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There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos.

by Jim Hightower HarperCollins, $23

Jim Hightower of Texas, one of the nation's most outspoken populists, has hauled off and leveled a roundhouse swing straight at the snout of American corporations. And none too soon. Not only has the corporate oligarchy taken over pretty much everything--politics, media, sports, science, food, and the environment, just for starters--but we've also forgotten what real populism sounds like. Pat Buchanan, God save us, is regularly referred to by the Washington press corps as a "populist."

Now comes Hightower, all wool and a yard wide, who studied under the late Ralph Yarborough and other carriers of the true torch. Some of what Hightower has to tell us is not new--students of Morton Mintz, Bill Greider, and the handful of other serious muckrakers still practicing the craft will not be amazed to learn of daily corporate malfeasance. Even so, much of Hightower's work is as astonishingly original as it is wide in scope.

Debunking Breast Cancer Awareness Month is certainly novel: Who could be against Breast Cancer Awareness? Try finding out that Breast Cancer Awareness Month has been sponsored since its inception by Imperial Chemical Industries, one of the world's largest producers of organochlorines. Organochlorines? Increasingly suspected as a cause of breast cancer? Yup, the same. Every poster, pamphlet, and advertisement used for Breast Cancer Awareness Month all these years has been approved, or vetoed, by Imperial Chemical Industries. Hightower, a great pursuer of corporate connections, also finds that one of Imperial's corporate offspring manufactures a highly controversial drug that is the leading treatment for breast cancer, despite its serious side effects. They get you coming, and they get you going.

The book is studded with this kind of information: Who pollutes? Who profits? Who gives to campaigns? What do they get in return? Who benefits? Who pays?

Between 75 and 80 percent of the American people do not have college degrees and they earn less than $50,000 a year. Almost no one writes for them. Except Jim Hightower. One of Hightower's all-time better ideas (and he has quite a few) is that the media should either replace its daily dwelling on the Dow Jones Average (two full pages of stock quotations in most newspapers) with the Doug Jones Average, Doug Jones standing for the average American. How's ol' Doug doin' today? Anything happen helpful to him? Interest rates fall? Price of Spam up? Any heavy lay-offs?

One oddity in Hightower's background is that he spent several years as the head of the Agribusiness Accountability Project, which gives him a long head-start when it comes to what corporations are doing to our food. After you've read Hightower on turkeys, hogs, and mad cows, it does cure you of wanting to eat for awhile. In fact, it's such gripping and griping stuff, I sometimes fear Hightower will suffer a variant of Upton Sinclair's fate. Sinclair said he aimed for the American people's heart, and hit them in the stomach by accident. Hightower is aiming for our brains, but is he entirely sure we really want to know what is in the stuff they now feed to cows?

For all the original research Hightower presents, the really interesting thing about this book is simply its populist tone. "Let's up and after the bastards" is pretty much his entire motto. Like all good populists, Hightower simply ignores what divides us--race, abortion, all manner of social and cultural issues--and concentrates on what unites us: to wit, getting screwed. As he has often said, politics is not a spectrum that runs from right to left; it's a scale that runs from top to bottom. And about 80 percent of us are out here among the screwees.

I am particularly fond of Hightower's response to the oft-heard charge that those of us who raise such concerns are guilty of "fomenting class warfare." So ungenteel, so tacky, is the implied criticism; this, as it were, has no class. When confronted with a truly amazing piece of bull, your genuine Texan responds with the polite signification, "No shit?" Much as many of you Easterners, when confronted with modern art murmur, "How interesting." Hightower's "no shit" in response to the charge of class warfare is a long howl of gleeful affirmation: Hell yes, this is class warfare, and we by-God didn't start it.

Another peculiarly populist, as opposed to liberal, characteristic is to take a long look around at reality and then start filin' your teeth. I point no finger at the beloved Washington Monthly, which seems to me distinguished by its incurable tendency to point out how to fix things instead of just moaning about how bad they are. But it is a depressingly common liberal trait, that habit of pointing out that we're out-manned, out-gunned, and things are bound to get worse. Hightower, however, is less inclined to dwell on what's wrong than on how to fight: who to call, where to write, how to get in touch with others of like inclination and, in general, a long, bugling call to start kickin' ass.

I have already read one review of Hightower's book that holds his Texas accent against him. (If you think a person can't write with a Texas accent, then you haven't read Hightower yet.) Since I write with a mild Texas accent myself, I am familiar with this put-down--"quaint," "folksy," "cute." I warn you right now, Hightower calls his daddy, "Daddy" and not "Father." If you can't handle that, this is not your book. On the other hand, if you enjoy someone who invests the language with spice and verve, Hightower is your man. Yeah, it's folksy, all right. Probably even cute. It's also the way a lot of people, including Hightower, really talk. I suppose he could write like William F. Buckley if he wanted to. But I'd rather hear him report, "The senator has the I.Q. of a dust bunny."

Another difference between Hightower and normal people is that he has been a politician--won statewide office as agriculture commissioner in Texas twice--so he knows whereof he speaks. His observations on political reporting are rich and delicious. Why do we report, "The Democrat won" or "The Republican won," when the real story is: "Sixty percent of the people were so damn disgusted they didn't vote for anybody today"?

When Hightower gets mad enough, he tells the story without any Texas dressing on it. I give you one example in its entirety:

Cynthia Chavez Wall was a single mother who

worked at a textile factory near Hamlet, North

Carolina, for 13 years. She was making $8 an hour

until she was abruptly fired one day for not coming

to work, having stayed at home to care for a

daughter, who had come down with pneumonia.

Desperate for a job, she hired on at Imperial

Food Products, even though it paid her only $495

an hour. She cut up and prepared chicken parts

that were sold to fast-food restaurants. She often

went home with her hands bleeding from the cuts

she inevitably got trying to keep pace with constant

demands to speed up the process. She worked up

against fryers with oil heated to 400 degrees; no air

conditioning, no fans, and only a few small windows.

She found it hard, sweaty, dangerous, hellish

work. She got 30 minutes for lunch and two

15-minute breaks. Complaining about any of this got

you nothing but fired, and Ms. Wall had to have a

job, so she just had to take it.

Then the morning of September 3,1991, women

in one area of the plant began to yell, `Fire!' Flames

flared and smoke billowed throughout the building,

which had no sprinkler system, no evacuation

plan, and only one fire extinguisher. As the fire

spread quickly, panicked workers raced to the exits,

but the people shoved on the closed doors to no

avail. All but the very front doors had been

pad-locked from the outside. Company executives later

said they did this to prevent chicken parts from

being stolen. Trapped, 25 of the 90 employees died

in the flames. More than 50 others were burned or

injured. Cynthia Chavez Wall's body was found at

one of the doors.

OK, lots of people could have told that story. AP could have written it. You may even recall that at the time the media wrote about the "horrific accident" and how terrible it was. But how many tied it to cuts in OSHA, to the failure of state safety regulations? It turns out the plant had never been inspected for safety in its 11-year history, although the U.S. Department of Agriculture visited it several times to check on the quality of the chicken meat. And two years later, when all the television cameras had left and all the politicians had held their hearings and moved on, one group did go back to Hamlet and the surrounding area. Imperial Food Products is no longer there, but nothing has changed in the other poultry plants. "Assembly-line speedups continue to cause excessive injuries, stifling heat and oppressive working conditions remain, ill and injured employees are forced to stay on the line or be fired, and, yes, doors are still locked from the outside."

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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Author:Ivins, Molly
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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