Conversation — March 5, 2014, 2:37 pm

Living with a Wild God: A Conversation with Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich on writing, social activism, and the possible existence of a mystical Other

Barbara Ehrenreich © Peter Abzug

Barbara Ehrenreich © Peter Abzug

In the late 1990s, Barbara Ehrenreich had a lunch conversation with former Harper’s Magazine editor Lewis Lapham and suggested that the magazine send a reporter to investigate the effects of welfare reform on the working poor. Lapham replied, “You!” and Ehrenreich, who had been a journalist for decades but never before gone “undercover,” subsequently spent three months working variously as a housekeeper, a waitress, a nursing-home aide, and a Walmart cashier. She chronicled the experience in her January 1999 article “Nickel-and-Dimed” and a bestselling 2001 book. In her latest book, Living with a Wild God (out in April and excerpted in the March issue of Harper’s), she describes her adolescent experiences of mysticism, which culminated at age seventeen while she was camping in Lone Pine, California. 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.

I’ve long felt an affinity for Ehrenreich, owing not only to her superb writing but also to certain similarities I thought we shared. We were both born to working-class parents in western “B” towns — me in Boise, Idaho; her in Butte, Montana, where her father worked as a copper miner before rising to management and moving the family to New England. We also both earned science degrees from Reed College in Portland, Oregon — she graduated in 1963 with a degree in physics, then completed a Ph.D. in cellular immunology at Rockefeller University in Manhattan, before becoming a social activist and eventually a writer. We chatted recently via telephone about writing, social activism, and the possible existence of a mystical Other.

It’s somewhat surprising that you’ve come to believe you had a mystical experience, given that you’re a former scientist and a lifelong atheist. Weren’t you repelled by the idea of an “Other”? Is that why you didn’t address these episodes for so long?

Well, at the time I would have said, “No, what are you talking about? There are no gods. What could that be? Obviously what happened is that you had some kind of breakdown.” I was very rational about it. And it took me decades to say, “No, I saw something. There was something other than myself there. And I’m going to take that seriously as some sort of empirical evidence, or clue, or glimpse.”

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

That’s the question. In my religious-history studies I immersed myself for a while in the writing of mostly Christian mystics. And most of them say “Yes this was God, this was Jesus, this was whatever,” but then there is also running through it a strong sense that whatever it was was so strange that it doesn’t actually fit into their notion of a monotheistic god.

The other thing that had pushed me toward being willing to say it was an encounter with some kind of other is the critique of science I was developing, for refusing to acknowledge the consciousness or agency of nonhuman animals, for example. Up until the Eighties, to say “I don’t want to do this experiment by killing mice and rabbits because they have feelings and are thinking creatures” would have been nuts. But now science has crept over to a point of view that nonhuman animals are often very intelligent — I would say conscious. They have feelings, they have culture, in some cases they do art. And that created a whole other idea of the universe. Whereas if there is only one mind, which is ours — or two minds, ours and that great monotheistic point-of-light type of god — that’s pretty lonely.

We as a species seem to have a lot invested in maintaining our singularity.  We’re basically fine with ascribing those qualities to other people, but that’s about as far as we’ll go.

That’s one of the points that I make, that it’s expected and normal for me to think that you are a conscious being like myself with feelings — although all I know is that you are a voice on a telephone, possibly computer-generated. But that would be insane, right, for me to think that? So if we’re willing to take the mental leap to imagine our conspecifics as conscious other beings, why can’t we do that occasionally for other sorts of living things?

There is great revulsion toward accepting the consciousness of other creatures.

It’s more than revulsion. It’s a fantastic amount of hubris. And this is very much tied to the rise of monotheism. Before that there were a lot of animal gods, and female gods, and all sorts of things — the world was much more alive — and then they all get crushed. There can only be one deity who is perfect and who resembles us. And what kind of megalomaniac egotism comes to that idea? The whole thing, invented for us. A mass, collective solipsism.

Living with a Wild God, by Barbara EhrenreichWith this book, which started as a history of religion, how did you decide to incorporate your own experience of mysticism?

I had had these various personal experiences when I was an adolescent, and had never talked about them. And I started thinking, you know, maybe I could use some of this in a history of religion. And my agent said no, the personal stuff is fascinating. So it got somewhat inverted, and the historical context got mobilized to be background for what is more a philosophical memoir. That’s my excuse for writing something as vain as a memoir.

You quote a lot from the journal you kept as a teenager, in which you were repeatedly drawn to deep philosophical reflections — at one point writing that you knew only two things: that you existed, and that you knew nothing. What drew you to these questions at such a young age?

I decided when I was twelve that I needed to know why. I needed to know what is going on here. And I thought it would take me just a few months, with really clear, logical thinking. I was on this mission to truly understand everything in the universe, which is nuts. But I think most of us ask these sorts of questions when we’re young. And most of us just get the answer “God — taken care of, shut up, God.” But if you don’t get that answer or don’t believe that answer, you can be tormented — until you reach that magic point known as maturity. That’s when you stop asking the big questions, stop being tormented, get married, get a mortgage. Or at least we used to in the old days.

Now you just get student loans.

Now you just get student loans. It’s all up for grabs again. There’s no point in maturing.

You’ve done so much great investigative reporting over the past few decades, among the histories and essays — and now you’ve turned to memoir. Are you still working on journalistic projects?

