Hightower to Progressives: Get Aggressive!

by Bob Reeves

Many Americans who call themselves progressive believe in the ideals of economic parity, social justice and equal opportunity for all. But to really make any progress toward those goals, progressives need to be more aggressive, America’s most entertaining populist said in Lincoln on March 4.

Jim Hightower, whose popular “Hightower Radio” commentary is heard at noon each weekday on Lincoln’s community radio station KZUM (89.3 FM), was the keynote speaker at “Peacemaking Workshop XXVI”—sponsored by a coalition of churches and Nebraska organizations promoting peace and justice. His talk was entitled “America’s Leaders Are Small, But Americans Are Not: Turning Our Leaders’ Failure into Our Inspiration.”

“It makes me happier than a flea in a dog show to be standing up here looking out at all of you Lincoln peacemakers, liberators of people’s better spirits, you corporate dream-whackers… butt-kickers and agitators,” he told the crowd of 400 at Lincoln’s First United Methodist Church. It was part of a day filled with discussions and workshops around the theme of “Mind the Gap: Between the 99 and 1—the Growing Inequity between the Rich and Poor.”

Combining Will Rogers-style humor with a very sobering message, High-tower talked about how corporate money and power have co-opted the American Dream. “Our leaders have failed us. Americans are strong. We’ve got to tap into our own strength to build the kind of America we want rather than what they’re creating,” he said. “The Wall Street bankers who crashed our economy are back playing the same old casino games they were, getting million-dollar bonuses while the ‘crashees’—the victims of their narcissistic greed—are still getting pink slips and eviction notices.”

Hightower, who grew up on a farm near Dennison, Texas, holds his dad’s political philosophy as a model for today’s activists. “My father didn’t know he had a political philosophy. He would have been embarrassed to have been told that he did,” Hightower said. Coming out of the “hardscrabble” Depression years, “My father had achieved success, but not with any feeling that he did that by himself. He knew there was this larger community that made all of this possible for him and everyone else. He used to tell me, ‘Jim, everybody does better when everybody does better.’ That’s as good a political philosophy as I’ve ever heard in my life—and we’re getting away from that.”

America has a long history of progressive movement toward economic and social reforms, culminating in today’s calls for a living wage, affordable health care and equal opportunities for all. But today’s “power elites are deliberately and aggressively supplanting this history of the historic ethic of the common good [with] the ethic of greed—saying I’ve got mine, you get yours,” he said. “Now we have senseless war-mongering around the globe, vicious class war here at home, the poisoning of our air and water [and] the intolerable idea that a corporation is a person and that corporate money is speech.”

Charity vs. a Living Wage

America’s leaders have let the American people down, he said, because “They’re as confused as goats on Astroturf” about what the nation’s goals and purposes ought to be. Many of the mega-rich raise the banner of philanthropy as a palliative to widespread poverty and the growing disparities between ‘haves and have-nots.’ “They tell us that there would be no charity without rich people,” Hightower said. In response, he recounted a story once told by Louisiana Governor Earl Long about a rich man being quizzed by St. Peter at the gate of heaven. Asked to recount his good deeds, the rich man noted that in 1924 he gave a nickel to a blind beggar, then again in 1934 he gave a widow a nickel for carfare to get home and in 1944 he dropped a nickel in a Salvation Army kettle. “St. Peter said, ‘Give him back his 15 cents a tell him to go to hell.’”

“It’s not charity we want,” High-tower said. “What we want is economic fairness and social justice for all people.” America’s unemployment rate is dropping, but so are wages and purchasing power, Hightower noted. “Jobs are up, wages are down. Wages—that’s really the issue.”

Hightower chided former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (“the guy who really puts the ‘goober’ in gubernatorial”) for his campaign claim to have created 1 million jobs while governor of Texas. “What he didn’t tell you was they were jobs that paid very little—no pension or health care, no security whatsoever. In his ten years as governor, Texas created more minimum-wage jobs than all the other states combined. Now you’ve got [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney, who was once slightly sane, but now he says he’s severely conservative. He says he’ll cut taxes on corporations to create jobs. The issue is not jobs. Slaves had jobs. The issue is wages.”

Hightower quoted this comment from a Texas waitress about Perry’s claim of creating 1 million jobs: “Yeah, I know—I’ve got three of them.”

“We’ve gone from Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics to the Koch Brothers’ tinkle-down in this country,” Hightower said. Charles and David Koch, billionaires who fund the Tea Party and other right-wing movements, have made a “vituperative all-out assault on union families,” he said. “‘Unions are destroying America,’ they shriek. Well, as we say in Texas, that’s so much bovine excrement.”

Hightower talked about the heroic landing of U.S. Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009 after geese flew into the engines. New York Governor David Paterson dubbed it the “miracle on the Hudson,” but what was lost in media reports was the fact that the pilot, flight attendants, ferry crew, firefighters and police who helped in the rescue were all members of unions. “It was a ‘union-made’ miracle on the Hudson,” Hightower said.

