When I was in Scandinavia last spring promoting “Nickel and Dimed,” interviewers kept asking me to tell them about the “debate” my book had provoked in the United States. I had to confess that it had provoked no debate at all, at least none that I had heard of. In fact, when my book was adopted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a reading for all incoming students in 2003, the administration expressed its conviction that it was a “relatively tame selection,” at least compared to last year’s choice — a collection of readings from the Koran. I was beginning to envy Michael Moore, whose publisher had cleverly boosted sales by attempting to suppress his book “Stupid White Men” in the wake of 9/11.
Then, early in July, I got a phone call from Matt Tepper, president of the student body at UNC-CH, inquiring as to what I thought would be a useful way to direct the incoming students’ discussions of “Nickel and Dimed.” I suggested that the students ought to apply the book’s concerns to their own campus, where workers have been trying to organize against heavy administrative opposition. I sat back to wait for new students to arrive at the end of the summer so the controversy could begin.
Within about a week — while the incoming first-year students were still working on their tans — a controversy arrived all right. It just wasn’t the one I was hoping for.
On July 10, a group of conservative UNC-CH students, calling themselves the Committee for a Better Carolina, held a press conference, along with a handful of rightwing state legislators, to denounce “Nickel and Dimed” as a “classic Marxist rant” and a work of “intellectual pornography with no redeeming characteristics.” Fine, at least I could cling to the adjectives “classic” and “intellectual.” But when I read the full page ad the Committee for a Better Carolina had taken out in the Raleigh News and Observer, I saw that this controversy was less about the book than it was about me.
The ad charged me with being a Marxist, a socialist, an atheist, and a dedicated enemy of the American family — this last confirmed by a citation from the Heritage Foundation on my longstanding conviction that families headed by single mothers are as deserving of support as those headed by married couples. I was greeted on North Carolina radio talk shows by hosts asking, “What does it feel like to be the Antichrist in North Carolina?” and similarly challenging inquiries.
I suppose I should be grateful for the chance to parse the finer points of Marxism v. feminism, and socialism v. democratic socialism, on the kind of radio stations that update the traffic and weather every 15 minutes. In one week, I appeared on a half dozen radio shows, twice with Michael McKnight, the founder of the Committee for a Better Carolina, who insisted that the last two books chosen as readings for incoming students showed a pattern of liberal bias on the university’s part. We had some interesting exchanges on whether the Koran can be considered a “liberal” document or, even, as McKnight seemed to think, anti-Christian.
I was getting into my new role as North Carolina’s premier amateur philosopher and religious studies scholar, and hoping for some in-depth discussion of my own “anti-Christian bigotry,” as one of the state legislators put it, no doubt referring to my description, in “Nickel and Dimed” of Jesus as a “wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.” On the “vagrant” part, there can be no debate, and, although “guzzling” may be a bit overstated, Jesus was sufficiently associated with wine (“I am the true vine,” etc.) to be confused with the Greek wine god Dionysius in the Hellenistic world — a subject I have yearned to expound on for years.
As for Jesus being a socialist, I take it back. He was actually a little to the left of that, judging from his instruction to the rich man to sell all that he had and give to the poor. If that’s what it takes to be a true Christian, believe me, it’s a hell of a lot easier to be a socialist: You have to dedicate yourself to working for the poor, just as a Christian should, but at least you get to keep your stuff. The topic of Christian altruism v. socialist pragmatism could, I thought, entertain the rightwing radio talk show audiences for weeks.
But I was being distracted and diverted. The real issue, I’ve decided, isn’t just the campus and its workers, but the state. According to the North Carolina Justice and Economic Development Center, 60 percent of North Carolina families with children do not earn enough to meet basic, bare-bone needs. Nationwide, when last measured in 2000, 29 percent of families were in the same straits, giving North Carolina twice the level of economic misery as the country as a whole.
My former husband, who was a union organizer in the state for several years, said he’d never seen such poverty anywhere. At a union organizing meeting held in a motel meeting room, for example, he noticed the workers covertly pocketing packets of Saltines left from a previous event. It’s not a pretty picture: Well-fed suits engaging in chest-thumping attacks on an expose about poverty while at least some of their constituents are basing their meal plans around soda crackers. I don’t know much about pornography — and am eager to hear from any reader who has detected it in “Nickel and Dimed” — but I do know obscenity when I see it.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive. She is the author of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America” and “Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War.”