Reefer Madness ... and Other Tales from the American Underground

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9780713996586: Reefer Madness ... and Other Tales from the American Underground
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Eric Schlosser explores three of the most prominent and least understood features of globalisation; drugs, pornography and migrant labour. 'Reefer Madness' traces the history of the contemporary 'war on drugs' from its origins in Reagan's social conservatism though to its profound impact on America's civil society and on the country's relations with the wider world. 'An Empire of the Obscene' tells the story of Reuben Sturman, who most effectively exploited economies of scale to create a business that now saturates America and the world with graphic sexual imagery. 'In the Strawberry Fields' shows how public demand for a soft red fruit is causing mass migration from Central America and changing California's political economy forever.

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Reefer Madness and Other tales from the American Underground

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Reefer Madness investigates the US marijuana business; it also examines the use of illegal migrant labour in the Californian agricultural industry and the stupendous profits to be made in the production and dissemination of pornography. Together, these three rather disparate types of illegal business illustrate the profound fault-line which separates, on the one hand, the public expression of morality in America, and, on the other, what Americans really spend their money on.

As Schlosser remarks, the disparity between what citizens publicly abhor but privately adore is profoundly revealing. This is a quite extraordinarily absorbing book, written in the best tradition of American research-based journalism--Schlosser is an expert muck-raker, with an advanced sense of irony, preferring to let his facts speak for themselves rather than hammering his points home with expressions of outrage. The facts are quite astonishing enough. Here are a few examples.

The first section of the book reveals that marijuana is arguably the biggest cash crop in the USA, yet, as a product of the doctrinaire and entirely ineffective War on Drugs, possession of even tiny amounts is punishable in many states by mandatory life imprisonment--a heavier sentence than for murder. In "The Strawberry Fields", we learn that Californian agriculture is increasingly dependent on the fantastically lucrative strawberry, a delicate, labour-intensive crop only made practicable by hundreds of thousands of illegal Mexican migrant workers, many of them trapped in a kind of economic slavery, with whose education, healthcare and pensions (indeed, life and death) the US government need not concern itself. An Empire of the Obscene, chronicling the career of Reuben Sturmann, "the Walt Disney of porn", while less sensational, is in many ways more revealing of the way in which the boundary between the legal and illegal fluctuates over time, with major communications corporations, hotel chains and other mainstream operators now deeply implicated in the supply of pornography.

Together these three essays present a portrait of a society so in denial over its desires that it seems almost in the grip of a psychosis. --Robin Davidson

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Eric SCHLOSSER
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