Author: Tess Russell
On Sept. 10, acclaimed author Eric Schlosser – most famous for “Fast Food Nation,” his radical critique of “the All-American meal” – addressed a packed Dana Auditorium in which the student crowd overflowed onto the stage. Schlosser, who began his career at The Atlantic Monthly and has since written for Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and The Nation, was on campus in connection with the Meet the Press Lecture Series. Co-sponsored by Brainerd and Atwater Commons and the Department of English and American Literatures, Meet the Press has brought reporters and other newsmakers to the College since its inception in 2003.
Scholar in Residence Sue Halpern introduced Schlosser by invoking the tradition of muckraking, an early form of sensationalist American journalism that sought to expose the harsh realities of industrialized society and reached its peak at the beginning of the 20th century under forerunners like Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell. Halpern identified Schlosser and documentarian Michael Moore as possibly our most visible modern-day muckrakers.
When Schlosser took the podium, he was quick to point out that there are many other contemporary investigative journalists doing good work that goes widely unread in today’s harsh publishing climate, but not before good-naturedly chiding his audience for staying indoors on such a beautiful day.
He soon explained that his lecture would be more concerned with his own process of writing in general than with any of his specific subjects.
“It’s my old-fashioned aim to leave my familiar surroundings and explore worlds rarely depicted in the mainstream media,” said Schlosser, “to bring to public attention the realities and the voices that you never hear. It’s a great time to be a muckraker, because everywhere you look in society, the levels of corruption are extraordinary.”
He would come back to this theme again, noting Fast Food Nation’s primary success among young people.
“I wasn’t intentionally targeting the book towards young readers, but it has affected them the most,” he said. “Your generation has been exposed to more disinformation, to more outright lies crafted by people trying to deceive you, than mine was. I see my work as a pushback against that and it is encouraging to me that the people who have been the most targeted by advertising have also been the most willing to question the practices of these [fast food] companies.
Still, Schlosser maintained that even when his research has taken him to the lowest depths of misery – as with his current undertaking, an exposé of the nation’s deeply flawed prison system – he has never felt depressed or begun to view our societal problems with a sense of futility. Instead, his work has made him “angry and energized.”
“I never bought into the idea of inevitability,” he said. “If you don’t believe things are inevitable, then they don’t have to be the way they are. That’s an empowering notion, that all problems have direct causes and can be changed. But it can be amazing how long it takes for that change to happen.”
Schlosser cited the recent agreement between Whole Foods Market and the Florida-based Coalition of Immokolee Workers, with which he is active, as an example of that sort of positive change. He criticized, however, the narrow, elitist approach of the Slow Food Movement in general.
“Slow Food dictates that food should be three things – good, clean and fair,” he said. “That last component refers to social justice and that’s where the movement has been less effective. Does it matter if a piece of fruit is local and organic if it’s harvested by slave labor? The scope needs to be broadened to bring in ordinary working people and one of the big concerns is making food cheaper versus making sure Americans have a decent minimum wage. The stagnation of household wages has corresponded directly with the rise of the fast food industry in this country.”
Because his projects tend to make public information that powerful corporations and institutions have spent large sums of money trying to suppress, Schlosser has often found himself under attack. He stressed the importance of transparency in his work, referencing his time-consuming but necessary system of footnoting that allows readers to access his sources firsthand, if they are so inclined.
In Schlosser’s mind, the most important measure of success is how his work is received by his disenfranchised sources.
“One of the best lessons I’ve ever gotten is, ‘There But For The Grace of God Go I,’” he said. “I’ve realized how thin the line is between privilege and devastation – between who is fortunate and who is miserable – and I’ve gotten a sense of our shared humanity. If the people I write about feel that I have accurately portrayed what they have to say, then I’ve done my job.
Finally, Schlosser warned Middlebury students that, while we should enjoy our idyllic environment here, we should never become complacent and “mistake this for the real world.”
“I can’t urge you strongly enough to use the knowledge you acquire here to leave your comfort zone,” he said, “and to push yourselves into the real world. It is so fulfilling to see reality clearly and not to live in a state of denial and self-absorption, not just because of the effect that you have on others, but because the process of taking those risks is a pleasure in itself.”