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Eric Schlosser: Under The Skin

Discussion in 'Marijuana News from The USA' started by weedboss, May 21, 2003.

  1. Eric Schlosser, Bestselling Scourge Of The Junk-Food Chains, Has Turned His Gaze On Other Favourite Vices.

    He Tells Boyd Tonkin About The True Cost Of America's Cheap Thrills

    Over the past year, one sight has grown almost as common on London's public transport as the litter of burger bags that spreads daily through each tube and bus. Somewhere amid this tide of detritus, an engrossed reader will be devouring the literary antidote to junk culture and junk cuisine.

    During 2002, Eric Schlosser's history-cum-polemic Fast Food Nation sold almost 200,000 copies in its UK paperback alone.

    Along with Naomi ( No Logo ) Klein and Michael ( Stupid White Men ) Moore, the investigative journalist makes up a sort of ad hoc triumvirate of north American dissidents. Their vastly popular works can occasionally look like the strongest global opposition to the dominion of Dubya.

    "I wouldn't presume to say that my book or any book can have a long-term effect," says the painstaking sleuth who found - and made - big cracks in the empire of Big Macs. "What I can say is that I've met people who have been affected by it. As a writer, that's enormously gratifying." The reborn activism that seized on his queasily compelling expose of the filth behind the fries makes a change from the torpor of Schlosser's own youth: "I was at university during the Reagan and George Bush the First years.

    It could not have been a deader, more apolitical, more materialistic generation."

    We talk in a coolly tasteful meeting-room, high in Penguin's pharaonic Thames-side headquarters. As with Moore and Klein, Schlosser's anti-corporate agenda has touched its followers across the world courtesy of the globe-spanning media giants.

    But touch them it certainly has. Fast Food Nation captured, and intensified, a mood of visceral disgust with tainted and tasteless branded fodder.

    The backlash has forced McDonald's itself to raise its PR game through the pursuit of cattle-friendly ranches and organic milk suppliers.

    Schlosser suspects this greener-than-thou campaign might be too little, too late: "I really do believe that this industry and this phenomenon has peaked and is in decline." He points out that "in the States - certainly among the educated middle classes - the fast food chains have lost their allure". Elsewhere, burger diplomacy has backfired. "I don't like anti-Americanism, and I don't want to feed into anti-Americanism," he says, "but the incredible anti-Americanism throughout the world at the moment does not help McDonald's at all. They have worked so hard to wrap themselves in the American flag and present themselves as the embodiment of the American dream.

    Now they're paying the price." Closer to home, his own children - aged 12 and 10 - thrive in spite of a parental ban on junk meals.

    Besides: "They have not been ostracised or suffered any social opprobrium as a result of their refusal to eat fast food."

    Schlosser - a bejeaned, crop-haired and youthful 43 - has now shifted his gaze to guilty passions that may prove more durable than the craze for quarter-pounders with cheese.

    He has just published his second scrutiny of the unsavoury ingredients that helped to make modern America. Reefer Madness ( Allen Lane, UKP10.99 ) collects three detailed explorations of the commodities that his fellow-citizens "publicly abhor, privately adore, and buy in astonishing amounts": pornography, marijuana, and illegal Mexican migrant labour.

    Today, revenues from porn match Hollywood receipts and exceed sales of rock. Some 20 years after Reagan's "War on Drugs" began, marijuana cultivation has probably overtaken corn - worth $19bn annually - as the nation's most lucrative cash crop. In Los Angeles County, 28 per cent of all workers are paid in untraceable cash: "a triumph of underground practices and values". Everywhere you look, the underground has flooded the mainstream.

    Together, these essays build into a secret history of America's favourite vices.

    Through Schlosser's rich landscape of research and reportage, there threads a winding stream of argument about the proper role of the free market, the law and the state.

    This wrangle over the wages of sin never goes in a straight line. "Things are complicated," the author admits. "I've really tried, in Fast Food Nation and this book, to convey the complexity of the world and not fall back on dogma or slogans." With Albert Camus, he shuns the ideological quick fix and praises "thought that knows its limits".

    In keeping with this motto, Schlosser writes not tracts but tales.

