Sunday, August 30, 2009

Nickel and Dim(med)

I'm having a hard time deciding what to write about Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. One the one hand, it is definitely good to see a journalist actually applying some of the rhetoric that gets thrown around the newsroom, in that she actually tried to survive on poverty wages, rather than accepting tainted, conventional wisdom on the subject, taken from left or right. On the other hand, this book practically drips with condescension towards those in the jobs she takes on (Wal-Mart sales clerk, waitress, heinemakkefrau) and bends more toward pity than empathy. What's certain is that this is a book everybody should read, and that ought to be read especially by those on the right who want to abolish social welfare and by those on the left who believe throwing more bureaucracy at the problem of poverty in America is going to fix everything.

The condescension comes particularly when Ehrenreich goes undercover working at a Wal-Mart in suburbian Minneapolis (and starts off by showing that she has no idea what the real definition of "Minnesota Nice" means). She derides the personality "survey" she takes as part of the application process, in which she imagines the company is searching for sheep:
You might expect a bit of grumbling, some signs of unrest -- graffiti on the horatory posters in the break room, muffled guffwas during our associate meetings -- but I can detect none of that. Maybe this is what you get when you weed out all the rebels with drug tests and personality "surveys" -- a uniformly servile and denatured workforce, content to dream of the distant day when they'll be vested in the company's profit-sharing plan. They even join in the "Wal-Mart cheer" when required to do so at meetings, I'm told by the evening fitting room lady, thought I am fortunate enough never to witness this final abasement.

But if it's hard work to think "out of the box," it may be almost impossible to think out of the Big Box. Wal-Mart, when you're in it, is total -- a closed system, a world unto itself.
Ehrenreich may have indeed penetrated the world of the working poor, but she demonstrates the typical journalistic and, frankly, liberal weakness in thinking that a few weeks' immersion in the society, looking through lenses more attuned to what she expects to find (sheeple, servile morons clinging to religion) she fails to understand what's really going on. She seems to think a few idle conversations with the people she works with entitles her to fill their heads with all sorts of thoughts that may or may not be their own.

Also comical is Ehrenreich's belief that, with a few rabble-rousing comments she made, which were reciprocated by a handful of her co-workers at Wal-Mart, that she could have led a revolt that would have brought one of Minneapolis' Wal-Marts to its knees. She concedes that unions in of themselves aren't a cure-all and invite a certain amount of corruption into the mix, but it is amusing to see in her what I see in myself: Delusions of grandeur when what is more appropriate are delusions of accuracy.

I'm not saying I have a perfect understanding of this world, but I'm tempted to believe I understand a few things better than she does. In 2005-06, I spent just over a year in this world, working telemarketing jobs in the afternoon and evenings and a retail job in the mornings. I didn't meet sheeple unwilling to question what was going on, but very intelligent people recognizing that, yeah, they're not in the best position of their lives at the moment, but things will get better. They're not frozen where they are. I certainly wasn't, though I felt some times that I was.

The working poor certainly exist in this nation. I was one of them, for a year. I survived and got out of it, supporting a wife and three kids all the while. So read Ehrenreich's book, but don't take it as gospel.

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