Total Drek

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Way to prove your opponent's point.

From time to time I teach a class wherein my students and I discuss a number of theories dealing with the determinants of economic success. These sorts of theories, and their supporting articles, are often interesting but, at the same time, frequently approach the world from the perspective of an educated individual who is trying to maximize his or her utility. So, for example, we might read extracts from Ron Burt's "Structural Holes," which has some great stuff to say, but seems more like advice to MBAs than anything else. What I often think is lacking in such discussions, however, is an examination of what things are like for those who don't have a lot of education and options. You know, the people who lack the freedom of choice that much of the academic literature on strategic action presumes. And this is where Barbara Ehrenreich comes in.

See, Ehrenreich wrote a book called "Nickel and Dimed," which details her efforts to live as a member of the working poor for three months. Now, it goes without saying that her "experiment" lacks the sort of rigor that good social science demands, and there are huge, gaping flaws in her reasoning and argumentation that make me flinch every time I read the book. At the same time, it's an evocative look at what life can be like when you don't start out with advantages and assets, and provides a useful counterpoint to academic work that seems more interested in how executives can become even more successful, rather than those at the bottom of the income spectrum. And realistically, even (perhaps especially) when I have students who violently disagree with Ehrenreich's arguments, it turns out to be an interesting reading.

Now, Ehrenreich is essentially an atheist, but at one point in the book she goes to a tent revival- in no small part because it's a type of entertainment that she can afford. And while there, after noticing all the haranguing for people to donate to the church/traveling religious carnival, she thinks about the message that the preachers are pitching and how it differs in some ways from what Jesus might have said. Particularly, if you check out pages 68 and 69 in the edition available from Google Books, you'll find this:

The preaching goes on, interrupted with dutiful "amens." It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.

The interesting thing about this passage is that Ehrenreich isn't insulting Christ or Christianity per se, but rather a practice of it that ignores Jesus' deep concern for the poor and less fortunate. In other words, she's making an admittedly flowery argument that one can't be Christian and holy and yet unconcerned with the deep and serious economic inequalities that characterize American society. It's a provocative point and my students and I often have an interesting time discussing it. Often one or more students ask whether anyone is really like this, whether anyone can consider themselves a devout and committed Christian and yet miss the essential need for concern for the poor.

And now, when that comes up, I get to mention this:

A New Hampshire couple has pulled their son out of his local high school after the teen was assigned a book that refers to Jesus Christ as a "wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist."

Aimee Taylor says her oldest son, 16-year-old Jordan Henderson, was required to read "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," this fall for Bedford High School's personal finance class.

The book is a first-person account of author Barbara Ehrenreich's attempts to make ends meet while working minimum wage jobs in Florida, Maine and Minnesota.


Taylor asked her son to show her what was so bad about the book and after he pointed out a few controversial excerpts she decided to read it in full.

"I finished the book that night, I could not put it down because I was just mortified by the take on this book as well as the language, and the Jesus Christian bashing was unbelievable to me, and that it was in our school was just amazing to me," she said.


Assistant Superintendent Chip McGee told the Union Leader that the district still plans to evaluate the personal finance class to see if "Nickel and Dimed" can be replaced with a less controversial book and will require teachers to notify parents from now on before assigning the book and offer an alternative should they object.

But Taylor says that's not enough.

"We've eliminated Christmas, we've eliminated all these things because we don't want to step on anyone's toes but here we're going to hand out this book? … This is anti-God, anti-religion, it's racial, I mean it crosses a wide spectrum of very touchy and very insulting issues to most human beings and I think that even with a parental consent it's not enough. They need to boot that book out of there," Taylor said.

The Taylors, who have since begun home schooling their son at his request, plan to attend the Dec. 13 Bedford School Board meeting to ask that the book be yanked entirely so taxpayers are no longer forced to pay for it. They have five other children, including a freshman at Bedford High School.

And all this is just amazing to me. First off, because it's not anti-Christian and there isn't any "Jesus Christian bashing" therein. No, rather, what's going on is that Ehrenreich is suggesting that Jesus had good ideas but that some modern Christians are not doing so well at following them. That is complimentary to Christ, but perhaps less so to Christianity. Second... racial? Is Christian a race now? Granted, Ehrenreich does talk about racial issues a bit, but talking about race isn't necessarily a bad thing. Or, put differently, you can talk about race without being racist. Granted, I think 16 may be a bit young to be reading "Nickel and Dimed," but, that said, by the time I was 16 I had read things that were way, way more advanced and risque than a simple book about income inequality.

But in the end, the thing I find most amazing is this: the student, and the parents, noticed the suggestion that Jesus was a wine-guzzling vagrant, but completely missed the substance of what she was saying. More importantly, they seem to have missed the substance of what Jesus was saying. And honestly, there's no better way to support Ehrenreich's point than that.

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Blogger Jay Livingston said...

Ehrenreich was being deliberately provocative. If she had really wanted readers to pay attention to the message about the poor, she might have referred to to Jesus as "an itinerant preacher who, like others of that time, drank wine." It's a bit disingenous to shine a spotlight on one part of the scene and then criticize people for not paying attention to the shadows. In this way, Ehrenreich too is drawing attention away from what she says she wants people to pay attention to.

Friday, December 17, 2010 9:15:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey Jay,

I agree with you that Ehrenreich was often being deliberately provocative. That said, I don't really agree with you here. Yes, she was trying to provoke her audience, but she was doing so by trying to say, "Look, in his day, Jesus was not a figure of automatic respect. He was viewed as a bum, a troublemaker, and a shady character. So maybe you shouldn't feel so good when you look down on others, eh?" In other words, her provocation is in service of her message. If she were gentler would some people swallow it more readily? Possibly, but making it gentler would, I think, also rob it of some of its power.

Monday, December 20, 2010 8:57:00 AM  

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