Media Diet: Barbara Ehrenreich

A social critic tackles the big questions

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Barbara Ehrenreich is one of the most prolific cultural thinkers of our time. An essayist, novelist, and columnist, she writes regularly for Time and the Guardian of London and is the author of many books, including the 1989 National Book Critics Circle Award nominee Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (HarperCollins, 1990). In her new book, Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (Henry Holt, $25), she explores the history of human beings as warriors. Full of compelling insight and detail, Blood Rites challenges deeply held assumptions about our propensity for violence, which Ehrenreich sees as rooted not in innate human bloodthirstiness, but in a worthy desire to defend family and clan.

Assistant editor Rebecca Scheib spoke with her about this 11-year project and more.

What are the magazines that you can’t live without?
The Nation is the one that I rely on most directly—to find out, in part, what some friends of mine, like Katha Pollitt, and other people I respect are thinking about issues of the week. My secret pleasure is reading magazines like Archeology and Scientific American. I was educated as a biologist, so science is my little parallel life.

If you could own only three books, what would they be?
They wouldn’t be fiction, because if you can only have three books, they’d better be pretty substantial. One book I have always set aside to read cover to cover some day is the Bible. I remember once reading that when Winnie Mandela was in prison, the only book she could have was the Bible. And that made me think I’d better hold off on reading it for now, so that if I ever get locked up there will be plenty of unforeseen plot twists to keep me entertained.

Which artists, writers, and thinkers have influenced you?
My interests are varied, so there have been different books that have stood out at different times, but they don’t really add up to a canon. Years ago, I was influenced by—or at least impressed by—Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death and Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital. In recent years, it has been books that have something to do with war and sacred forms of violence. I was much influenced by Rene Girard’s book Violence and the Sacred.It was the first thing that I read about the subject, though now I know there are other books that lay out how much violence is at the core of what we think of as religion.

If you could create one law, what would it be?
This is a hard one, because usually I think of which laws I would like to see abolished. The obvious socially responsible law would be one that said every corporation had to have some of its rank-and-file workers, some of its customers, and representatives of the communities that it affects on its board of directors. We might want to question the very existence of corporations, the idea that some people can hide behind this fictional person, the Corporation, and not have to take responsibility for what it does.

If you could visit any time in history, what would it be?
It would have to be prehistory. It maddens me that there is that 99 percent or more of human existence that we have to call prehistory because we don’t know enough about it.

What are the sources of your best and most original ideas?
I just stare at the wall. A lot of people have the misconception that writers sit down at the computer and words just flow. Most of the process of writing is the process of thinking, which is not always done at the computer. It may even look like wasting time. We go through a lot of scrap paper—but it’s recycled.

What would you give up for a more human world?
I think we shouldn’t think of what we would give up to have a more human world; we should think of what we would gain. The big things that we all need to gain are more time and less pressure.

Which current trend most troubles you?
There are so many of them, but I think the single thing that has been bothering me the most in the past six months or so is what I see as an increasing punitiveness, or hatefulness, toward the young. The most extreme cases are those politicians and social scientists who want to try child criminals as if they were adults and lock them up. This country is really becoming a teen hell.

We have a class of adults in this country who live very, very well and get to play like children. They get to ski in the winter and sail in the summer and do things that would be wonderful for kids to do. I think they want to have childhood to themselves. They resent the young and their claims on us—especially the poor and the low-income young—and vote against social spending for real children.

What is the most important thing you learned in writing Blood Rites?
That a great deal of human evolution might have been affected not by our being hunters and predators but by being preyed upon by much more efficient animal predators. I think this is something that has been ignored in much of the writing about human evolution. A lot fell into place for me as I began to see this vulnerability as a central part of our formative experience.

We are always in big trouble morally when we forget the helplessness and the weakness that we came from, because then we’re unable to empathize with others. Our view of our own species has been too triumphalist—an image of striding out from the forest, stick in hand, and suddenly being the boss, the biggest deal on earth. We have to revise that and understand how much time our species has spent hiding and cowering and trying to fight off the leopards.

This awareness also makes us see that we are perhaps not all bad—we are not natural-born killers—that some of our predilection for violence is rooted in the very honorable need to defend the band or group.

What would you like to learn next?
Well, the next project grew out of this one. I began to get more interested in the question of sociality, of what it is that makes us social creatures. My reading is very preliminary, but it seems to be the consensus that we have some sort of DNA-based need for community. The other part of the consensus seems to be that that need is not very well met in modern societies. What I am interested in is how many curious ways we do find to meet that need. I am not satisfied with the explanation that we have this missing thing in our lives. There are all kinds of ways that a modern commercial society tries to meet those needs. Some of them are vacuous; some of them are perhaps dangerous.

It’s a huge topic, but I figure life is short, and I better take on the big questions. It has been embarrassing all these years. People asked me, “What are you writing about?” I said, “War.” They said, “Which war?” And I replied, “All of them.” It sounds hubristic, but what the hell.