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Texas Twister

Lefty-at-large Jim Hightower blows into town

By Patrick Sullivan

A SEA OF SOFT MONEY swirls like sewage around our ankles as the American public watches a pair of empty-headed presidential candidates twitch feebly at the end of their corporate strings. Our nation's media conglomerates grow fatter on a daily basis, sucking up smaller rivals and spitting out a growing array of business-friendly pabulum. Like Darth Vader turning the keys on the Death Star, megacorporations rev up the World Trade Organization, determined to extend Social Darwinist-style capitalism around the globe.

From a progressive point of view, politics these days are no laughing matter.

Unless, that is, you're a lefty from the Lone Star State. In a strange geographic irony, the conservative state of Texas, home of red-meat-Republican Sen. Phil Gramm and the deadliest death row in the union, offers a parade of political activists and writers (like, say, Molly Ivins) with a virtue progressives are often accused of lacking--a good sense of humor.

Why Texas? It makes perfect sense to author, columnist, and political commentator Jim Hightower, the state's former agricultural commissioner and current lefty-at-large who matches Ivins in his populist politics and his unshakable sense of humor.

"I guess we have a pretty well-refined sense of outrage here, as progressives generally do," explains Hightower, speaking from his office in Austin. "But in Texas, there's so much outrage around that you'll either learn to laugh about it or it'll drive you crazy."

North Bay progressives will get a chance to laugh along with Hightower on Friday, July 7, when he gives a speech to kick off the third annual Labor and Social Action Summer School at Sonoma State University (see "Social Activist Summer School," next page).

If anyone can offer advice on the riddles posed by progressive politics in a conservative age, it ought to be the 57-year-old Hightower. Born in the little town of Denison, the Texas native was immersed in the populist tradition from an early age, listening to political discussions around the Coke machine outside his father's main-street newsstand. In high school, weighing in at a mere 111 pounds, he was an undersized but extremely scrappy linebacker. "My coach was so embarrassed, he listed me at 150 in the program," he explains with a laugh.

The determined young ball player grew up to be an even scrappier political activist. After college, Hightower led citizens' groups, ran campaigns for populist candidates, edited the legendary Texas Observer, and served two terms as the state's ag commissioner, where he ignited furious opposition from agribusiness and the chemical industry by promoting organic farming and environmental safeguards.

These days, Hightower concentrates on spreading the populist word through his bestselling books, his newsletter (The Hightower Lowdown), and his syndicated radio show (Hightower Radio, which reaches more than a million listeners every week).

Fresh off the publication of his second book, If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates (HarperCollins; $25), Hightower will speak to his Sonoma County audience on a topic that's near and dear to his populist heart: the struggle for economic justice in the era of globalization.

"I'll be talking about the failure of either of the two major political parties to address what I call globaloney," he says in his distinctive Texas twang. "In the name of globalization, we're essentially resorting back to trickle-down economics writ large, saying that if only our global corporations can be unleashed from any concerns about wages or workers' rights or human rights or environmental contamination, then somehow or other magically this will result in prosperity for all and the bluebird of happiness will sing and peace will break out everywhere.

"We've had a long history of experience with this theory," he adds. "And it hasn't worked, in this country or anywhere else it's been tried."

You'll find that argument made in greater detail in Hightower's new book. But, as the title suggests, If the Gods also offers some acerbic commentary on the upcoming presidential race, which pits a millionaire member of a powerful national political dynasty against, well, another millionaire member of another political dynasty.

But Gore and Bush have something else in common besides their cushy backgrounds, says Hightower. Simply put, it's easier to laugh at both men than with them.

"Both of those guys, and particularly Bush, are creatures of the political system," he says. "They're creatures of their consultants and their pollsters and their focus group coordinators and their speechwriters and their money interests. So they don't seem to have any genuine humor beyond some sort of crude fraternity-boy sort of humor in Bush's case, and a sort of stiff, scripted kind of humor by Gore."

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Take Action: Sonoma State University plays host to the Labor and Social Action School.

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BACK WHEN he was in state government, Hightower was a Democrat. He says he still supports progressive Demos, but he displays a growing disgust with the party's increasingly conservative tendencies. "Some say we need a third party," he writes in his new book. "I wish we had a second one."

It's that sentiment that's led Hightower to champion a bevy of alternative political organizations, from the Labor Party to the New Party. Just last week, he gave the nominating speech that put Ralph Nader at the top of the Green Party ticket, telling his audience at the convention in Denver, "Campaign 2000 just got hotter than high school love."

Some might think that an oddly passionate sentiment to voice about Ralph Nader, who, whatever his strengths, doesn't radiate much more excitement on the stump than Al Gore.

Indeed, some critics believe the growing support for Nader's insurgent campaign will simply mean that the nation will end up with a Republican president in the White House.

"I think that's a legitimate concern, but everybody's got to decide on this issue for themselves," Hightower replies. "Are we going to continue to back up and just fight defensive battles, or are we finally going to go on the offensive? Are we going to keep taking the lesser of two evils, or are we actually going to create candidates we can be for?

"As a farmer friend of mine once said, 'Hightower, the status quo is Latin for the mess we're in,' " he adds. "More and more people recognize that."

BUT IF THE GODS doesn't simply dis the carefully scripted candidates of the two mainstream parties. Among the most compelling parts of the book are tales of ordinary people taking progressive stands against corporate power. Those stories speak to what Hightower believes is a growing trend.

"I think that people are more ready now than they were five years ago or 10 years ago to go right at the issue of corporate power in our country," he says. "The mainstream media don't cover these things, these positive examples that I cited and many, many more that are out there. So I thought it would be useful in the book to highlight some of these so folks don't feel they're alone. People in Portland, Oregon, are fighting the same bastards that the people in Portland, Maine, are fighting. They just don't know about it."

Of course, the splashiest example of that stiffening popular resistance to corporate power is last November's Battle in Seattle.

The huge street protests by environmentalists and union activists against the World Trade Organization's meeting did more than shake the city's image as a quiet haven for latte drinkers. Suddenly Americans who had previously imagined WTO to be, perhaps, a brand of motor oil were debating the ins and outs of world trade, discussions ignited by the dramatic scenes captured by television cameras of civil disobedience and police brutality.

Hightower was in the middle of that whirlwind, broadcasting his radio show from the streets and getting a good look at this budding social movement.

"It was very inspirational," he says. "These were 50,000 uninvited guests to this obscure meeting of an arcane trade organization, and the people who came knew why they were there, knew what the issues were, and they were focused on the central issue, which is 'Who the hell's in charge these days? Who elected this bunch of corporate trade bureaucrats to rule the world?'

"Particularly I was inspired by the young people, who were knowledgeable, fearless, and organized," he adds.

Many of those same protesters will be demonstrating outside the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer. In August, Hightower will join them at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.

He's also rewriting If the Gods for an updated paperback version due out in January. With the radio show and the newspaper column and the newsletter, he certainly has enough to keep him busy.

But some of his most fervent supporters think there's one more thing he could do: run for political office.

Don't hold your breath, Hightower says.

"No, I've been cured of that," he says with a laugh. "Basically I've found a way to run my mouth rather than running for office. And it's a lot more satisfying, and I reach a whole lot more people.

"We try to give people strength, give people information, give people organizational encouragement," he continues. "So that's why I think this role of messenger that I'm engaged in right now is the best use of me."

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From the June 29-July 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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