Volume , Number 0
There are no articles.Commentary
There are no articles.Culture
There are no articles.Features
The Celling of America
Organizing in Lawrence
Poor People's Organizing
Slippin' & Slidin'
High-Tech Transportation Workers
The Heat is On
There are no articles.
NOTE: Z Magazine subscribers and sustainers have access to all Z Magazine articles here and in the archive. The latest Z Magazine articles available to everyone are listed in the Free Articles box at the top of the table of contents, and are starred in the list below. Questions? e-mail Z Magazine Online.
Let's Fight the Bastards: Believing in the common good
David Barsamian interviews Jim Hightower
Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street."
HIGHTOWER: Bingo. And now its not just Wall Street, but the Japanese and the European conglomerates as well, the new global economy.
Are we looking here, then, at an El Niño kind of climate change?
Were looking at the same old greed that has been repackaged. Its Reaganomics. Its trickle-down economics.
Clintons policy is nothing, you take all the varnish off of it and thats what it is. In essence, he says, Lets turn loose our global conglomerates to go around the world and take our good jobs with them and extend those jobs to impoverished people and exploit those impoverished people, working through the elites in those countries and the governmental thugs and rulers in a number of the repressive countries.
What would you say to Philip Knight, one of the richest men in America, a multi-billionaire, the CEO of Nike, when he says, Were giving jobs to poor rural girls in Indonesia who would have no economic opportunity whatsoever.
Isnt he a generous human being? That is so noble of Philip Knight to sit there in his palace in Beaverton, Oregon and look across the world to a place hes never been, by the way. He doesnt go to his own factories, and he doesnt meet these girls that hes giving so much opportunity to. You remember the scene in the Michael Moore movie, The Big One, where he was talking to Philip Knight and said, What is this, Mr. Knight? There you are over there, exploiting these 13-year-old girls, and Knight interrupted and said, Theyre not 13-year-olds. Theyre 14. Oh, thank you for correcting me on that.
Youre a critic of corporate capitalism and monopolies, yet Rupert Murdoch publishes your book, now in its fifth printing. That seems to be a paradox.
It seems to be, and you can look at it like that. I view Rupert Murdoch as a man who would moon the Queen of England if there was a dollar bill in it for him. So hes interested in selling books. Through his empire hes willing to publish Howard Zinn and Michael Moore and Jim Hightower. Im out to find the biggest audience that I can find, with the most extensive reach that I can get. HarperCollins made the bid for it. I dont think that those of us who are progressives should hinder ourselves by trying to reach the smallest audience that we possibly can. I think we should go out.
I also think that we have some responsibilities to speak out. So, for example, on my book tour Im going almost exclusively to independent bookstores that are being squeezed by Barnes and Noble, Borders, and other large chains. In Denver I was at the Tattered Cover bookstore and here in Boulder with Left Hand Books. Ive been doing that around the country. We do have to put the walk to the talk in ways that matter.
Something that was very striking in your biography was that you were the starting linebacker on your high school football team.
Theyre still laughing about it there in Dennison. By the way, this was serious Texas high school football. We played Highland Park and Dallas and the big teams that were winning state championships. Our team was so bad that I playedI weighed 111 pounds as the starting outside linebacker. My coach was so embarrassed that he listed me at 150 pounds in the program.
What was your family background?
I grew up in an area with tenant farmers, small-town merchants, railroad workers, ordinary folks. Both my mother and father came off tenant farms. My mother came off a subsistence farm. They literally made everything. They made their own soap. Her first trip to Dennison was on a buckboard pulled by mules. She still lives in Dennison. If it doesnt plug in the wall, and its not a convenience item, she doesnt want to have anything to do with it. Shes not interested in going back to anything like that. They became small business people. My mother and father ran the Main Street newsstand. He was a magazine wholesaler for that area.
Youve spoken of your fathers political philosophy, as it were, and its influence on you.
The last section of my book is called "Daddys philosophy." It talks about the departure from the strong American value of the common good that is ingrained in every American just as surely as we also have ingrained in us the belief in rugged individualism. We still believe in the common good and community responsibility. My father was a great believer in that. He didnt preach about it. He just practiced it without even realizing what it was.
He helped start Little League baseball in our town back in the mid-1950s. Theres nothing esoteric about that. What you do when you start a Little League is to get a vacant lot somewhere and use those boys to get all the rocks off of it and then you sod the field and put a fence around it and put up a little money so the teams can have uniforms. You coach the teams. You umpire it. You run the scoreboard. You run the snowcone stand. You run the PA system.
