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Birnbaum v.

Barbara Ehrenreich

American business has preserved the conformity of the ‘50s but ditched the job security—what happened? A conversation about the terror of applying for jobs when experience doesn’t matter.

My admiration for grandmother and writer Barbara Ehrenreich traces back into the foggy era of Reaganist euphoria. Her light-handed and humorous assessment of political and social issues of the day was a welcome relief and antidote to the complacent and uncritical commentary of the time. Here, from The Worst Years of Our Lives, which is still refreshingly relevant today:

Why so many well-known liberals have chosen to change their names and go underground is not entirely clear. There have been no pogroms, no lynch mobs besetting liberals on the street. In fact, the label of liberalism is hardly a sentence to public ignominy: otherwise Bruce Springsteen would still be rehabilitating used Cadillacs in Asbury Park, and Jane Fonda, for all we know, would just be another overweight housewife.

Nor can it be said that liberalism has been defeated in the realm of ideas. The traditional liberal goals—such as national health insurance, adequate income supports for the poor, publicly supported child care, and so forth—all of which are now known as “old” ideas, are simply the decent, obvious ideas that most civilized nations have already put into practice. But for the right, the only truly new ideas it has come up with in the last twenty years are (1) supply-side economics, which is a way of redistributing wealth upward toward those who already have more than they know what to do with, and (2) creationism, which is a parallel idea for redistributing ignorance out from fundamentalist strongholds to those who know more than they need to.

Ehrenreich, a well-regarded progressive thinker and writer, leaped into national prominence with her best-selling Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, in which, using what she calls “immersion journalism,” she chronicled the subsistence struggles of low-wage earners. Now she has continued her investigations by examining the plight of the white-collar unemployed in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.

This is my fourth meeting with Barbara Ehrenreich. Our conversations began with the publication of her second essay collection, The Snarling Citizen, in 1996, which includes this stark and unvarnished insight:

The problem, I am beginning to think, is that we are being advised to face the end stage in exactly the same spirit we were told, thirty years ago, to stride out into the early summer of life. Be bold! Go for it! Don’t take any guff! This is excellent advice, on the face of it, for anyone facing the double burden of being older and female. Thirty years ago, when we were merely female, the expectation was that we would vanish forthwith into the suburbs and supermarkets…What is left out is that the fifties and sixties are not just an update of the twenties and thirties. Something different is going on—we can’t help but notice—as friends and colleagues get picked off by cancer and heart attacks. This is not a phase that ends in marriage or a Nobel Prize or promotion to branch manager (though all those things may well happen at any point). This is a phase that ends in death. Like it or not, the great psychic task of the later years is not to be busier, prettier, or more productive than anyone else, but to be prepared to die. And this is one task, the philosophers agree, that cannot be accomplished in a condition of terminal busyness.

In this latest chat we talk about her children, movie epics, evangelical Christian social services, so-called right-wing populism, her latest book, and her next book. And more.

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum

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Robert Birnbaum: Do you still think your daughter might become president of the United States?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Yes. Probably if there is a world president, she will get that, too.

RB: You have that much faith in her?

BE: She’s amazing.

RB: What’s her name? Rosa?

BE: Rosa Brooks. And she is a law professor in human rights.

RB: She went to Yale.

BE: This girl has been to the most elite places in the world—Harvard, Oxford, Yale.

RB: Does your son feel competitive with her?
Ehrenreich, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005
BE: [laughs] He is different. He is a freelance writer in L.A. And his first novel is coming out in April [The Suitors published by Counterpoint]. Isn’t that amazing?

RB: I know his journalism.

BE: Ben Ehrenreich. He’s good. A great writer. And Rosa has a column in the L.A. Times now. She’s a columnist.

RB: Is writing a genetic trait?

BE: Yeah, it’s genetic. [laughs] No, but there are a lot in the family who aren’t published who are good writers, like my sister. And my grandmother wrote poems.

RB: You must be proud of your kids.

BE: I admire them enormously. And they have fun. I love to be with them. I have fun with them.

