Nickle, Dimed and Slimed

The University of North Carolina summer reading program for incoming students has done it again. You may recall that last summer it stirred up national controversy by encouraging students to read and discuss Michael Sell’s Approaching the Qur’an, a somewhat obscure literary discussion of the Muslim holy book, which some feared might turn the students into sympathizers with terrorists, while others seemed worried that the University was intent on transforming good Christian kids into followers of Mohammed.

This year, the University has gone to further extremes, exposing fragile minds to the horrors of low wage work in the US, as described by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed. There is, according to some, only one possible reason the faculty might want students to learn about the psychological abuse endemic to the low wage workplace, or the wretched living conditions the poor or forced into. Obviously, the university is trying to turn the students into raving socialists. Or, so, at least, is the argument made by a group of students (heavily funded by the concerned citizens of The John Locke Foundation) who took out a newspaper ad denouncing the selection.

The ad makes fascinating reading for anyone familiar with Ehrenreich’s book, which commits the unforgiveable sin of making an examination of realities of lower class life into stimulating popular reading matter. The book is “an all out assault on Christians, conservatives, and capitalism.” While readers might be willing to grant that a book critical of Walmart, fast food establishments, maid services, middle class homeowners and the contemporary housing market can perhaps be described as an ‘assault’ on ‘capitalism’, they might be puzzled by the reference to Christians and conservatives. The former refers to her disappointment at a tent revival meeting, where she misses the spirit of Jesus, the ‘wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist’. The authors of the newspaper ad, needless to say, fail to clarify that her description was meant affectionately.

As for conservatives, they highlight an incident where she describes a book by Rush Limbaugh, lying around a home she is cleaning, as ‘at the low end of the literary spectrum.’ Gone, apparently, are the days when conservatives wanted students to read Shakespeare or Milton. Now one must admire Rush Limbaugh’s prose achievements, and for the incoming students they recommend (in a news article related to this controversy) a novel by Ayn Rand, or the Wall Street Journal Editorial page or Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (presumably unaware of the passages in the last where Smith warns kings about letting big merchants gain too much power in government affairs). The ad also takes Ehrenreich to task for confessing that she worried about failing a drug test, and notes that she serves on the Board of Directors of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). Obviously, the ad is aimed at the older generation of Raleigh-Durham residents, and not at the incoming students at UNC, many of whom are undoubtedly devoting more energy to toking up with their new friends than to reading Nickel and Dimed closely. Less amusingly, the ad warps what was a sardonic line about Latinos ‘hogging all the crap jobs and substandard housing’ in California (where she decided that, as a white woman, she might not fit into the low-wage labor force) into evidence of Ehrenreich’s alleged racism.

It is not all that surprising that right-wingers with shitloads of money to throw around would try to whip up red-baiting hysteria about one book assignment. More disappointing (if not altogether unexpected) is the attitude of local newspapers, like the Durham Herald Sun. While supporting academic freedom at UNC, they describe Ehrenreich as a ‘man-the-barricades socialist’ because she is honorary chairwoman of Democratic Socialists of America. To which I can only say to Counterpunch readers, most of whom I suspect are familiar with the pusillanimous liberalism of DSA, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. The editorial writers claim her solution ‘is the old socialist dream of redistribution of wealth and income, thereby putting everybody on the same hardscrabble level, rather like Cuba under Fidel Castro.’ It is hard to know which is more upsetting about this sentence-its misrepresentation of Ehrenreich (who advocates some public spending to make up for the shortcomings experienced by living on a salary below a living wage) or its conflation of Swedish and Soviet/Cuban models of socialism. It appears that the Herald Sun’s understanding of Ehrenreich and Nickel and Dimed comes from the John Locke website, which describes her as “a well-known, and very annoying, media commentator of the hard-left varietythe truly soft-on-Marx, conspiracy-theory variety”, rather than from reading the text itself.