He did that when I played baseball, but then I left and he stayed at it. It wasnt just about me. It was about the community. He believed the same thing about the public library when they built it. He believed he should be taxed, that Dennison needed a public library. I dont recall him ever going into that building, much less checking out a book. But he believed in the philosophy that we should be taxed equally nationally to pay for health care for all people. He thought our health care system based on money was an outrage. He believed in that concept of the common good, and he expressed it to me in philosophical terms, though he didnt know he had a philosophy. He said, Everybody does better when everybody does better. Thats what passes for a political philosophy in places like Dennison. I think its about as good a political philosophy as we could have as a country. If we had a political movement that was grounded in that philosophy, it would be a tremendous success.
What kind of change have you seen in the Democratic Party in the last few decades?
Its been most dramatic over the last ten years, and under Bill Clinton and whats called the Democratic Leadership Councilthe Nouveau Demos. The Democratic Party has been classically, from the start, a bit more for working people. We can go back to Jefferson and Jackson, the founders of the Democratic Party, forward through Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, rightfully reviled for the Vietnam War, but on economic and civil rights issues a good working peoples president. I never thought back in the 1960s, when I was fighting to get Johnson out of office because of Vietnam, that he would be the most progressive president of my lifetime, but he has proven to be that, certainly more so than Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton.
The change began in the mid-1970s. I can even name the person. It was Tony Cuehlo, member of Congress in California, who became chair of the House Democratic campaign committee, which meant he was in charge of helping to raise money for Congressional races for the Democrats. Tony Cuehlo decided that since those Republicans are getting all the money from the corporations, then those corporations have to give us money, too. He began the steady downhill slide of the Democratic Party into the lap of the same corporate interests that rule the Republican Party. So my party took off those old Sears Roebuck work boots and strapped on the same Guccis and Puccis that the Republicans strut around in.
There are two contradictory impulses here. One is that you have to work inside the Democratic Party and try to reform it. The other is, Theyve gone down the road of the Republicans and theres not much of a difference. Weve got to start with something brand new. Do you advocate either of those positions?
Both of them. Some people say we need a third party. I wish we had a second one. There are those who are going to fight as insurgents within the Democratic Party. I fight there myself. But I am a member of the New Party. Im a member of the Labor Party. I support the Greens. I support the Alliance for Democracy. I support any progressive political organizing movement that is out there. At this stage, thats where we all need to be. Go where youre most comfortable. Were not at a stage of our political progressive organizing sophistication to be able to say, Everybody should be over here.
I think the one thing weve got to fight is a tendency for somebody who is in the Labor Party to say, Youre still in the Democratic Party, so I cant work with you, or somebody whos a Democratic insurgent to say, Im not going to work with the New Party people. We all need to be working together and respect each other where we are, because were all trying to get to the same place. Lets organize and form coalitions around issues and candidates where we can at the local and state level. Once we sort all this out, we can come up with a name.
Youre not comfortable with the terms "left" and "right."
Its just unreal. In my view, the real political spectrum is not right to left. Its top to bottom. To me, right to left is theory. In fact, thats used to divide us. Top to bottom is reality. Thats where people live. Its experience.
Dow Jones is on everyones lips and repeated on every single news broadcast. Youve created a character known as Doug Jones. Who is this guy Doug?
Whats the price of Spam? What about the long-term durables down at Big Eds Used Car Lot? Thats the economic indicator that Doug needs to know. Doug is the eight out of ten people who are more concerned about the price of socks than the price of stocks in terms of their own economic situation.
Before we talk about your current radio incarnation, Id like you to talk about your previous one. It was syndicated by ABC. What happened to it?
Things were going swimmingly with ABC. I had a weekend three-hour broadcast on Saturday and Sunday. We were gaining stations. ABC executives had been down to Austin to say they were pleased with the progress and they were committed to the long-term growth of the program. At that stage we were further along than Rush Limbaugh had been in his career. But on August 1, 1995, in a single week, Disney bought ABC. Then the Senate passed the Telecommunications Act. So I went on the air that Saturday and blasted both of them, the merger being an example of the conglomeratization of the media thats going to hurt our democratic dialogue, and the Telecommunications Act being a giveaway, a form of corporate welfare thats going to encourage more conglomerates. Then I said that I now worked for a rodent. Mickey Mouse didnt have a real sense of humor about that. There was a sudden chilling, let me put it like that, of my relationship with ABC. Within six weeks I was off the air.
