Sunday, July 18, 2004


So, public sociologists everywhere seem to be all excited about Barbara Ehrenreich's summer stint doing op-eds for NYT (examples here and here). These reactions are actually more mild than the utterly uniform glee I've heard from sociologists expressing their opinions about it in non-public forums. There have also been various cheerleaderly calls by journalists for Ehrenreich to be given a permanent position at the NYT.

Her column earlier this week was a celebration of the need to break free from pressures to conformity of thought. In the spirit of what she extols, I feel emboldened to say something to demonstrate my independence from those on basically The Same Political Side as myself: namely, I have found Ehrenreich's columns to be more annoying and alienating than anything else.

I know, I know, how dare I type something like that. I should be forced to go to confession and do ten Hate Bushes right away, or else be sentenced to permanent scarequotes around any leftward identification: that Jeremy, he's a "liberal."

If there is anyone else out there, anywhere, who (1) considers themselves on the left part of the political spectrum, (2) has been reading Ehrenreich's columns, and (3) does not finish them feeling awash in ideological self-satisfaction, I would certainly appreciately hearing from you, as independent thinkers aren't necessarily thrilled about being lonesome independent thinkers, especially when they don't get what everyone else is so enamored of.

In today's column, Ehrenreich disses Nader. Of course, she did vote for him in 2000. In Florida. You go, Barbara! It apparently wasn't until "well into the reign of Bush" that she figured out Bush was a sufficiently bad president that the Nader-for-2000 campaign came to seem like maybe it was a bad idea. She defends her 2000 vote for Nader in part because, before the election, Bush seemed like he would be a mostly harmless president. She's so perceptive!

If I seem surly about all this, the column of hers that really caused me to turn on the NYT Ehrenreich was the one on Bill Cosby. While I was not pleased with some of Cosby's recent remarks, in my mind he certainly didn't deserve this kind of treatment. He didn't deserve to be cast as Billionaire Bashing Poor Blacks without also noting his far-less-than-privileged background (granted, pretty much everyone has seen Fat Albert). He didn't deserve to make it sound like he's not also very critical of existing social policies. He didn't deserve to be lumped in as another example of those who "routinely excoriated poor black women for being lazy, promiscuous, government-dependent baby machines."

I mean, from where I'm sitting, if you ask me the question of who has done more for blacks in America: (a) Bill Cosby or (b) Barbara Ehrenreich, where for (b) you also throw in the whole of white public sociology since 1970, I'm still going with Cosby. So pardon me if I'm reticient to consign him to a Villain role in the professional-wrestling-melodrama of contemporary political discourse.*

Besides this, the main thing that bothers me about Ehrenreich is that I think that she's disingenuous, by which I mean she's willing to say things that she knows are misleading in order to score points for The Cause. Sure, there are all kinds of people on the right who do this, and, well, frankly, they annoy me even more, but you don't get off my annoyance hook just because you are arguing to a basic end I agree with. But, where this probably bothers me most is in some of the ways she cites statistics, but it's late and I don't want to get into that. At least until something else she writes sets me off.

For the sociologically-inclined readers, however, I can't resist taking note of this strangely old-school-functionalist and anthropologically dubious turn smack in the middle of the groupthink column from earlier this week:
"Societies throughout history have recognized the hazards of groupthink and made arrangements to guard against it. The shaman, the wise woman and similar figures all represent institutionalized outlets for alternative points of view. In the European carnival tradition, a 'king of fools' was permitted to mock the authorities, at least for a day or two. In some cultures, people resorted to vision quests or hallucinogens -- anything to get out of the box."
Woo-hoo, wild characterizations of the origins of institutions in other societies as a way of making a political point for The Cause. You could use this paragraph as the running example for a short primer on the problems of functionalist social reasoning (especially the point that functions institutional arrangements might serve or come to serve are not, just by virtue of [here, even, rather dubiously] serving these functions, evidence that the functions explain the origins of the arrangements). We should draft a resolution for the American Sociological Association meetings to demand that the Times give us more!

*Google something like "Cosby remarks" and read various statement by Black critics of Cosby's remarks--setting aside the issue of the many Blacks who acclaimed them--and you can see how at variance Ehrenreich's reaction is from that of Black leaders on this issue. A more nasty person than myself might observe that, given that she's such a case of only-very-late-onset-Nader-voting-remorse, we probably shouldn't be surprised not to see much influence of Black perspectives on her views, even on Black issues, especially when an opportunity for posturing presents itself. That's pretty much Nader in a nutshell for the past decade. But I'll refrain from observing that, especially since this post has already seems so negative already. The Cosby column really irritated me and has been festering with each new column since. I'll try to come up with something light'n'chirpy for my next post.

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