This Land Is Their Land

Barbara Ehrenreich
2009

The cover of Barbara Ehrenreich’s This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation has the word “Your” crossed out and replaced by the word “Their.” That’s a pretty good summary of the book, which is a compilation of short columns and essays that skewer the ever-strengthening trend of the rich getting richer and the middle class disappearing.

If you like your social commentary with a strong dash of satire, this is your kind of book. It’s certainly mine!

Starting with the basic reality that many of the former middle class who used to work at the auto plant and shop at the Wal-Mart now work at the Wal-Mart and shop at the Salvation Army, Ehrenreich divides her 235-page book into chapters such as “Chasms of Inequality,” Strangling the Middle Class” and “Hell Day at Work,” each of which chronicles an aspect of what she sees as the decline of opportunity, equality and democracy in contemporary corporate society.

Ehrenreich’s style is a combination of pointed humour and outright scorn at the companies and policies which undermine the ability of the average working stiff to make a decent or even a barely adequate living in an increasingly skewed economy. Her insights are meaningful, and her prose is appropriately biting, as when she explains why the Right so vigourously targets illegal immigration:

[P]eel off some segment of the poorer classes, label them as enemies, and try to whip up rage that might have been directed at the economic overclass. There may be reasonable arguments for limiting immigration, but it wasn’t a Mexican who took away your pension or sold you a dodgy mortgage.

In “We Have Seen the Enemy –And Surrendered,” part of the “Declining Health” chapter, Ehrenreich blasts the American health insurance industry:

… An estimated 18,000 Americans die each year because they can’t afford, or can’t qualify for,  health insurance. That’s the 9/11 carnage multiplied by six every year. Not to mention all the people who are stuck in jobs they hate because they don’t dare lose their current insurance.

Saddam Hussein never killed 18,000 Americans or anything close; nor did the USSR. Yet we faced down those “enemies” with huge patriotic bluster, vast military expenditures, and, in the case of Saddam, armed intervention. So why does the United States soil its pants and cower in fear when confronted with the insurance industry?

Ehrenreich’s suggestion? “[C]onsider an air strike, followed by an infantry assault.” But what will happen to the suddenly-unemployed health insurance company executives? Ehrenreich suggests job retraining for them, “perhaps as home-health aides.

In “Gap Kids: New Frontiers in Child Abuse,” Ehrenreich champions a new approach to child-rearing, one based on the Gap’s repeated use of child labour in Indian sweatshops. She notes that “99% of all child criminals are unemployed, as are 99 percent of obese children and schoolyard bullies.” Unemployed offspring are always “Magic Markering the walls and crushing Froot Loops into the carpet; they rub Krazy Glue into their siblings’ hair; they spill apple juice on your keyboard.” She laments that “[v]andalism is a way of life for unemployed children.” The solution?

In fact, corporate America should go further and make a strong statement against the sickening culture of dependency that has grown up around childhood. Why are jobless children so criminally inclined? Because they know that whatever damage they inflict, the Froot Loops will just keep coming. The Gap should portray its child-staffed factories as part of a far-seeing welfare-to-work program that will eventually be extended to American children as well.

This is pretty funny stuff, and the more so because it targets targets like Target and The Gap and Wal-Mart, who are so easy to hate and so deserving of our political outrage and moral scorn.

Not all of Ehrenreich’s pieces are funny, however. More than a few are just very, very annoyed. In “All Together Now,” in the “False Gods” chapter, she responds to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s belated and thoroughly unsurprising conclusion that the false intelligence that was the justification for the war in Iraq was not just “groupthink” but “collective groupthink,” and that “supposedly intelligent, morally upstanding people had been indulging in it right in Langley, Virginia.” (Home of the CIA, for the pleasantly unaware.)

Ehrenreich’s dislike for groupthink gets some of her typically more venomous prose, writing that “[g]roupthink has become as American as apple pie and prisoner abuse” and “[in] our political culture, the most crushing rebuke is to call someone ‘out of step with the American people.'” Where does all this pressure to conform come from? Ehrenreich looks to the days after 9/11, “when groupthink became the official substitute for patriotism and we began to run out of surfaces for affixing American flags.” In the essay’s conclusion, she warns: “This nation was not founded by habitual groupthinkers. But it stands a fair chance of being destroyed by them.”

Ehrenreich’s most Swiftian piece is “Children Deserve Veterinary Care Too,” in which she contrasts the health care available to the pets of well-to-do owners with the health care not available to the children of parents who can’t afford health insurance. Ehrenreich “applied” for pet health insurance for her daughter, whom she listed as a “three-year old mixed breed dog,” and found that she could get a “premium” policy for $33 a month. Could a vet really manage a child’s health care adequately? She gives two examples:

…a twelve-year-old boy who died because his mother could not afford $80 to have the tooth pulled. Could a vet have handled this problem? Yes, absolutely.

Or there’s the case of [a] fourteen-year-old … who died when his health insurance ran out in the middle of treatment for kidney cancer. I don’t know exactly what kind of treatment he was getting, but I suspect that the $1.25 million linear accelerator for radiation therapy available at one of New York’s leading pet hospitals might have helped.

Ehrenreich’s one caveat was that then-President George W. Bush, who had vetoed a 2007 health insurance bill that would have extended coverage to millions of children, on the grounds that government should not be involved in health coverage, might counter a call to make pet health insurance available to all American children “by proposing to extend euthanasia services to children who happen to fall ill.”

Funny or serious, and of course the funny stuff is also deadly serious, This Land Is Their Land has highpoint after highpoint. There’s not a weak piece, or a bad idea, in the bunch.

I’m going to be on the lookout for other books by Barbara Ehrenreich. And if you’re like me and could really use a good social colonic about now, you should look for them, too.

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