Writer loves swimming against the American tide

He praises director Morgan Spurlock, who took Schlosser's thesis about the dangers of the fast-food industry one step farther with his current documentary Super Size Me, by showing the results of eating at McDonald's every day for 30 days. "It's both funny and brave. McDonald's is as mean a company as I've come across," Schlosser said. In the paperback edition of Fast Food Nation, he documents the extent to which the restaurant chain tried to publicly discredit him.

The Toronto Star
May 12, 2004

Writer loves swimming against the American tide
Eric Schlosser will speak tonight on U of T campus. Takes aim at tough pot laws, fast food, U.S. black market.
Susan Walker

Some commentators and interviewers have called Eric Schlosser a socialist. In the United States of America, that's tantamount to being called a satanist. It may be even worse than being called an atheist.

The New York journalist, author of the bestseller Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal and Reefer Madness, draws such epithets for both expressing his support of decriminalization of marijuana, regulation of the sex trade, and for his criticism of America's growing underground economy.

He's no enemy of the state, he says in a telephone interview from California. He's there working on his next book, a look inside the U.S. prison system.

"I love my country. I wouldn't write any of this if I didn't think it could be fixed. I write about social issues that are avoidable."

Schlosser gives a talk tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the University of Toronto's Bahen Centre. One thing he's bound to touch on is his belief that U.S. federal and state governments ought to abandon punitive marijuana laws, and look to Canada, where a proposed law would lift criminal penalties for possession of up to 15 grams of pot.

In Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, And Cheap Labor In the American Black Market, he tells hair-raising stories of people sentenced to life in prison on a first offence for simple possession, or in the case of a 38-year-old Indianan, for being a first-time middleman in a dope deal.

American laws against possession and trafficking in Cannabis sativa accelerated in severity from 1982, when Ronald Reagan launched an all-out war on drugs, having labelled marijuana "probably the most dangerous drug in America today."

The Office of National Drug Control Policy still wields much power, headed by drug czar John Walters. In May, 2003, Walters warned of the consequences of Canada's plans to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, forecasting an increase in pot smuggling southward across the border.

"You expect your friends to stop the movement of poison to your neighbourhood," said Walters.

Two weeks ago, Schlosser renewed the grass debate in the New York Times, re-stating in an opinion piece his case for lowering penalties on marijuana use.

"Under federal law, it is illegal to possess any amount of marijuana anywhere in the United States. Penalties for a first marijuana offence range from probation to life without parole," he wrote.

"If most Americans knew the real workings of these laws," he opines, they might well want to repeal them. "Something like two-thirds (of Americans) support medical use and most people support decriminalization. That's what makes (the U.S. government's) attacks on the Canadian government so absurd." He believes that by passing the proposed law, "Canada could have a real effect on marijuana policy in the U.S."

Schlosser's investigations into the U.S. growing underground economy in Reefer Madness have left him with an uneasy feeling about his home country. A thriving underground drug trade, a rapidly expanding sex trade and pornography industry and a growing underpaid, under-the-table worker sector add up to an unhealthy nation.

"If you were in a Soviet-style economy, the black market would be the closest thing to freedom," he says. "But in a major Western industrialized country, it's a very bad thing."

"First, it's a sign of alienation. People feel the laws of the land don't represent what they want or what they feel. Secondly, it's a sign of regression."

Among the myriad statistics and studies he cites is the startling estimate of 28 to 30 per cent of workers in Los Angeles County getting paid in cash.

Corporate tax reductions and pure tax evasion, he writes, is just as alarming an area of leakage.

"Corporate inversions (relocations to tax havens) now cost the federal government an estimated $4 billion a year. A 1998 Internal Revenue Service estimate of unpaid taxes translates into $1.5 trillion in personal income that went unreported."

It wasn't just Reaganomics and Republican policy that brought America into an era of widening gaps between the rich and poor. It was under President Clinton's watch, Schlosser points out, that the welfare system was largely dismantled.

"The free-market myth is promoted as a national religion in this country," he says.

Free for whom, he asks. He says the U.S. in the 1950s under Dwight D. Eisenhower was a far kinder, gentler era.

"Bring back Ike!" says the so-called socialist, only partly kidding. "The economic policies of his era were far more liberal and compassionate than what we have today. There were high levels of union membership, vigorous anti-trust enforcement, a graduated income tax and an indexed minimum wage."

Schlosser hasn't earned a lot of friends in high places with his journalism, which began when he gave up writing plays and novels. He praises his editors at The Atlantic Monthly and Rolling Stone for sticking behind him whenever he's taken a run at American sacred cows — literally, in the case of the meat packing industry he held to account in Fast Food Nation.

He praises director Morgan Spurlock, who took Schlosser's thesis about the dangers of the fast-food industry one step farther with his current documentary Super Size Me, by showing the results of eating at McDonald's every day for 30 days.

"It's both funny and brave. McDonald's is as mean a company as I've come across," Schlosser said. In the paperback edition of Fast Food Nation, he documents the extent to which the restaurant chain tried to publicly discredit him.

Thanks to rigorous review by lawyers and a careful accounting of his sources, Schlosser hasn't been threatened with libel suits.

But he knocks on wood as he says it, alluding to media ownership concentration — as evidenced Disney's refusal to distribute Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 — as another clear and present danger.

"In the name of the free market," he notes, "the antithesis is being created."

He's beginning to think that a '60s-style revolutionary movement is the inevitable consequence of such a large number of Americans experiencing disenfranchisement.

He wouldn't welcome it: "Not when you think about how violent and turbulent and divisive it was."

An Evening With Eric Schlosser starts at 7:30 p.m., at the University of Toronto's Bahen Centre, 40 St. George St. Tickets are $12.


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