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Welcome to the state of Texas: the home of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the home of Phil Graham and Tom DeLay, the home of the man who invented voicemail, and the home of all the sons of Bushes. But before you pass judgment, I would also say it's the home of John Henry Faulk and James Farmer, the home of Ralph Yarborough and Sissy Farenthold, Bill Moyers and Molly Ivins. So it can't be all bad. We've got a lot going for us here and we welcome you to our state.
That said, it's a joy for me to address all of you hell-raising humanists, you rebels for rational thought, you agitators for justice and democracy as you gather here this evening in open defiance, I would say, of the authoritarian world of King George the W. and his autocratic, plutocratic, corporate court now encamped in our nation's capital. It's a real privilege for me to join in the footsteps of James Farmer, Ariel and Will Durant, John Dewey, and so many others who have been honored with the Humanist Pioneer Award. I thank you for it.
But really, I've come here to applaud you humanists for daring to challenge the conventional wisdom in our society, to confront the powers that be, to counteract the forces of ignorance and arrogance that are rampant upon our land. I know that this is never easy because I've done my own counteracting and challenging and confronting. You get to feeling like B.B. King in the song where he sings, "Nobody loves me but my mother, and she could be jivin', too." Did you ever get to feeling like that?
Well, we need confronters and challengers and counteractors—agitators, as I referred to you at the top of this little peroration. Agitators: that's something that the powers that be in our society try to make a pejorative: "Why—our workers were perfectly happy over here in the factory, until the outside union agitators came in.... The poor folks over here didn't mind living up against the toxic waste dump, until those environmental agitators came in and started stirring things up." Well hogwash and horse hockey to all that!
Agitation is what the United States is all about. It's what made us Americans. And, in fact, were it not for agitators, we'd all be wearing white powdered wigs and singing "God Save the Queen." Agitation built this country. And I don't mean just Thomas Jefferson and the boys—and they were all boys back then—but Thomas Paine and Daniel Shays. I'm talking about the agitators down through history, not just those who wrote the documents of democracy—the Constitution, the Bill of Rights—but those who democratized those documents: Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglas, the abolitionists and the suffragists, the populists and the Wobblies, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair, Mother Jones and Woody Guthrie, John L. Lewis and Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. and Caesar Chavez, and now down to us, down to you and me.
Because I believe we're in another one of those when-in-the-course-of-human-events moments when the powers that be have gained too much supremacy over the majority of the people. These aren't the powers that be of King George III. Now it's the global, corporate conglomerates that dare to be our ruling sovereigns in this country and throughout the world. So we need you more than ever before to be agitators. After all, as Jesse Jackson put it, "The agitator is the center post in the washing machine that gets the dirt out." That's not a bad thing; we could use a whole lot more of that.
So my message is quite simple. It's no longer enough for us to be progressive—we've been progressive for a long time—now we need to be aggressive again, because the powers that be have become radically regressive. They're running roughshod over the working families, roughshod over the family farmers, roughshod over the children and old folks, roughshod not only over poor people but now over the middle class, roughshod over our air and water and food, roughshod over our very concept of sovereignty that we the people should be self-governing. It's time to fight back.
George Bernard Shaw, about a hundred years ago, said that one doesn't make progress by standing on guard but by attacking and getting well hammered. (The fact that I used to be six-foot-five will give you an idea of some of the fights I've been in.) That's exactly the spirit that we've got to have.
There's a long list, of course, of the challenges society faces. But all of these come down to a terribly destructive philosophy that is being pushed in our land—a philosophy to supplant the social glue that holds us together: the ethic of the common good that unites us, the notion that we're all in this together. That ideal is being set aside by the elites in our country—economic and political (often the same thing)—who want to impose a new ethic of greed that says, "I've got mine, you get yours," "Never give a sucker an even break," "Caveat emptor," "I'm rich and you're not," "Adios chump." This is pretty much what it gets down to, a philosophy that I think is at odds with the very founding values of our country.
We hear so much about values—particularly family values—from the right wing. Well what about the family values of the larger family—the family of the people of the United States of America? What are those values that unite us?