RB: You did something right, I guess?

BE: That’s what I am really good at.

RB: Having fun with your kids? [laughs]

BE: Now I’m a grandma of two—a three-year-old and a one-year-old. And that is wonderful. I’m a really involved grandmother.

RB: Do you think about the world that your grandchildren will live in?

BE: [makes a face and grunts]

RB: Sorry. [laughs]

BE: All the time, all the time.

RB: Let’s do a little boilerplate, since I often forget to provide basic details. Why did you write Bait and Switch?

BE: OK—it grew out of Nickel and Dimed. Really for two reasons. The biggest one was that I have gotten so many letters from people who are in these low-wage jobs and in really bad circumstances but who said they had college educations. Even master’s degrees. Well, that made me think this is another side of poverty that I hadn’t been thinking about. But the other reason is that one of the negative responses I had to Nickel and Dimed was middle class, affluent people saying, “Well, those people [meaning the poor], they made the wrong choices. It’s their own fault.”

RB: So much for a liberal middle class. I was rereading Fear of Falling and I was struck by the continuity of your work. You’re looking at the same group that you were looking at about 15 years ago.

BE: Yeah, but it’s a reversal of interest, because in Fear of Falling I was interested in the gap between the working class and the professional middle class, the class prejudice of the professional toward the blue-collar people, and how the right had used that kind of snobbery to build their form of populism on. But in Bait and Switch, things have changed. There are certainly all kinds of cultural gaps, but the distance in terms of economic security has really shrunk.

RB: Well, if there is a middle class, it’s now minuscule.

BE: Yeah, last year there were series in the Wall Street Journal, the L.A. Times, and the New York Times on class and they made two big points. One was about class polarization and how extreme things had become. The other point was about what they called income volatility in the middle class—the extreme fluctuations were not there before. And it is mostly reflected in job insecurity, layoffs, downsizing, firings.

RB: Were you shocked to see that? I thought it was forbidden to speak about class in the U.S. That would explain why some of these issues are never resolved. The recent disasters in the Gulf States certainly brought a microscope to bear on poverty and race and class. I guess now that there is no communist threat, it may be OK to talk of classes.

BE: Yeah, that may have something to do with it. It’s true they [the newspapers] had all these series on class, and then people were saying, “Oh, my, who knew there were these people? Who knew?”

RB: I’ve heard you speak a little about this book, and one of the things you point out is that you are interested in some kind of activist response. Did you have a sense of something tangible happening from Nickel and Dimed—besides a growing antipathy toward Wal-Mart?

BE: Not on a large, concerted scale, but I’m thrilled that many groups have used the book as a weapon in their fights for affordable housing or a living wage. And unions have used it—

RB: Unions?

BE: Yeah, remember them? I’m doing something with Bait and Switch that I have never done before. It just occurred to me—it’s so frustrating, doing the research, to see people coming together under the aegis of a coach or a networking event or an evangelical Christian group or something, but never being allowed to really talk to each other. Or having a discussion about what is happening—systematically being foreclosed—they couldn’t do that. Not even exchanges of stories of what landed people in these messes. So I started—when did I start, two weeks, three weeks ago?—in Seattle—when I give a talk at a bookstore or some type of public space, getting volunteers from the audience who come and sit with me while I’m signing books and get email addresses of people who would like to get together—and I just say, “You might want to start a book club and you read this book,” and I suggest some others that are excellent, like White-Collar Sweatshop by Jill Andresky Fraser. And “You might want to just have people tell their stories. But I hope you will be willing to work toward an activist agenda on some issues”—

RB: So, in the case of this book, you are saying people who are actually affected, victims of the conditions you describe, are reading or are aware of this book?

BE: I am a very much directing myself to the people in this situation. And it’s been kind of fun. It gives me a—it keeps me going. Book tours are pretty grueling, but I must have collected—I have organizers in 10 cities and we have 500 to 800 names in those cities.

