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Critical Review by Andrew Ferguson
SOURCE: A review of The Snarling Citizen, in The American Spectator, Vol. 28, No. 8, August, 1995, pp. 66-7.
In the following review, Ferguson suggests that Ehrenreich's writing is rife with factoids and faulty syllogisms.
Barbara Ehrenreich's career as a journalist has followed an interesting trajectory. She is a witty, graceful stylist who first came to prominence in the Nation, Ms., and Mother Jones. Unlike Molly Ivins, she's a mom—a working mom!—and unlike Anna Quindlen, she never whimpers. The fat cats of "main-stream" journalism do not allow writers with Ehrenreich's attributes to languish on the leftward fringe, and so for the past several years she has been a featured essayist on the back page of Time magazine, where her unabashedly left-wing views make a pleasant contrast to the abashedly left-wing views found in the pages preceding it. She is now so certifiably mainstream that mainstream publishers are happy to get out collections of even her most quotidian pieces. Hence The Snarling Citizen, a loosely packed duffel of Ehrenreichiana previously published in Time, the Nation, the Guardian, and elsewhere.
The essays here are brief without exception; the longest couldn't be longer than 1700 words. To impose coherence she has grouped them under chapter headings: "Trampling on the Down-and-Out," "Sex Skirmishes and the Gender Wars," and so on. The collection begins with "Life in the Postmodern Family," raising the question, right at the start, of what a postmodern family might be. I don't know, and neither, I suspect, does Ehrenreich, but "postmodern" is one of her favorite words, recurring even more often than such phrases as "apocalyptic frisson," "post-Judeo-Christian generation," "posttrend era," "post-feminist era," and "advanced capitalism"—the big, blowy tropes that dazzle editors while allowing a writer to elide from the concrete to the dubious, and from the self-evident to the debatable, without debate.
This stylistic trick is essential to her appeal as an essayist, for when Ehrenreich does offer a straightforward observation or assertion of fact, she tends to wobble. Her facts, for example, aren't really facts. She opens her first essay on the family with the statement: "The U.S. divorce rate remains stuck near 50 percent." This is a chestnut of newsmagazine chin-waggers, but in fact the divorce rate is 4.8 percent per 1,000 Americans. "According to surveys [block that phrase!], somewhere between 26 percent and 41 percent of married women are unfaithful." The most recent and exhaustive survey, Sex in America, puts the figure at less than 15 percent. She writes: "Studies show [ditto!] that teachers tend to favor boys by calling on them more often, making eye contact with them more frequently, and pushing them harder to perform." Actually, "studies show" that teachers don't "call on" boys more often, they call them out more often—reasonable enough, since schoolboys make more trouble than schoolgirls, requiring more frequent eye contact and more pushing to perform.
Ehrenreich's journalism is filled with such casual misstatements—little wisps of faulty data upon which she builds whole cathedrals of commentary. The errors of fact don't make much difference to the quality of her arguments, for Ehrenreich, as an ideologue, is impervious to any data that don't serve the larger points she wishes to make. And her points are larger than you can imagine. When she deals with "the family," as she often does, she can be funny but uncomfortably bitter—imagine Erma Bombeck, if Erma Bombeck's husband ran off with a call girl and her son decapitated the family cat. Erma's treatment of the family, jaundiced as it was, was at bottom affectionate, confined to small but endearing frustrations: Ehrenreich's balloons into a genuine, ill-disguised hostility toward civilization itself. When she makes an argument she tends to jump around.
Americans act out their ambivalence about the family without ever owning up to it. Millions adhere to creeds—religious and political—that are militantly "pro-family." But at the same time, millions flock to therapists and self-help groups that offer to heal the "inner child" from damage inflicted by family life. Legions of women band together to revive the self-esteem they lost in supposedly loving relationships and to learn to love a little less. We are all, it is often said, in recovery. And from what? Our families, in most cases.
It would be difficult to write a paragraph with more confusions than this one. "Act out" is a cant phrase, coined by counselors and facilitators. The two sentences about millions being religiously pro-family and millions flocking to self-help groups are logically unrelated, but the juxtaposition is meant to imply that the second sentence discredits the first. And what's an "inner child"? How do you "learn to love a little less"? It is indeed often said that "we are all in recovery," but that doesn't mean it's true, or that the phrase has any content at all. This is Oprahspeak, unbecoming a writer who fancies herself a skeptic.
But here in postmodern, postfeminist America, Oprahspeak seems all that's left to the left. "There is a long and honorable tradition of what might be called 'anti-family' though," she writes, invoking authority to buttress her case. But the line of authority trails off. Ehrenreich traces the tradition to the Rousseauian philosopher Charles Fourier, through unnamed "early feminists" and "radical psychiatrists," to the renowned British crank Edmund Leach. As an intellectual genealogy it's not quite Aristotle-to-Aquinas-to-Kant, but it will have to do. We live in a post-traditionalist age.
So where is a left-wing polemicist to turn—when facts fail you, when the "surveys" don't "show" what you want them to, when your intellectual tradition is neither long nor particularly honorable? There will always be straw men, and the book is overstuffed with them. One essay—to choose a typical instance—attacks the "dangerous" idea that "history repeats itself." She writes: "Everything that happens, we are led to believe, is a historical reenactment," and the belief makes us putty for the forces of reaction. Ehrenreich herself is undeluded. She argues against the notion with great force and indignation, mustering facts and examples, moving elegantly from the specific to the general, from the personal to the universal and back again, without once stopping to consider that nobody in his right mind takes the idea literally. It's like watching Fred Astaire dance with a mop.
She has her gifts. She's good with a joke—about that most public recluse, Salman Rushdie, she writes: "What is it with these fatwa guys—can't they get a copy of Rushdie's schedule from his publicist, like everybody else?" And you can't completely write off a woman who has the taste to call Jack Valenti an "ancient lounge lizard." (Query to Time editors: Ageist? Offensive to the amphibian community?) She knows that caricature can be a verbal art, with the capacity to expose an essence more quickly than a dozen arguments, but too often her fondness for exaggeration and hyperbole drags her into mere buffoonery. Why do we watch the Academy Awards? "We watch for what might be called political reasons: because everyone knows that the movie-star class now rules the earth." How clever, how unconventional, how not even remotely true!
Even so, I agree with the many blurbsters on the dust jacket—Susan Faludi, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Ellen Goodman among them—who suggest that Barbara Ehrenreich may be the best polemicist the left-wing can produce nowadays. This alone makes her stuff worth reading. For liberals she distills contemporary liberalism down to its essence, which by now is nothing more than a series of attitudes and poses and sneers. For conservatives she is cause for rejoicing, a knowledgeable, highly credentialed, top-of-the-line tour guide to the Potemkin Village they hope to overrun.
This section contains 1,258 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)