The Hightower Lowdown

The Smithsonian gets sold to the highest bidder; a tiny university builds a first-rate baseball stadium; and a common weed killer plays havoc with Mother Nature.

Selling the Smithsonian

Lawrence Small may be perfectly named for the job he's doing.

He's now the head of the venerable Smithsonian Institution, our nation's ultimate public museum and science center. The Smithsonian was established by Congress in 1846 for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge" among the public. But Small doesn't seem to be able to measure up to this job. Instead of serving the public interest, this former investment banker is intent on turning the Smithsonian into a shameless shill for corporate products and propaganda by selling pieces of the institution to the Fortune 500.

For $7.8 million, Small changed the name of the panda area at the National Zoo to "Fujifilm Giant Panda Conservation Habitat." For $10 million, Small renamed a theatre at the National Air & Space Museum to the "Lockheed Martin Imax Theater." For another $10 million, Small created a new exhibit hall called the "General Motors Hall of Transportation."

"They are selling the good name of the Smithsonian," says Bernard Finn, a curator at the history museum. "We are trying to present history in an unbiased, professional way using the best scholarship, but the public will get the impression the Smithsonian is for sale." Likewise, 170 scholars wrote a letter to the Smithsonian's board of regents saying that Small is "degrading this great cultural institution into a corporate pitchman."

Indeed he is. In March, visitors to the Smithsonian's natural history museum were handed a four-page, glossy guide. It was paid for by Phillips Petroleum and, on the back page, there was a full-color ad promoting oil drilling in Alaska. Small whines that he needs more money than Congress now appropriates and has no choice but to sell off chunks of the place for the propagandistic purposes of corporations.

If Small doesn't have the skill, savvy, and stature to beef up public funding for this unique public treasure, then he's too small for the job ... and he should resign.

Concordia's Old Team Spirit

Time for another tribute to one of Hightower's Heroes -- hailing the ordinary folks who do the most extraordinary things.

Today's salute goes to Mike Gardener and the entire baseball family at Concordia University here in Austin. Mike Gardener is the coach of Concordia's baseball team, which not only is good at the game, but also exceptionally good at the work of building community spirit.

Concordia is just down the road from the mighty University of Texas, which has millions of dollars, top-of-the-line facilities, corporate underwriters, and lucrative scholarships for its baseball team. But when Gardener took over as Concordia's coach, the center-field fence had fallen down, the backstop was teetering, there wasn't much grass ... and the team had only won four games the previous year.

So he went to work on the basics -- not only building a winning team, but, with that team, building what sportswriter Kirk Bohls calls "the prettiest little ballpark in Central Texas." The 35 players dug holes for new fences, poured concrete for the grandstand, painted the bleachers ... and otherwise built their own stadium. The players also serve as the ground crew, and they're the only team around to have a DM in the lineup -- a Designated Mower.

Concordia's new outfield fence has a unique design feature built into it. In left field, the green-painted, 12-foot wall suddenly slants down to only four feet high, running at that height all the way to center field, where it rises up again. The players call it "Gardener's Gap." Was he being a devilish designer to make the ballpark interesting? Nah, says Gardener, "we ran out of plywood."

In a world of corporate ballparks, Concordia's stands as a community jewel and a model of what ought to be.

Messing With Frogs

As you can see on TV's various nature shows, it's often a brutal world out there, with one critter devouring another. But at least that's the natural cycle, and I find it a whole lot less fearsome than this recent headline: "Weed Killer Deforms Sex Organs in Frogs."

The National Academy of Science reports that young male frogs living in water containing very low doses of the weed killer, atrazine, develop multiple sex organs or develop both male and female sex organs.

Atrazine is the most commonly used weed killer in the U.S., widely sprayed on our lawns, fields, roadsides, golf courses ... all over. Atrazine residues runoff into our waterways, and it's now found in our drinking water, ground water, streams, snow runoff, etc. -- even the rain contains atrazine. As the lead scientist of the frog study says: "There is virtually no atrazine-free environment."

You could ask the frogs what that means. Atrazine causes male frog cells to produce an enzyme that converts their testosterone to estrogen, perverting their sexuality and destroying their reproductivity. This is happening at a much lower level of atrazine contamination than was previously considered to be a problem. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency allows three parts per billion of atrazine in our drinking water. Yet the frog mutation is taking place in water with only one-tenth of one part-per-billion of contamination.

Are we at risk? The research leader shrugs: "I'm not saying it's safe for humans. I'm not saying it's unsafe for humans. All I'm saying is that it makes hermaphrodites of frogs."

Jim Hightower is a speaker and author. To order his books or schedule him for a speech, visit www.jimhigh To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown, call toll free 866/271-4900.

For more information on Jim Hightower's work – and to subscribe to his award-winning monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown – visit You can hear his radio commentaries on KOOP Radio, 91.7FM, weekdays at 10:58am and 12:58pm.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle