SocraticGadfly: RIP Barbara Ehrenreich — the good, the semi-bad, the full bad, and the sad

September 03, 2022

RIP Barbara Ehrenreich — the good, the semi-bad, the full bad, and the sad

Via Twitter, per son Ben, she died Thursday.

We'll start with the good, then get into the semi-bad, with the sad at the end of that, then into the full bad (and it is) based on some late Googling. TLDR? I realized, after I got done with this long piece, that what was the real issue to me is what I perceive as intellectual dishonesty. Details at bottom. Yes, Ehrenreich fanbois and fangrrlz.

If you want to cut to the chase? For the start of the “Wild God” review, go here to get there immediately. For the start of everything behind that book that I’ve learned in the past 24 hours, that led me to drop its review another star and add yet more thoughts, including the “intellectual dishonesty,” go here.

I read "Nickel and Dimed" long ago, but apparently didn't write a review. It was a very good description of how capitalism depends on exploiting poverty, and even more, on how capitalists as actual, and individual, people, depend on exploiting the poor as actual, and individual, people.

Even better, IMO, getting off neoliberal capitalism and into something else, was "Bright Sided," where she explicitly called out New Age bullshit about thinking yourself healthy, visualizing cancer cells disappearing, etc. The somewhat connected "Natural Causes," which looked at health faddism in general, but had bits of New Agey angles in it as well? Also very good.

Extracts from my review of it, more detailed than "Bright Sided," follow. (With it and the other extract, ellipsis points are not separating sections of the original reviews; since these are extracts, they're serving their normal functions as ellipsis points.)

Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer

Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's plenty of punch in this slim volume, and it goes beyond what most reviews note. .....

Your own body may exacerbate many cancers.

Ehrenreich looks at how macrophages can be "bad guys" as well as "good gals." They can "encourage" cancer cells in the area of tumors to continue reproducing rather than killing them. They supply cancer cells with chemical growth factors. They build new blood vessels for them. They help them enter blood vessels they couldn't on their own. This all is best documented with breast cancer, but also shown with lung, bone, gastric and other cancers, she says.

In addition, the spread of arthritis and other inflammation-generated diseases, are also assisted by macrophages.

So, from this, riffing on her previous book "Bright-Sided," Ehrenreich says New Agey ideas of visualizing your body, or "your body," attacking cancer is nonsense. The "your body" goes in scare quotes, because she also documents other ways in which macrophages can be free agents of sorts. She goes back to Russian zoologist Elie Metchenikoff, who first talked about this a century and more ago, but was roundly rejected. Now, his ideas are gaining acceptance. Some other immunological cells have lesser, but not insignificant, degrees of free agency, Ehrenreich says.


We're still not done, though.

Next comes philosophy.

If these cells have that much independence, what does this mean for the idea of a unitary "self"? And, if they're not conscious, but seem to have some independence, what word do we use for that?


And, we're still not done.

Ehreinreich, paralleling somewhat Irvin Yalom, talks about "successful aging" next. That means accepting that aging will happen. Accepting that many blows of aging cannot be fully dodged, not even by rich anti-aging gurus. Accepting and embracing that aging has positive sides. With that, people can stop wasting money on gimmicks and brainwaves on stressing out. They can accept that aging is a normal evolutionary process, too. And, those macrophages that are quasi-free agents, along with other parts of "our" immune system? Just maybe their biggest job is to help kickstart the process of decomposition when each of us dies.

From here, back to philosophy.

Ehrenreich talks about the invention of the "self." In Europe, she says it probably started with the Renaissance and the rise of humanism, then took off in the Enlightenment. Rousseau, of course, majorly boosted the idea.


Ehrenreich's conclusion? Kill the self, or at least diminish the attachment to it. She mentions psychadelic drugs; on the other hand, many modern Americans who talk about using them seem to look at attaching more to a "self" afterward than before. But, there's potential there, along with long, distracted walks in nature and other things.

Don't rage against the dying of the light; accept that you don't control the sunset or the light switch.  

Sadly, she had a cropper with "Living with a Wild God." Given specifically her take on New Ageyness, and in general, given the appearance that she seemed to be some sort of non-metaphysical secularist, the fact that that wasn't the total case with her personal life, plus her hinting that there were things hidden behind a thick, heavy curtain that she wouldn't talk about, left this book well short of others.

