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Towering Over Us 

Jim Hightower's homespun political agitating comes to Berkeley

Wednesday, Sep 10 2003
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No one talks democracy better than Jim Hightower. For nearly 30 years, the popular radio commentator and best-selling author (most recently of Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Take It Back) has inspired ordinary folks and protesters with a populist message rooted in what he calls "the founding values of this country: economic fairness, social justice, and equal opportunity for all." But Hightower's no Thomas Jefferson. Much like filmmaker Michael Moore and columnist Molly Ivins, he is at heart a dauntless muckraker, an activist with an attitude, whose appeal lies in the wit, wisdom, and plain-spokenness of his delivery, which is peppered with down-home Texas charm and buoyed by a resounding belief in the power of we, the people.

In a 2001 speech at a progressive rally with late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, recently released on the CD The People Are Revolting! (in the very best sense of that word), Hightower suggests, "The real political spectrum in our nation is not right to left; it's top to bottom. Right to left is theory, that's ideology. Top to bottom is experience, that's where people actually live." So if the "bean-sprout eaters" could get together with the "snuff dippers," he argues, then a coalition of the people ("the eight out of 10 Americans [who] saw incomes go down" during the "prosperity" of the last decade) would triumph in the ongoing battle of "the common good versus corporate greed." But success depends on everyone taking part in the political process, which "is what America is all about." From Frederick Douglass to Cesar Chavez to Patti Smith, "Agitation is what built this country," says Hightower. "The agitator, after all, is the center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out."

Never short on whip-smart wisecracks, Hightower uses his colorful sense of humor to entertain while educating. He notes, "Boss spelled backwards is double SOB." Regarding Bush's tax cut plan, which the president promised would serve up a "seven-course dinner" to each and every American, Hightower quips, "Indeed, the wealthiest will have a feast. The rest of us? A opossum and a six-pack."

Beyond the jokes, Hightower is serious about spreading the word on the efficacy of grass-roots activism and solidarity at the local level. He cites the success of recent "clean election" (i.e., publicly financed) campaigns in Maine, where a huge number of state congressional seats were won with no corporate influence. Though he concedes that "our democracy is very fragile and under attack ... by the global greedheads and boneheads, the speculators and spoilers, bankers and bosses, big shots and bastards who are running roughshod over all of us," Hightower fundamentally believes in the "enormous power" of the citizenry. "What's possible is what the people say is possible."

About The Author

Sam Prestianni

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