Too often people on the progressive side get caught up in what are described as picayune fights over another dollar-an-hour in wage, another nickel for a bushel of wheat, another regulatory provision, this and that, rather than dealing with the fundamental values we're fighting for. What are those? It seems to me there are at least three of them: economic fairness—that's in the heart of every American; social justice—that's within all of us; economic opportunity for all people, the social opportunity for all people—that's the American spirit. They're not always acted upon—and sadly they're rarely appealed to—in Washington, on Wall Street, in the media, in academia. There's very little talk anymore about those values of fairness and justice and opportunity, much less a real effort to try and implement them.
Of course, I think our problem is that, in those positions, we have too many five-watt bulbs sitting in one-hundred-watt sockets, if you know what I mean. But as a result of their dimness we have a darkness descending across our land, a darkness that shows itself again and again, particularly economically in the last decade.
How many articles did we read, how many newscasts were there, how many politicians pontificated to us about the incredible, unprecedented prosperity that the United States was enjoying? "A boom," they said, "a boom sweeping America unlike any that we've ever had." But most people are asking, "A boom for whom?"
Money magazine had an article about two years ago that said everybody's getting rich! Hello? Everybody? At the time that article appeared, eight out of ten Americans had seen their incomes go flat or go down—80 percent of Americans had no increase in their income during the decade of the 1990s—zero. But the media and the politicians were full of the talk of prosperity. In my book, If the Gods had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates, I have a section called, "If These Are Good Times, Why Aren't I Having One?" It's a question most Americans were asking then and are asking today. They know the reality of the situation. Real wages today—average in this country in terms of real buying power—are beneath what they were when Richard Nixon was president. This is prosperity? This is a boom?
Meanwhile, of course, you look up at the top up to the executive suites; CEOs are getting fatter than butchers' dogs. Today in the United States they're averaging about $13 million a year apiece. But, at the same time, they're knocking down the wages of the middle class. They're knocking down healthcare benefits, taking away pension plans, and so on.
Now I want to be clear here because I'm not against anybody making money. In fact I'm with Mark Twain on that. He said, "I'm opposed to millionaires but it would be dangerous to offer me the position." It's not money that we oppose; it's greed. It's the disparity in our society.
Let me say one word to you: Enron. Houston is the city of Enron, the corporate headquarters of the crooked E. And there we have the perfect example of what I'm talking about. Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling and Thomas White—Thomas White, now Bush's secretary of the army—whining about having to sell a couple of their Aspen chalets. At the same time the six thousand Enron employees were drop-kicked through the goal post of global greed; at the same time that many thousands more smaller shareholders entirely lost their retirement benefits. And these guys are whining. They're the ones who caused the collapse.
It's the disparity; it's the greed that we're talking about. Some of these CEOs are getting so rich they can afford to air condition hell. And I'll tell you what; I think they'd better be setting some money aside for that project.
This darkness expresses itself throughout our society, even in our environment. You can go over to Pasadena, Texas. Follow that toxic plume, and you'll get to places where the pollution lives. Pollution tends to be a class issue. If it spews, burbles, emits, blasts, gushes, oozes, radiates, or otherwise does something unpleasant or deadly, chances are its in a working class, rural, minority, or low-income neighborhood or some combination of all the above. If you are poor, your chances of living next door to Mr. Toxic are quite good. If you're rich, your chances are nonexistent. I've often thought we could solve all of our pollution problems in this country not by the volumes of laws and Environmental Protection Agency regulations we have but by establishing one simple rule. It would say that any corporate executive who dares to do so can have any kind of toxic polluting factory or landfill or dump that he or she wants to build, so long as this executive and family will live within 100 yards of that facility. Don't you believe they'd clean it up? Don't you believe they'd fix it in a hurry if it were their family who had to live up against it and in the midst of it?
This darkness expresses itself politically as well. Americans are shut out today—shut out by the money-soaked, corporate-driven, issue-avoiding, made-for-television, political game show. We heard so much during the 2000 presidential election about a few hundred missing ballots in Florida—and that was a fight well worth making. But what about the 100 million missing ballots across the United States? That's how many people didn't vote in the last election. Half of the people. A hundred million people did not vote.
