Jim Hightower

Pen 'Em Up, Shut 'Em Up


When George W. was governor, we Texans learned first hand of a deep, anti-democratic flaw in his make-up: He abhors dissent. As governor, as presidential candidate, and now as president, his unconscionable (and, I think, unconstitutional) disrespect of our fundamental right to question authority and confront power has surfaced again and again in an alarming “Bush Doctrine of Contained Dissent.†This amounts to an imperious decision that any and all protestors must literally be corralled—kept in protest pens well beyond the sight and sound of his eminence and of the media. In Texas, his security police suddenly swept down on a group of peaceful picketers who were on the public sidewalk in front of the Governor’s mansion—a sidewalk that historically has been the site of protest. George was launching his presidential run, and didn’t want environmental dissenters getting between him and the TV cameras. He had the state police move them to a designated protest zone in a faraway parking lot. At the Republican presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia in 2000, candidate Bush created a fenced-in, out-of-sight protest zone that would only hold a few hundred people at a time. And as president, his autocratic games continue. For example, last year at the Columbia, South Carolina airport, a protester with a “No War for Oil†sign stood in an area where Bush supporters stood. The protester was ordered to move a half-mile away. He refused, so Bush’s police arrested him. This is not America, the Land of the Free, but a new land of Bush autocracy. Four groups have now sued the Secret Service for systematically shutting out the people’s protest. To learn more, call the American Civil Liberties Union in Philadelphia at: 215-923-4357.

Our Loopy Attorney General

And what is it with John Ashcroft? There don’t seem to be any of our liberties that this messianic autocrat will not gleefully assault. Like a demented street preacher whacking his Bible and shouting damnations at libertines, Ashcroft seems to hate America’s liberties. This is the guy who crudely threw a blue burka over the Justice Department’s “Spirit of Justice†art deco statue shortly after he took office. This is the guy who rammed through the decidedly unpatriotic “USA Patriot Act†just days after September 11, erasing essential elements of our First and Fourth Amendments. This is the guy who decreed that the FBI can resume spying on our churches and political groups. This is the guy who has instructed agency heads to deny access to information previously available under right-to-know laws. This is the guy who has ordered prosecutors to seek executions in every case where the death penalty is available, even when local authorities don’t think it’s warranted. Now he’s commanding prosecutors to bring the most severe charges possible against everyone accused of a crime and to stop using plea bargains as a tool to achieve justice. Ashcroft’s order removes discretion from local prosecutors, further centralizes power in Washington, and imposes an inflexible system that inevitably will be unjust—while also requiring a massive, multi-billion dollar bureaucracy to handle the tsunami of resulting trials. Practicality, decentralization of power, and justice itself are trifling nuisances to Ashcroft. He’s out to impose his own hellish autocracy over our democracy. It’s time to start saying the obvious: Ashcroft is dangerously nuts. He’s got to go.

Camp Wellstone

The rabid partisans of the Republican far right truly loathed Senator Paul Wellstone, the spirited and popular Minnesota progressive who died in a plane crash last year. In a testament to their partisan loathing, Minnesota right wingers have put out an ugly post-mortem bumper sticker : “He’s dead, get over it.†But Paul—or at least his spirit—just won’t die. Indeed, Paul and his wife Sheila, who also died in the crash, are now the rallying point of an important and exciting organizing effort to carry their spirit and policies into a long-term campaign to build a progressive future for our country. It’s called Wellstone Action, and it literally is taking action to bring power back to the grassroots. Among modern political figures, Wellstone was unique. Instead of throwing all of his campaign funds at pollsters, consultants, and TV ads, he put a big percentage into grassroots organizing. He and his staffers ran a series of weekend political boot camps called “Camp Wellstone,†where they trained thousands of volunteers, campaign managers, and future candidates. By strengthening the civic skills of on-the-ground people, he strengthened his own populist base, enhanced democracy, and extended the framework for an on-going progressive movement. Now, the good people who worked with Paul and Sheila are continuing their efforts by taking the concept national. Wellstone Action is holding intensive training camps this year in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, with about 20 Camp Wellstones planned cross-country next year. If they build it, people will come; folks are thirsting for community and a politics that matters. This is one political effort that genuinely puts people first. As the Wellstones preached tirelessly, democracy is not something to be awaited. It’s something to be achieved.

Jim Hightower is the best-selling author of Thieves In High Places: They’ve Stolen Our Country And It’s Time To Take It Back, on sale now from Viking Press.