Ehrenreich, one of Peter Dreier's "Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century", is the daughter of upwardly mobile, working class parents (her father was a copper miner who ended up a corporate executive).
Ehrenreich was born Barbara Alexander to Isabelle Oxley and Ben Howes Alexander in Butte, Montana, which she describes as then being "a bustling, brawling, blue collar mining town". In an interview on C-SPAN, she characterized her parents as "strong union people" with two family rules: "never cross a picket line and never vote Republican". In a talk she gave in 1999, Ehrenreich called herself a "fourth-generation atheist".While, owing to heritable factors, we expect present elites will on average have forebears who are at least slightly above average in social status, the vast majority of their ancestors a generation or two ago were relatively unremarkable middle or working class people. The far-from-perfect heritability of social status and the fact that middle and working class people greatly outnumbered elites means there would have been significant upward social mobility in any case; but the massive expansion in the ranks of the college educated and white collar workers over the past century, along with mass immigration, means the overwhelming majority of present US elites have no special connection to the 19th-century or earlier American upper class.
"As a little girl", she told The New York Times in 1993, "I would go to school and have to decide if my parents were the evil people they were talking about, part of the Red Menace we read about in the Weekly Reader, just because my mother was a liberal Democrat who would always talk about racial injustice." Her father was a copper miner who went to the Montana State School of Mines (now part of the University of Montana), and then to Carnegie Mellon University. He eventually became a senior executive at the Gillette Corporation. Her parents later divorced.
Even if we limit ourselves to the non-"ethnic" elements among present leftist elites, I have no doubt Ehrenreich is much more typical than Trudeau.
People have different interests and different dispositions. The "values" Ehrenreich belatedly claims as her cultural inheritance are subject to significant genetic influence. Though a range of political opinion has existed within every class throughout recent American and European history, traditional elites tended to favor the right, out of self-interest and likely also because some of the biologically-influenced traits associated with political conservatism favored entry into and retention in the elite. We now have whole segments of the elite where entry among non-"ethnics" is restricted to those who actively forsake their group and traditionalism. This does not favor "elite WASPs", but people who are genetically predisposed in that direction and relatively rootless to begin with.
An acquaintance was telling me about the joys of rediscovering her ethnic and religious heritage. "I know exactly what my ancestors were doing 2,000 years ago," she said, eyes gleaming with enthusiasm, "and I can do the same things now." Then she leaned forward and inquired politely, "And what is your ethnic background, if I may ask?"
"None," I said, that being the first word in line to get out of my mouth. Well, not "none," I backtracked. Scottish, English, Irish--that was something, I supposed. Too much Irish to qualify as a WASP; too much of the hated English to warrant a "kiss Me, I'm Irish" button; plus there are a number of dead ends in the family tree due to adoptions, missing records, failing memories and the like. I was blushing by this time. Did "none" mean I was rejecting my heritage out of Anglo-Celtic self-hate? Or was I revealing a hidden ethnic chauvinism in which the Britannically derived served as a kind of neutral standard compared with the ethnic "others"?
Throughout the 60's and 70's, I watched one group after another--African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans--stand up and proudly reclaim their roots while I just sank back ever deeper into my seat. All this excitement over ethnicity stemmed, I uneasily sensed, from a past in which their ancestors had been trampled upon by my ancestors, or at least by people who looked very much like them. In addition, it had begun to seem almost un-American not to have some sort of hyphen at hand, linking one to more venerable times and locales.
But the truth is, I was raised with none. We'd eaten ethnic foods in my childhood home, but these were all borrowed, like the pasties, or Cornish meat pies, my father had picked up from his fellow miners in Butte, Montana. If my mother had one rule, it was militant ecumenism in all matters of food and experience. "Try new things," she would say, meaning anything from sweetbreads to clams, with an emphasis on the "new."
As a child, I briefly nourished a craving for tradition and roots. I immersed myself in the works of Sir Walter Scott. I pretended to believe that the bagpipe was a musical instrument. I was fascinated to learn from a grandmother that we were descended from certain Highland clans and longed for a pleated skirt in one of their distinctive tartans.