Let me tell you about some of these folks. I wrote about them in my book. (By the way, I reread this book last night and it's really quite wonderful.) This is a story of three people down in a little town of Cross City, Florida. You know where that is, right down there in the Florida panhandle. Cindy Lamb says, "I don't think they think about people like us." She's talking about Bush and Gore. "Maybe if they had ever lived in a two-bedroom trailer it would be different. I don't think either one of these men running for president has ever had to worry about where their next paychecks are coming from." Well, that's true. Andre Dogaine, she's thirty-one years of age, she's a shift manager at the local McDonalds. She says, "[Bush and Gore] both look the same to me. My life won't change no matter which one gets to the presidency." That's a pretty harsh judgment, but it's true. Tracey Hunt, he's twenty-five years of age; he's a manager at a Hardee's restaurant in Cross City, Florida. He says, "It doesn't really matter; that's the harsh reality. They say they care. This is just to get in. This time next year it'll be a different ballgame."
Well, it already is a different ballgame. Bush and gang are now in the White House doing exactly what they want. It doesn't matter what people voted for. They're pushing arsenic in our water and drilling in ANWAR [the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge]. Nobody in the United States voted for that. Americans didn't vote for this either: a $1 trillion tax giveaway to the richest 1 percent of the people, right off the top of the budget, in the very first act of Bush in the White House—this was in the spring of 2001. At the same time his administration pushed health care for all onto the back burner, saying that's a nice goal but we don't have any money for it. As Lily Tomlin once said, "No matter how cynical you get it's almost impossible to keep up."
Oh, but Bush says, "Don't you understand, we are compassionate conservatives?" Compassionate conservatives. Well, I was born at night but it wasn't last night. How about you?
But let's start with this. I don't want compassion from any conservative. Do you? That's not what I'm looking for. And I don't think many Americans are. I don't want people to steal our labor, knock down our dreams, abandon our communities, usurp our democratic power—then toss us a dime and say, "You're welcome." We don't want compassion; we want power, democratic power—the power to be self-governing, to participate in all of the decisions that affect our lives, our families, our communities, our country. If we have real democratic power, then we don't need any sorry ass compassion from conservatives! It isn't compassion we want; it's power. It's what our U.S. founders wanted in 1776. It's what the suffragists and the abolitionists wanted, the populists and the Wobblies. It's what the labor movement wanted. It's what the civil rights movement wanted. It's what we want. It's what Andre Dogaine and Cindy Lamb and Tracey Hunt want; they want power, to be able to be a part of the decision making over their own lives.
Yet we're told today: "Well Hightower, you can't be talking like that! My God, don't you understand? September 11 happened. We've had a crash bombing into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. So all of us progressives, we gotta hunker down. We gotta hush up. Can't dissent. Don't rock that patriotic boat. Gotta back the president." Some of our own progressive leaders have said that. "Well now's the time you just gotta be quiet."
Be quiet? Holy Thomas Paine! Since when do patriotic, freedom-loving Americans cower in quietude? If you don't speak out when it matters, when would it matter that you would actually speak out? Mark Twain said, "Loyalty to the country always; loyalty to the government when it deserves it." Be quiet? Notice that Bush's corporate buddies on K Street aren't being quiet. In fact, they're being quite noisy-shouting, "Terrorism, patriotism, God Bless America, united we stand." They have unscrewed the Capitol dome in Washington, D.C. and are reaching in with both hands to grab up great gobs of goodies for themselves that they never thought would be possible for them to get until September 11 happened—using terrorism, using the attack on America as an excuse to profiteer, an excuse to loot.
