Barbara Ehrenreich

The activist author weighs in on society's need for joy.

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Illustration: Rob Kelly

Before Morgan Spurlock ate his way to liver damage in Super Size Me, Barbara Ehrenreich ignited the current craze for immersion journalism with her 2001 best-seller, Nickel and Dimed, in which she worked a series of entry-level service jobs to find out if one can get by on a minimum wage. For Nickel's follow-up, Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich again went undercover, this time in the corporate world, where insecurity still abounds but the break rooms are a whole lot nicer.

Before Morgan Spurlock ate his way to liver damage in Super Size Me, Barbara Ehrenreich ignited the current craze for immersion journalism with her 2001 best-seller, Nickel and Dimed, in which she worked a series of entry-level service jobs to find out if one can get by on a minimum wage. For Nickel's follow-up, Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich again went undercover, this time in the corporate world, where insecurity still abounds but the break rooms are a whole lot nicer. Her latest book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, required no such subterfuge. It's an exhaustively researched meditation on "ecstatic ritual," in which the 65-year-old author explores, for example, the origins of face painting among football fans. To find out more about the crazy things that people do, TONY contacted the veteran journalist at her home in Florida.

Given the subject of your last two books, was it psychologically necessary for you to write about joy this time?

Well, I actually started it eight or nine years ago, before I wrote Nickel and Dimed. In fact, one of the reasons I was reluctant to take on the assignment that led to Nickel and Dimed was that I was working on this and didn't want to get distracted. I get easily distracted. Wait, hold on—I've gotta just sit somewhere comfortable.

Sure, take a load off.

Lovely day here. House full of people. Anyway, Dancing in the Streets came out of an earlier book called Blood Rites, which is about the excitement and the passions of war—how we humans can whip ourselves into these states of collective excitement. After I was done with Blood Rites, I kept reading and reading.

It's easy to see what kept you interested. You note one Roman satirist's opinion that women in Rome danced in order to "warm the age-chilled balls" of rich old men.

It was fascinating. I came across this lost tradition of festivities and ecstatic rituals and wanted to know why we have so little of this anymore.

In a chapter titled "The Rock Rebellion," you write admiringly of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Were you a dirty hippie?

I wasn't so much a hippie as an activist. But the counterculture overlapped with the political activism a lot—and political activists like me got impatient with people who just wanted to be stoned and have a good time. But I have to say that the music of the time was part of what made it possible for people like me to imagine a different world.

You say that we've all become spectators to the actions of others, but doesn't the do-it-yourself aspect of MySpace and YouTube have the potential of reconnecting us?

I think so. It's very different from the primordial excitement of face-to-face participation. But it's a way to be creative—to interact with others without it being mediated by somebody else.

You also indict organized religion for its role in the crackdown on fun.

The first enemy of the Wahhabists, the puritanical Muslim zealots, was not Christianity or secularism; it was Sufism, the ecstatic trend within Islam. There are amazing parallels between Wahhabist Islam and Calvinist Protestantism: You take down all decorations, you take out the music, you prescribe this very strict lifestyle which generally abolishes dance and costuming. You could say the great division in the world today is between fundamentalism on the one hand and whatever else is on the other hand.

But haven't we moved past the Footloose moment, where a small-town preacher in a cheap suit announces that doing the twist buys you a one-way ticket to hell?

Dancing as a spectacle is generally okay in our culture, but one of the things you still see is the police crackdown on any form of public gathering. What happened in Times Square on New Year's Eve? All these people are closely guarded in stands. They can't drink, they can't move. They can scream together—that's about all they can do.

Dancing in the Streets (Metropolitan, $26) is out now.

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