Friday, December 2, 2011

A Different Look at Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle'

“I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” - Upton Sinclair on the impact of The Jungle

When I’ve talked to people who have also read Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle,’ the one thing I hear is “it made me not want to eat meat ever again.” The book definitely details the once unregulated industry of factory farming, meat packing, and canning. I have read about how many people have listed ‘The Jungle’ as a major influence as to why they became vegetarians. However, I think people are missing the point that Upton Sinclair was trying to make with this book. 

The book is credited for inspiring the Food and Drug Administration, for creating safety standards for beef and pork, and it was also highly controversial when it was released. Theodore Roosevelt hated the fact that Upton Sinclair had written this book, but he agreed to create the regulations that were put in place. It’s hard to say exactly how much influence this book had in that process, but there is no doubt that ‘The Jungle’ did just that. Upton Sinclair wrote this fictional book based on his discussions with those who worked in the slaughterhouses, the people in that industry talked to him about the struggle to unionize, and he based it on their personal stories through the character of Jurgis Rudkus and his family who immigrate to America from Lithuania to make a better life for themselves.

The book is about more than just the conditions of slaughterhouses; the book is actually a book about the struggles of the working class in the early 1900s. This is a book that talks about predatory lending, urban housing, income inequality, creating profits instead of revenues, child labor, working conditions, and what happens when you have an unregulated, laissez-faire system that Ayn Rand wrote in favor of in her own novels and philosophy. The results of it are disastrous and barbaric, and we see the consequences and the plight of the people who are trying to make it in a society where they can’t; they’re living at the mercy of fate and have no means to protect themselves.

I would think that this book would be flying off the shelves in an era when we’re calling for deregulation, getting rid of child labor laws, and after Newt Gingrich says he wants to put young children as janitors in schools( along with his earlier statement in the 90s that we needed to get rid of the Food and Drug Administration), and the fact that we are living in the age of predatory lending practices again. We’ve also seen people such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser discuss factory farming conditions, the use of illegal immigrants for labor in slaughterhouses, and we’re seeing that our food is unsafe. We’re also using poison known as “high fructose corn syrup” in most of everything that you buy in a supermarket. It’s hard to believe that books like Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” are more popular now than you’d think “The Jungle” would be.

If you want a sobering account of what deregulation looks like, read ‘The Jungle.’ You’ll see what living in a deregulated country will look like if we continue on the path. The one thing you’ll read is that there were some regulations in place during that time, but the regulator was turning a blind eye to what was going on in the slaughterhouse; it’s similar to the stories of those trying to regulate big oil and the big banks. What we are seeing now is what Upton Sinclair was talking about when he wrote 'The Jungle.' The slaughterhouses and all the stuff about the conditions of the slaughterhouses were all just part of the story, but it wasn't the actual point of the book. While it's great that 'The Jungle' has influenced people to reconsider their diet, we should be reconsidering our hearts. 

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