Delenda Est Carthago

Why not delve into a twisted mind? Thoughts on the world, history, politics, entertainment, comics, and why all shall call me master!

Name:
Location: Mesa, Arizona, United States

I plan on being the supreme dictator of the country, if not the world. Therefore, you might want to stay on my good side. Just a hint: ABBA rules!

16.4.05

What I've been reading

I read my books in alphabetical order by author, so this book is by the same guy as the last book: Eric Schlosser!

Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market by Eric Schlosser
310 pages, 2003, Houghton Mifflin

Eric Schlosser makes me angry. And that's a good thing. Since reading Fast Food Nation, I have gone to one fast food restaurant. (It was Wendy's. Forgive me. I blame the wife.) I'm serious about not patronizing them anymore - it's just yucky. Now, Schlosser makes me angry about different things. Let's see what!

This book is not as good as his first book, simply because it's a little more unfocused. He wants to discuss the black market in America, and he does so, but he also wants to promote his agenda a little more than he did in Fast Food Nation, and although it's an agenda I happen to agree with, sometimes it gets in the way. I also think the book is poorly named, although Reefer Madness is a good "grab," I suppose. The book's subtitle more aptly conveys the scope of the book - only a short section is about marijuana; the other two sections are about strawberry pickers in California and the porn industry. It just seems a little misleading. A minor quibble, but a quibble nonetheless.

As in his first book, Schlosser is very concerned with governmental hypocrisy, and this is when his writing is the strongest. He uses real-life cases to show how totally fucked-up our drug policy is, for instance. He begins the section on marijuana with some average sample prison sentences in the state of Indiana: armed robbery, six years; rape, eight years; murder, 25. All these figures are HIGHER than the national average. A typical murderer spends 11 years and four months in prison. If you think he's going to introduce a drug-related criminal serving far more, you're spot on, but the case he uses is excessive, even for a good, solid, Midwestern, God-fearing place like Indiana. Mark Young was arrested for brokering the sale of 700 pounds of marijuana. He had never before been charged with drug trafficking, nor had he any history of violent crime. He never distributed drugs, nor grown the 700 pounds of marijuana; he simply introduced the growers and the buyers. No physical evidence of any kind was linked to Mark Young - he was convicted solely on the testimony of the co-conspirators, who had made deals with the government. In 1992 Mark Young was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

It's those kinds of stories that make Schlosser's books so hard-hitting. He traces the history of the war on drugs and the problems with even studying marijuana's health effects, adverse or otherwise. Today, there is still no one who knows exactly what health risks marijuana poses (it's the same thing with steroids - no one knows exactly how bad it is for you, or if it's bad at all). It's an example of something being made illegal because of hysteria and then no one being able to examine it more closely. He also looks at the unbelievably stupid way marijuana growers are prosecuted. Often the government relies on the testimony of other people caught in the bust - and the more names that person can give up, the less he is punished. Mark Young didn't know anyone important, therefore he became the fall guy while the people who grew and wanted to buy the marijuana - who could give up a lot of other people - got off relatively easily. The government is also allowed to seize pretty much anything material in the wake of a drug bust, and this, unfortunately, factors into who they go after. Schlosser describes how a federal attorney went after two grandparents whose kid was growing marijuana in the basement. She (the attorney) took everything from these people and explained that they should have known what was going on in their own house. With delicious irony, Schlosser points out that soon afterward, the attorney's son was arrested for selling LSD from her SUV. Beautiful. This policy also leads to prosecutors going after people who can't fight the charges, and of course, leads the attorneys to scooping up cheap stuff at government auctions, since they know when and where the auctions will be held.

Schlosser revels in government hypocrisy, and he lists several "tough-on-drug" politicians whose family members have been involved with drugs. President Clinton is in his crosshairs, as marijuana arrests doubled during his presidency, with far more people being arrested on marijuana-related charges while Clinton was president than during any other presidency in history. John C. Baker, the son of future Secretary of State James Baker, sold pot to an undercover agent in Texas. Under state law, Baker faced a prison term between two and 20 years, but instead was fined $2000. In 1990 Congressman Dan Burton introduced a bill requiring the death penalty for drug dealers. Four years later his son was arrested while transporting eight pounds of marijuana from Texas to Indiana. While awaiting trial, he was arrested again for growing 30 marijuana plants in his apartment. Under federal law, the younger Burton faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for the shotgun police found in the apartment, plus three years for the pot. He was not charged under federal law, and he wound up with community service, probation, and house arrest. In 1996 Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham attacked President Clinton for being too soft on drug dealers. Four months later his son was arrested by the DEA after helping transport 400 pounds of marijuana from California to Massachusetts. He confessed to being part of a drug ring that had shipped as much as 30,000 pounds of marijuana throughout the U.S., a crime which could have led to a life sentence without parole, but he was only charged for the 400 pounds. Congressman Cunningham begged for mercy for his son, and his son got two and a half years in prison. He might have received a shorter sentence but for the fact that he tested positive for cocaine three times while out on bail.