I wrote about it in my newsletter, the Hightower Lowdown. I wrote about it shortly after the crash bombings on September 11, 2001. My article talks about one of the very first acts that was passed, which was, of course, the $15 billion bailout of the airlines in this country. Okay, the airlines were hard hit. Maybe that was something we needed to do. But what wasn't talked about in the media was the fact that two provisions were specifically put into that bill under the influence of the lobbyists for the airlines. One provision was that the complete pay packages—the salaries, bonuses, pensions, stock options, and so on—of all the CEOs of the airlines should continue to be paid. There would be no sacrifice by the CEOs of a dime of their pay. The other provision was that not a dime of the $15 billion should go to the 140,000 workers who had been fired as a result of the September 11, crash bombings. And when Dick Gephardt stood in the House of Representatives to suggest that there ought to at least be some extended unemployment benefits for those 140,000 workers, Dick Army (from here in Texas about 300 miles from where you sit tonight) rose up on his hind legs on the floor of the House and said, "That would not, I believe, be commensurate with the American spirit." I look at a guy like Dick Army, and I think, a hundred thousand sperm and you were the fastest?
So they tell us to be quiet. Be quiet? We can't be quiet because we have no right to be quiet. Too many before us have fought and bled and died to make it possible for us to speak out, to be noisy, to organize, to protest, to dissent, to agitate. If we stay quiet, Bush and his plutocratic pals win. Our democracy, fairness, and justice lose. The opposite of courage isn't cowardice; it's conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow. But "Oh," I'm told, "Hightower, you aren't reading the polls. The people are with Bush. My gosh, he's so popular! We can't stand up against that." Well screw the polls. If all the pollsters were laid end to end, it would be a good thing. Pollsters reflect the dominance of the debate. But we're not in the debate. You can either read the polls or you can lead the polls. If we're out there, if we're articulating, if we're noisy, then we become a part of the polls, and the polls will change. This is because the people will see that there's something else. There's an alternative and it's okay to be for that.
Well, all that's the bad news. Here comes the good news. In my political travels around this country, the radio work I do, the rooting out of stories for my newsletter, and other work, I find that the people of America are revolting—in the good sense of that term. And they are revolting because the powers that be in our country and throughout the world have overreached. They have stomped on too many people now.
Corporate power used to be something in the abstract. Twenty years ago, thirty years ago, when I was first talking about the evils of corporate power, well, it was kind of, "What's he talking about, corporate power? That's kind of an academic concept." But now it's not about "corporate power", it's about the HMO that has ripped you off. It's about the great big Corporation Incorporated that downsized your life or abandoned your town. It's about Enron. It's about the factory that's polluting your neighborhood. It's about Pfizer and Bristol-Myers and the other drug giants who are denying fair prices to the people of this country and who keep 625 lobbyists in Washington, D.C. (ninety more lobbyists than there are members of Congress).
People know what's going on. They know about the rip off. Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked. Right? Well, we're being kicked. But the best news is that people aren't just waiting for action—damn sure not waiting on us. They're out there taking action—on their own—lighting what I call prairie fires of rebellion across this country—rebellion against economic and political exclusion. Just about every place that's got a zip code has somebody or a group of somebodies daring to stand up against this economic, political, environmental exclusion.
Living wage campaigns are one example. While Washington fiddles and faddles with the possibility of raising the minimum wage by a dollar an hour—which would make it $6.15 an hour which is about $12,000 a year, which isn't a wage but a poverty or servitude situation— people all across the country in more than eighty cities, counties, and states have already passed a living wage: $7.50 an hour, $9.50 an hour, $10.50 an hour, indexed to inflation with health benefits attached to it.
One of the greatest stories in our country, unreported essentially by the establishment media, is public financing of elections. We heard so much about the passage of the McCain-Feingold Act in Washington. I'm glad that passed. But even Feingold will tell you, and McCain will too, that this isn't the answer. It's a step. The real answer is public financing. And this isn't only because it gets the corrupt money out of politics; it means that an ordinary person can run for office again. A schoolteacher, a cab driver, anybody would have access to a pool of money to be able to run for office.
Maine is a wonderful state. Because of their leadership, their pioneering attitude up there, they are among the four states—Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Arizona—that have passed a public financing law. In the last election, 2000, Maine had its first cycle under public financing of their elections. The result is that one-third of the state's house of representatives and one-half of its senate were elected without taking any corporate money. That changes politics.
