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What's Left? Political columnist Jim Hightower on Saddam, civil liberties and the American Flag 

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Jim Hightower is the U.S. left’s closest equivalent to the right’s Rush Limbaugh — only much funnier. Both commentators have been able to attract and hold mass audiences (though Limbaugh’s has a lot more mass) by making ideology sound like common sense. Each speaks persuasively to everyday Americans in language they understand. Hightower will be bringing his trademark white Stetson to Burlington September 22 for a fundraiser on behalf of Congressman Bernie Sanders’ re-election campaign. Besides being political soulmates, the two share a gift for effectively marketing their messages.

One may speak with a Texas twang and the other with a Brooklyn bark, but both strike populist chords that resonate with constituencies other leftists seldom reach. When Hightower ran for Texas railroad commissioner in 1980, it was reportedly not unusual to see pickup trucks bearing Ronald Reagan and Jim Hightower bumper stickers. And it’s an anecdotal axiom of Burlington politics that a significant number of Old North Enders voted for Reagan for president in November 1980 and Sanders for mayor in March 1981.

Hightower, a lifelong Democrat, and Sanders, an inveterate Independent, did support different candidates in the 2000 presidential race. Their choices were counterintuitive, however, with Hightower backing third-party idealist Ralph Nader and Sanders siding pragmatically with Democrat Al Gore.

Hightower and Sanders developed their similar understandings of American mainstream politics from both the inside and the outside, though in reverse order. Bernie ran for office several times as a fringe candidate before achieving his big breakthrough to Burlington City Hall. In the 1960s and early ’70s, Hightower worked on Capitol Hill as an aide to a U.S. senator from Texas. He then returned home to serve as editor of the outspoken Texas Observer, and he ran successfully, twice, for the post of state agriculture commissioner. After holding that office from 1983 to 1991, Hightower left the electoral arena and has no intention, he now says, of ever going back.

In recent years, Hightower has established a nationwide presence in print and on the airwaves, where he ridicules the “goobers” and “greedheads” who comprise the American corporate and political establishment. He writes a column for The Nation, publishes his own monthly newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown, composes daily radio commentaries carried by 60 stations, and travels the country giving more than 100 speeches a year.

Many of his appearances these days are part of the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour, a left-wing, country-and-western, rock ’n’ roll roadshow that sometimes includes progressive ice-cream mogul Ben Cohen. In his spare time, Hightower writes books, the latest being If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates.

On the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Seven Days asked Hightower to assess the political developments of the past year.

Seven Days: Soon after the attacks, you warned in one o f your commentaries that the Bush administration was preparing “a massive new program of electronic surveillance of We the People.” Have your worries about a loss of civil liberties been borne out?

    Jim Hightower: Oh, absolutely. There’s been, and continues to be, a major assault on our civil liberties. Examples include the post-September 11 detentions along with Ashcroft’s contentions that the American court system no longer applies in such cases. We also see the unleashing of the CIA to engage again in assassinations, and the FBI returning to its bad old days of sending agents into churches and political organizations.

SD: You generally put a lot of faith in the American people. How come there’s not been more of an uproar about all this? Is it that most Americans simply aren’t aware that their freedoms are in danger?

    JH: Yeah — most Americans probably aren’t aware of what the Bush administration is up to in this regard. It’s being done in the name of just going after Arab immigrants and some other dark-skinned people. But the majority will eventually figure out that if it can happen to a few minorities, it can happen to all of us. I guarantee there will be much more public outrage once it’s widely understood what Bush and company are up to.

SD: What about Bush’s threats to attack Iraq? Would you personally support military action against Saddam Hussein if it were shown that there’s a real danger of him using weapons of mass destruction?

    JH: If there were convincing evidence of a clear danger of Saddam directly attacking us, if our national security were truly at stake, then yes, I’d support that. But the criterion for me is that the threat from Iraq must be shown to be credible and imminent.

SD: But it’s very unlikely “that Saddam has the means to attack the United States directly. A more likely danger might be a chemical or biological attack on Israel. Would you support U.S. military action to prevent that?

    JH: We have alliances we’re pledged to defend, whether it’s Israel or Italy. That’s a tough one, though. We could get involved in something that’s not what it seems. Remember, it was the first President George — Washington — who warned the country to steer clear of entangling alliances. Now we’re learning just how entangling some of those alliances really can be.

SD: Did you support the U.S. war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda? Did you think that was a just response to what happened on September 11?

    JH: I supported the U.S. effort to find Al Qaeda and other terrorists hiding in Afghanistan. But the question I asked then is the question I’m still asking: What happens once the Taliban are gone? We put the Taliban in place to start with, and so now that we’ve removed them, what exactly are we replacing them with?

    I’m also not into blanket endorsements of unlimited war. Fear of terrorism looks like it might become a replacement for the communist bugaboo that drove our foreign policy for decades.

SD: Yes, it seems sometimes like the Cold War is happening all over again. Back then there was the fear of nuclear Armageddon, and now there’s paranoia about suitcase nukes exploding in Times Square.

    JH: Paranoia is very bad for democracy. A paranoid society is one that’s willing to surrender its freedoms in order to ward off some shadowy threat. And remember that when the Cold War started, one of the first things they tried to do was to shut down dissent.

SD: Speaking of dissent, how disgusted are you by the Democrats’ failure to join meaningfully in the debate over attacking Iraq? Some Americans are saying it’d be a huge blunder, but you don’t hear leading Democrats saying that, right?

    JH: It’s pathetic. The Democrats’ disappearance from the debate is dishonorable. They have an obligation in Congress to speak out, but there’s mainly silence. Thank God for the few courageous people in Congress like Bernie Sanders.

SD: Do you think the United States actually will attack Iraq?

    JH: A month ago, it seemed very likely to happen. Dubya was rushing pell-mell to restore his dad’s honor by getting rid of Saddam once and for all. But now the public is increasingly asking some fundamental questions about how smart an invasion really would be. Again, it’s not happening through the Democrats in Congress but through the leadership of some very conservative Republicans — both in Congress and some of the gang that was around Bush, Senior Dick Armey and Brent Scowcroft — who would’ve thought it?

SD: You said in one of your radio spots last year that progressives must not let the American flag and other emblems of patriotism be usurped by the right. To quote your words last October, “I’ve been waving the flag all over the place because it stands for something special, historic, important and uniting. Ours is the flag of the pamphleteers and Sons of Liberty, the abolitionists and suffragists, Populists and Wobblies, Mother Jones and Joe Hill, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. — freedom-fighters all.” You feel the same now?

    JH: The American flag should never be surrendered to the war-mongerers, the xenophobes, the greedheads. If it stands for anything in America, it stands for our most basic values of freedom, justice and democracy. Of course that’s what we should be standing up for — now and always.

SD: Do you have an American flag sticker on your car?

    JH: I do. We made a big mistake during the Vietnam War protests by misunderstanding people’s attachment to emblems of patriotism. We must not let the flag be misused again by the political opportunists and the corporatists. At all our Rolling Thunder events, we make sure the stars and stripes are flying.

SD: What emotions did you feel after the attacks of September 11? Did you have a sense of being personally violated?

    JH: Anybody who’s attacked feels that way. We were all personally violated. I still feel it, but I also feel a strong desire to help create a world in which that kind of thing doesn’t happen. And, yeah, I feel great pride in the American people.

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About The Author

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley

Kevin J. Kelley is a contributing writer for Seven Days, Vermont Business Magazine and the daily Nation of Kenya.


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