Barbara Ehrenreich made a quick visit to San Francisco last week to promote her new book, “Dancing in the Streets.” Her noontime talk at the Commonwealth Club Jan. 18, excerpted below, was attended by about 100 people, mostly women. The subject was the suppression of collective joy, a historical trend that might seem abstruse -who but an insightful sociologist would try to name and explain it?- but which has affected every one of us directly. “‘Collective joy’ is a clunky term,” Ehrenreich acknowledged, “but it’s the best I could come up with.”
Almost a decade ago, before Ehrenreich’s forays into the labor force recounted in “Nickel and Dimed” and “Bait and Switch,” she got interested in human bonding. Not sexual bonding, she explained, and not just the kind that holds families together, but:
“the kinds of bonds that hold communities together and can even bring strangers together… Ritual, organized ways that people can make each other not only happy but joyful, delirious even ecstatic… Dancing, music, singing, feasting -which includes drinking- costuming, masking, face paint, body paint, processions, dramas, sporting competitions, comedies…
“These activities are almost universal. When Europeans fanned out across the globe from the 15th to 19th centuries conquering people, they found rituals and festivities going on everywhere from Polynesia to Alaska to Sub-Saharan Africa to India. Everywhere there were occasions for dressing up - often in a religious context but not always. The Europeans were horrified by what they saw and described it as ‘savagery’ and ‘devil worship.’ They thought it showed the inherent inferiority of indigenous people that they could let go in this way. The truth is, these traditions were European, too, but forgotten. The ancient Greeks had a god for ecstasy, Dionysus. Women especially worshipped Dionysus…
“There is evidence that Christianity until the 13th century was very much a danced religion. The archbishops were always complaining about it. When dancing was eventually banned in the churches it went outside in the form of carnival and other festivities that filled the church calendar. In 15th century France, one out of four days of the year was given over to festivities of some sort. People didn’t live to work, they lived to party…
“Going back 10,000 years we find rock art depicting lines and circles of dancing people. There is evidence that this capacity for collective joy, especially through synchronized, rhythmic activity such as dance, is hardwired into humans. It’s part of our unique evolutionary heritage. Chimpanzees can get excited and jump up and down and wave their arms, but they’ve got no rhythm. They can’t dance. They can’t coordinate their emotions…
“The evolutionary scientists say it was probably this capacity that allowed humans to form groups larger than kinship groups -large groups that were essential for defense against predatory animals and eventually against bands of other humans. The techniques -the dance steps, the musical instruments, the costumes- are cultural, but the capacity for collective joy is innate. We are hardwired to be party animals…
“Why is there so little collective joy today? Why is our culture bereft of opportunity for this kind of thing? Mostly, we sit in cubicles at work and we sit in our cars. If you mention ‘ecstasy’ people think you’re talking about a drug. The cure for loneliness and isolation and despair is Prozac… The simple answer is: the ancient tradition of festivities and ecstatic rituals was deliberately suppressed by elites -people in power who associated this kind of frolicking with the lower classes and especially with women…
“The Romans had their own Dionysus worshippers in Italy and they slaughtered them in 60 BC with the kind of ferocity they later directed at Christians… The Protestants were the real killjoys. They just wiped out that entire calendar of festivities from the Catholic church and outlawed dancing and masking. Around the world it was mainly missionaries who crushed the ecstatic rituals of indigenous people. In this country, slave owners banned not only reading and books, they banned the drum. They understood that in these kinds of rituals people found collective strength. A similar thing happened in 18th century Arabia with the rise of Wahabist Islam, the antecedent of Al Qaeda and Saudi Islam. Their main enemy was not Christians or Jews so much as it was the Sufi tradition within Islam which is ecstatic and involves music and dance.
“Elites fear that disorderly kinds of events could turn into uprisings. And this fear is justified. Whether you’re looking at European peasants in the late middle ages or Caribbean slaves in the 19th century, they were using festivity and carnival as the occasion for revolts.
“A second reason that comes with the industrial revolution is, of course, the need to impose social discipline. It’s hard to take agricultural people or herding people and convince them that they should get up and work six days a week, 12 hours a day, and then spend the seventh day listening to boring sermons in a church. To discipline the working class and slaves was a huge enterprise.”
Festivity has been replaced over the centuries by spectacle —“something you watch or listen to but you do not participate in directly.” As examples Ehrenreich cited the transition “from danced Christian worship to the masque, a drama going on on stage,” and football, which originally “was played by hundreds of people on a side. It was a mass sport in which whole villages took on other villages, men women and children. It was a melee that got tamed into football where a few participate and most watch. Spectacles involve your eyes and ears, not the muscles of your body, and they require no creativity on the part of the spectator. The creativity has been centralized.”
