David Herrle reviews Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich
published by Owl Books 2002
205 Pages, $13.00
don't buy the book
"The Common Man does not exist. He is an abstraction invented for bores by bores."
- Evelyn Waugh
Ehrenreich, activist author of Nickel and Dimed, spent a few
months working a few lowly jobs in order to report the plight of the
isolated "working poor". She
insisted on using a car (figuring "that a story about waiting for buses
would not be a very interesting read") and a backup ATM card.
If her finances drained too soon, the mission would be aborted
immediately. No hunger
allowed in her grand experiment.
Only enough "reality" to get the basic scoop, collate
statistics, add some Left-biased opinion, and garner New York Times
Ehrenreich, well-paid (more money than I've ever or will ever see)
writer for Time, Harper's, The Nation, etc., was
good enough to take a slumming vacation from accolades, high-society
esteem, and comfy composing to reveal to readers that -- get ready for a
shocker -- crummy jobs offer crummy pay and aren't easy!
For very many nickels and dimes, one can buy Nickel and Dimed
to evoke momentary disgust and awareness of inequality of outcomes while
ensuring another printing for Ehrenreich and more nickels and dimes
(100 dimes and 60 nickels, to be exact) for Owl Books.
Despite a monotonous mixture of indirect condescension and manipulative white guilt, Ehrenreich's narrative is not uninteresting. She possesses wit, a critical eye, and occasional insight. Her observations about the snootiness and downright inhumanity of certain managers and systems are quite important, especially when considering misery's root cause -- which is less economic and more about hearts, kindness, and shared dignity. When break rooms are considered conditional privileges and not rights, when breaks are slight or even denied, and when "time theft" is an actual term, there is an obvious bankruptcy in human relations, and this extends through every class, every race, every nation. I think more folks should be, as Ehrenreich puts it, "squeamish about...human pain". But while hard times can harden people, such hardness justifies no reverse-indignity, or else the cycle goes on without addressing individual premises. Ehrenreich seems to lean toward the economics-is-everything generalization, thus ruining her finer observations and accuracy. When she's jabbing authority and rank, she's at her best; when she resorts to rhetorical, platitudinous classism, I start to yawn. When she mentions "the yuppies", calling the kettle black, I can't help but perk up and snicker.
Ehrenreich isn't unaware of her relatively comfy station. She plainly notes her "decades of better-than-average medical care, a high-protein diet, and workouts in gyms that charge $400 or $500 a year." She even identifies herself as a "fake member of the working class". But "working" is a key term in this entire indictment. On one hand Ehrenreich mentions her "ability to work tirelessly hour after hour", and then she shortchanges that work because it's not "in any hard physical sense". Here is an example of the problematic number of definitions and evaluations of work and appropriate wages. Rather than honestly considering how complex labor, business, and prices are, books like Nickel and Dimed seem more guiltily prone to respect primarily physical exertion over mental/intellectual. I'd like to see more respect for both, with an understanding that the "grunt" work is very important to societal infrastructure instead of merely being consequences of inferiority, for instance. And I'd like to see more genuine compassion for each other instead of tantrum-based class warfare that is based on the destructive delusion that one fat cat's loss is a more virtuous group's gain. Society is more complex than that. (Look what the misguided, blood-soaked, evil French Revolution brought France and beyond, for instance.)
I team with the author on denouncing drug testing and guilty-until-proven-innocent B.S. in general. This ties into the sham "drug war", dubious government interest in drug trade, and, specifically, corporate vilification of marijuana (from DuPont to the oil industry). I also cheer her bashing of the "non-conformist"-disapproving Wal-Mart survey. Also, Ehrenreich's focus on some workers' "brittle sense of professionalism" as a coping method is quite moving. A scene between a woman named Holly and the author, during employment by The Maids, demonstrates this. Holly insists that the prerequisite Accutrac test weeds out incompetence. "Not everyone can get this job. You have to pass the test." Frustrated, the author snaps, "The test...is BULLSHIT! Anyone can pass that test!" Ehrenreich's intellect has hurdled her charade for a moment, regrettably "insulting" to Holly, who is poorly literate. Education's link to career is evident many times throughout the book. This is a fundamental issue in regard to true success, aside from possible income: increased awareness, wider context, sharpened ability to analyze and survive the world of clashing ideas, propaganda, and even intimidating bosses. Ehrenreich points to the "lack of get-up-and-go" of workers like Holly, the immobility and hopelessness of shoestring budgets and crystallized occupations.