RB: One visceral response I had to your book was how much I despised the people who are some part of the self-help industry that the problem of white-collar unemployment has spawned—the parasites who are “coaches.”

BE: Yeah, and just since the mid-1990s. Which is when things began to get so dicey in the white-collar corporate world.

RB: What’s happened—this was all predictable. I remember back to the ‘70s that it seemed American corporations were middle-management heavy and one explanation for the bloated middle management was because they were being used to train and see who the good managers were—this was before the burgeoning of MBAs—who would continue on an upward career arc. So, 20 years later, the companies have dumped these people.

I didn’t start out to study the corporate culture. I was supposed to focus just on this job-search process, but I got distracted because it was so alien to me. And it was not what I expected. I expected—I’m from the reality-based community. I expected logic, fact-based thinking. You know you have to make money, right?BE: Actually, the middle-management buildup in the ‘70s into the ‘80s was out of distrust of blue-collar workers. There was a big, concerted expansion of surveillance functions of management in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was sparked by foreign competition—when Toyota began to give GM and Ford a run for their money.

RB: Bigger HR [Human Resources] departments—

BE: A lot of the people I met in the searches were not management. Some were managers, but a lot were professionals of the IT type and in telecommunications, as well as marketing people. Not, strictly speaking, managers, but that would be part of their function. I can’t even tell from some of their titles—what is a systems analyst?

RB: Aren’t they, in some loose construction, considered managers?

BE: No, they just say managers and professionals.

RB: I think you take appropriately strong exception to the premium, not doing the job, but it’s more about the personality one has and the so-called fit one has within a company. It seems to me that one explanation is that we don’t really make anything, so that work is about service orientation, it seems that one wants to place a high value on personality because that’s what service is about.

BE: These are not people who are in direct customer-service situations. So that theory doesn’t hold.

RB: [laughs]

BE: And I don’t know about those customer-service folks, either. [both laugh] But these are people who are insulated from the customer at a higher level.

RB: Doesn’t attitude and such trickle down? Good vibes?

BE: Maybe. But, as much as I can figure out, the emphasis on being a team player and likeability and conformity rather than getting the job done probably goes back to the emulation of Japanese management style, which came in the ‘80s.

RB: Everything Japanese was in.

BE: But I still don’t get it. It doesn’t seem appropriate to me. “Appropriate” is such a stupid word. Let me try that again. How does that go with the fact that these workplaces are so cutthroat? Everybody talks about teams, and it sounds so nice and fun, but these teams are extremely fragile. People are expelled from them every day. So I don’t know how you could go around smiling and being an agreeable, happy-faced team player.

RB: I’ve lived part of this experience.

BE: Really?

RB: I perfunctorily look for work in that Billy Beane/Moneyball-inspired way of trolling for information. I learn stuff. You sent out how many résumés and applications?

BE: I estimated over 200 applications, but I also had my résumé posted on all the major job sites and also on the more specialized ones.

RB: They track the hits that your résumé gets.

BE: Oh, I never noticed.

RB: does.

BE: I didn’t know how to find that. [laughs]

RB: Last year I sent out 600 to 700 résumés and I got maybe 5 percent responses and/or acknowledgments. It was amazing how little-valued acknowledgment is.

BE: No, and I learned something interesting just recently on this tour from a woman who had a job in HR looking at résumés. She said there is a reason that you don’t get a rejection, ever, is that they are afraid that someone would figure out—that it could be the basis for a [law] suit, a discrimination suit. So if you were never rejected, you can’t say [it was due to] age or race or gender—was that your experience?

RB: A small amount of automatic email acknowledgements and very occasionally something more. By and large, it was—

BE: Nothing. It sort of seems frustrating to me. It should work. You should be able to list skills, and match up to a company’s needs, and zip right through.

RB: You would think that they could do what Amazon does in sales, refining their sense of what books you might be interested in, and set up some kind of parametric assessment. Aren’t you struck by the fact that these corporate cultures are so cutthroat…doesn’t it point to the fact that the biggest part of one’s job is keeping one’s job?