Excerpts from my review will illustrate, along with observations about an interview she had with Harper's about the book.

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything

Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Call this book review "The deep loneliness of Barbara Ehrenreich" or maybe "The Tragedy of Barbara Ehrenreich."

I wrestled with exactly how to rate this book. Her alleged metaphysical experience as a teen, and her return to it at late-midlife crisis time? That part's a 1-star, and I knew that when I had read an excerpt online. She even admits that, as William James notes, the physical "symptoms" she had of her mystical experience are not uncommon. Yet, she wants to mystify them, rather than noting that hypoglycemia, sleep deprivation of a moderate sort and stress could easily have caused her own version of a common experience. (Update: With excerpts from two links at the bottom, it now IS a 1-star.)

That's especially true in light of her history of depersonalization and disassociation. There's fairly solid evidence that some people are by nature more susceptible to such things. Or -- by childhood. [As in, things like child abuse.]

And here we get to the reason I'll give the book a second star, and start talking about the title.

About 4/5 the way in, she says, (semi-exact quote), "If this were a biography, this is where it would begin."

But, the book IS a biography of sorts, a sad and tragic one. The fact that she doesn't seem to see it that way ties in with the very psychological tragedy that she seems to want to avoid discussing further, even in her 70s.

Here's the basics on her childhood:
1. Two alcoholic parents, with an emotionally manipulative father and an emotionally unavailable mother.
2. A physically abusive mother. (Yes, Barbara, that's what "slapping in the face" is, especially when done with some regularity.)
3. Frequent moves. (She notes that a stay of 18 months in Lowell, Mass., was longer than usual.)
4. Marital trauma that eventually led to divorce not too long after Barbara's "experience," both remarrying, dad divorcing a second time and mother near that point before her suicide.
5. Some history of mental health problems on her mom's side of the family.

Well, depersonalization/dissociation is a kind of common "defense mechanism" in such cases. And, perhaps she had some inherited susceptibility, too.

The "solipsism" she later on discovers in her teenage and college self is another defense mechanism. So, too, in all likelihood, are some of the ritual behaviors of her pre-teen life she describes but fleetingly. So, too, as an adult, is writing about your own life in a semi-detached, semi-third-person style.

And yet, she can be "hard" toward others who have as many, or more, depersonalization experiences than her, even referring mockingly to a self-help website for depersonalization.


I suspect her childhood was worse than she's told us, too.

The mystical attachments aside, the book isn't trash. But, it probably should not have been written. And, I think the disjointedness and sometimes poor style reflect the issues I mention above. Or, as part of professional help and other things, maybe it should have been written three years from now as an actual biography.

It's very hard to believe that the author of Bright-Sided could have written this. Unless, again, this is seen as cri de coeur first, paean to mysticism a distant second.

[Editorial addition: And, in hindsight, it's not just that she pulled punches as an autobiography or memoir. Assuming she was a child abuse victim, she could have done more for other victims and survivors by speaking out in detail. But, didn't.]

View all my reviews


And now, that Harper's interview.

She owns up to lifelong atheism, even telling her undergrad alma mater she was a "fourth generation" atheist, but yet takes her high school experience as not just "mystical," but, if you will, a "theophany." I quote:

After a night spent sleeping in a car, she went for a morning walk in the woods and felt the presence of another being — she later said she “saw God” — then spent the next several decades ignoring the experience and hoping it wouldn’t recur.

Somehow, I missed in my review that she actually said she had "seen God." I might have 1-starred the book instead (while still being sympathetic to her as a child abuse victim).

Harper's interviewer Ryann Lieberthal then asks her:

What would you attribute those experiences to now? If you saw something there in Lone Pine, what was that thing?

And, Ehrenreich simply refuses to give a straight-up answer.

The interview about the rest of her work, beyond and based on the previous books she had written? Very good stuff. This?  Even though the rest of the part of the interview that talks about "Wild God" only has her talking about consciousness of other animals, that's bad enough. A PhD scientist (she was, and in cellular immunology, a biological field, no less) strawmanning biologists as claiming that about all of them don't talk about, or even reject, consciousness in other animals. 