It these sort of stories that make me angry, and should make us all angry. Schlosser points out the unbelievable costs of prosecuting marijuana cases, when there is no evidence that marijuana leads to other, harder drugs, no evidence that people who are high commit violent crimes, and no evidence that marijuana is even that bad for you. He points out that many countries have decriminalized marijuana use and possession, and there have been no adverse effects. He also points out that a majority of the people in prison are serving drug sentences for non-violent crimes. These people were non-violent offenders when they went into the pen with hard-core criminals. What are they when they come out?

Schlosser moves on to strawberry pickers in California for his second essay about America's underground economy. It's the shortest essay in the book, and covers a lot of the same ground as Schlosser did in Fast Food Nation - America's obsession with cheap, easy, and year-round food leads employers to seek out illegal immigrants who are paid shit and live in shantytowns right next to upscale developments inhabited by the very people for whom they are picking strawberries! It's very tragic. However, as usual with illegal immigration, it will never get better as long as the government doesn't prosecute the people who hire the illegals. Which doesn't seem likely.

The final and longest section of Schlosser's book is the essay "An Empire of the Obscene," which is about pornography. This is alternately the most interesting and weakest of the three essays. It's the most interesting because Schlosser goes over not only the history of the government's pursuit of porn dealers and its ridiculous ramifications, but also the story of Rueben Sturman, who until his conviction for tax evasion in the early 1990s and subsequent death in prison in 1997 was the king of American porn and one of the richest men in the world - but no one had ever heard of him because of porn's underground nature. The essay is interesting, but it's weakened by Schlosser's insistence on jumping back and forth from the Sturman biography to the other aspects of the porn industry. It gets a little jarring, although both parts are fascinating. Again, it's just a minor quibble.

Schlosser shows us again how hypocritical American morality is. Anthony Comstock, who started the drive against porn in the 1870s, had no problem opening mail (legally, although obviously unconstitutionally) of anyone he thought might be sending porn through the mail. In the 1950s, a young lawyer named Charles Keating founded the National Organization of Citizens for Decent Literature (CDL) to campaign against obscenity. Keating eventually got the government to look into porn, and the government found nothing wrong with it. Keating kept pushing until Reagan's government gave him the result he wanted. Keating, of course, stole millions of dollars from the Savings and Loan he owned to fund his anti-porn campaign, while another anti-porn crusader, Father Bruce Ritter, resigned from his position at a New York shelter for homeless teens amid accusations of using the shelter's funds to have sex with male prostitutes (Father Ritter, of course, was publicly an angry anti-homosexual). The hypocrisy isn't quite as obvious as in Schlosser's marijuana essay, since porn is such a private thing, but it's still there.

Schlosser makes the point that porn is a tricky subject, because unlike drug use, you can argue that porn does hurt others than just the person who views it. Of course, that's still debatable, and the stigma of porn makes it unlikely that studies will take place on how harmful porn is. For every girl who shows up in Hollywood from Iowa with dreams of being a star and eventually gets into porn, prostitution, and drugs, there's "Nina Hartley," who has become a porn superstar and uses her platform to promote AIDS awareness. Porn is also a tough subject because no one wants to be accused of denying someone their First Amendment rights, nor do they want to get into censorship, which is what used to happen when "literature" by writers like Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and others was banned as well as "hard-core" porn. Porn magnates, like Sturman, are therefore often prosecuted for tax evasion, like he was, or for other offenses, and the government keeps charging the businessmen with crime after crime after crime, not because they believe a jury will convict (most juries have proven remarkably reticent about convicting people on porn charges - stupid juries!), but because the government has endless funds, and those they charge don't. The obscene amount (yes, that's a pun) of taxpayer money spent on prosecuting porn makes it even more ridiculous that we worry about this stuff. As Larry Flynt says in the book, porn is moving ever more into cyberspace (wait a minute - I can find porn on the Internet?) and the government is tilting at windmills if they think people are going to stop looking at naked people doing nasty things. You can call it an addiction (and many Christians do), but in a world where everyone's addicted to something, is porn that awful? Maybe, but do we have to spend so much of my money searching for it? As Schlosser points out, in the Netherlands, where porn is out in the open and has been for a long time, the demystification of porn was followed by a brief spike in porn activity, then a slow decline. Why? People get bored with it. Shocking!

This is a good book. It didn't make me as angry as Fast Food Nation, but it did make me think about what exactly the government is spending my money on. I don't mind paying taxes, but I do mind the inefficiency with which they are spent. Schlosser shows us how poorly the government is at running things and how we need to look at our attitudes toward some of the "forbidden" things in our society.

3 Comments:

Blogger Thomas said...

Having read Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness, I agree with you totally Greg.

Now where is my $5 so I can go to McDonalds?

16/4/05 5:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of Charles Keating: this is absolutely hilarious. It's called "Perversions for Profit and it's a film he made against obscenity.

16/4/05 7:12 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

That's awesome. Charles Keating rules!

16/4/05 7:41 PM  

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