Monday, October 08, 2007

John Bowe: Slavery Is Alive and Well in the U.S.

Slavery Is Alive and Well in the U.S.
By Suzi Steffen

The new book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy, goes after the U.S. companies that support slave labor.

What do you call it when those who cross the Mexican-U.S. border get charged thousands of dollars for a ride to a job where their employer makes them pay rent for unspeakably bad living conditions and board for the food they can only buy at the company store and where that employer patrols with dogs, trucks and thugs so the workers can't leave?

John Bowe calls it slavery. And it's happening in the United States right now, he says. Bowe's newest book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy, makes the case using three specific cases and geographical areas to show just how much workers in the U.S. get undermined and hurt by these practices.

He's written about work before; he co-edited the book Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs. Besides co-writing the screenplay for the movie Basquiat, Bowe has won many journalism awards. But from a tip he got while writing Gig, he began to pursue this topic, and he's been working on it for over six years now.

"We never see what we do to other people," he says. In Nobodies, he pulls back that veil of secrecy and shows us just what we do in our quest for lower-priced goods. In the process, he and the book have gotten a flurry of interviews, reviews and even a moment with Jon Stewart. We interviewed him over the phone and email in a break on his book tour.

Suzi Steffen: Your book is getting a lot of attention. What was it like being on the Daily Show?

John Bowe: It's weird doing these things -- weird, powerful, exciting, frustrating. You don't say half the things you wanted to say. I felt like, "Oh damn it, I forgot to offer any solutions," I forgot to talk about why nonslavery people should care about this, for example.

But all anybody else cares about is your shirt and if you smiled. It says a lot about our political climate that it takes a comedian to address the issue of labor slavery. It was hard to have a serious discussion and talk, say, about the roots and implications of the problem, much less more solution-oriented stuff. But at the same time, I have enormous admiration for Jon Stewart for having me on the show. Slavery's not usually a great source of humor.

SS: You did have a nice shirt on. In the first part of the book, about the agricultural workers in Florida, you talk about the collision of your journalist New Yorker's irony with the earnest belief and idealism of activists. Did you change over the course of writing the book? Do you find yourself less ironic now?

JB: There really is a fundamental choice; you can't both believe and be ironic. It did make me get more earnest. Even if you don't care about politics, politics certainly cares about you. If you don't take part of your time to address the socioeconomic/political realities unfolding around you, it will come, and it will fuck you over. There's no free pass. I have no patience for anybody who's whining about [politics] and not doing something about it. The more you read about history, the more you realize that's a luxury most people haven't been able to afford.

I've become much more clued in to the way irony is used by politically inclined people to salve their frustrations about political realities. Although I love humor like The Daily Show and The Onion, it's kind of sad that these have become the main conduits for so many people's political awareness. Unfortunately, sitting there, laughing (alone, by the millions) at people or things you know are bullshit or wrong isn't a replacement for voting, protesting, raising awareness, throwing rocks, defacing property or doing whatever real-life actions you find effective in achieving actual change in this world.

SS: What should average people do to find out more about the conditions under which their food was grown and to change those conditions?

JB: Read my book. (laughs) The Coalition of Immokalee Workers' website is certainly one place to go. And there's a tremendous book called The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, by Andrew Kimbrell.

But also, ask questions. Always. All of this stuff I'm talking about sounds so serious and intractable, and it's easy to say, "Aggh, corporations rule the world and everything sucks. I might as well go home and do some bong hits." But it begins with you asking questions: Where did this apple come from? Who picked it? Where's the field? Do you mind if I go drive by the field some day?

To Read the Rest of the Interview

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