Public financing of prescription drugs is another example. There are about forty states in the country that either have passed or are considering some version of prescription drug financing for at least all seniors. And some of these states, like Washington State, cover all seniors, unemployed people, state employees, and others. While Congress, including Democrats, sits around fiddling and faddling unsure about what ought to be done, states are on the move, making it happen. You don't have to theorize about it, you can just do it.
Then there's the growing opposition to Wal-Mart. My last Hightower Lowdown had a whole thing on Wal-Mart, a beast of a corporation. People don't know it because it's an "Aw-shucks" kind of Arkansas, "golly we're just here to kindly serve you" sort of place. "Welcome to Wal-Mart. Got the cheapest prices in the world," they say. Well how do you get the cheapest prices? You get them by knocking down the people, by knocking down the independent local businesses, by knocking down those who don't want this twenty-four-hour behemoth of a four-football-field-sized entity in their neighborhood. And Wal-Mart is knocking down the workers, both here in the United States and around the globe.
Wal-Mart is now the largest corporation in the world. It has surpassed ExxonMobile. It is the largest employer in the world. It has surpassed General Motors, employing three times as many people. It is the chief buyer of goods from China. It has now moved its international procurement operation to that country. It is the leading force of lowering wages around the world. Not only does it try to lower the wages of the people who work for it, but it also impacts the sixty-five thousand independent businesses that supply it. It requires those businesses to open their books so it can look into the books and say, "You could get this cheaper in China." "You could get this cheaper in Guatemala." "You could get this cheaper in Mexico." And "You should move or you can't get on the Wal-Mart shelves." This is a dangerous, dangerous corporation.
But the good news is that people all across the country are defeating Wal-Mart. This is not a story that's being told. The Food and Commercial Workers Union out in Arizona have in the last three years defeated ten Wal-Marts. [There is] no news about this, it's unreported. You don't have to live with this. You don't have to accept what they're handing to us. People at the grassroots level are fighting and they're winning.
There's a group called United Students Against Sweatshops. Yes, the students are alive and well again. They're in rebellion; they're fighting. And they're doing it the old-fashioned way—by taking over the dean's office, taking over the president's office, and refusing to leave until something happens. Again, this isn't reported in the media. More than two hundred campuses in this country have anti-sweatshop movements. And they're not just talking about the issue, they're winning. They're succeeding at getting the sweat-stained, bloodstained logos off of their campus products: the Frisbees and the sweatshirts and the gimme caps that bear the logos of their campuses.
So much is going on at the grassroots level. My point here is that you don't have to create a progressive majority; it's already out there and at work. But it's not much connected. People on one side of town don't know the people on the other side of town. So we have the parts of a movement, but we don't have the movement. Our job is to connect everything up. That's what we need to be doing in these next few years. The work humanists have been doing, the work that folks fighting for a living wage are doing, the work that people on the campuses are doing, the work that folks are doing on public financing, on universal health care—all of this needs to come together into some sort of a coalition. It doesn't have to have one name; if we try to give it one name nobody's going to join it. But if we say, "Let's have a collaborative effort, let's see if we can't connect our movements together into something that would be greater than the whole of our separate parts," we'll be successful.
I'm trying to do this in a project that I've launched with a bunch of good groups. And I hope you'll think about becoming a part of it as we roll across the country. We call it the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour. The notion here is: What if we got people together in a way they actually wanted to come together? What if we began to have the culture of politics as well as the civic side? So we've launched this series of democracy fests around the country where, on a couple of days on a weekend in a given city, we bring all of this family, all of this community together under a tent. It's a sort of county fair of democracy.
We have speeches. We have really good how-to, hands-on workshops. No whining allowed; you're not allowed to just talk about the problem, you have to discuss what to do about the problem, how an ordinary citizen can accomplish something toward taking power back from the WTO [World Trade Organization], taking power back over your local economy, taking power back over your own doctor? Why can't you get more than seven minutes with your doctor? Why can't we get conversations about that? When people do have power, they have the ability to make things happen.