But in Ivanhoe, it was the dark-eyed "Jewess" Rebecca I identified with, not the flaxen-haired bimbo Rowena. As for clans: Why not call them "tribes," those bands of half-clad peasants and warriors whose idea of cuisine was stuffed sheep gut washed down with whisky? And then there was the sting of Disraeli's remark--which I came across in my early teens--to the effect that his ancestors had been leading orderly, literate lives when my ancestors were still rampaging through the Highlands daubing themselves with blue paint.
Motherhood put the screws on me, ethnicity-wise. I had hoped that by marrying a man of Eastern European-Jewish ancestry I would acquire for my descendants the ethnic genes that my own forebears so sadly lacked. At one point, I even subjected the children to a Seder of my own design, including a little talk about the flight from Egypt and its relevance to modern social issues. But the kids insisted on buttering their matzohs and snickering through my talk. "Give me a break, Mom," the older one said. "You don't even believe in God." [. . .]
But, then, on the fumes of Manischewitz, a great insight took form in my mind. It was true, as the kids said, that I didn't "believe in God." But this could be taken as something very different from an accusation--a reminder of a genuine heritage. My parents had not believed in God either, nor had my grandparents or any other progenitors going back to the great-great level. They had become disillusioned with Christianity generations ago--just as, on the in-law side, my children's other ancestors had shaken off their Orthodox Judaism. This insight did not exactly furnish me with an "identity," but it was at least something to work with: we are the kind of people, I realized--whatever our distant ancestors' religions--who do not believe, who do not carry on traditions, who do not do things just because someone has done them before.
[. . .] In my parents' general view, new things were better than old, and the very fact that some ritual had been performed in the past was a good reason for abandoning it now. Because what was the past, as our forebears knew it? Nothing but poverty, superstition and grief. "Think for yourself," Dad used to say. "Always ask why."
In fact, this may have been the ideal cultural heritage for my particular ethnic strain--bounced as it was from the Highlands of Scotland across the sea, out to the Rockies, down into the mines and finally spewed out into high-tech, suburban America. What better philosophy, for a race of migrants, than "Think for yourself"? What better maxim, for people whose whole world was rudely inverted every 30 years or so, than "Try new things"?
The more tradition-minded, the newly enthusiastic celebrants of Purim and Kwanzaa and Solstice, may see little point to survival if the survivors carry no cultural freight--religion, for example, or ethnic tradition. To which I would say that skepticism, curiosity and wide-eyed ecumenical tolerance are also worthy elements of the human tradition and are at least as old as such notions as "Serbian" or "Croatian," "Scottish" or "Jewish." I make no claims for my personal line of progenitors except that they remained loyal to the values that may have induced all of our ancestors, long, long, long ago, to climb down from the trees and make their way into the open plains.
I have to talk about my family a little bit. There is a reason in my case why the constant linkage of God, family, and flag is upsetting to me, and it has to do with the history of my particular family. I am a fourth-generation atheist. My freethinking ancestors were not members of the "liberal elite" who are always getting bashed for being anti-religious, who are so hated by the current conservative elite. My atheist ancestors were miners, railroad workers, farmers, farm workers. Once they had been religious people, many of them Catholics.Related:
The story is told that my great-grandmother, a Montana farmwoman named Mamie O'Laughlin, sent for a priest when her father was dying. The priest did not want to be bothered. (This is western Montana, the late 19th century, the trip would have been dangerous.) And he sent back a message to Mamie that he would come but only if she would pay him a fee of $25, which was a huge sum in those days and way beyond the means of my great-grandmother. So her father died without the consolation, whatever it may have been, of the sacrament. [. . .]
At one time there were dozens of freethought newspapers published throughout the United States. The freethought movement was very much connected to movements for social change of different kinds. In the Northeast, the freethought movement was linked to the working men's movement of the early 1800s, which was a progenitor of the trade union movement. In the West it flourished among miners and other low-paid working people who were drawn to the Wobblies and other unions at the early part of this century. [. . .]
But this is not how it worked in my family. My dad was a really hardline atheist. I am not as hardline as he is. He used to read us Ingersoll on Sunday mornings--that was family quality time. He really believed some of the things, I later found out, that it says in the bible; like that we shall be judged by the way we treat "the least amongst us." He believed that, because he had been one of those "least amongst us" in his life. [. . .]
Here's a strange story from my great-grandfather John Howes whose earliest rebellion against religion--I am slightly embarassed to say--was to pee in the holy water before Easter service when he was a young Catholic boy in Canada.