Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation by Barbara Ehrenreich




(Mildly Recommended)




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The sixty-two essays in Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation, are organized into seven major themes, and each essay is only a few pages long. Each essay highlights some way in which America is polarized. Here’s an excerpt, all of the chapter titled, “French Workers refuse to Be ‘Kleenex,’” pp. 139-141:


Was it only a few years ago that some of our puffed-up patriots were denouncing the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," too fattened on Camembert to stub out their Gauloises and get down with the war on Iraq? Well, take another look at the folks who invented the word liberte. They've been marching, rioting, and burning up cars to preserve a right Americans can only dream of: the right not to be fired at an employer's whim.

The French government's rationale for the new labor law that triggered the protests was economically impeccable, as economic reasoning goes these days: make it easier for employers to fire people and they will be more eager to hire people, thus reducing France's appalling unemployment rate of 9.6 percent. Furthermore, the law will apply only to people under twenty-six, and the terminations can occur only during the first two years of employment. So why is Paris burning?

Maybe the rioters sense a logical fallacy in the government's proposal: fire more people so more people can be hired? What corporations call "flexibility"—the right to dispose of workers at will—is what workers experience as disposability, not to men­tion insecurity and poverty. The French students who are toss­ing Molotov cocktails don't want to become what they call "a Kleenex generation"—used and tossed away when the employer decides he needs a fresh one.

You may recognize in the French government's reason­ing the same arguments Americans hear whenever we raise a timid plea for a higher minimum wage or a halt to the steady erosion of pensions and health benefits. What? scream the economists who flack for the employing class—if you do anything, anything at all, to offend or discomfit the employers they will respond by churlishly failing to employ you! Unemployment will rise, and you—lacking of course the health care and other benefits provided by the French welfare state—will quickly spiral down into starvation.

French youth aren't buying this kind of argument, prob­ably because they know where the "Anglo-Saxon model," as they call it, leads. If you have to give up job security to get a job, what next? Will the pampered employers be inspired to demand a suspension of health and safety regulations? Will they start requiring their workers to polish their shoes while hand-feeding them hot-buttered croissants? Non to all that, the French kids are saying. We only have to look to America—or, for that matter, China—to see where that will take us.

Of course the French aren't entirely fair in calling their nemesis the Anglo-Saxon model. It's the specifically Ameri­can model they have to fear. I was giving a talk in England, ancestral home of the Anglo-Saxon race, when a fellow in the audience asked me how people could be fired without "due process." For a moment I thought I had misheard or been misled by one of those incomprehensibly quaint English regional dialects. But no, in the UK a person who feels she has been wrongfully dismissed can turn to an employment appeals tribunal and, beyond that, to the courts. I had to explain that in the United States you can be fired for just about anything: having a "bad attitude," which can mean having a funny look on your face, or just turning out to be "not a good fit."

Years ago, there was a theory on the American left that someone—maybe it was me—termed worsism: the worse things get, the more likely people will be to rise up and demand their rights. But in America, at least, it doesn't seem to work that way. The worse things get, the harder it becomes even to imagine any kind of resistance. The fact that you can be fired "at will"—the will of the employer, that is—freezes employees into terrified obedience. Add to that the fact that job loss is accompanied by a loss of access to health care, and you get a kind of captive mentality bordering on the kinkily masochistic. Beat me, insult me, double my work­load, but please don't set me free!

Far be it from me to advocate the burning of cars and smashing of store windows. But why are American students sucking their thumbs while the Bush administration pro­poses a $12.7 billion cut in student loans? Where is the out­rage over the massive layoffs at Ford, Hewlett-Packard, and dozens of other major companies? And is the poverty-stricken quarter of the population too stressed by their mounting bills and multiple jobs to protest cuts in Medic­aid and already pathetic housing subsidies?

Compared to those "surrender monkeys," we're looking like a lot of soggy used Kleenex.


Readers are likely to cheer at Ehrenreich’s perspective, or cry foul. This Land Is Your Land is best read in short bursts, no more than an essay or two at a sitting. Otherwise, her tone begins to get too snippy to appreciate. In small doses, a reader can think about the issue, and appreciate her satire, or ignore her view and move on.


Steve Hopkins, August 15, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the Seeptember 2008 issue of Executive Times


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