In May the NY Times ran a series of investigative reports on the city’s nail salons that depicted a trail of abuse that consisted of sub-minimum wage pay, exposure to toxic chemicals and a work week that might consist of 66 hours according to one report.
I found the articles compelling both for what they said about super-exploitation and as a welcome exposure of one of the city’s more dubious enterprises. When I moved to New York in 1979, they were beginning to take root. Like everything else that has transformed the city into a playground for the rich and the superrich, they always struck me as a kind of decadent reminder of colonialism with white women having their hands and feet catered to by Asian women. Sarah Maslin Nir, who deserves a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting, wrote:
The juxtapositions in nail salon workers’ lives can be jarring. Many spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence, at salons on Madison Avenue and in Greenwich, Conn. Away from the manicure tables they crash in flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.
Ms. Ren worked at Bee Nails, a chandelier-spangled salon in Hicksville, N.Y., where leather pedicure chairs are equipped with iPads on articulated arms so patrons can scroll the screens without smudging their manicures. They rarely spoke more than a few words to Ms. Ren, who, like most manicurists, wore a fake name chosen by a supervisor on a tag pinned to her chest. She was “Sherry.” She worked in silence, sloughing off calluses from customers’ feet or clipping dead skin from around their fingernail beds.
At night she returned to sleep jammed in a one-bedroom apartment in Flushing with her cousin, her cousin’s father and three strangers. Beds crowded the living room, each cordoned off by shower curtains hung from the ceiling. When lights flicked on in the kitchen, cockroaches skittered across the countertops.
The articles were so well researched and so filled with righteous indignation simmering beneath the surface of the typically neutral reportorial style that they were enough to spur NY State’s neoliberal governor into action. On May 18th he announced a series of bills that would curtail such abuses and that would include a Bill of Rights to be posted in every workplace informing workers of their rights to a decent wage and normal working hours.
Four days ago, however, a blog post titled “What the ‘Times’ Got Wrong About Nail Salons” appeared in the New York Review of Books, a high-toned journal that has been around since 1963. During the Vietnam War it reflected the popular mood, publishing articles by Noam Chomsky and other leftists. As it has gotten older, it has moved to the center and become complacent. So in that sense, it was no surprise that Bernstein would submit his article to the NY Review and that they would publish it.
Bernstein traded on the fact that he used to work for the Times and that his Chinese wife and sister-in-law run a nail salon:
As a former New York Times journalist who also has been, for the last twelve years, a part owner of two day-spas in Manhattan, I read the exposé with particular interest. (A second part of the same investigation, which appeared in the Times a day later, concerned chemicals used in the salon industry that might be harmful to workers.) Our two modestly-sized establishments are operated by my wife, Zhongmei Li, and my sister-in-law, Zhongqin Li, both originally from China, and “mani-pedi” is a big part of the business. We were startled by the Times article’s Dickensian portrait of an industry in which workers “spend their days holding hands with women of unimaginable affluence,” and retire at night to “flophouses packed with bunk beds, or in fetid apartments shared by as many as a dozen strangers.” Its conclusion was not just that some salons or even many salons steal wages from their workers but that virtually all of them do. “Step into the prim confines of almost any salon and workers paid astonishingly low wages can be readily found,” the story asserts. This depiction of the business didn’t correspond with what we have experienced over the past twelve years. But far more troubling, as we discovered when we began to look into the story’s claims and check its sources, was the flimsy and sometimes wholly inaccurate information on which those sweeping conclusions were based.
Today I was pleased to see the NY Times response to Bernstein that basically stated that Bernstein was trying to depict his own nail salons as typical of the industry when the investigative reporting team’s work was based on a broad cross-section and backed up by Department of Labor statistics. It concluded with this knockout punch:
Mr. Bernstein produced much fine and admirable work during his lengthy tenure at The Times. He has many friends here. To his credit, he has been upfront about being part of the salon industry and having a vested financial interest in its health. Still, that doesn’t alter the fact that he has taken on the role of a partisan defender, not a journalist.
In an exchange prior to his story, Mr. Bernstein argued that our stories failed to highlight how being a manicurist can lead to a successful career as a salon owner. We concede he made a valid point about certain positives in the industry that could have been amplified. But we are nonetheless disappointed that the New York Review of Books chose to publish what is essentially an example of industry advocacy, not unbiased journalism.
Out of curiosity, I checked out Bernstein’s articles in the NY Times archives just to see why someone would try to put a positive spin on an industry that was just one step up from slave labor. With 1,867 articles to his credit, I could find none that were particularly obnoxious.
But what did catch my eye was a review of a book he wrote in 2009 titled “The East, The West, And Sex: A History of Erotic Encounters”. Hmm. What was up with that? Reviewer Simon Winchester found this observation of Bernstein’s troublesome: “the sexual advantage of the Western man in the East is an aspect of Western dynamism, the questing spirit of Europeans, compared with the relative passivity of Asian in these matters.” Talk about Orientalism!
Winchester was relatively charitable to Bernstein, as you would expect for a review of an alumni’s book, but Salon.com not so much as might be indicated by the tile of Laura Miller’s review: “White male seeking sexy Asian women”. She wrote:
However, sexual freedom, to a greater and more intimate degree than any other freedom, is a paradoxical thing. Unless you’re talking about masturbation, then someone else — a human being with his or her own desires and dislikes — is involved. If you define sexual freedom as being able to do whatever you want with whomever you please, then (except in very rare cases of perfect compatibility with one’s partner at every moment) one man’s freedom is another woman’s compulsion. Women in traditional harem cultures languished in a condition of de facto slavery, where they had no right to determine anything about their own lives, let alone their sexual partners and activities. Their very survival was predicated on pleasing men. They were treated for the most part as animate commodities, like livestock, to be bought, sold and discarded at will. And if Eastern men’s adulterous shenanigans were regarded as “natural,” in women such behavior was punishable by extreme social ostracism and frequently by death.
No wonder that a man who wrote a book that was indifferent to Asian women languishing in “a condition of de facto slavery” and being treated “like livestock” would put the best possible spin on nail salons.