Tried and True
By Jay Hardwig
JUNE 22, 1998: Over a 30-year career spanning print, politics, and radio, Austin firebrand Jim Hightower has earned a reputation as Texas' most outspoken - and plain-spoken - populist crusader. After stints in Washington and Austin as a congressional aide, consumer advocate, and editor of The Texas Observer, Hightower quit the sidelines to run for the Texas Railroad Commission in 1979, explaining in his farewell Observer essay that "sometimes, writing about the bastards is not enough." While he did not win that race, he did win a few others, serving two lively terms as Texas Agriculture Commissioner (1983-1991).
Since 1993, he has worked in radio in addition to keeping a busy writing and speaking schedule. His two-hour talk show, Hightower's Chat & Chew, broadcasts live weekdays from Threadgill's World Headquarters but does not currently count an Austin station among its 115 subscribers. (Hightower fans can catch his two-minute commentaries, however, on Fridays at 6pm on KOOP 91.7.)
His most recent book, There's Nothing In the Middle of the Road But Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos (HarperCollins, $23 hard), finds Hightower in full rhetorical regalia as he takes on such "great unspeakables" as corporatization, consumerism, and class warfare.
Arguing that the true political spectrum in America does not run left-to-right, but top-to-bottom, he slams the misdeeds of the rich and powerful, reserving particular venom for the mindset he terms the "Holy Global Corporate Orthodoxy, distilled to this three-pronged metaphysical essence: Money... More... Now." Along the way, Hightower calls for some fundamental changes in the way we do business. "If you find you've dug yourself into a hole, the very first thing to do is quit digging," he advises, and start building a ladder up and out of that hole. Covering economics, the environment, the media, and more, Hightower finds no shortage of holes in need of ladders.
Feisty, fact-filled, and at times distressingly funny, Dead Armadillos has been well-received, reaching the Independent Booksellers bestseller list and garnering strong reviews - at least among the liberal press. Writing in The Texas Observer, Rod Davis called Armadillos "a stump speech of the first order, a tent revival for the politically apostate, an industrial strength wake-up call to just how merciless a pounding we're taking." Ever more succinct, Molly Ivins calls Armadillos "a long, bugling call to start kickin' ass." The paperback is due in September.
Knowing Hightower's penchant for the fiery-tongued barb, I sat down in his offices on West Sixth Street expecting something outrageous; what I found was much closer to simple outrage. What followed was a serious, often sobering, discussion with an unrepentant freethinker who is deeply in love with America and desperately concerned for its future.
Austin Chronicle: What obligation do you think a writer has to address moral and social issues?
JH: It depends on... there's nothing wrong with being just within yourself if you want to be as a writer. But I think that as a culture we need to celebrate writers who are very much involved, involved directly in the political combat of the times. This has been the great American tradition of journalism. Now journalism has become where we're supposed to be unbiased, independent professionals - which is an impossible and in my view worthless goal.
AC: And what do you say to those who accuse you of hyperbole?
JH: If it's hyperbole to stand up and fight for the middle class and poor folks in this country, then I am hyperbolic and proud of it.
AC: Since we're on the subject of writing, how was Dead Armadillos written? Is it a collection of pieces that had appeared elsewhere, radio addresses--
JH: No, it's all new writing. Some of the topics I have done on the radio, but it's all new writing. I think it's 40, 41 essays that are in there. It's a book you can start in the middle and go either direction. I don't seclude myself to write. I guess I hear writing - because of course I'm on the radio, been in politics, and give speeches - so that the verbal word, and the way it sounds, is the measure of whether it's okay in my view.
AC: So did you ever read out a sample sentence to the soup line just to see what they thought of it?
JH: No, I wouldn't do that. I'm merely listening in my own internal ear as to how does this sound. But... the result is I like the boisterousness of people being around. And I would talk with people about what I was writing about, but I wasn't trying out lines or paragraphs or phrases.... Also I write in longhand, which is a little unusual these days.
AC: Molly Ivins says in her review of Dead Armadillos that you ignore what divides us and concentrate on what unites us, which is that we're getting screwed.
JH: Which I take as a positive.
AC: I think she means it that way. Another criticism I've seen - and this isn't a critique but more of a cavil -
JH: Good word.
AC: Thank you. It's that your facts and figures aren't attributed. You make a lot of provocative statements in the book, and we're asked to take your word on it.
JH: It's not a scholarly work, so I didn't do footnotes, if that's the accusation. But I can guarantee you that every fact and figure has been gone over, not once but many times, and if it was at all a controversial fact or figure it was gone over at great depth by the attorneys of HarperCollins. Particularly the facts and figures of what I said about Rupert Murdoch, the owner of HarperCollins - which seemed to draw an extraordinary amount of energy and time from the chief lawyer at HarperCollins. But it stood, because what I'd written was sound. I've always - in my radio work, my writings, my speeches - I've based my research on the premise that it needs to stand up to, say, a Congressional inquiry.
AC: Just in case.
JH: So if members of Congress are there saying, "You say this. Where do you get it?" I've got files right behind this wall of where I got every speck of information that is in there.
AC: In Dead Armadillos, you write that "politics is the only downward career move one can make from journalism." So now you've moved back up the ladder...
JH: Well, I don't know. I may have taken yet another downward move because it's almost a hybrid of politics and journalism that I'm now in in talk radio.
AC: I've seen a couple of reviews that fault Dead Armadillos for not addressing the subject of race more directly. Why didn't you?