When did you get "Chat & Chew" going?
Within less than a years time I was back on the air, this time with a much more enterprising, freelance, fun, funky kind of an organization that reflects my spirit. Its called the United Broadcasting Network. The "Click n Clack" public radio show, the two brothers Car Talk show, one-third of their broadcast is them laughing. We come pretty close to that on our show, too. We have a lot of fun broadcasting from the "Chat & Chew" in downtown Austin on the top floor of Threadgills world headquarters, which is a restaurant in Austin thats actually a one-story building. Were on the air from coast to coast, Maine to Maui. Part of the ownership of the United Broadcasting Network is the United Auto Workers. I have some ownership that shares my viewpoints so I dont sit there every day wondering, Is the plug going to be pulled? In addition to their regular sponsorship, they are a Home Shopping Channel of radio, of Made in the USA products. You can call an 800 number and get their catalog and order everything from tools to toys that are made in the USA, 70 percent of them union-made. That gives me a sponsorship base.
My momma taught me long ago that two wrongs dont make a right, but I soon figured out that three left turns do. Thats what UBN represents. We cant just wring our hands about the media becoming more conglomerated and theyre not letting us on. Weve got to find our way around that conglomeratization and that includes community radio work, and it includes all kinds of alternative media, ranging from newsletters to the Internet.
In your radio format you incorporate music. Why?
I wanted a show that made me comfortable and I wanted a show that I think is the future of talk radio, not just some Limbaugh type going on a tirade every day, although I do my share of tirades. But my notion of talk radio is that in addition to people wanting information and perspective, they also want to hang out. They want to be with the people who are sitting around talking. I remembered my mother listening to the Arthur Godfrey show when I was a little kid. She just had it on. She listened. It was music and talk and interviews. I thought that was a pretty good format. I also remembered my father at the Main Street newsstand, where every morning at nine or ten oclock the locals would come in to drink Coca-Cola or coffee together and they would spend ten or fifteen minutes shooting the breeze and solving all the worlds problems, joshing each other. It was a wonderful sense of humor that they had there. So we set about to recreate this mood. We have a big round table with a checkered tablecloth on it. We drink coffee and eat pie and sit there at Threadgills restaurant. Its a live broadcast.
And there are call-ins.
We take call-ins, and the idea is you can join us here at the round table by calling this number. So its not like youre calling a radio host so youve got to really be ready, but youre joining a table of people. My producer Susan DeMarco is there. Chris Garlock also shares the conversation. We have live music every day instead of having recorded music to do the ins and outs. Floyd Domino is a Grammy award-winning piano player. So his piano becomes a character, too. He comes up with little tunes that reflect what some caller has said.
You say that talk radio is about the last place where the vox populi matters.
I think the success of talk radio is that you can talk. You can say your piece. You can share ideas. You can share crazy ideas if you want to. Politics doesnt let you talk any more. They dont care about people. Youre a prop. Politicians have these staged public forums. The media dont care about people. Youve got Ted Koppel having town meetings where theres no town and no meeting. One place people feel they can talk unfettered and have any idea they want to is talk radio. My show is much more gentle to those callers than most talk radio shows are because I dont hate my callers. If they disagree with me, Ill tease them and well mess around with each other somewhat. I take a lot of calls. You can be against me, but I try to find some common ground with you. But I dont think necessarily that youre an idiot if you dont agree with me.
Youve said Rush Limbaugh, the biggest name in talk radio, is losing steam. Whats the evidence for that?
Hes actually losing stations. Ive gotten on some that used to carry him. But I think what happened to Limbaugh is that he became a Johnny One Note: "Its the liberals in Congress and in the White House that are causing all the worlds problems and if we could just get rid of them, and thats the problem, folks. Youve got to understand, be clear on this. Im telling you the truth. Youve got to get rid of all of them." Again and again and again. Then the other thing that happened is that he has become the chief mouthpiece for Newt Gingrich and the right-wing Republican Party.
Who enjoys very high ratings. How high are they now?
Theyre beneath what Richard Nixons were when he resigned from the presidency. Thatll just give you some clue. The American people are not Newt Gingrich people. Some are, and some of his dittoheads are, but the vast majority of his audience is not. Hes become too identified with that and too one-sided. As I say, the real spectrum is not right to left, its top to bottom. Hes not representing the bottom any more. Hes not representing that 80 percent thats getting knocked down. Quite the contrary. On issues like NAFTA and the fast-track authorization for more international trade scams, he sides with Wall Street. You never hear Limbaugh taking on the Wall Street barons who are running over the middle class in this country.
