Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

By Peter Benson | Go to book overview

Foreword

Allan M. Brandt

IN THE SANDY LOAM OF WILSON COUNTY, North Carolina, tobacco farming remains a dominant economic and cultural trade. Peter Benson, a gifted ethnographer and social analyst, worked the tobacco fields side by side with undocumented migrants and African Americans who labor on these family farms, eager to understand both the meaning of this work and its context in a complex and highly contentious global market for tobacco products. There was a time—in the not too distant past— when growing tobacco was equated with national pride and public identity, a critical link between the early nation and its agrarian ideals, economy, and culture. Tobacco growing has never been easy work, but in those heady days of the colonies and the new republic it would have been impossible to anticipate the predicament in which tobacco farmers today find themselves, deeply implicated in powerful historical forces that often feel to be no more controllable than the rains of spring, so crucial to the crop.

Today, as Benson so clearly shows us, tobacco farmers see themselves as besieged, under attack from all quarters, diligently working to defend their farms, their product, and their deeply held moral values. In this remarkable book, Benson enters their world committed to understanding precisely how they come to terms with the difficult economic and moral questions they face. He treats these farmers with great respect, but at the same time, he is able to see their words and their actions in a dense global context. How do they justify their role (often exploiting vulnerable workers) in producing a crop that leads inevitably to such extensive disease and death?

There is a disturbing message here about how deep cultural processes and social dynamics allow people to rationalize what they do. Benson finds a common “script” carefully authored and promoted by the tobacco industry and spoken confidently and fluently by the farmers it so aggressively exploits. According to this logic, the diseases associated with the tobacco plants farmers grow and harvest are explicitly the responsibility of smokers themselves who have “decided” to take this risk. And besides, they argue, there are far more serious problems than those associated with this historic legal product. These aggrieved farmers utilize a set of arguments to defend their identities against the government and public health bureaucrats whom they now view as threatening their livelihood

-ix-

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Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Illustrations vii
  • Foreword ix
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I- The Tobacco Industry, Public Health, and Agrarian Change 35
  • Chapter 1- Most Admired Company 37
  • Chapter 2- The Jungle 63
  • Chapter 3- Enemies of Tobacco 96
  • Part II- Innocence and Blame in American Society 133
  • Chapter 4- Good, Clean Tobacco 135
  • Chapter 5- El Campo 166
  • Chapter 6- Sorriness 210
  • Conclusion Reflections on the Tobacco Industry (and American Exceptionalism) 258
  • Bibliography 275
  • Index 307
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