This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation, by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan Books, 256 pp., $24)
For the past 50 years, no campfire sing-along has been complete without a rousing chorus of Woody Guthries most famous song: This land is your land, this land is my land! From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, we warble along that this land was made for you and me.
Barbara Ehrenreich thinks that the smores have gone to our heads. In her new book of essays, This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation, the best-selling social critic claims that the idea of two Americasdismissed as divisive when John Edwards brought it upis actually an undercount. Now we have the battered middle class and the savaged working class, both of whom find their stagnant wages buying less and less. As for the rich, Ehrenreich writes, mere millionaires and the old-money sorts who favor weather-beaten summer homes in Nantucket barely qualified anymore. Todays megarich buy ice statues of Michelangelos David urinating vodka. From California to the New York islands, Ehrenreich surveys the gilded first decade of the twenty-first century and finds plenty to excoriate, from new money bidding up vacation townsIf a place is truly beautiful, you cant afford to be thereto the ubiquity of pet health insurance among the Williams-Sonoma set when plenty of people lack coverage for themselves.
Theres a reason that people scoop up Ehrenreichs books: big chunks of the excoriation are fantastically funny. Shes at her best when she takes on idiocies in our cultureskewering the shelves of new business books that seem to have been written by people who dont understand any genre except PowerPoint, and lamenting that contrary to the rumors I have been trying to spread for some time, Disney Princess products are not contaminated with lead. When she doesnt hold tight to the liberal line, she can be quite insightful, noting that the photos from Abu Ghraib reveal once and for all that women are no more moral than men. Having had two abortions herself, she holds in special contempt women who think that aborting babies with Downs Syndrome is somehow more moral than aborting for convenience: Unless Im missing something, you didnt want your babies either. A baby, yes, but not the particular baby you happened to be carrying.
But Ehrenreich saves most of the real estate in This Land Is Their Land for politics and economics, and thats where things get dicey. In an ode to Seattles high minimum wage, she notes that no beggars approached me on the streets, which makes her perhaps the only Seattle visitor never to have had that experience. Citing news stories about $10,000 martinis, she writes that the money that fueled the explosion of gluttony at the top had to come from somewhere or, more specifically, from someone. Since no domestic oil deposits had been discovered, no new seams of uranium or gold, and since the war in Iraq enriched only the military contractors and suppliers, it had to have come from other Americans. This is a curious idea, that finding natural resources (or looting) is the only way to increase GDP. Last time I checked, the wealth creation in Silicon Valley had not all come from actual silicon.
In refreshing contrast with the many media outlets obsessed with profiling the rich and famous, Ehrenreich uses her platform to tell stories of the down and out. She also does a service in pointing out truly stupid public policiesfor instance, forcing soldiers families to rely on food stamps. To underpay and underfeed ones troops, she writes, is to risk having the guns pointed in the opposite direction from that which the officers are recommending. Of course, in a country of 300 million people, its not difficult to find anecdotes about criminally bad health care, lost jobs, abusive bosses, foreclosures, and the like. Ehrenreich attempts to preempt critics charges that shes a glass-half-empty type; even if about three-quarters of Americans arent poor, the fact that about a quarter are is still totally outrageous.
But her general sourness precludes her from seeing what America does right for the working poor. Where is the ode to the Earned Income Tax Credit? Shes even bitter about what goes right in her own family. Writing about the prospects of young college grads, she says, My son followed up his Ivy League education with years of phone answering and fact-checking before joining me as one of the tiny number of self-supporting freelance writers who do not have the advantage of a trust fund. Answering phones? The horror!
Indeed, Ehrenreich herself is probably Exhibit Number One for the fact that theres a lot more to America than the bleak landscape cluttered with boarded-up homes and littered with broken dreams that shes intent on seeing. This is a country where a bright girl named Barbara from Butte, Montana, can grow up to become a best-selling author. And a black boy raised by a single mother can become the Democratic nominee for president. Such stories have no place in Ehrenreichs America. She falls into the trap of mourning Americas lost glorysuch as the golden age when Henry Ford made sure his workers could afford to buy his cars. These days, the sad truth is that people earning Wal-Mart level wages tend to favor the fashions available at the Salvation Army. But Michigans infant mortality rate for nonwhite babies in 1936 (Fords heyday) was 71 deaths for every 1,000 live births. If thats a golden age, I prefer our current nightmare. Ehrenreich writes that she sang America the Beautiful as a child and meant it, but during her childhood, Woody Guthrie was singing a verse of his classic tune (which she never mentions) about folks standing outside the relief office, wondering if this land was still made for them. Memo to Ehrenreich: It has always been fashionable to complain about how bad America is.
The truth is that since Ehrenreichs 1940s and 1950s childhood, American living standards have risen grandly. We are living longer and earning more. Yet in Ehrenreichs view, everything is falling apart, and America is about to become one of those areas of the world prefixed by the mournful word former. Its a grim takebut thankfully, its not universally shared. Senator Barack Obama, for instance, has described his own food-stamps-to-millionaire journey as evidence of whats right with America. Maybe in time the social critic who views herself as the champion of the working class will get the message, too.