The crisis of leadership isn’t just a Republican problem, Hightower said. Congress has more than its share of “weak-kneed pusillanimous Democrats” who backed away from real (Single-Payer) health care reform, real job creation or any real attempt at “ending our economy’s addiction to war,” he said. “The Democrats are surrendering any kind of structural reform, surrendering any boldness and surrendering principle. That’s what’s killing us in Washington. We’re not standing up for what it is we actually believe in.”

“I’ve got a plan,” Hightower said with a grin. He promised to get the drug companies to come up with a new product, a type of Viagra “that would stiffen the backbones of the Democrats—for more than four hours at a time.”

Time To Get Aggressive

But Hightower sees the lack of leadership from the top as an opportunity for grass-roots progressive action. “It’s a big time for you and me. It’s one of those times when the focus is on the very ideals of America itself. What kind of country are we going to be? That’s very much up for grabs, today. It’s not a settled question. So my message is, it’s no longer enough for us to be progressive—we’ve been progressive for a long time. We’ve got to become aggressive again, because the powers that be have become radically regressive.”

He continued, “Today the one percent—the downsizers and privatizers and Goldman Sachs-ers, the Keystone Pipeliners, bankers, bosses, big-shots, bastards and BS’ers—feel entitled to run roughshod over the 99-ers. They think they’re the top dogs and we’re just a bunch of fire hydrants. We can wring our hands about this gap or we can join hands, and join our heads and our hearts, as you are doing, to find ways to close that gap,” he told those attending the afternoon of workshops.

The day-long event included a session led by Paul Olson of Nebraskans for Peace on how to testify before the Legislature on bills impacting lower-income and minority Nebraskans. Leaders of organizations like the Center for People in Need, Good Neighbor Center, Nebraska Advocacy Services, Clinic with a Heart, Community CROPS, Lincoln Literacy Council and NeighborWorks Lincoln (only a partial list) led sessions on how they’re working to bridge the gap between rich and poor. In another session, participants tied fleece blankets for the “Linus Project,” for hospitals, homeless shelters and social service agencies helping children and families. At the conclusion of the workshop, Peacemaking Committee chair Martha Gadberry asked all participants to contact their elected representatives at all levels on issues of poverty.

In his talk, Hightower zeroed in on the failure of the Obama Administration to achieve the real economic changes he promised when elected in 2008. Obama tried to corral Wall Street through regulations, but “corporations are experts at having whole floors of lawyers to get around regulations,” he said. “Cynics said [structural change] can’t be done—the social divide is too wide, the corporate order is too entrenched.” But he quoted a pioneer in the organic movement who said, “Those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

He praised Nebraskans for standing up to TransCanada, the Canadian company seeking to build the Keystone XL Pipeline across the Sandhills. “You stood up and they had to leave. You brought farmers and ranchers together, with environmentalists, with property owners, with Occupy activists and just plain folks, to put people power over corporate whim. Your stand excited and emboldened people all across this country.”

“The powers that be try to make the word ‘agitators’ a pejorative term. But ‘agitation’ is what America’s all about,” he said. “We can make big changes. Our challenge is to go right to the ‘powers that be’ on behalf of the ‘powers that ought to be’—ordinary, workaday stiffs. Not to take America back, as the Tea Party says, but to move America forward: move toward that egalitarian possibility that has been the vision of America.” He added, “An agitator is the center post in a washing machine that gets the dirt out.”

Hightower is encouraged by the Occupy Movement. It’s being evicted from camp sites but isn’t going away, he said. “The idea is so powerful and the truth is so important about that divide (between the 99 and 1). One role of the Occupy movement in the current election year, he said, is to demand that every candidate talk about the U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened up unlimited political spending by corporations through ‘Super PACS.’

The biggest problem in America, he said, “is too much money at the top. There’s an old saying about manure—it only works if you spread it out.” Instead of concentrating money in banks that were deemed too big to fail, that money should be spread to local banks and credit unions that can help ordinary Americans.

Asked what can be done to prevent war with Iran, Hightower said, “We’ve just gotta say no. We’re spending billions a week on the war in Afghanistan, then Congress says we don’t have money for health care. We can’t have health care for everybody. Spain can; Japan can, but we can’t. We can’t go to the moon. Hell, we can’t fix the potholes in our roads. It’s pathetic. America’s greatness was built on bold projects. The Interstate Highway system put millions of people to work, good wages. So did the WPA and the New Deal. Green jobs—Obama talks about it, but we need to push him hard and say that’s what we want.”

After his talk, Hightower signed copies of his latest book, Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go With the Flow. He was Texas state Agriculture Commissioner from 1983-91, promoting organic production, alternative crops and direct marketing by farmers. He endorsed Jesse Jackson for president in 1988 and was co-chair of Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign in 2000. He criticized both President Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore for backing away from populist Democratic principles. Today his columns appear in 75 weekly newspapers nationwide and his radio program is carried by more than 130 stations. His monthly newsletter “The High-tower Lowdown” has more than 125,000 subscribers. For more information about Hightower, visit: www.jimhightower.com.

Members of the “Peacemaking Workshop Planning Committee” include representatives of Nebraskans for Peace, the Manna and Mercy Center for Faith in Public Life, Amnesty International , Prairie Peace Park, Bread for the World, Union College, Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska, the United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, First Mennonite Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),and Cotner College (Disciples of Christ).

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