BE: Hmm, yeah. That’s probably right.

RB: In your experience, besides the professionals—who I assume have clearly demarcated skills and responsibilities—what do managers do, push paper?

BE: I’m trying to think back to people I met. Often the management was connected with some sort of substantive area of knowledge. Marketing manager or something, who knows?

RB: There’s an interesting field.

BE: Yeah. [chuckles]

RB: That’s what you based your job search on.

BE: And PR.

RB: [laughs]

BE: What’s so funny about that? [laughs]

RB: Well, I accept that book PR people are a breed apart.

BE: I was talking to Annsley, the publicist at Holt, about this. Her degree was in literature, English literature, and she said if you are going to go into PR in other corporate settings, it should be in communications. In the publishing world they’re much more likely to want an English major.

RB: Makes sense. I laughed because I find publicists other than in the book industry to be quasi-criminals. These people will connect anything with anything and without regard to any standard of truth that I recognize.

BE: I went to that PR essay training here in Boston to learn how to suppress and frustrate [anti-corporate, anti-globalization, pro-environment] activists.

It’s cruel and sinister to make these exhortations to people who have just been through the trauma of job loss—“It’s all in your head.”RB: Maybe there is a possible trilogy here. Do you have any interest in talking to corporate lions? Like Jack Welsh or Al “Chainsaw” Dunlop.

BE: Talking to them?

RB: Yeah after they write their self-serving paeans to themselves.

BE: They are not going to reveal anything to a critical journalist.

RB: How about taking up the guise of a sycophantic toady? You have taken on other personas.

BE: Nah, enough already. [laughs] No, the [next] book I have been working on for a long time is historical.

RB: In the mode of Blood Rites?

BE: It grows out of that one.

RB: Self-help is a big industry in this country.

BE: There is a wonderful new book out about it, called Self-Help, Inc., by Mickey McGee. It’s really fine.

RB: There may be a slew of books on that topic. Francis Wheen’s Idiot Proof has a great, lampooning chapter on self-help. Is this tendency a particularly American one?

BE: Yes. And there is a particular strain that seems to me to be uniquely American, at least as far as I can tell, and I am waiting to be corrected on this. And that’s this positive-thinking business. Mary Baker Eddy, you could say, was part of that—mind over matter. Dale Carnegie, and Norman Vincent Peale, and then EST. I encountered it when I was being treated for breast cancer about four and half years ago. And it maddened me. It was everywhere in this breast-cancer culture that you can get into on the web or in support groups.

RB: You wrote a much-admired essay on this.

BE: Yeah, a very angry essay. If you think positively you will be better—now, this has been disproved, believe me, by five studies that show that—

RB: Positive thinking hasn’t cured anyone’s cancer.

BE: It’s clear that depression is a risk factor for many serious illnesses but when you have cancer, having a good attitude is not going to save your life. And it just infuriated me. And I thought about it then, but I didn’t think about it much beyond that context. I was thinking, “I have a right to be angry. I don’t know why I have this disease. I can’t stand the treatments. It’s all disgusting, and I am enraged, and leave me alone. This is what I’m like. I’m a crank.” And then in this world of the white-collar unemployed, there it was again. This insistence that essentially you ruled the universe with your thoughts is what it came down to—and it’s out there in the business books. I wrote an essay in the New York Times Book Review on some of the best-selling business books. I must have read 10 more than I had read for Bait and Switch. And there it is, it’s always there.

RB: Marcelle Clements, years ago, wrote a collection of essays, The Dog Is Us, in which she treats this. [She identified] two groups of people, the group called the fuck-ups, who were inclined to social justice and were somehow dissatisfied with the status quo, and then the upbeat people, who thought they could do things because they thought positively. These people seemed to vote for Republicans and Ronald Reagan.

BE: It’s cruel and sinister to make these exhortations to people who have just been through the trauma of job loss—“It’s all in your head.”

RB: A subtle form of blaming the victim.