The biggest turn-offs were the constant racial designation, white guilt, anti-monotheist-religious bigotry, political glossing, and silly sainthood of the "working poor". Ehrenreich has an ever-racial eye that tends to squint at whites. Here are some noted instances: "invariably white", "I chose Maine for its whiteness", "perfect place for a blue-eyed, English-speaking Caucasian", "Mexican American", "possibly whiter" (oops, Ehrenreich isn't "just talking Caucasian here", but "unwell"), "Indian American", "a Caucasian convert, of course", "both black and Indian", "gentrified their names", "East Indians seem to have a lock on the midwestern hotel business", "African American men", "native Caucasians", "a white woman", etc. Some description, granted, entails race and color. But the author audaciously writes "I even start hating the customers for extraneous reasons, such as, in the case of the native Caucasians, their size", as if obesity (partly due to "biggiesizing") is prominent among whites -- without reference to the epidemic weight and health problems among black women as well. Earlier she writes, "I can watch the large Mexican families or the even larger, in total body mass terms, families of Minnesota Anglos." (Italics mine.)
Ehrenreich rails against mainstream Christianity's severance from Christ's teachings -- and rightly so. But I detect a spiteful bent to her religious bias, however, when Christians are sharply judged, and irascible, freeloading Marx and mass-murderous Mao are favorably quoted. ("Serve the people" indeed. Serve 'em to the blood-soaked earth as fertilizer, Mao! And "reproduction of labor power", Karl? You complained about not being able to keep your MAID and having to move to a lowlier part of town! Don't get me started!) "The worst, for some reason, are the Visible Christians...who run me mercilessly and then leave me $1 on a $92 bill," Ehrenreich writes. First of all, I wonder how she might describe an unsavory black patron or a Wiccan priestess. And "for some reason"? I'd venture to say the "some reason" might stem from such inconsiderate behavior being contrasted against the higher standard of kindness that Christians really are supposed to exhibit. Ehrenreich continues her little slurs: "...she in her Christian way, me from a more feminist perspective". You mean like Buddha endorsed?
The author is fond of Buddhism, however, addressing it more than once in the book - not renouncing wealth and ambition, of course. She fails to mention Buddhism's (and Hinduism's) basic regard for women as seducers and morally faulty. Buddha himself is said to have spurned women as lustful pitfalls on the path to Nirvana. (Not a very "feminist perspective" when it comes to Barbara's favorite pets.)
I find it telling that many folks who bash "rich white people" are rich white people (like blowhard, high-charging Michael Moore). And I especially giggle when folks undertake such experiments and slum with the "common man" -- only to return to their expensive homes and famous lives. (Actors who pretend to be homeless for the sake of a million-dollar film role are very amusing, I must say.) It's easy to bemoan inequality of outcomes, poverty and plight from a modern apartment building or a mortgaged house with a yard and a decent car in the driveway. If I had a nickel or dime for every "concerned" basher of greed who was more wealthy than I am, owned more property than I own (like A HOUSE), and drove a waaaay more expensive, better car than I've ever driven...I'd be able to afford a subscription to The Nation AND buy a golden Buddha statue! There's nothing worse than an armchair activist. At least Barbara did a little more than most "enlightened" hypocrites.
Despite some poignant passages, I'm not impressed with Nickel and Dimed. Ehrenreich wrote, "Tonight I find the new sensation, Survivor, on CBS, where 'real people' are struggling to light a fire on their desert island." Yes, Barbara, I've seen the show. I'm hoping CBS produces one where temporary "real working poor" struggle to sort bras at Wal-Mart.
- review by David Herrle 2/2005
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