With the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency came good years for the leftist bestseller. A review of recent New York Times lists shows a surprising number of books by progressives that climbed high on the charts, and stayed there. Barbara Ehrenreich’s investigations into how much of working America is “(not) getting by” proved tenacious; Nickel and Dimed remained a top seller, at least in paperback, over 100 weeks after its first appearance. Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men, which publishers feared would look impolitic in the wake of 9/11, qualifies as an even greater phenomenon. It staked its claim as the chart’s top dog on repeated occasions in the year following its delayed release in February 2002. By Fall 2003, leftists often seemed to dominate the NYT list, and it’s likely that the election season will only increase the number of titles vying for position.
But perhaps the most interesting success in progressive nonfiction has been one of the least overtly radical, and the most conventionally wrought. Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, revealing “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal,” was not based on a reporting gimmick, such as undercover slumming in the low wage economy. Nor was it straightforward shtick, making the current administration its recurring punch line. Schlosser’s book on the alarming impact of the corporate burger-and-fries establishment took a less novel approach. His methods were investigation and historical research, interview and description, tied by a largely implicit analysis. You could say that Schlosser, an established investigative reporter and correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, was a journalist’s journalist. His readership is much too wide, however, for him to be considered a trade secret any longer.
With his newest book, Reefer Madness, Schlosser made a second assault on the bestseller lists. The book contains three essays, each of which examines an aspect of the underground economy in the United States. What is striking about these is the scope of the author’s themes — the nature of our commerce, the role of the government, the state of our culture — and the consistency of his method. Using the most ordinary tools of his profession, Schlosser is doing more than just creating a subtle vehicle for the spread of progressive ideas. He is developing a bold answer to one of journalism’s oldest questions: How can the reporter shape politics?
Since around 1970, the underground economy has expanded vastly, witnessing better days than it enjoyed even in the era of prohibition. Although estimates about the size of the “black market” vary widely, illicit, untaxed commerce may now make up as much as 20% of the U.S. economy, or some $1.5 trillion per year. The implications are immense not only for economics — providing ever more reason to believe that mainstream forecasts about inflation, growth, and unemployment rest on precarious foundations — but also for culture. As the high-rolling Bill Bennett has learned, our secretive desires provide a telling counterpoint to our above-ground virtue.
If Americans are conducting a life in the shadows, what are we doing there? First off, we’re smoking dope. As Schlosser reveals, the production and policing of pot have created two vast economies. Marijuana has become quite possibly the largest cash crop in the United States, a rival of corn and soybeans. Despite a million admonitions to “Just Say No,” demand for the product has hardly suffered. Government statistics show that over 83 million Americans have smoked pot, 21 million in the last year.
Users can be found in all ranks of society. As a resident of New York City, I can report that one serves as my Republican Mayor. No doubt wishing to avoid the equivocations that made Bill Clinton look like a damn fool, Mike Bloomberg responded to questions about whether he had used pot by announcing, “You bet I did, and I enjoyed it.” Our current President won’t even deny cocaine use, saying simply, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.”
Yet, in spite of this widespread acceptance, the government wages a $4 billion per year war on marijuana. Of course, the rich and well-connected are the least likely to face harsh penalties and “mandatory minimums.” Leslie C. Ohta, a federal prosecutor in Connecticut known as the “Forfeiture Queen,” insisted on seizing the home of 80-year-olds Paul and Ruth Derbacher, despite the fact that the couple claimed to have no idea that their twenty-two-year-old grandson was selling marijuana there.
Nevertheless, when Ohta’s own eighteen-year-old son was arrested for selling LSD, she lost neither her car nor her house, though PR considerations required that she be transferred out of the forfeiture unit.
In the other two essays in Reefer Madness, Schlosser uncovers similarly compelling facts about the exploitation of immigrant strawberry workers and the production of pornography. Apart from pot, strawberries can generate more revenue per acre than virtually any crop in the United States. However, as many have documented in the past 30 years, growers who oversee this labor-intensive enterprise maintain their profit margins largely by hiring “illegal” workers and paying them poverty wages. Suffice it to say, the government does not spend $4 billion per year working to uphold immigrant workers’ rights. In fact, a call to immigration authorities serves as an ever-present threat against those who would try to organize a union in the fields.
If pornography could grow on trees, it too would make for a bumper crop. In describing the movement of the porn industry out of the shadows of the 1950s and onto the convenience-store shelves, Reefer Madness traces the career of a secretive magnate, Rueben Sturman, who was too bored with the product to visit his porn sets, but who nevertheless built “an empire of the obscene.” Setting out to follow the money, Schlosser glosses over the depths of misogyny involved in the enterprise. At the same time, this is no People vs. Larry Flint, a misguided portrayal of smut-monger as folk hero. Sturman was an accomplished extortionist and prodigious tax evader. He mastered a shady trade that operated at the edges of official Puritanism and market-driven sex gluttony, and thus qualifies as an undeniably American preoccupation.
Each of the three essays shows Schlosser’s brilliant command of the extended magazine feature. But they don’t hold together as a larger project. Avoiding any significant examination into how the underground economy influences regular economic life, or how the U.S. black market compares to, say, Nigeria’s, the announced framework for the book remains underdeveloped. And while marijuana cultivation and under-the-table farm labor might fit together cleanly as outlawed phenomena, pornography is most notable for its rise into internet-propagated ubiquity.
You can see the author’s real ambition only by going beyond the book itself. While this work joined Fast Food Nation on the bestseller lists, Schlosser was already well into a third volume, about the massive expansion of America’s prison industrial complex — a focused topic that again promises to produce a damning exposé. Reefer Madness does not stand well on its own because it rests between two pillars.
Taken together, the books of this trilogy take on the biggest issues transforming our national culture. In contrast with the tight specialization of academia, where scholars find a small topic and jealously guard their turf, Schlosser defends the journalist as broad social critic. What has happened to us as Americans in the past 30 years, after all? We have grown fat by turning to huge conglomerates to feed us pre-processed fries as our daily bread. We have faced a flood of market demands as our born-again legislators cast away the idea of state regulation. And we have imprisoned two million of those that neither our economy nor our social safety net can accommodate.
Although Schlosser moves his prescriptions with a light hand, he offers a corollary to each deleterious trend. Against corporate conglomerates, he upholds small businesses. Against the drug war, he promotes decriminalization and decent public health care. Against labor exploitation, worker’s rights. Against the special interests of prison-builders, investments in real economic opportunity. For those who want to get moralistic about law-and-order, he proposes focusing on the largely unchecked economic crimes of the rich. And he recommends that they stop hypocritically trying to infringe on peoples’ privacy, their desires, or their control of their own bodies.
That these ideas can gain populist appeal, that they might even work to sell books, makes them something more than armchair reflections. Something, in fact, that looks a lot like a domestic agenda.
by Eric Schlosser
(Houghton Mifflin, 2003, 310 pp., $23)