BE: Of course, and the prohibitions on anger were similar to what I encountered in the breast cancer culture. “You cannot be angry.” It’s all right to be angry.

RB: The contradiction is rife—on the one hand there is a movement to not suppress one’s feelings, and on the other hand, don’t express the [feelings] that other people might not like.

BE: Right. Actually, in the corporate world, I don’t think you are supposed to express your feelings.

RB: But in the self-help world, that is a value.

BE: The more therapeutic end of the self-help world. But in the corporate world it is about, as sociologists have said, “masking,” having the appropriate mask.

RB: Have you have identified any corporations that you think are admirable in their employment practices?

BE: I’m sure there are some, but I don’t know enough about differences in the corporate world. I think I would have been a lot more comfortable in the dot-com culture during the boom, because it was more open to eccentricity, and I did speak at Microsoft at the very beginning of this book tour. They actually have authors come in.

RB: So does Google, by the way.

BE: Google—I love Google.

RB: [laughs]

BE: And they weren’t clone types. They were dressed variously-—

RB: Microsoft has this huge campus.

BE: Campus—exactly.

RB: They’re all millionaires.

BE: I don’t think so anymore. Nobody wants the stock options. When the bust came, whatever looseness had crept out of the dot-com industry into the rest of the corporate world was suddenly rolled back. Even casual Friday has been retrenched because things have just tightened up a lot. See, I didn’t start out to study the corporate culture. I was supposed to focus just on this job-search process, but I got distracted because it was so alien to me. And it was not what I expected. I expected—I’m from the reality-based community. I expected logic, fact-based thinking. You know you have to make money, right? No, it’s a strange world. And the fact that hiring seems to be based so heavily on likeablilty and features like that, and conformity, in matters of dress and presentation, other than skills and experience or creativity, suggest that we are going toward a really stagnant and decadent business culture in this country. I just put this out. It is my impression.

RB: Funny, I just saw a clip from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit—a scene where Gregory Peck is trying to decide whether to tell his boss a speech he is going to give stinks. And he is explaining to his wife the way one gives one’s opinion in a business meeting—measuring it against what is expected, how the wind is blowing. Which was all about conformity, which was the big thing in the ‘50s. That hasn’t changed.

BE: No, what’s changed is that you don’t get rewarded with security for that conformity. When [William] Whyte wrote The Organization Man, which was a big screed against what was happening to masculinity, really, as American men are bent into this corporate conformity—

RB: Like Japanese salarymen.

BE: Yeah, there was a time there was a payoff. You played the game, and you played golf with the boss, and you drank martinis with the guys, and end up with a pension. And having been paid decently over the years. Now the requirements for conformity are every bit as stringent, but there is no reward. You could be out next week. There is this huge churning going on in the white-collar corporate world.

RB: So what’s the answer? How do you resolve this, to create cultures that don’t turn people into droogs? What’s the distinction you made—the difference between being an expense and an asset? Employees are looked upon—

BE:—as expenses.

Ehrenreich, photographed by Robert Birnbaum, copyright 2005

RB: Why do companies spend so much effort to create the opposite image? Wal-Mart tries hard to make itself seem a congenial workplace.

BE: I know. You’re told you’re entering a family, and that is equivalent to the team rhetoric in the middle- and upper-middle levels of the corporate world. You’re part of something larger than yourself. There are evocations of some kind of collective spirit. Which, in fact, means nothing. It’s totally undermined.

RB: I remember in my days in the corporate world that the myth of family was proffered but they upped the ante—proudly proclaiming they were a “dysfunctional family.” Hah, hah.

BE: [laughs]

RB: Which is a not-so-clever way of excusing all manner of bad behavior. A couple of reviews that I glanced at took you to task for your methodology. “How could you make these general claims? You are not a true test.”

BE: Oh, I never said I was a test. I don’t read reviews, generally. If they are right, you can’t revise, and if they are wrong, you can’t answer back. But I was annoyed by a paragraph in a Business Week review [that said], “She’s not a good test.” I never said I was testing. I was trying to enter into this world of unhappiness.