And, behind that, since she didn't answer Lieberthal straight up? I sense a hint at the same New Ageyness that she excoriated elsewhere. Even worse, since she read the old journals, that led to the book, while being treated for cancer — the sidebars to all of that treatment and other patients having led directly to the "Bright Sided" attack on New Ageyness.

Oh, but wait, Googling, or Duck Ducking, "Barbara Ehrenreich" + "mysticism" leads me to find out that she even had an interview with RELIGION NEWS SERVICE about this, and there claims MULTIPLE mystical experiences. 

Since millions of Theravada Buddhists are also atheists, not believing in a personal deity, I now wonder just what she meant by "atheism." Was she rather just more "irreligious," like many "Nones" of today?

And, oh fucking doorknob, this gets worse yet!!!!

The interviewer is Minnesota Nice Piety Brother Atheist Lite, or rather, Fake Atheist, Chris Stedman. And, her fuzziness level on responses goes WAY beyond the non-responsiveness to Lieberthal. Extended excerpt:

CS: You’re speaking at the third “Women in Secularism” conference this weekend. Over the last few years there has been a lot of discussion about sexism among nontheists, and this conference seeks to continue that. Why do you think the atheist community is struggling around issues of sexism and harassment? 
BE: I don’t know. I don’t spend a lot of time in what you might call the atheist community. It’s not a word that I think would adequately describe me—it’s just a starting point. I don’t believe, but that doesn’t exactly define a community, except in some circumstances when we’re up against real discrimination, which we often are. So I can’t say I know much about sexism in the atheist community. Certainly the very prominent atheists have been white men, and I don’t know what to do about that. We need to add some women to the list. 
CS: What will you be talking about at “Women in Secularism”? 
BE: I’ll base my remarks on Living with a Wild God, and I’ll talk about growing up as an atheist and coming to question some of the foundations of the science I had been taught. I hope to emphasize that atheism in itself is not a complete answer. That’s just where we start from—we don’t start with any belief. We’re still trying to figure things out. 
CS: You say that atheism is a starting point. What comes after? 
BE: Anything you like. As an atheist, you don’t start by saying, “There is a God and he or it has arranged everything as it is.” Every question is open once you put aside beliefs like that.

"Just wow." Or, since we're headed that way? To riff on an old cliché? "Oleaginous is as oleaginous does," for both of them. Or, "Oleaginous knows oleaginous."

Just one more. Fake nice Catholic Twitter evangelist Elizabeth Breunig pretended to semi-like it while largely hating it for not being explicitly religious, and thus showing years ago what a hater she is.

I hadn't meant for this to wind up becoming a "takedown" interview like I did on John McCain, Poppy Bush or semi-so on Madeleine Albright. I hadn't even meant for a semi-takedown, at least not as much as I did on Gorbachev earlier this week. 

But, the Harper's interview, revealing the mindset behind "Wild God," led me to all of Ehrenreich, not just her most famous class-based book, or class and sociology ones.

But, I didn't know all this about Ehrenreich. I don't go looking for atheist "heroes," but if any people perceived her as one? Tain't so.  

Maybe Laura Miller at Slate gets it right — as with Dostoyevsky (and St. Paul), we can blame temporal lobe epilepsy. Only problem? Ehrenreich has never said she had any type of epilepsy. 

And, with that, I've wasted enough time. To quote Jesus of Nazareth? "Let the dead bury their own dead."

No, one last note, since the hagiographic obits are focused on "Nickel and Dimed," barely touching "Bright Sided," and looking little at her other books.

On politics, she was, like Noam Chomsky and others, an ardent socialist who remained firmly ensconsed within the left hand of the duopoly, specifically as a DSA Rosey. With Noam and the others, she openly called for Green nominee Howie Hawkins to run a "safe states" campaign. Hawkins politely told her and the others to, in essence, STFU. Yeah, Wiki says she endorsed Nader in 2000, but that's yesterday's news and the last time she stepped outside the duopoly.

There. NOW we're in takedown obit territory. So sue me.

No, one "sad" item to add. In my focus on her bromance with mysticism, I forgot about the "sad" part of "Wild God." So did Lieberthal, Stedman and presumably many others. I can't believe nobody asked her to talk more about child abuse, especially since poverty is a contributing factor to parents becoming abusers. This would have squared the circle with "Nickel and Dimed."