People keep trying to reinstitute festivity because, Ehrenreich emphasized, “we were meant to get up and move.” She recalled “the rock rebellion of the 1950s and ’60s -the kids in the audience refused to sit still. They kept lifting up out of their seats. Police would be called. But the kids would get up and dance as soon as the police turned their backs.” Other examples include “costuming, even if it’s only wearing the team colors or a cheesehead. Face paint -what could be more ancient. The wave… In Latin America you get people bringing their drums to the stadium and dancing in the bleachers…
Ehrenreich remarked the emergence of entirely new festivities such as Burning Man, the Love Parade in Berlin (at which a million people have danced in the streets), and the transformation of Halloween into a grown-up celebration. In response to a question about San Francisco’s efforts to contain the partying on Halloween, Ehrenreich said that repression has often been rationalized in terms of maintaining public safety and order -“too much noise, that kind of thing.” Almost as an afterthought she added, “a lot of the repression of what goes on in clubs is carried out in the name of the war on drugs.” (Ehrenreich is a former board member of NORML.)
Ehrenreich’s scholarship (even her throwaway lines contain the seeds of PhD theses) doesn’t keep her from waxing lyrical. She concluded by reading a passage from “Dancing in the Streets:” “Walking along the beach in Rio we came upon members of a Samba school rehearsing for Carnivale - four-year-olds to octogenarians, men and women, some gorgeously costumed and some in tank tops and shorts - Rio street clothes. To a 19th century missionary or a 21st century religious puritan their movements might have seemed lewd or at least suggestive. (Missionaries always called indigenous people lewd.) Certainly the conquest of the streets by a crowd of brown-skinned people would have been distressing in itself. But the samba school danced down right to the sand in perfect dignity, rapt in their own rhythm, their faces both exalted and shining with an almost religious kind of exaltation. One thin, latte-colored young man dancing just behind the musicians set the pace. What was he in real life? A bank clerk? A busboy? Here, in his brilliant feathered costume, he was a prince, a mythological figure, maybe even a god. Here, for a moment there were no divisions among people except for the political ones created by Carnivale itself. After they reached the boardwalk, bystanders started following in without any indication or announcements, without embarrassment or even alcohol to dissolve the normal constraints of urban life, the samba school turned into a huge crowd and the crowd turned into a momentary festival. There was no quote point to it, no religious overtones, no ideological message, no money to be made. Just the chance -which we need much more of on this crowded planet- to acknowledge the miracle of our simultaneous existence with some sort of celebration.”
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Ehrenreich’s comments in response to questions included the following:
Most of the megachurches that BE has looked into (for another project) are “quite staid in their form of worship… The ecstatic Pentacostal forms of worship are to be found in tent revivals and storefront churches of the poor. The pentacostal movement was founded in the early 20th century by a black man. It became an interracial denomination and brought in the forms of music that were not ordinarily associated with worship. Hot forms of music. Lively forms of music that encouraged movement…
“Christmas was once so wild that it was banned in certain states. People would costume themselves and go door-to-door, demand drinks from every house they went to, pour out into the streets, and dance. Typical festival behavior. The transition was made in the late 19th and early 20th century to an indoor holiday. (As if instructing a child) ‘This is something you celebrate with your family…’ Caroling from house-to-house is a dim reminder of Christmas’s sordid background.
“It’s been said by many sociologists that Americans are remarkably tied into our nuclear families at the expense of community bonds. Many things have been blamed on this hallmark of American society, including the high divorce rate. We’re expecting so much from this tiny group of people, our family.”
Anthropologists see rituals in retrospect as a way of building community but the participants saw them as a way of bonding with deities.
“In the game ‘Second Life’ people go off and have a second life as boring as their first ones. There’s no muscular involvement. And that is important… Mirror neurons have been getting a lot of attention recently. There are parts of our brain that respond to seeing another person’s motion by preparing to execute the same motion. We are connected very deeply on the muscular level, which is missing on MySpace.
“In the 18th century in all parts of Europe there was an epidemic of what physicians called melancholia. This is the period when traditional festivities were disappearing. There was a rise in suicides and what we would today recognize as “depression.” I would argue that festivities and ecstatic rituals are traditional cures for what looks to us like depression. One example is the Czar ritual in Northern Africa. A woman becomes so depressed that she takes to her bed and won’t get up, won’t do anything anymore. Maybe her husband has announced that he’s taking a second wife… Classic, severe depression. The cure? They bring in the Czar healer, who comes with a bunch of musicians. And you bring all the women in town for days and nights of ecstatic dancing. Pretty soon, the depressed woman gets up and is all better… There are many examples of these sorts of things being used curatively for what we would call depression…
“There are always class tensions about festivities. In the 1970s the elite of Rio di Janero decided they wanted to have nothing to do with Carnivale. So that was the week you went off to your country home if you could afford to. Now the elite is trying to retake Carnivale and turn it into more of a spectacle.
“There are tensions around sporting events. The ticket prices have gotten too high for the working class. Most average fans -the fans who had been bringing carnival aspects to sporting events- can’t even go anymore. The rich are up there in their skyboxes. The last thing they want to run into is some face-painted maniac.
There has been an “Increasing carnivalization of protest. People bring drums. The press mocks them for having a good time, as if it means they’re not serious. And yet that is the ancient form of protest.