RB: The spirit of your book is about showing a real-life situation—why the need for it to be quantified or made scientifically rigorous?

BE: Also, I searched for seven months, ten months—I forget exactly where I cut off the formal search—and just started interviewing people. But the average length of a white-collar job search is six months. I was not out of bounds for the average by any means, and I met so many people who were highly qualified who had been searching for years.

RB: People who took any job—

BE: People searching for the kind of job that they wanted. And of course the ones who take any job disappear from the unemployment statistics because they are employed.

RB: I noticed that McDonald’s advertises, “Help wanted, all shifts, medical benefits.”

BE: That’s what does it. That’s what brings people into any kind of a job. In the last three weeks, I’ve had several occasions when I was using a car service, being driven around, and most of those guys were executives at one point.

RB: After the election last year, Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times made a big splash by identifying that the genius of the Republican strategy was having gotten working-class people to vote against their interests, which is basically the thesis that Thomas Frank propounds in What’s the Matter with Kansas?. Do you think that’s true?

BE: Do you mean the blue-collar working class? The problem with the low-pay, blue-collar working class—and more and more of it low-paying service work—is that they tend not to vote at all. When they do vote, they vote Democratic as they move up—

RB:—to the building trades and the like?

BE: This is fascinating. It’s shrinking. The building trades used to be the aristocrats of labor, highly paid—

RB: Why is it shrinking if there is so much building going on?

BE: Immigrant workers. Underpaid immigrant workers. You look next time you get close to a construction site. They bring in guys for $6 an hour doing what was once close to $20-an-hour work. And that’s been a huge change in the building trades. So, the stereotype of the working class from the ‘70s of the white, male, conservative guys like Archie Bunker is long gone. They are not there. What I learned working on Bait and Switch was something different from what Tom Frank is saying, but certainly connected. I had written about the same thing in Fear of Falling—the false populism of the right. But I had to go to these churches to find out. I was going to these churches for the so-called networking, job networking events. What I noticed was how many social services these churches have. I wrote about this for the Nation—not just the job search thing, but you might find ESL classes, support for battered women, after-school programs, child-care programs, things for children with special needs, and on and on. It doesn’t look like a church at all. So as those services diminish in the public sector or the secular sector, to include the non-profit world, more and more they can be found in churches, thanks also to faith-based funding. Which is a powerful draw. If this is where you can get your after-school care—if you participate in these things in any way—and it is hard not to because you are being heavily proselytized—you are going to be told to vote against people who are pro-abortion and gay marriage—which is simply a coded way of saying vote against people who actually expand these services in the public sector. So they are like Hamas in the Middle East—

RB: [laughs]

BE: And there are other examples, as in India, where you build a political/religious organization out of the lack of public services for people. That’s what they are doing all over America. I didn’t draw out the whole point there, but it was pretty clear what was going on. And I would never have found that out if I hadn’t put myself in this odd position of being an undercover job-seeker.

RB: Does that scare you?

BE: Yeah.

RB: Are a lot of people being serviced by those organizations?

BE: The events I went to were often quite crowded. And it made me understand a little bit about the success of the evangelical movement in a non-emotional sense—they are not talking about faith, and need, and community, and—that’s not what’s going on. The god that you find in these settings is not a transcendent god but a busybody god.

RB: [laughs]

BE: Who makes sure you get an email in your inbox to counsel you to take the management job instead of the engineering job, and so on? They have trivialized religion totally. And it was surprising to me at first—I was just gagging at the religiosity and the prejudices that went with it, the anti-Semitism and the homophobia. But then what is even more fundamentally repulsive was this total trivialization of—I’m not a religious person, but let us say, whatever is unknowable, mysterious, glorious about the Universe.

RB: It seems that it should be a good thing that social services be provided by private organizations. It should be.

BE: The women’s movement had health clinics, rape-crisis centers, and all those things, and we worried about government involvement. And I think, what should churches be doing if not good works? But when it’s in the context of a political message, that you should vote against secular and public versions of those same things, then that gets sinister.

