Big Macs, Dope, Sex And Immigrants

An Interview With Eric Schlosser

Laura Sanchez
8 min read
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Eric Schlosser's first book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal, spent three years on the New York Times bestseller lists. The book follows our burgers from pasture to plate, and it documents damage the junk food industry inflicts on our waistlines, workers, environment and children. Book number two, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, tours our nation's bizarre, often horrifying, trillion-dollar, underground illegal drug economy.

Schlosser will be at the El Rey Theatre on Wednesday, April 14, at 8 p.m. to discuss and sign the new paperback edition of Reefer Madness. Adding a New Mexico slant to the hot-button issues will be former Gov. Gary Johnson and Robin Seydel from La Montanita Co-op, with poetry slam star Danny Solis facilitating the discussion. Admission is free. Drinks will be available for purchase, as will copies of Reefer Madness provided by local independent bookstore Bookworks, sponsor of the event. Call 344-8139 for more information.

The Alibi recently interviewed Schlosser by phone.

The afterword to the new Reefer Madness paperback includes two mind-boggling anecdotes about schools overreacting to marijuana. What's the root cause of such overreaction?

Well, it's interesting. When I majored in American history in college, I focused on the McCarthy-era witch hunt for communists and the assault on freedoms during the '50s. I think in the last 20 years, the war on drugs, particularly marijuana, has been a very similar kind of irrational overreaction.

I'm not a pot smoker and I'm not telling anyone to smoke pot. But I'm much more concerned about the way young people are consuming alcohol, which I think is a much more dangerous drug. I think a lot of the war on marijuana has less to do with the drug than with the kind of people who use the drug. In a lot of ways, it's a war on nonconformists as much as it is a war on drugs.

You're working on a book about prisons. Did your research for Reefer Madness lead directly to the prison book?

Yeah. I started looking at who's in prison for marijuana. It really made me think about our prison system and who we're sending and why they're there.

How do you get people to talk to you who run a risk by doing so?

I try to be very clear with people about why I'm interested in talking to them, and what I plan to write. A lot of people who talk to me face risks but they also want to be heard. Marijuana growers I spoke to—on one hand, if their identities were revealed they would face prison sentences, on the other hand, they're very proud of their work and think these laws are unjust. I promise them confidentiality. With some of the marijuana growers, it's harder to get them to shut up.

I don't need to misrepresent anyone, because it's their point of view that's interesting. I came from the world of fiction, and the reality almost defies our ability to make these things up.

Have you ever run personal risks?

I've definitely had people who don't like me, and I've probably pissed off some very powerful companies, but at the same time, I don't want to over-glamorize my work or present myself as some fearless crusader. Right now I go into prisons in the morning and leave in the afternoon, but the people who work in the prison every day—their job is so much more hazardous than my job. The risks involved in my work are nothing compared to the risks a police officer faces on duty every day or a corrections officer or a meatpacking worker or our troops in Iraq.

American workers seem caught between white collar jobs being outsourced and blue collar jobs being automated or filled by illegal immigrants. What do you see happening?

I hope we will have a regime change that will prevent a lot of the job loss from occurring. We have companies receiving enormous federal tax breaks that are exporting our jobs and I don't think that should happen. There are all kinds of offshore arrangements that companies are able to use, and I would really give the incentives to corporations who are devoted to keeping jobs in the United States.

It's a very, very complicated issue, but I would first raise wages and improve working conditions and then give an amnesty to everybody who's already in the country, and then make sure illegal immigrants are employed. Targeting illegals is absolutely the wrong policy, and targeting the people who exploit them makes a lot more sense.

There's a lot of immigrant labor around here. If it's on, say, a construction site, people say, “Well, if we didn't have illegal labor, the price would just go sky high.” What's your response?

I think that's ridiculous. Construction used to be one of the best paid blue collar jobs in the United States. It's a good, honorable, decent job and it shouldn't be done by illegal immigrants earning a pittance. People would still need houses, and it's better they pay a little bit more for the house and have legal, well-paid workers than if they get a cheaper house but the rest of society has to pay the huge costs of illegal immigration.

How would you characterize the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Bush administration?

Toothless. Irrelevant. One of the first things the Bush administration did after taking office was to get rid of the new OSHA ergonomic standard that really would have reduced repetitive trauma injuries. This administration is very, very close to the industries it's supposed to be regulating.

What about Bush's proposed guest worker bill?

I really hope it never passes. It's a terrible idea. It creates a second class of citizens in the United States and allows industries to recruit immigrant labor instead of raising wages for the workers they already have. It's amazing that under the Bush proposal, fast food restaurants and hotels and meatpacking companies will be able to say they need guest workers because there are no American workers willing to do those jobs. Well, there are no American workers willing to do those jobs for terrible wages.

Do you think downloadable porn on the Internet will eventually cripple the pornography industry?

It's just beginning to happen. I don't know that it will cripple it, but certainly the growth in revenues has slowed enormously. The Internet is a real threat, in the same way that piracy and illegal downloading is a threat to the music industry. I think the great boom in pornography has peaked and the Internet is going to just saturate people with this material until they're bored with it.

Will the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake flap lead to harsher penalties for objectionable material?

Well, it certainly led to harsher moves by the FCC on decency. If the Bush administration is re-elected, I think you'll see a crackdown not only on what's on mainstream TV and radio, but you'll also see expanded persecution of the porn industry. And a crackdown on the Internet. And I have to say, I found Janet Jackson's move to be just incredibly tacky.

But not a federal case?

Not a federal case. I think she has to answer to a higher law for that kind of tackiness.

Your books portray an America very conflicted and hypocritical about food production, marijuana, pornography, labor. Are we crazier than everybody else, or just richer?

I don't know that we're crazier than everyone else. We definitely have wilder swings between extremes. We started out pretty crazy from the beginning, with completely opposing forces. We had Puritans, and we had wild republican radicals who didn't believe in kings and queens. And they're both American. John Ashcroft and his prudishness is as American as Janet Jackson exposing her breast in the middle of a football halftime. In a weird way, I just hope that we can grow up a little bit and moderate how far we go in either direction.

What would it take for Americans to give up our preference for the lowest possible prices for goods, regardless of the hidden costs?

I may be naïve, but a lot of my work is motivated by the belief that, if people knew the consequences, if people knew the real cost of things, they'd behave differently. So many of our problems are based on disinformation and propaganda and marketing that is misleading people. Young people who have been subjected to this kind of marketing and advertising from the time they're two years old are beginning to question it and reject it. I think marketing has reached a point of over-saturation and there's a growing cynicism.

If you weren't busy with the prison book, what would you want to dig into?

So much conflict is occurring because a handful of countries in the Middle East control the world's oil supplies. And our dependence on foreign oil has led us into these two wars in Iraq and God knows how many more wars, so I would say energy. Energy policy. Once I finish this prison book, I'm going to sit down and think about what to do next. But what I'd love to read about is oil.

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