In 1902, the Agriculture Department’s Chief Chemist, Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley, began what he called “hygienic table trials,” but soon the Washington Post reporter George Rothwell Brown came up with the name The Poison Squad. Dr. Wiley was attempting to prove that additives and adulterants in everyday foods were unsafe and unhealthy. In doing so, he took on powerful industries and their bought-and-paid-for government supporters. It took years of fighting, issuing reports, doing the right thing, but it wasn’t until Sinclair Lewis published The Jungle in 1906 that headway was finally made. Dr. Wiley’s story is told in Deborah Blum’s book, The Poison Squad, and in the documentary based on the book (you can watch it in it’s entirety at the American Experience website https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/poison-squad/).
One of the many things that disturbs me is that over one hundred years later, the same excuses are being used to prevent doing the right thing. The arguments go: changes will adversely affect business, it’s too expensive, the people advocating for change are misguided radicals or alarmists, and other common protests. Special interests still buy off politicians, seek to cut funding to watchdog groups, delay, sue, ignore the law–whatever it takes to not do the right thing.
Writers have a unique opportunity to draw attention to bad behavior. Certainly journalists and writers of exposés do this, but writers of fiction sometimes make far more headway in capturing the attention of the public, raising awareness, and calling people to action. Sinclair’s novel was written to draw attention to the inhumane working conditions of the meat packing industry, but in exposing it his disclosures inspired changes in hygienic practices. Science fiction writers have a long history of asking questions, proposing worst case scenarios, making us look at ourselves and the people we trust but maybe shouldn’t. Fiction puts us in the story so we can see the real costs of failure to do good.
I feel strongly that truth has great value, that lies once told take on a life of their own and can cause real harm. I believe doing the right thing s may sometimes be difficult but is never the wrong way to go. I am proud that my writing has been included in the anthology Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change. I am proud to be one of the voices saying, take notice, this is important, we need to act. It is my personal goal to always try to write with truth and compassion. Though I may not always succeed, I will always try to do good.
Image: The Members of The Poison Squad. THE U.S. FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION/FLICKR/PUBLIC DOMAIN