RB: What could turn around this situation for white-collar unemployed person? Corporations will continue to downsize, outsource, and reengineer.

BE: One thing we could do is insist that government stop paying them to do so. There is this huge amount—at all levels—of government subsidy and tax breaks, always in the name of job creation, Right now, Hewlett-Packard is getting $8 billion as a tax break under the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 while they have announced layoffs of 14,500 people. It’s this myth that we have to keep coddling them because they give us jobs.

RB: A big problem is why people aren’t more vigilant about the disconnect between what the government claims and what it does.

BE: That’s why we have to encourage people to act on their anger and their perception, and to act together. That’s what’s missing in the white-collar world—is any traditions of solidarity and collective action.

RB: These are the same people who scoff at unions.

BE: Yeah but it cuts deeper than that. It is an inability to see that people coming together actually changed institutions and we can do it again. When I talk to my organizers, [laughs] people I have recruited in different cities, and only have these brief talks with them after book signings, I say, “I was in the feminist movement in the ‘70s. It was a time when women felt a kind of shame about themselves, and we had things we never told people that had happened to us, and so on. And we began to meet around kitchen tables and things. And then we built a movement that changed the culture out of that. And there are real parallels in your situation, whatever your gender, now.” People feel ashamed about being laid-off, or they feel very anxious about their job security. They are afraid to talk about it. They don’t talk about it with anybody. They feel it’s their fault.

RB: Separating people or retarding larger communities seems to be a way of life here. Suburbs seem to do that, except for maybe soccer games. They are not geared toward organizing people to do anything.

BE: Things are structured so as to keep us apart more. I do believe it’s electric when people get together. I’ve seen it happen. And I’m sure you have. [laughs]

RB: Can you talk about your next book?

BE: It’s so strange and so different. But I’ll tell you. I usually just say no, but I’ll tell you. It’s about festivities and ecstatic rituals. And, put very simply, it asks the question of why we have so little of this in our culture today.

RB: Have you ever been to Burning Man?

BE: No. Unfortunately this book isn’t being researched by immersion journalism. [both laugh] There’s a plot: I am following the repression of these things and trying to understand—

RB: In this country or worldwide?

BE: Worldwide, to find the deep social forces attached to the repression and then how things bubble back up.

RB: This is something you’ve been thinking about for quite awhile?

BE: Yeah, I had a couple of months this summer before Bait and Switch came out, and I leaped back into that parallel universe. I love research and staying in my little study.

RB: Have you looked past this book?

BE: My agent is kind of nudging me on some very faint ideas, but I’m not in a rush. It’s hard to combine grandmotherhood with a career. [laughs]

RB: Have any documentaries come from either of these two books?

BE: Nickel and Dimed inspired a special called Wage Slaves on A&E, I think.

RB: I don’t have cable.

BE: [harrumphs] You can’t watch Rome.

RB: I rent DVDs of things like The Wire—have you seen that?

BE: I watched one episode

RB: Deadwood?

BE: [enthusiastically] Yeah. I should get the DVDs. I love the language in Deadwood. It’s almost Shakespearean. Rome may not be as well-written, but if anybody is going to recreate some era of the past and spend a lot of money doing it, I am going to watch it. I see all the trashy epic movies and try to screen out the love scenes and the talking. I see the battle scenes.

RB: I kind of liked Ridley Scott’s Troy.

BE: It broke my heart for not being a great movie. Brad Pitt, come on? But it was amazing to see the recreation of the boats on the beach there. I’ll see battle scenes over and over.

RB: Did you see Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great?

BE: Yes, again, disappointing. It had the problem that a lot of things have. That they don’t understand the strangeness of the past. That Achilles was not just a pouty teenager.

RB: [laughs]

BE: And Alexander was not just someone who had to deal with a dysfunctional family. This was a strange time: Both of those guys, in fact, woke up every morning and slaughtered an animal. It was a very different way of thinking.

RB: Well, OK, thanks so much again.


Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum