Notes From the Underground

Eric Schlosser mines the underbelly of America for his hard-hitting new tome.

At first glance, there are few similarities between Fast Food Nation, the enlightening book that made author Eric Schlosser's reputation, and his passionate new followup, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market. After all, the former peeks beneath the average hamburger's bun to reveal plenty of distasteful facts about its path from the planet's barnyards to the nearest McDonald's, while the latter uproots the underground economy as it applies to marijuana laws, the exploitation of immigrant workers and the mainstreaming of pornography.

Nonetheless, Schlosser sees no shortage of connections. In Fast Food Nation, he wrote about a ConAgra plant in Greeley that's typical of U.S. slaughterhouses, he says, because "they're all being run with the same underlying philosophy: Production counts more than the safety of the food or the safety of employees." Yet working conditions are so horrendous for the undocumented strawberry pickers whose plight Schlosser details in Madness that he believes many would gladly trade the job in the great outdoors for one butchering cattle.

"Wages are higher in the meatpacking industry than they are for migrant workers," Schlosser confirms. "But it's a double-edged sword, because all it takes is one wrong move in a packing plant, and you'll never do manual labor ever again. It's a very tragic situation these people are faced with."

Author Eric Schlosser.
Author Eric Schlosser.

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Marijuana, the immigrant-labor market and pornography are at different points on the social continuum for reasons Schlosser sees as purely hypocritical. Pot, he says, is a fairly benign commodity that remains against the law for political reasons that wrongly punish people like Mark Young, an Indiana man with no history of violent crime who was sentenced to life without parole merely for introducing parties involved in a large weed transaction.

Meanwhile, Schlosser says, migrant workers are routinely demonized for entering the United States illegally, even as the corporations that make huge amounts of money from them are essentially exempted from responsibility. The skin trade, for its part, has gained greater acceptance in the U.S. because powerful companies have discovered how profitable it can be.

"It's ironic to think of the hundreds of millions of dollars being earned by AOL Time-Warner, by Hilton and Sheraton, and by the big satellite cable companies for selling porn," Schlosser says. "When the people involved in porn were bohemians and radicals and organized-crime figures and the business was marginal, the hammer came down hard. But the few conservative politicians who are still upset about this aren't getting anywhere now, because there are wealthy interests that would argue strongly against any action."

Schlosser traces porn's transition from pariah to profit engine through the life of Reuben Sturman, a little-known figure who played an oversized role in transforming pornography from a backroom enterprise into a quasi-respectable business. Sturman "wasn't a saint, and a lot of what he wound up selling is pretty unpleasant stuff," Schlosser admits. "He started out as a successful, upper-middle-class businessman in suburbia, and by the end he was almost a Scarface-like gangster, totally drunk with the hubris of thinking he could defeat the federal government -- and he almost did." Instead, Sturman died in prison in 1997, a relic from an earlier era.

"What was interesting to me about Sturman was the arc of his life," Schlosser adds. "The only story that would be more quintessentially American would be if the author of The Book of Virtues turned out to be a compulsive gambler."

Watch out, William Bennett. Schlosser may come for you next.

 
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