JH: That can be in the next book. Most books that are political strictly avoid the topics that I'm raising about corporatization and class war. That's what my book is about. I do address racism in terms of the class impact of racism - I use the example of PODER over here in East Austin. Pollution is a class issue, and in that case they made a race issue. So I do have the elements in it, but my book is about the economic power of corporations. So you could say "Why don't [you] address the issue of censorship in music?" There are all kinds of issues that are not in the book.
AC: You seem a little exasperated by that question.
JH: Well, I mean, it's just an odd criticism, it seems to me. It's like taking an issue of the Chronicle and saying, "Wait a minute! You didn't talk in here about corporatization!" I could say that about any given issue, and you would say, "That's not what that issue's about. We've got other stories we're working on, and we'll get to that one later on."
AC: I've seen the question of race in your book spelled out most clearly in Rod Davis' review in The Texas Observer. As I recall, his point was that... this is not only a book about corporatization but a call for a populist, progressive response to that corporate dominance, [and] a lot of people [think] the main barrier to a real populist movement is the inability of your average Janes and Joes to identify with each other. That argument would suggest that our differences in race or religion or education have come to have more personal and political resonance than -
JH: That's because the powers that be want that to be the result. They are constantly trying to divide us. They're saying to minorities, "Don't trust environmentalists." They're saying to environmentalists, "Labor's not on your side." They're saying to labor, "Small business is your enemy." So they've got us all looking side to side at each other, rather than looking up at the powers that are running roughshod over us. Also I would say that it's the social issues that are constantly driven onto the front pages because those are divisive issues, rather than economic issues, which, in fact, unite us - across race, across religion, and across political labels.
And that's the unique thing about my book, and I think the unique thing about my politics, that some of the critics don't want to acknowledge: When you put forward a populist vision of what is happening and a populist vision of what we can do together, then these other issues - of race, and whether you're a lesbian, and whether you're for abortion, and whether you want gun control - those begin to subside. And so I talk a good bit [about that] in my book, and maybe they missed these sections....
I talk about the Christian Right, for example. If you really look into who's there, they tend to be totally on our side on the economic issues. And therefore maybe we might want to be reaching out to them, rather than saying, "Oh, we can't have anything to do with those folks because they're Pat Robertson's people." They're not anybody's people. And the same thing on these issues like environmental poisoning that [reach] across the issues of race and give us an opportunity to find that common ground. Some people want to start with how we differ; I want to start with how we come together.
AC: You mention journalists. And in Dead Armadillos, you make some disparaging remarks about the state of journalism, accusing the mass of professional journalists of being more interested in the Dow Jones than in Doug Jones, the standard-bearer for the punchclock set. You accuse them of being biased towards the rich and powerful. Do you care to elaborate on that?
JH: Oh sure. The ownership of the media today [are] the very same corporations that own the economy, own the government, and are impressing a corporate vision on the media. And that includes the byline and on-air "sparklies," particularly at the national level, who now are making fanciful sums of money. There becomes a world outlook on the part of the people who are supposed to be delivering the news to us - "us" being the great American mass - that is very different than the world outlook of the great American mass. [The media treats] global trade policy as a matter too arcane [for the average American to grasp.] But trade policy is not an after-dinner ideological conversation, it's a matter of am I gonna have my job, and are my children gonna be able to have a middle-class job, or not. That's a huge issue that the media trivializes and the politicians overlook at their peril, because it's a moral issue. It's not just about trade policy, or even incomes, it's about economic fairness, social justice, and equal opportunity for all people. And folks out there are feeling stomped on, and are wondering where the politicians are. This is particularly dangerous for the Democrats, because they're supposed to be the party of the working stiff, but have become instead the cheerleader of the global corporate interests who are running over the working stiffs.
AC: As far as the corporate influence on both politics and a lot of cultural aspects of our life - if you talk to a business major for a while, they'll likely say something like, "That's just the way the world works"
JH: Which is why you shouldn't bother talking to those business majors.
AC: "Money is the oil that runs the machine." How do you respond to that?
JH: Politicians say the same thing. Media people say the same thing. But that doesn't have to be the way the machine is run. The machine could be run by the elbow grease, creativity, and energy of ordinary folks. That's what our country represents. So folks who believe that what we have is what is, and therefore why change the system, deserve what it is they're gonna get, which is a rather rude rebellion from the American people. Because again, we're not talking just poor people we're holding down now, we're talking the middle class itself that is being stomped on and not going to take that over the long haul.
AC: It doesn't seem like there's a lot of people out there who would read the cards the same way you do. There's a lot of talk about a prosperous America, but you say we're actually at a very dangerous and precarious time.
JH: Obviously the powers-that-be are not wanting to deliver that message. To the contrary, they're wanting little yellow-face happy stickers, [they want to look at] our economic and political situation today, and try to tell everyone that "we are in good times" in Bill Clinton's phrase. But ordinary Americans know better than that. I talk to them every day on the radio and travel around the country giving speeches, and find that folks do know what is happening to them. What's missing is a sense of what to do about that. Because again, both political parties are part of the problem. And the media is not an answer in terms of the media addressing what ordinary people are facing every day. So people feel alone and kicked out and stomped on, but don't particularly feel they have anywhere to go right now. So I find a sort of seething, a sort of simmering in the countryside that has the potential to bubble over or to become the spark for a terrific new progressive era. And as you know, having read my book, I take a very optimistic view of that. I believe things can change and will change for the better.
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