The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

fast food nation

I'm teaching Eric Schlosser's book FAST FOOD NATION to my freshmen this week and am a little concerned about how they'll respond. If you haven't read it, it's just a great book. Essentially, it argues that the fast-food industry has turned us into a "fast-food nation," in which the techniques of assembly-line mass production and relentless economization demanded by fast food companies have had, and continue to have, an almost incalculably harmful effect on American society. Schlosser includes breezy arguments about such topics as suburbanization, the freeway system, the decline of unions, OSHA, environmental depredation, corporate farming, food safety, children's health, and the plight of McDonald's franchisees to argue that the fast-foodization of America is bad and, because its momentum is so all-consuming and because it drives the economy at almost every level, will be close to impossible to stop. His chapter on working conditions in an Iowa Beef Processors slaughterhouse is stomach-turning.

So my concerns aren't that my students won't agree with Schlosser, or won't surrender to the power of his argument. My concern is that they'll take one of three pretty typical stances of 18-year-olds when confronted by these kinds of arguments:
• pure fatalism. "That's the way it's going to be, so we better just accept it. Whattaya gonna do?"
• cynical blame-the-victimism. "People who work in slaughterhouses have a choice. If they don't want to, they should go to college. And if illegal immigrants are working those jobs and don't like it, they can go back to Mexico."
• wide-eyed credulity. "Everything that Schlosser says is right!"

My problem is that although it's a great book, it's incredibly unfair at points, substituting correlation for causation and relying on the nastiness of the subject-matter (again: slaughterhouses, E. coli, etc.) to create a sense of revulsion that he wants us to feel about the corporations involved. Singled out for special opprobrium is Iowa Beef Processors, whose callous disregard for worker safety is quite shocking. But these anecdotes aren't sufficient to necessitate the sweeping condemnation of an industry--and a "fast-food nation"--that Schlosser suggests his argument proves. I want my students to see that.

Schlosser is a very personable guy, a journalist for THE ATLANTIC, and is coming to speak in Pittsburgh as part of the Drue Heinz Lectures on Monday. (My class is going.) He's also agreed to meet with a big group of area students beforehand (we're going to that, too). He gives a good interview, as you can check out here and here and here. And if you haven't read the book, do: it's a great piece of muckraking.


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