“The ancient Hebrews were not in favor of ecstatic rituals, which they associated with the Canaanites, the indigenous people of Palestine, who were not monotheistic, who worshipped a goddess as well as a god, and who had pretty wild forms of worship. So throughout the old testament prophets are saying ‘Don’t backslide! Stay away from those golden calves.”
Ehrenreich has an essay in the current Harpers attacking “the cult of cheerfulness -by which I don’t mean joy but the almost ubiquitous injunctions in our culture to be perky, upbeat, smiling, and positive-thinking at all times.”
Some in the affluent crowd seemed to think they could find private solutions to the suppression of collective joy. There were questions such as “Would you say that a marathon fuses elements of individualism with collective joy?” To which BE replied,
“I’ve never run one. I’d have to defer to marathon runners on that. What it does not involve is that synchronized, rhythmic activity.”
She seemed momentarily puzzled by the question, “What kind of new things do you see bringing out collective joy in the future?” “New things?… To me it’s more about the recovery of a lost tradition. Those ancient technologies -dance, costuming, feasting, food sharing- can we recover that?…
“There’s no question that we’re hardwired to be social animals. We are intensely sociable, more so than any other primate. And sometimes in not good ways. There are other manifestations of collective excitement, say that of a lynch mob. Another not good way in which we’re overly sociable is that we will revise our own perception of the world sometimes to fit with what we’re being told. We want to conform, very strongly. And we have to push back and think for ourselves…
“It’s a back-and-forth dialectic. In Key West there’s an annual thing called the Fantasy Fest. It was very mardi-gras like - costuming, people used to prepare their dance sketches for months before. You’d get a troupe of people and dance down the street. It got so successful that in recent years Bud Lite has sponsored it. And what it has lost is that creativity. Now you have 3,000 people come into this small island to get as drunk as they possibly can and take off their clothes…
“Most of us don’t have much time in our lives because of this ridiculous cultural expectation that you should get up every morning and work. And work defines you, it’s the measure of your worth as a human being…
“A great deal of individual artistry is involved in traditional festivity. I’m thinking of small-scale societies before they were all wrecked by imperialism and global capitalism. Individuals who craft musical instruments, individuals who are very good at costume making, who come up with new dance steps, new rhythms. This is not just about merging with the group. The festivity ideally brings out the creativity of individuals.”
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I knew the speaker when she used to rock ‘n roll, when her name was Barbara Alexander and she was going out with John Ehrenreich, a cherubic brainiac from Philadelphia who went through Harvard in three years. They moved to Manhattan and started working towards PhDs in cell biology from the Rockefeller Institute while I was employed nearby at Scientific American. The U.S. role in Vietnam was escalating and the drug companies and equipment manufacturers were tightening control over the for-profit “healthcare system,” which the Ehrenreichs studied, tried to reform, and wrote about. They had a railroad flat up five flights of stairs and a baby named Rosa.
Barbara’s father was a metallurgist and former copper miner who had risen high in the Gillette Razor Company by virtue of his expertise. Once, when Mr. Alexander heard that friends of his daughter’s wished they could afford a house in Montauk, he offered to give them – not sell them – a small parcel of land he’d acquired there after World War Two and did not intend to use. I was young when this offer was made, people in my family are very generous, too, and it wasn’t until I’d seen more of the world that I realized how unusual such generosity is. It must have been a factor in how his daughter developed her egalitarian instincts and such a sane perspective on consumption.
As a schoolgirl Barbara couldn’t master the ballroom dancing steps, she says. But as a young woman she could dance into the early morning at the Fillmore East “to the point of self-forgetfulness.” Her new book is dedicated to Rosa’s daughters, now 5 and 2. To a question about raising children, Grandma B. advised, “Encourage their creativity… Don’t make them self-conscious… Keep them out of school as much as possible. What is school but training in how to sit still?”
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Barbara Ehrenreich, who has died, was a fixture in my family's life. A champion of the oppressed who used her pen and her voice for the cause of righteous justice. And a warm and witty person. Here is my friend Deirdre English, who worked closely with Barbara over the years, on the woman who inspired so many of us:
Barbara died — of natural causes — in hospice care yesterday morning — a few weeks sooner than expected. A fighter by nature and with regard to her health setbacks over the past two years, by the end she had resolved to die. As she told me some months ago, it was a matter to which she had given much thought. We all die. Barbara was the ultimate realist.
As befits that acceptance, she had given her all while she was alive.
Her inimitable spirit will be greatly missed — what contributions she made to the labor movement, the progressive movement, the women’s movement, and as a model of literary journalism and wicked wit, always aimed at posturing elitists of every sort.
Barbara’s perspective was multifaceted from the beginning. She always led the women’s movement to see through the lens of inequality and with a fervent sense of the movement’s obligation to work on behalf of the least privileged.
She never fell in with guilt-ridden left extremism, or the obfuscations of arcane “theory.” She was ever practical and solid.
Her brilliance was unmatched, her reach was wide, and her mark will be indelible.