    He composes gripping contemporary history, as full of drama as of data. Indeed, he studied history at both Princeton and Oxford, and tried his hand at fiction and plays before two editors at the Atlantic Monthly gave him a journalistic break.

    Around its core ideas about the development of consumerism, Fast Food Nation wove the stories of key individuals, from Ray Kroc himself - the Californian entrepreneur who first saw the potential of the McDonald brothers' burger business - to the Latino meatpackers who sweat and suffer in the deregulated hell of the processing plants.

    In Reefer Madness, we meet underground men such as Mark Young - jailed for life as go-between in a small-time dope deal - and the strawberry-picker Francisco, hiding out with Mexican villagers "like criminals or the Viet Cong" so that Californian fruits can grace the nation's tables at a price only slave wages permit.

    Most remarkable of all is Reuben Sturman: unchallenged kingpin of the US pornography business from the 1960s until the government managed to jail him on a tax-evasion charge in 1992. Half monster, half martyr, Sturman - whom Schlosser met in the prison he treated like a country club - leaps off the page with the coarse grandeur of some protagonist out of Bellow or Roth.

    Sex attracted Sturman hardly at all: "He could have been selling aluminium foil." A shrewd Ohio wholesaler, he drifted into the smut trade almost by accident, discovered that it paid, but quickly fell foul of the law. These days, Schlosser notes that "On Channel 4, on a typical evening, you'll see things so much more lurid than what Sturman was repeatedly indicted for in the Sixties". In 1964, the exasperated Sturman dared to sue J Edgar Hoover, all-powerful chief of the FBI. That insolence triggered an often farcical game of cat-and-mouse between pornographer, police and tax authorities, which lasted for three decades and stretched from LA to Zurich. Schlosser decided to "follow the money". The labyrinthine paper trail allows him to piece together an amazing non-fiction narrative.

    It binds sex, law, cash and politics into a very American chronicle of hubris and nemesis.

    Both hardcore libertarians and strict state interventionists will find something to perplex them in Reefer Madness. On pot, Schlosser supports decriminalisation on the mild European model but argues that the swift legalisation of drugs "would perfectly play into the wild bi-polar swings in our culture.

    To go from giving life without parole to someone for a small roach to having [tobacco firm] Philip Morris being able to market Acapulco Gold on TV ... would be crazy." I can't avoid asking about his personal interest in Cannabis sativa. "I have inhaled. I'm not a current user," he replies.

    Then, fairly, he throws the question back at me. My answer would be the same.

    On porn, Schlosser defends the freedom of consenting adults to produce and consume it, but stresses the legacy of prior abuse and addiction that drives so many performers. "When you watch contemporary porn," he warns, "you are very often watching a woman in the process of self-destruction." The same conscience that led him to denounce the misery of the meat-packing plants also burns in the breezeblock studios of the San Fernando valley: "If you're concerned about the rights of ordinary working people, you should be concerned about the women in pornography." A sane state policy on age restrictions might help, for a start.

    At the age of 18, he reports, "in California, you're not allowed to buy a beer, but you can have sex with 15 men on film."

    Schlosser has not finished with the shadow side of American life. His next project will complete a trilogy that aims "to understand the history of the last 30 years". The book will wrestle with a beast whose power dwarfs that of the Golden Arches: the US prison system. This vast carceral industry now houses 2 million-plus inmates.

    Among them are tens of thousands of the innocuous pot-heads whose heartbreaking histories we hear in Reefer Madness. One of America's wars may have ended lately.

    What Schlosser calls its "war on nonconformists" is inflicting heavier casualties than ever.


    Eric Schlosser, 43, was born in Manhattan and grew up there and in Los Angeles. He studied American history at Princeton; then British imperial history at Oxford. He worked for a film company in New York, where he was "reasonably successful, but unhappy", and was able to embark on a career as a journalist thanks to supportive editors at the Atlantic Monthly in Boston. A two-part article for Rolling Stone provided the impetus for his first book, in 2001. Fast Food Nation ( Penguin ) proved a runaway success in the US and Britain. His magazine investigations into migrant labour, porn and pot form the basis of Reefer Madness ( Allen Lane ). Eric Schlosser lives in Manhattan with his wife and children, Mica and Conor.

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