I stumbled upon Nick Mamatas' insightful, interesting discussion of Presidential candidate Obama's comments about the bitter people clinging to their guns and religion. He emphasized the point that people living in troubled circumstances quite wisely have stopped trusting politicians of any type. There's always HOPE, of course. Hard to see how hope could come from any politician -- there's only a couple types of people more self-promoting and self-interested than politicians and that would be an awful lot of writers and their editors.
Nick mentioned Nickeled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, a book that I was forced to teach for one semester about four years ago. Having worked with homeless families for about 15 years of my not-that-long life, I found the book puerile, facile and depressing. I experienced unpleasant memories of the book's horrid introduction, in which Ehrenreich lunches with her editor and conceives the project and they are crowing about what a great idea it was, and she thinks to thoughtfully mention that they're eating a fancy lunch while the "po folk" she'll be "living with" for her project wouldn't ever get a lunch like that.
The book doesn't overcome the introduction; it repeats, amplifies and elaborates on that original condescending theme. Like many books "about the poor," it's incredibly condescending, blind and exploitive. It continues to be assigned to many students in both first-year English classes and introductory sociology classes. Sociology, as a discipline, is so terrifyingly confused and bizarre that students in it could well complete the entire major with absolutely no clue about anything anybody might do, or not do, under any circumstances.
My experience teaching the book was that most students were disgusted by it as well. They were working low-paying jobs while putting themselves through college. They quite easily said, "Well, you can't live on your own if you have that type of job." Ehrenreich of course ignores that people live together, pool their efforts and income, and they participate in the broader community, which enables them to survive on low/poor wages.
Because most people don't know about the publishing community, the average student doesn't read that introduction and wince at the egotistical, self-congratulatory back-scratching and shameless butt-kissing between Ehrenreich and her Henry Holt editor: basically two people who are entirely too thrilled at what a genius idea they've had. Sheltered, protected students might actually buy Ehrenreich's premise that she is "brave" for working jobs and living in the same situation as millions of Americans of all ages, colors and genders. For about 3 weeks - that was her longest tenure on any of her low-paying, otherwise-known-as shit jobs. She worked at Wal-Mart, at a convalescent home, at a Dennys and another restaurant, and as a cleaning person. How brave!
It's a horrible book. I found myself embarrassed often as I read it. By the time I got to the chapter where Ehrenreich attempted to portray the malnourished pregnant young woman who was cleaning houses as the Little Em'ly of the Evil Capitalist Empire -- while not interceding on the real young woman's behalf and cutting loose from the whole situation as soon as possible -- I was disgusted.
We really have had literature pointing up with dignity and grace the lifestyles and humanity of people who have to work hard jobs for low pay. The examples are actually numberless, because truly great writers - Faulkner, Steinbeck, Dickens, Twain, Cather, and even Upton Sinclair - not a great writer but a reasonably thoughtful one - all take these people's lives and treat them with the respect that human beings deserve.
It is by this type of writing that the world has been able to change for the better. Not writing like Nickeled and Dimed. This type of thing confuses students. It makes them think that parroting their instructors' idiot instructions is somehow beneficial too the world. It denies individuality and dignity, making the people featured in the book into moronic, helpless -- heck, the way she portrays a lot of these people, they are made to seem almost mentally disabled in their torpid apathy. She can barely remember their names and can't manage much more than half a paragraph about anybody other than herself.
I want to say that I think this type of thinking, writing and work is a thing of the past. Only upper-class, privileged people would think that such a feeble "experiment" would accomplish anything except further exploiting the people who are already exploited in so many ways. I want to say that whatever economic upheavals we have in our world, that there is beyond a doubt, something different and better in store.
I've taught this book this semester. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakaeur. Usually, the book is presented as being about Chris McCandless' controversial journey into nature and his tragic death. The sub-theme is, of course, classism and materialism, community, family and values. Everything Amy has always ever written about. Chris makes his own family several times on his travels, having been so deeply hurt and disillusioned about his own family's dysfunction and materialism. Chris burns his money a couple of times, and gives his college fund to Oxfam. Chris abandons his beloved (good gas mileage, old, trusty) car to hoof it as a leather tramp. Chris works at McDo's. Chris works for Wayne in the grain business. He drops out of society and joins the alternative society at the Slabs. He follows his dream and goes "into the wild."
I cannot say how much more profound, how much more compelling, how much more thought-provoking is this story - Jon Krakauer's writing, investigating, and storytelling, Chris' own story, the stories of his family and friends and the many people he encountered - is than a cheap, greedy, exploitive book like Nickeled and Dimed. How sheltered are these students that they could call this shallow, self-centered woman "brave" for cleaning houses or walking to work, missing some meals or eating poor meals, for no longer than 3 weeks at a time? No wonder "education" is a mystery in this country, and people have some type of thought that any politician is going to do anything to change their lives that's not negative.
** I just remembered one of the other hilariously sad things about the book. Ehrenreich sort of "comes out" in various circumstances, telling her co-workers that she's a writer, and she's writing this book. Seldom does anybody express any particular surprise or interest - a phenomenon or speculation that takes up 5-10% of most chapters. She attributed their lack of interest to a variety of things -- typically that the people are too dumb to read, downtrodden, or socially-deprived to know how special they are, to be covered by a special person like her "looking out for their interests." If she were not a woman, the term "wanker" would totally fit.