Antichrist of North Carolina
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 right-wing 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 & 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 McCartney, 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 McCartney
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 Dionysus 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 right-wing 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 exposé 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.