This Land is Their Land is a compilation of Barbara Ehrenreich op-ed or blog-type pieces from the 2000s.
I enjoy Ehrenreich’s writing, and I’m sure I agree with 80% or more of what she says in these articles, but this book didn’t do a whole lot for me.
Short articles like this just aren’t the best format for her. Book-length projects are where she truly shines. When she has the opportunity to do research and to tell a story in a thorough way, she’s among my favorite writers. With room to develop arguments, relate an extended series of experiences, and provide character sketches of the odd and interesting folks she encounters on her journeys, she excels. She’s funny, insightful, and usually right.
These pieces, though, as often as not feel superficial. Most of the points she makes don’t strike me as any more insightful than what you can get from dozens of liberal pundits. Her curmudgeonly humor doesn’t seem as sharp in this context.
I didn’t hate the book by a long shot. I thought it was worth reading, and like I say I agree with what she writes in it far more often than I disagree. But I wouldn’t recommend it nearly as highly as I would her books that aren’t just compilations of short articles.
For the remainder of this piece, I’ll highlight a few of the essays that I thought were the strongest or at least most thought-provoking.
One thing that’s quite noticeable throughout This Land is Their Land is how often the themes fit other books she has written, other research she has done.
This is certainly apparent in Invasion of the Cheerleaders, which is very much along the same lines as Bright-Sided, her book about the obnoxiousness of the positive-thinking movement, published two years after this book.
She discovers that some drug companies have a policy of recruiting women with a background in cheerleading as their sales reps, which leads to her musing about the alarming trend in corporate America to favor just such job seekers. Maybe not always literal cheerleaders, but perpetually bubbly and enthusiastic team players, or at least people who are willing to participate in the ritual of pretending they’re that during a job interview. “If you don’t feel wildly enthusiastic about marketing widgets or brokering life insurance, then you damn well better fake it.”
How damaging this constant phoniness must be psychologically to corporate workers, this demand that people adopt whatever persona the all-powerful Market has chosen to reward. But how damaging also it must be to society as a whole. “It doesn’t take long to learn that a smile doesn’t mean friendship, that wide-open eyes and exclamations of “awesome”! don’t indicate the slightest interest. The entire emotional currency of human interaction is being fatally devalued, and when that happens there can be no trust.”
This kind of lack of authenticity—so ubiquitous that we don’t even notice it anymore, or just accept as “the way the world works” if we do—is one of my ethical pet peeves, so a piece like this certainly speaks to me.
I find myself in part disagreeing with A Uterus is Not a Substitute for a Conscience. Ehrenreich here contends that the participation of female soldiers in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib disproves a common strand of feminism that women are morally superior to men in that they are more compassionate and less prone to violence and war and such.
But anecdotal evidence like that surely does no such thing, unless that hypothesis is interpreted in the most extreme, implausible way as claiming that no woman anytime anywhere does brutal, awful things.
Imagine, for example, that in the identical circumstances, with the identical training or preparation, 60% of males and 15% of females would torture a given person. I’m just tossing out made-up numbers of course, but this is a hypothetical. In that case, a female engaging in torture would not be impossible, not even close. Yet it would still make perfect sense to say that females are far less prone to commit torture.
My own belief is that there are many gender generalizations like that that are true, indeed often obviously true. But a couple things about that: One, I don’t know how many if any of them are innate rather than a product of cultural influences and such (at certain times and places a disproportionate number of Chinese people have operated laundries; I hardly think this establishes there’s something genetic about the Chinese that suits them to this line of work), and two, all of them are just rules of thumb or averages with countless exceptions, like the above made-up example of 60% and 15% (the average male is taller than the average female; it doesn’t follow that no female is taller than any male).
It’s probably true that women on average are more compassionate than men, less sadistic, less apt to enforce their will through violence, less apt to torture. They also by all appearances are on average less rational, more apt to believe in astrology and New Age stuff, more into cuddling, more apt to express their emotions, etc. So what?
Assuming we’re not going to be relativists about everything and instead are willing to admit some dispositions and some behaviors are better than others, then, yes, women are morally superior to men in certain ways (and morally inferior in others). But that’s the average woman and the average man—or really the average woman and the average man in contemporary America, since those are the folks I’m most familiar with—not all women and all men. Of course there are women soldiers who would go to Iraq and torture people, just as there are women scientists, women psychopathic violent street gang members, and women over six feet tall.
Ehrenreich comes to the conclusion that if you want to humanize some particularly morally egregious area of life—business, politics, war, whatever—it’s not enough to simply put more women into these areas, as if then nature will somehow take its course and everyone will start being nicer or something.
I fully agree. Typically all that happens in a situation like that is that individuals adapt to the corrupt institutions, or really that the people who enter such fields are a self-selected group who are already corrupt. Politics doesn’t get cleaned up due to women entering it; politics stays just as dirty by attracting outlier women like Margaret Thatcher or Hillary Clinton who can behave as atrociously as men. “We need a kind of feminism that aims not just to assimilate into the institutions that men have created over the centuries, but to infiltrate and transform them…It is not enough to assimilate. We need to create a world worth assimilating into.”
All Together Now is Ehrenreich’s passionate defense of non-conformity, of the willingness to have beliefs that differ from those of the crowd and to stand up for them.
Her contention is that public discourse has enforced conformity more than ever since 9/11 “when groupthink became the official substitute for patriotism and we began to run out of surfaces for affixing American flags.” I’m not sure about that—I tend to think the pressure to conform is pretty much always very strong—but certainly I agree with the thrust of the essay. “This nation was not founded by habitual groupthinkers. But it stands a fair chance of being destroyed by them.”
The Faith Factor is a thought-provoking piece about the dangers of conceding the equation of morality with religious faith, and conceding the desirability of having the traditional functions of a welfare state increasingly privatized to be handled by “faith-based” private entities.
It has become increasingly common, she notes, for churches to be the first place people in need turn to for child care, afterschool programs, drug and alcohol programs, job training, food and occasionally cash assistance, and even business networking opportunities. Which is all well and good, except that the overwhelming majority of the churches providing these services are conservative, especially on social issues, and the assistance typically comes packaged with aggressive proselytizing and political propagandizing.
If there are services that justice requires a society to provide to its people in need, then liberals need to step up and insist it do so—directly, openly, collectively, not delegated to its most conservative elements that will only exacerbate the problems that cause these needs. And they need to insist that issues of right and wrong are not limited to sex and abortion and the things that get conservatives riled up, but to identify “poverty and war as the urgent moral issues they are.”