I’m doing something one step removed. I started a project a couple of years ago that attempts to raise money to support starving journalists, which is an awful lot of them, to do reporting on issues related to poverty. It’s called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. So I work with other reporters to generate journalism. It’s part of reproducing myself, I suppose.

How has that been going?

Well, the difficulty is in raising money — convincing foundations that a lot of journalists are in precisely the conditions we want reporting on.

How did the project come about?

In 2009 I approached the New York Times to write a series of reported essays about the effect of the recession on people who were already struggling. And they were quite generous with space for me, but not with money. And I realized somewhere early on that I probably was not even going to make my expenses. And my second thought was, well, I don’t care, I’ll spend six months on this and not earn any money. I can do that. Third thought: This is nuts. Does this mean that the only people who can write about poverty are people who have enough money and savings to do it for free, practically? That’s when I decided on this project.

Amid your move from science to activism, and then to social-science research in the 1970s, when did you come to realize that writing was the thing you wanted to do?

It didn’t happen immediately. I got my Ph.D. in cellular immunology and then sort of walked out of science. I got a movement job, as we called them, a very low-paid activist-type job advocating for better health care for low-income people in New York. And we had a newsletter, and I turned out to really enjoy editing and writing. But it still took me a few years before I realized that’s what I had to put down on my IRS form. My big breakthrough was sometime in the late Seventies, with a story I did in Ms. magazine, an investigative piece [debunking a faddish theory that feminism led to heart disease], and they made it the cover story. But it was very different in the old days — you could make a living as a freelance journalist if you hustled, and I don’t think you can do that anymore.

It is sort of the lost dream. But it’s still so important to have people go in and look at what’s actually happening on the ground.

We are trying to promote that kind of journalism. We’ve got some good things in the works. We had a guy who worked as a day laborer for warehouses, and that was a great piece. And we have a guy who was a very successful journalist until he lost his job, and now he works in a retail store for $10/hour. And he’s describing all the humiliations, the pat-downs when you come into work, or go out for a two-minute break.

Like you, I come from a very different class background than most of the people I met at college and beyond. And I often feel like the people I encounter in the publishing world here in New York just don’t have a clue about what it’s like to be poor.

No, they tend to be very insulated, very class-insulated. I just bang my head against this all the time as a journalist and now as somebody trying to deal with editors to get other people’s stuff out. Responses like, “Oh, no, we had a piece about poverty two years ago.”

It seems like poverty is looked at as kind of an indistinct problem — there’s only one experience of it, there’s only one story to tell — whereas every other part of the world is rich with possibility and stories and angles.

Right. Yeah. What we emphasize in this project is that poverty is produced. And once somebody starts falling into poverty, they tend to get poorer and poorer, because there are so many vultures preying on them.

When you were preparing to go into these communities yourself, did you have apprehensions that you might set yourself up as a kind of an ambassador to the working class?

No, I don’t think that would be a way of thinking that would be available to me, because it’s not a separate world. My family and social life is pretty intertwined with people in those situations.

So it didn’t feel like taking a voyage into another world?

It was not an alien world to me in a social sense. And in fact I fit in very well, suspiciously well. The first bookstore appearance I had for Nickel and Dimed was in Key West, which is where I had been living. And a woman came up to me and said, “I was working at Denny’s when you were” — it’s not called Denny’s in the book — and she said, “I remember seeing you when you were there for your interview, and saying to myself, ‘That woman is hiding something.’ ” And I said, “Oh yeah, what did you think it was?” You know, expecting her to say, “Well, I could tell you were really a highly educated, sophisticated sort of person.” She said, “I thought you were just out of jail or a shelter.”

And did you find that you had to alter your behavior much to fit in?

No. Most of what you do in a job is work. So I had to struggle at each job not to let my coworkers down by screwing up. Most of them were women, and when we talked it was generally about things like men and children and health. If you don’t have health insurance, you’re getting a lot of information from other people like yourself. And using a lot of painkillers.

What was the original source of your interest in issues relating to class and women’s rights?

I don’t know. All those things were swirling together in the Sixties and Seventies. I was kind of skeptical of feminism until about 1970, when I had my first baby and had a prolonged exposure to medical care, specifically lower-class clinic care. And I was enraged, just enraged at the sexism. And then one thing led to another.

What exactly about feminism were you skeptical of?

In my first exposures to feminism — it seemed, it’s kind of funny to say, but it seemed a little elite. I was a mother of two small children in suburban — but not wealthy — Long Island. And the feminists were these very intimidating gals in Manhattan who argued forever. And I remember going to a couple of meetings, and just thinking, “Oh shit, this is beyond me.”

And what happened at the clinic?

I’ll give you an example. Toward the end of the pregnancy, I got a pelvic examination by the head of the obstetrics department at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. And after he did it he said, “Oh, you’re coming along,” or something like that. And I said, “The cervix is getting to be effaced?” And he looked at the nurse, not at me, and said, “Where did such a nice girl ever learn to talk like that?” And I just thought, “Fuck you. I’m a Ph.D. in biology. We look down on people like you.” I was just shaking. You know, I had had a certain amount of intellectual self-confidence. And wham, I was meat.

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Combustion Engines

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There Will Always Be Fires

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The End of Eden

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

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Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


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Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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