One of your chapters is "Liberal Media, My Ass." What do you mean by that? Isnt it a staple of the political culture, that the media are liberal?
Thats the accepted conventional wisdom. I start that section of the book with, "Let us now praise the liberal media." It is literally a reading of Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy, Joe Klein, Ariana Huffington, a whole list. It covers about a page of names who are in fact right wing. But the real issue in the media is not that its either right wing or left wing, but that its bias is towards the top. Reporting used to be a working stiffs job. You wore rumpled clothes and you put in your days on the beat and you drank at a place called Shortys and then you went home to a tenement somewhere. Now youre drinking at the headliners club with the very people youre covering. Then you go home to the same gated and guarded compounds that the elites live in that youre supposed to be covering.
What are your views on NPR and PBS?
The public is being taken out of those institutions. They have become a sad imitator of the corporate media. Now they have their enhanced underwriting announcements that are essentially ads. Theyre more and more dependent on corporate money. They are not covering the kind of issues that you and I talk about on the radio and that ordinary folks want talked about.
Do you think the U.S. should have a publicly funded public radio and TV system like Canada and Japan?
Yes. Maybe it ought to have two or three. Maybe that would enhance it some. Or have a system so that more community stations could get a piece of that money so that you could become competitive at the local level, so they dont become giant bureaucracies that are all nationalized.
Lets say that youre "minister of broadcasting." What would the communication needs of a democratic society be?
As many voices as possible, and as much democratization. I would certainly do away with the notion that is now allowed under the Telecommunications Act that one or two conglomerates can own virtually every radio station in the country. But I would also get very active in supporting radio on the Internet and the advancement of the technology which is coming along. Im not a tech person, but as I understand it, its moving by leaps and bounds to where the digital quality of the sound on the Internet is going to be very, very good and we may soon be able to have car radios that are Internet radios and computers that bring the radio signal in so it becomes more accessible to more people and more ubiquitous. It doesnt have to be a computer sitting in your office.
You recently spoke at the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union in Denver. For years, labor has been taking some pretty big hits, time and time again. In the summer of 1997 we saw a turnaround, with massive public support for the UPS strikers.
That was the first sign to the establishment that something is going on here. When the Teamsters struck UPS, the UPS management assumed that the public would oppose the unions and favor them. But the great majority of the American people sided with the workers. That resulted in UPS rushing back to the negotiating table and saying, Okay, we cave in. They basically caved in to all the requests. That was a fight over temporary employees. The media tried to say its because the American public has a fond impression of this union, because they wear those little brown uniforms and drive those little brown trucks.
Of course, most of us know somebody or have somebody in our family or ourselves who are in temporary job situations and are mad as hell about it and feeling very insecure about it and willing to fight back against that. Here was the first union finally standing up and saying not, "I want a wage increase for the people who are doing well in my union," but, "I want a wage increase for the temporary workers." If you do temporary work you ought to get the same rate of pay and the same benefits as somebody whos doing it full time, if that is what the company says that they have to have in order to make it go, then fine. Im for a 35-hour, maybe even a 30-hour work week. I think were overworked as a society, giving us too little time to be with our families and be in the community and realize our fuller potentials. I wouldnt be against all work being part time. But it ought to be at a rate that allows us to raise a family and have a middle-class way of life.
The Labor Party is advocating a ten-dollar-per-hour wage.
That to me is fair. Youre talking about a barely middle-class way of life, $20,000 gross pay.
One of the things you write about is sports teams and the kinds of demands that the owners make on communities, like Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns, the NFL football team. They left Cleveland and moved to Baltimore. In Denver theres a situation with the Super Bowl champion Broncos, owned by Pat Bowlen. Hes demanding a new stadium while feeding at the public trough.
Its a wonderful example of corporate welfare, and by the way, the people are revolting against this.
Yes, but they "do so much for the community." They give you identity. You root for your team. You feel part of something larger.
Then the community ought to own the team, or at least share in the ownership of the team. The Green Bay Packers, who have quite a successful professional football club over the decades, are totally owned by the people of Green Bay. When I say the people, I mean bartenders and cab drivers in Green Bay own stock in the Green Bay Packers. They take great pride in it, even if they dont go to the games. They get one of those sudden snowstorms and people show up with their shovels and brooms in the wee hours to clear the stadium in time for the game. The players live in the town and participate in the community. Theyre regular folks, so theres none of that kind of standoffishness. You might be sitting next to them in a bar or go into a cafeteria with them or be with their kids. Its so successful that the National Football League owners passed a resolution a few years ago ruling that no longer can any team become an NFL football team unless it is privately owned. No public ownership team can be allowed in.
