Catfish Blues


I’m haunted by an interview Molly Ivins had with a young woman in Mississippi. She’d been skinning catfish, 12 a minute, all day long. And behind her stood a man with a stopwatch, checking to see if she was keeping up, and whether he might speed up the assembly line. She told Molly her bones hurt, and she would have to quit before she was permanently disabled, like so many others. Molly repeats the anecdote in her book, Bushwhacked, because one of the first things Dubya did when he seized power was to block a regulation to reduce workplace injuries from repetitive motions.

The anecdote hit me especially because as a youth I worked in a canning factory. It was not as cold and wet as that catfish plant, but I remember the guy in the suit coming around with a stopwatch. We were told he was an efficiency expert. Somebody asked, what’s an efficiency expert? An older man replied, “It’s a son-of-a-bitch from out of town.”

Well, Dubya likes to claim he’s from out of town. Did it again yesterday when he bragged that he didn’t read the big-city press — forgetting that he grew up here and diddled his way through our fanciest schools – though he doesn’t seem to have done much reading. His family has always had deep connections in Washington, and Wall Street..

His conduct in office, as tracked by Molly Ivins, has been so horrendous as to make Bill Clinton look good — if you don’t look close. For example, I think Molly overlooks the fact that it took eight years for Clinton to get around to approving that regulation about repetitive motion syndrome He handed the country, and his party over to the Republicans in a helluva shape. That indeed is why the Bushwackers have been in control. We have a lot of catfish that need skinning.

JOHN L. HESS used to write for the New York Times. Now he does radio commentary for WBAI in New York.

JOHN L. HESS is a former writer for the New York Times, a career he chronicles in his excellent new book My Times: a Memoir of Dissent. Hess is now a political commentator for WBAI.

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