"The book just jumped into the Top 10, and I like to think it's because of the picture of me in my red underwear," said Jim Hightower. The Austin populist firebrand (and Chronicle columnist) was referring to Thieves in High Places, his book, released last month, that is now at No. 9 on The New York Times bestseller list, No. 6 on the independent booksellers "Booksense List," and No. 3 on the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list. Hightower indeed appears on the book cover in front of the Texas Capitol in a red union suit and a cowboy hat -- although his fashionable ensemble is mostly obscured by a sandwich board that reads, "They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Take It Back."
"The guy that shot the cover also does the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue," Hightower reports. "We spent hours down at the Capitol doing that thing, and at one point a lobbyist came by and said, 'Hightower, I'm not even gonna ask.'" The point of the underwear joke is explained in the book's introduction: "We still have our underwear in America, but we've been stripped of a garment far more delicate and precious: our democracy."
Thieves in High Places is firmly in the Hightower "agitating" tradition -- the book's motto is "Don't agonize, organize" -- as he recounts the cumulative outrages of the Bush administration (and its predecessors) and offers various counterexamples of grassroots organizing and movement-building to return the U.S. to its basic democratic principles. Section I, "Lost America," is a catalog of "BushCo" depredations, at times literally: "Rejected Kyoto global warming treaty Delayed implementation of mining regulations intended to protect watersheds Withdrew arsenic-in-drinking-water standard Sought to roll back 'Roadless National Forests' plan Retreated from campaign promise to reduce carbon pollution Tried to shrink boundaries of 19 national monuments and to allow oil and gas drilling on all public lands ..." The list of Bush's regressive environmental policy actions goes on and on, for nearly six pages -- and it is only one aspect of the reactionary policies Hightower attributes to the Bush regime.
"There is a bigger theft taking place than usual here," Hightower says. "This is not just yet another administration in service to big business, but an effort to change America. ... People have a sense that something fundamental is changing now, and the shift is from our egalitarian America and democracy, to their America of plutocracy, autocracy, and empire -- which is uniquely un-American [and] undermining the very notion of the common good. For 200 years we've been striving for egalitarianism -- the abolitionists, the suffragists, the populists, the labor movement, civil rights, etc. -- and we certainly haven't got there yet. But these thieves have decided they no longer even have to pursue that goal -- instead, that they can separate the good fortunes of the few from the well-being of the many. ... They're stomping on the workaday majority of people."
Thieves goes on to recount the grassroots organizing efforts going on around the U.S. to "take our country back," including everything from defense of small-town libraries from the budget-slashing of elected officials to hometown fights against Wal-Mart's ("The Beast of Bentonville") determination to put a big-box discount store at every major U.S. intersection. Hightower is familiar with all the neighborhood reasons that motivate communities to oppose Wal-Mart's destruction of local economies, but he also emphasizes another reason: the corporation's institutionalized abuse of its employees. "Who pays for those low prices?" The average Wal-Mart employee, Hightower points out, makes only $15,000 a year, few can afford the company's health care "benefits," and most are even worse off: "While the company brags that 70% of its workers are full-time, it defines 'full-time' as 28 hours a week, meaning that these employees gross under $11,000 a year." Ever the optimist, citing www.sprawl-busters.com, Hightower lists 164 communities that have fought off big-box retailers "at least once."
Hightower dismisses those who say most Americans are too apathetic or alienated to get involved in community activism, pointing out that the reason so few citizens vote is that both the Republican and Democratic parties are appealing only to the one-third of the voters who still support them. "Sixty-seven percent of the people are politically homeless," Hightower says, although he says he is encouraged by the latest crop of Democratic presidential candidates (excepting, with a groan, Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman). "The candidates are feeling the heat from the countryside, that people are looking for somebody that resembles an actual Democrat." The level of early campaign activism is encouraging enough to make Hightower declare, "Bush is a one-term president. He got every vote he's going to get in 2000, and his support has softened with his own party and in the military. ... People say, 'He's got so much [campaign] money.' Well, King George III had a lot of money, too."
At 4pm, he'll take part in a showing of Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town, a fundraiser for "Save Our Springs -- Stop Wal-Mart" at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown.
At 7pm, he'll be signing books at BookPeople.
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