By Jeff Balke
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H. Bruce Franklin's 2007 book The Most Important Fish in the Sea helped bring the menhaden debate to a wider audience.
Franklin, an English professor at Rutgers who is for some reason often described as a "cultural historian" in book reviews and interviews, has written about menhaden and Omega Protein for years. His articles are always entertaining, and his book earned great reviews, despite Franklin's tendency to paint in extremely broad strokes. As Franklin tells it, from the moment the Indians taught the Puritans how to fertilize their corn with menhaden — roughly translated as "the fish that shits" — this unlikely herring became a cornerstone of American civilization as we know it today.
Franklin makes no bones about what side of the commercial fishing debate he's on; even before his book was published, he likened former Omega owner Malcolm Glazer to The Simpsons' Mr. Burns. And, as he said in an interview for the Electric Politics blog, "This is such a grotesque example of unfettered capitalism operating in this most grotesque and destructive mode."
Since Franklin is a communist who has always been skeptical of big corporations, it might be questionable at first whether he could give any industry a fair shake, or if he decided Omega was evil from the get-go. But actually, as he points out in his book, the recreational and sport-fishing industry along the Atlantic is much larger than Omega, and when all the angling groups band together, they make a mighty powerful lobby. This lobby helped limit or ban reduction fishing in 13 states. So it turns out that Franklin doesn't really have a problem with powerful interest groups pressuring politicians to bend to their will — if it's for something he happens to agree with.
Franklin is nothing if not passionate. He first achieved national attention in 1971, when, as a tenured professor at Stanford, he allegedly encouraged students to occupy the school's Computation Center. Franklin believed that Stanford was controlled by corporate interests and, through work conducted at the center, the university contributed mightily to what he described as the forces of U.S. imperialism.
Stanford President Richard Lyman was already a bit fed up with his rather colorful communist professor for, a few weeks earlier, heckling Henry Cabot Lodge, the former U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, during an ultimately aborted speech at the university. When Lyman said he would suspend Franklin, the professor failed to curry favor by firing back a letter to Lyman that began: "To the chief designated agent of the board of trustees of Leland Stanford University, heirs of the family who stole this land and the labor of those who built their railroad, war profiteers and rulers of the U.S. empire."
And while Franklin believed he was protected by tenure, he believed that particular freedom should extend to everyone: "We communists believe that job tenure should not be a privilege of a small minority, but the right of all working people, as it is today in the People's Republic of China."
In the end, U.S. imperialism won: Franklin was fired, sparking debate over free speech on campus.
But Franklin carried on with his work with Venceremos, a militant antiwar group whose charming logo was an AK-47 assault rifle. Venceremos (Spanish for "we will win") was overflowing with completely rational people, some of whom would go on to form the Symbionese Liberation Army, who would go on to kidnap newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.
Remarkably, Franklin professed shock when, for years, no university would offer him a tenured position. He used this downtime to edit an anthology of the writings of Joseph Stalin, a man who, as Franklin explains in the forward, he originally thought was "a tyrant and a butcher who jailed and killed millions," because that was what "we in the capitalist world have been programmed to believe."
Turns out, Franklin wrote, that if you study Stalin as a man "created by his times and containing the contradictions of those times," he's actually one of history's greatest revolutionary leaders. Franklin's nuanced approach to Stalin never extended to other political figures he's written about, like Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush, who were simply warmongers, period.
As Franklin said in the Electric Politics interview, "In ten years, the menhaden reduction industry will not exist. The only question is whether it's going to fish itself out of existence and thus destroy the marine ecology that it hasn't already destroyed...or the other alternative is that we stop it before it does that."
Joseph Smith, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service who was interviewed for Franklin's book, had a different take on The Most Important Fish in the Sea: "It should belong on the fiction shelf, actually." —