So, intellectual dishonesty? Yes. First, on Ehrenreich's part for not offering straight answers to straight questions on mysticism and related metaphysical issues, and what got me started on "Wild God," for not being totally forthright on childhood history.

For those who claim that's unwarranted? She chose to include things that happened to her in childhood, then denied what they were. It's been a long time since I read it, and I can't remember if the denials were more of commission or omission. But, they were.

It's also intellectual dishonesty by interviewers. In the case of Minnesota Pi Brother Stedman on mysticism, no surprise. Given that I also think he's also a self-unidentified child abuse victim, no shocker he didn't ask Ehrenreich about that, either. But, Lieberthal, and others, who interviewed her and didn't ask more about the abuse, and the missed chance to square the circle? If you had any inkling what she didn't pursue, and didn't ask, you were intellectually dishonest, too.

NOW. "So sue me."


Updates: I'm going to add thoughts as I get any comments here, or responses on Blue Bird Satan, where I already have.

First, no, Ehrenreich didn't "owe" anybody anything, re being more forthright about child abuse. But, she had an opportunity, and passed on it. As I noted before, adult poverty correlates with child abuse. I'll add that, at least on sexual and emotional abuse, girls are much more the target than boys, so this ties to Ehrenreich's writings about feminism.

Related? I write a column every April about Child Abuse Prevention Month. I don't put my personal experiences in my columns, but close friends of mine know what they are. At some point, I may give a bare-bones description in the column, and note that it was abuse. (And more than what I have in the column.) Therefore, per the above paragraph and the body of the original post, I speak from experience. While my platform is much smaller than hers, me not being famous, I have used it. 

Related part 2, from my original review? I noted she seemed to be mocking other people who have had depersonalization or derealization. In today's "woke" world, that's a "microaggression." Or, pre-woke, that's being passive-aggressive or worse.

Second, in July, on vacation, I had what I have already called a "secular spiritual experience." That said, I found none of it mystical. Nor "ineffable," which is where I think Ehrenreich was headed, though weirdly, she never used that word. Nor did I find any of it "metaphysical."

Third, as far as the alleged inexplicability of such events? In a word, tosh. A better word to tackle? "Ineffable." In that RNS piece, especially, I think Ehrenreich was trying to insinuate her experience was "ineffable" but she didn't want to use that word because she was already standing on two stools.

Anyway, I'll take two angles on this.

The first part is from the actual science world, the world that Ehrenreich dissed in her strawmanning of biologists. (And, per feedback, that's part of her intellectual dishonesty.) Neither the quantum physics world nor the cosmology world knows which of the two, quantum mechanics or gravitation, wins out in the final shot at a "grand unified theory," let alone what's on the other side. But, nobody this side of Deepak Chopra claims that makes a claim that any of this is "ineffable."

DON'T even think about going Deepak on me. I'll kick you hard and after that, the conversation is over.

Second angle comes from philosophy of language, primarily Wittgenstein, but also a hat tip to ideas of self-referentiality from Kurt Gödel et al as explicated by Douglas Hofstadter in "Gödel, Escher, Bach."

To be blunt?

If a person were (note the subjunctive) to have an experience that they alleged was "ineffable," they could not use the word "ineffable" to make the claim that the experience was "ineffable." And, it's not just the word "ineffable" as a word, but as a signifier; plug in any close synonym and you'll fail again.

Per Gödel, there's the self-reference issue, but that's secondary.

Per Wittgenstein or related, there's the linguistic discourse issue. If the idea of "ineffable" / "ineffability" is that an experience cannot be described, then that apples to the two actual words (concepts). Ergo, one cannot talk about what it is to be "ineffable" as THAT would be indescribable. This takes us to Hofstadter and one of the GEB essays, where "GOD" is defined by the acronym of "God Over Demons." What we have, of course, is an infinite regress, a cousin of self-reference. And, trying to say something is indescribable when you can't describe what it means to be indescribable falls in the same class.

And, this is not just in public discourse.

Individuals cannot tell themselves that, in private mental languages. You cannot, not without remaining kiloparsecs away from knowledge as philosophically defined as justified true belief.

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