Barbara Ehrenreich:’Collective joy’


Richard Moore

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Barbara Ehrenreich at the Commonwealth Club
The Suppression of Collective Joy

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,

        "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

        "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

        "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

        "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 

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 

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."

Extra Points

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 

"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 

"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 

"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 

"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 

"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."

* * *

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 

Fred Gardner is a former Public Information Officer for the District 
Attorney of San Francisco. He can be reached at •••@••.•••

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