Purgative self-loathing

More on Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, which chronicles the middle-class academic’s sojourn as a unskilled ersatz welfare reformee, slumming in the jobs that those kicked off the welfare rolls could have expected to land to see how they will actually live, and how the poor in general actually survive. At one point, Ehrenreich works for a corporation that provides maid service to wealthy McMansion owners, people who have “outsourced” the domestic work necessary to maintain their bloated abodes. Viewing her own class from the perspective of the poor, she is enraged with a kind of self-contempt, despising all the traces of yuppie entitlement and all the empty, frivolous status markers such people collect: organic food, quasi-spritual management theory books, self-help manuals and encomiums to the status quo, the huge jacuzzis, the several bathrooms per occupant, the single-malt Scotches, the Martha Stewart-ish accoutrements. And she bristles at the petty signals of distrust and possessiveness and fear that the wealthy inevitably evince: videotaping their maids in action to make ure they don’t steal, leaving carefully designed piles of dirt to see how thorough the maids are, to see if they are getting all they are paying for. Ehrenreich concludes that these people are in part paying for the spectacle of seeing poor people debase themselves, to see them on their hands and knees mopping, for instance. It’s not about having a clean house — Ehrenreich depicts how the maids actually spread around the filth in grim, disgusting detail. In this, it’s not unlike paying to see women dance naked in a strip bar, where money is a proxy for power, and watching what other will do for what you take for granted (strip bars, like porn mags, have nothing to do with sex, really).

It’s impossible not to feel self-righteously angry as you read this, despite the fact that these people she’s denouncing likely resemble people in your own family, or yourself. What results is a curious purgative self-loathing which allows one to distance oneself from the crimes of his class, cleanse himself of all guilt for the inhumane treatment and exploitation that permits one to have the entitlements and privileges he takes for granted. This strikes me as the fundamental pleasure of reading Nickel and Dimed.

When I went to lunch today at The Pump, this “fitness restaurant” where a lot of morbidly health-conscious publishing types get take out from in New York, I became acutely conscious of the dynamic Ehrenreich describes, of the power dynamics between the classes, and how it plays out through things like fussiness in ordering service people around and making a big show of your preening self-maintenance, the sort of thing the poor who are serving you can’t afford to dream of. I feel like a bit of a putz specifying my order, infantalizing the woman behind the counter, getting upset over little errors, as though it would be a absurd indignity if my chili wasn’t poured over brown rice by the worker. Reading Ehrenreich’s book assuages my conscience over these things, an appropriate penance, so I can feel like I am still on the right side of history.

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