From here, its just a small step for the editorial writers to bait the entire faculty and administration: ‘UNC Chapel Hill, like any other big American university, has a faculty and a corps of administrators steeped in the American liberal tradition This is not an intellectual environment that can throw up a balanced freshman reading program The committee that chose ‘Nickel and Dimed’ wasn’t about to deviate from academia’s obsession with the Holy Trinity: race, gender and class.’ Apart from the fact that the readings of the last two years-the aforementioned Approaching the Qur’an and, before that, Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz-both deviated from the Holy Trinity, this sentence is notable for its complete misrepresentation of universities, and their actual role in American life.

It is undeniably the case that many faculty in the social sciences and the humanities freely explore ideas, including ones critical of capitalism, that are boycotted by the US corporate media (although routinely discussed nearly everywhere else in the world). But this hardly captures the main way UNC and other major universities engage with the wider society. More relevant in this respect are corporate/university partnerships for research. For example, in North Carolina there is “the Dupont Teflon plant in Bladen County (which) uses a technology that was developed by UNC researchers. The plant itself received $55 million in state tax breaks (to create a mere 120 jobs). Thus, the state provides underwriting through tax breaks, the university supports the research and the corporation rakes in the profits” as Dan Coleman, author of Ecopolitics: Building a Green Society explained in a recent op-ed piece in the Raleigh News and Observer.

Another relevant example is the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), a ‘non-profit’ corporation launched with a combination of money from Duke, UNC, and NC State devoted to advising developing countries on such matters as privatizing water. RTI is presently proudly waving the contracts they’ve won to help colonize-I mean export democracy to-Iraq. They don’t mention that such contracts come with promises that they will not criticize the occupation government’s performance.

However liberal some faculty and administrators may be, most universities approach relations to workers and the communities they are embedded in with the same arrogance of the typical large capitalist enterprise. They pay their workers poorly and do their best to stop unionization drives. They attempt to intimidate the communities they are in with their political and economic clout. When UNC had a dispute with the Chapel Hill town council about the zoning of an area they were planning to expand into, while in the midst of deliberations with the town, the university snuck off to Raleigh and had a friend in the state capital introduce legislation that would allow them to override local zoning procedures. After public outcry, the legislation was withdrawn.

Why does the right wing have such a vendetta against an institution that serves the status quo so well? It is a question somewhat reminiscent of why the Bush administration decided to trash the United Nations, another less than radical organization. In both cases, there is a strange mixture of a climate of fear-that things have drifted out of their hands, with dangerous consequences over the long term-and power-that they can, without risking a great deal, regain control. In both cases, it is not difficult to sense a considerable divide within the US capitalist class, between those (high tech, multinational, etc) happy enough with existing institutions, and those who want to bring everything down so as to renew their power. The latter faction clearly regards the leftist presence in academia as a threat to their ideological control. The flap over Nickel and Dimed is somewhat inconsequential-UNC will go ahead with the reading-but it adds to a drumbeat of claims (as noted above, largely endorsed by the media) that the university is an institution out of the mainstream. In the North Carolina state legislature, where many members believe the John Locke Foundation is a serious producer of knowledge (probably holding it in higher esteem than UNC), this is not a difficult case to make. Although the right would have to overcome many obstacles in order to smash higher education-parents who want certifying diplomas so their kids can get good jobs, students who want what amounts to a four-year summer camp with few limits on drug use or sexual behavior, faculty and administrators who like their jobs, high tech capitalists who like the funneling of public monies towards their projects-after Bush flipped the bird to the UN security council and rammed through tax cuts clearly designed to bankrupt the federal government, it no longer seems completely unimaginable, although it still appears to be a ways off.

In the meantime, UNC is going ahead with Nickel and Dimed, although they’ve acceded to right-wing demands that they include a link on their website to a series of questions provided by the conservatives about the book. There is talk among local left groups about providing their own guide, and demanding similar treatment. And UNC housekeepers are moving ahead with plans for an organizing drive in the fall. For the first week of classes, they’ll be sporting buttons that read ‘I’m being Nickel and Dimed’.

STEVEN SHERMAN is a sociologist whose latest article, “The attacks of September 11 in Three Temporalities“, can be read online. He can be reached at