new levels and the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing as fast as the federal deficit, it may even seem a little perverse.

Read more at The Washington Post

bright-sided-lrgIf you’re craving a quick hit of optimism, reading a newsmagazine is probably not the best way to go about finding it. As the life coaches and motivational speakers have been trying to tell us for more than a decade now, a healthy, positive mental outlook requires strict abstinence from current events in all forms. Instead, you should patronize sites like, where the top international stories of the week include “Jobless Man Finds Buried Treasure” and “Adorable ‘Teacup Pigs’ Are Latest Hit with Brits.”

Or, of course, you can train yourself to be optimistic through sheer mental discipline. Ever since psychologist Martin Seligman crafted the phrase “learned optimism” in 1991 and started offering optimism training, there’s been a thriving industry in the kind of thought reform that supposedly overcomes negative thinking. You can buy any number of books and DVDs with titles like Little Gold Book of YES! Attitude, in which you will learn mental exercises to reprogram your outlook from gray to the rosiest pink: “affirmations,” for example, in which you repeat upbeat predictions over and over to yourself; “visualizations” in which you post on your bathroom mirror pictures of that car or boat you want; “disputations” to refute any stray negative thoughts that may come along. If money is no object, you can undergo a three-month “happiness makeover” from a life coach or invest $3,575 for three days of “optimism training” on a Good Mood Safari on the coast of New South Wales.

Read more: Barbara Ehrenreich on the Peril of Positive Thinking – TIME

bright-sided-lrg“But are you happy?” That’s the killer question I’ve faced repeatedly since the publication of my book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I take a deep breath because I know what’s at stake. If I come across as unhappy or even a little conflicted, I can be dismissed as a sourpuss, a whiner, or an old-fashioned melancholic with a perverse attachment to suffering. Unhappy people, according to the conventional, positive-thinking wisdom, just aren’t worth listening to, unless you’re willing to join them in a “pity party.”

But how to answer honestly and accurately? The first problem is that happiness is not a momentary sensation, but a kind of average of the fluctuating moods we experience over many hours or months. I may have been feeling pretty good this morning—until I opened the MasterCard bill, that is—so what am I really? In one psychological experiment, subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire on “life satisfaction”—but only after they had performed the apparently irrelevant task of photocopying a sheet of paper for the experimenter. For some of the subjects, a dime had been left on the copy machine, and these lucky ones reported “substantially” higher levels of happiness than those who had not found a dime, leaving us to wonder what a few pennies, scattered randomly on sidewalks, would do for world happiness.

Whenever I’ve sat down to take one of the happiness or life satisfaction tests devised by psychologists, I’ve been baffled by many of the questions. One well-known test wants to know if I’m “pessimistic about the future.” But whose future—my own personal trajectory or the fate of the species? I’m usually feeling pretty confident about my own but scared to death about the fate of humankind on our hot, overcrowded, and increasingly poisoned planet. So I confessed to pessimism—and thereby knocked my happiness score down from a possible 5 to a less-than-jubilant 3.67. Weeks later, when I interviewed the psychologist who had designed this test and told him I found the question confusing, he suggested I undergo “optimism training” to improve my score.

Now I’m all for designing social policy to maximize the amount of happiness. I’m just not sure anyone knows what it is or how to reliably measure it. Consider the recent fuss over a study titled “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness” by two professors at the Wharton School, which purports to show that women have become steadily unhappier since 1972, when the women’s liberation movement first arose. A number of conservative commentators leaped to the conclusion that we should roll back the gains of the women’s movement and restore the “feminine mystique.” But strangely enough, the study found no differences in happiness between single and married women, working women and homemakers, affluent women and poor women. In fact, the “happiest” women of all turned out to be African Americans, who suffer more poverty, single motherhood, and of course discrimination than their apparently gloomier white sisters.

Then there are the philosophical issues, which go back at least to Aristotle. Today’s psychologists usually conflate “happiness” with “life satisfaction,” or contentment. In the widely used “Satisfaction with Life Scale” from the University of Illinois, respondents are asked to agree or disagree with such statements as, “I am satisfied with my life” and “So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.” Well, sadly, I have to disagree: I’m not satisfied with what I’ve accomplished so far in my life largely because it doesn’t include such “important things” as world peace or universal social justice. But does this make me unhappy? Not if happiness involves a deep engagement with the world and its people. Albert Camus concluded his essay on the perpetually unsuccessful Sisyphus by saying, “The struggle itself . . . is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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What’s behind the raucous pre-Lenten rite? An intrepid scholar hits the streets of Trinidad to find out.

When Northerners think of the caribbean, Trinidad isn’t usually the first place that comes to mind. Until recently, Trinidad had few tourist-oriented hotels or restaurants, and its crime rate is so high that visitors are advised not to venture outdoors wearing watches or jewelry, and definitely not at night. What Trinidad does have is carnival—a centuries-old blowout reputedly so wild and intense that it makes Mardi Gras look like a Veterans Day parade.

dancing-in-the-streets-lrgI had a reason beyond hedonism for making the trip. I’d spent nine years researching a book on the carnival tradition, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. Prehistoric rock drawings suggest that costuming and group dancing date back to the Paleolithic. In the 19th century, Western explorers found it going strong among indigenous peoples worldwide, including Polynesians, Inuits, West Africans, Australian Aborigines and villagers in India. In Europe, however, it had been suppressed when Protestantism and the Counter-Reformation wiped out most public festivities, which, over the years, had become flash points for popular unrest.

The European experience in Trinidad is a case in point: 18th-century French settlers brought the tradition of a pre-Lenten festival, in which they found it amusing to dress up and dance like their African slaves. The slaves found it even more amusing to use the confusion of carnival as an occasion for uprisings. Long after the slaves were emancipated by the British in 1838, the colonial administration continued to fight the now-Africanized carnival piece by piece—banning, at one time or another, drums, masks and dancing in the streets.

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