Then we combine all that civic training and civic action with the cultural side: great music, great food, beer, and wine. (Gotta lubricate people in this movement.) We bring in the clowns. We have stuff for kids. We have games. We do it all. We kicked it off in Austin, Texas, this past March. A collection of about forty different groups were involved. They ranged from Acorn to the Ruckus Society, assorted unions to Public Citizen, Working Assets and Mother Jones, Utne Reader and the Nation. All came together to see if we couldn't put a little progress back in progressive.
That's the notion. And it worked. We had seven thousand people turn out in Austin. And we had me and Molly Ivins and Dorris Haddock and Jesse Jackson Jr. and Michael Moore as the featured speakers. We had wonderful musicians and bands: Marsha Ball, Medusa, Reuben Ramos, and the Texas Revolution—over a dozen, representing different ages and appeals. We had a farmers market there. We had a dozen Austin restaurants cooking up the food. There's a great company called Organic Valley out of Wisconsin that has taken an old school bus, had the local school kids up there in Lafarge paint it up, and converted it into an organic, traveling kitchen. This bus goes on all of our adventures, cooking up organic grilled cheese sandwiches wherever we go.
Patch Adams is a part of this. He brings his clown troops in. They come in a week in advance to go into the schools and hospitals to excite the kids, teach them how to be clowns, and bring them to the event.
It all becomes a festival, a celebration. Then we have the workshops as a part of this, training people on the ground as well as training trainers. That way, once we're gone, they can train other people in everything from how to use electronic gizmos to do your own canvassing to how to form a speakers bureau and go out and be speaking to the Kiwanis clubs and in the schools and everywhere. It just becomes a continuing movement. Our national planning partners work with them before the event, during the event, and after the event to keep this movement going.
Then we collect up all the names of the people who come. We're going to have the best list of progressives that's ever been developed. Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream is a part of this. They give a free ice cream in exchange for an e-mail address. In Austin we had people dressed up as armadillos going around throughout the event collecting e-mail addresses from people. There's no level of silliness we won't resort to in order to make something happen.
The notion is to put the party back in politics. Don't you think it's time we did that? I mean let's make politics something that's not just the last month of an election but something that's a part of our lives, something that's fun.
What if we had an event that people actually wanted to come to? Wouldn't that be something? Regular people might want to come: people who aren't card-carrying anything. They may say, "Well I kind of like that idea." "I want to hear that music." "I like that speaker." "You know, my kids could enjoy this." "I like Patch Adams." We can build a spirit here, build a community, and through that we can build a movement. Our next stop is in Chicago. Then we're on to Tucson, Seattle, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Oakland, and New Orleans. Our tour will travel all across the country. It's just going to keep rolling, getting democracy rolling across this land again.
We can't wait on somebody riding in on a big white steed saying, "I'm ready to be your president." I mean, Ross Perot said that, you know. We gotta do better. No movement ever started at the top. It has to start at the grass roots. The grass roots are alive. That's where our strength is. Why don't we invest there? Why don't we put our money and our trust and our strength and our energy and our resources into that grass roots—build it up, make it stronger. It would generate, then, candidates who can take us all the way to the top. And that's what the notion is in the Rolling Thunder tour. And I think that's gotta be the notion of our overall politics.
Well I'll leave you with this thought. There's a moving company in Austin, where I live. This moving company has an advertising slogan that I have usurped that sort of sums up what I'm talking about. This moving company has an ad in the Yellow Pages. It says, "If we can get it loose, we can move it." That's what I'm talking about; get it loose at the grassroots level, and the people will move it for themselves.
Thank you very much. I'm proud to be with you.
Progressive populist Jim Hightower, former editor of the Texas Observer, is a nationally known columnist, radio commentator, and public speaker who was twice elected agricultural commissioner for Texas, serving from 1983 through 1991. This article is an adapted version of the remarks he delivered at the 61st Annual Conference of the American Humanist Association held in Houston, Texas, on May 10, 2002.