Do you think that sports are a good wedge to talk about economic and class issues?
Sports are an integral part of our society. Its not a life-and-death matter, but when a society has more people watching the Super Bowl than voting for president of the U.S., then sports become a metaphor for whats happening in the larger society. Sports has become a totally corporate process and an elitist process. Its not that the existing stadiums are not perfectly functional for playing the game. It is that these owners want luxury suites that they can sell for $100,000, $200,000 a year to corporate executives so that they can entertain their clients without those clients having to mix with the riffraff in the stands. So were seeing the segregation of the stands. Its one of the last places in our society where classes did mix, in the stands at pro football games.
Theres an interesting case in Texas involving TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey and what seems to be a major infringement of First Amendment free speech rights.
A little bit of silliness passed through our Texas legislature, which is notorious for silliness. I have to confide to you, this is not the stupidest thing theyve ever done. But they passed a piece of legislation that in essence is called a food disparagement law, making it illegal to badmouth beef or to pooh-pooh poultry or to cast aspersion on asparagus. Sure enough, under that law, Oprah Winfrey has been brought to trial in Amarillo because she had a guest on, a fellow I know, Howard Lyman, whos a terrific guy. They were talking about the fact that the industrialized beef industry now is feeding protein pellets, which are ground-up cow parts, to cows. Cows are vegetarians, herbivores. This is causing rather nasty things to happen, including mad cow disease in England. This turns out to be widely considered the cause of mad cow disease in England.
We actually have a related disease in this country called the Downer Syndrome. Our beef industry, with their puppets at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pretend this doesnt exist because they dont want the public examining these industrial practices. So they brought suit against Oprah Winfrey for daring to say it. Oprah said, when she heard about this feeding cows to cows, I just ate my last hamburger, or something like that. These guys claim that the next day the cattle market fell over into the ditch and lost $160 million. It was complete hogwash, but nonetheless that trial went on. She won, by the way.
There are disparagement laws in 12 other states. Its not just Texas.
And other states are considering them. Colorado has one. Again, the media are not serving us well. I can understand it, because its a beautiful caricature. This picture of cattlepeople, with their big boots and buckles and bellies, a gun in one hand and a lawsuit in the other, storming the courthouse demanding the hide of the queen of daytime television for, by God, badmouthing our beef. But its not cattlepeople who are engaged in these practices or who have brought this suit. Its the cattle feeders, the giant feedlot operations. Its Cactus Feeders, the chief protagonist against Oprah Winfrey, the plaintiff. Thats a Nevada corporation, a billion-dollar-a-year operation.
You were elected to two four-year terms as Texas Agriculture Commissioner. Any thoughts about running again for elective office?
Ive found a way now to run my mouth, rather than running for office and to have, I believe, greater political impact than I could in any single office. But I also believe that at this point in the development of a serious progressive movement in the country that we need messengers. Im lucky enough to be one of those messengers with some serious microphones, radio, the book, starting a political newsletter called the Hightower Lowdown. Im about to start a political column as well, then the speeches that I do, and then being on the Internet. So we need messengers.
When you were first elected as Agriculture Commissioner in 1983, you heard the term from a corn farmer that became the title of your book.
Theres a phenomenon in Texas politics that may exist elsewhere, too. When you get elected, particularly as an anti-establishment candidate like me, a hell-raiser, theres the "getting-well party" in which the people who opposed you now find theyve got to deal with you. So this particularly smarmy lobbyist came around to me and said, "All right, Hightower, now youre in office. well get along just fine if you move over to the middle of the road."
Later on, this corn farmer was in my office in the Panhandle. I was laughing about this story with him. He said, "Oh, hell, Hightower, theres nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos, so get on over here with your friends and lets fight the bastards."
So not only did I take that to heart, but I made it the title of my book because thats the kind of politics I think the American people want. Tell us who youre for and who youre against, and lets go at them.
People can write to Hightower at PO Box 13516, Austin, TX 78711; jimhightower.com; chatchew@ concentric.net. For a catalogue of Alternative Radio cassettes/transcripts: AR, PO 551, Boulder, CO 80306; 800-444-1977.