Author Addresses Innate Urge to Party

Activist and best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich gave college students the words they wanted to hear this week: "We are hard-wired to be party animals."

Could be a nice scientific excuse for them to remember the next time they're late for class. Ehrenreich was discussing her latest book, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, while visiting Willamette University to deliver the fall Atkinson Lecture.

In the book, Ehrenreich traces the history of the phenomenon she has dubbed collective joy, "an innate joy that comes from being with large numbers of other people in certain settings" and typically involves dancing, feasting or costuming. Ehrenreich argues in her book, and emphasized in her talk, that many of these public festivities don't exist today. "They were stamped out, driven underground by the people in power, by the elites."

These festivities posed a threat to people in power, who wanted to force people to work instead of play, and so they squelched the celebrations, Ehrenreich says. Today, she argues, they have been replaced by spectacles where people observe the festivities instead of participate. Think dance concerts or football games.

Dancing in the Streets is Ehrenreich's 14th book. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics and a PhD in cell biology, but her interest in social change and activism led to a prolific career as a writer and social commentator. While on campus, she met with a small group of students and answered questions mainly relating to her most famous book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, about the plight of the working poor.

"I was very frustrated in the mid-90s that after welfare reform, people said very poor women would do fine. I said, 'Wait a minute, what are these women getting paid?'"

In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich learned what it's like to live on minimum wage by doing it herself, taking jobs as a waitress, hotel maid, housecleaner, nursing home aide and Wal-Mart salesperson.

"I certainly felt a lot of anger in many situations for the way these people were treated, most acutely in that housecleaning job. We were working in McMansions that were huge and had things like alabaster in the bathrooms, and I knew the women I was working with were struggling to eat."

Ehrenreich gets frustrated when she sees people look down on the poor or say they must not be hard workers. "Poverty is not a character flaw. Poverty is a shortage of money. And the way that shortage of money chiefly comes about in this country is that the wages are too low."

The next Atkinson Lecture is March 12 and features New York Times columnist Frank Rich.