Grassroots Gumption: Jim Hightower at MHC

Posted: March 13, 2008

A self-described "scruffy Texas populist," Jim Hightower has made a career out of challenging America to live up to its ideals. Armed with a keen sense of the uproarious and hawking his latest book, Swim against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow, Hightower came to campus March 12 as part of the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts spring lecture series, Bearing Witness, to share some of the tales he collects of "ordinary people doing extraordinary things" in the service of "economic fairness, social justice, and equal opportunity for all."

There was as much laughter as there was egalitarian fervor in Gamble Auditorium during a talk titled "Grassroots Gumption," laced with witticisms and wry observations on how this country has gone off the rails. Among Hightower's favorite topics of consternation are corporate culture and the greed of titans and tycoons. "Some of these guys get so rich they can afford to air-condition hell," Hightower said, warming up to the coup de grâce, "and I tell you what, they better be setting some money aside."

Hightower is nothing if not optimistic. "I find in my travels that people are searching and yearning for real change, not just change as a political buzz word," he said, explaining that the "mavericks and mutts who dare to be disobedient" are getting the job done in their own (often small) ways in every community. There is a pharmacist in Texas who found a way of doing business that helps his uninsured customers get the medicines they need, strippers in San Francisco who unionized and bought the club that once hired them, and activists in Oregon who took it upon themselves to flip the legislature to Democratic hands by buying a bus and using it to target swing districts during the last two election cycles.

Appearing as a collaboration between the Odyssey Bookshop and the Weissman Center, Hightower spoke out in favor of dreaming. "Martin Luther King Jr. didn't say, 'I have a position paper,' " said Hightower before turning serious. "Dreams are important because they frame what is possible. Don't let them shrink your dreams. Have a big dream and find a way to implement it."

Weissman Center director Lois Brown described Hightower as "a happy warrior who takes joy in activism." A former two-term Texas agriculture commissioner, Hightower has written seven books, does a daily radio commentary heard on more than 150 stations, and publishes a newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown, with more than 135,000 subscribers.

Among those seeking a signed copy of Hightower's book after the talk was Ron Patenaude, president of UAW Local 2322 with offices in Holyoke. Instead of inscribing the book to him, Patenaude asked Hightower to inscribe it to Governor Deval Patrick, whom he considers a friend who has "strayed a bit" from the principles upon which he was elected. Patenaude sports four tattoos with union themes, the first of which he got when a former employer tried to prevent workers from wearing union T-shirts.

Hightower gladly wrote a message to the Massachusetts governor in a copy of his book Patenaude plans to present to His Excellency next time they cross paths.

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