Hightower on Fire; Sex at AAN; LA Weekly Does Drugs Right

What's a Chautauqua? Jim Hightower concoctes a barnstorming plan to ignite political passions across the country

Though no formal annoucements have been made, populist pitchman Jim Hightower has a new project -- the "Rolling Thunder Democracy Review," a series of political and cultural gatherings that will roam across the land over the next 18 months. Informally dubbed "chautauquas," these full-day or weekend events will be produced in partnership with local activists and organizations, and will include music, speeches, workshops and trainings.

For those of you who, like the Masher, are a little lacking in aspects of American history, chautauquas (pronounced cha-tak-wahs) were the centerpiece of an adult education movement that thrived in the U.S. in the late 1800s. Populist orators and educators teamed up with entertainers and performers to travel around the countryside, putting on revival-like festivals for the poor and middle class. At its height, the chautauqua movement boasted a hundred education centers and many different traveling troupes, who stimulated millions of Americans with a mix of political consciousness and entertainment. No question, we could use such a movement in 2001.

Hightower is a good candidate to help unleash some of the pent up anger across the country. His emphasis on key values of economic fairness, social justice, corporate accountability and environmental stewardship will help link the many issues percolating across America's heartland into coherant themes around which large numbers of people can rally. The fact that Hightower is from Texas, and can provide counterpoint to the Texas oil and energy cartel running the White House, is another asset.

Hightower has already lined up impressive organizational backing, and has drawn savvy operatives to his quest. Support is coming from diverse sources, including the Ben and Jerry's Foundation, the SEIU, the Tides Foundation, Working Assets Long Distance and ACORN. Well seasoned and talented organizers -- like Mike Dolan of Seattle WTO protest fame, internet guru Dan Carrol, the Ruckus Society's John Sellers, Van Jones of the SF-based Ella Baker Center, Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange, Jay Harris of Mother Jones and many others -- have already huddled with Hightower and are helping him shape the vision.

So beginning this fall, look for a chautauqua coming to a region near you. Meanwhile, Hightower's book, "If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates," newly revised with lots of Bush bashing, is doing well in stores. Read an excerpt at http://alternettest.wpengine.com/story.html?StoryID=97. Jim also has another book on tap for 2002.

Nooky Chasing and Oliver Stone Pyrotechnics: The Alternative Weeklies Gather in New Orleans

Sweaty, ribald New Orleans was the scene of this year's annual AAN convention, where, according to one woman reporter, journalism wasn't a very high priority in the face of "trying to get some." Echoing the faded journalism theme was Oliver Stone, who delivered the convention's keynote speech. Severely chastising the weeklies for doing little to protect the first Amendment, Stone said that the biggest threat to free expression "is not Ashcroft, Lieberman, and the religious right, it's the cynicism of the media -- and the alternative papers must take stock of their failure."

AAN conventions have long lost any editorial or political edge, dominated as they are by business concerns (especially as ad revenues are down and classifieds have been hammered by internet competition). Nevertheless, there are usually a few points of controversy on the agenda. This year the task fell to Stone, who tried to provoke some self-reflection.

In a meandering, sometimes passionate talk, the jet-lagged producer/writer/director told tales of his time in New Orleans working with his hero, former local prosecutor Jim Garrison, on the film JFK. But Stone's main narrative was about the five year nightmare of defending his film Natural Born Killers from lawsuits claiming a connection between real acts of violence and the film. Stone survived two suits that both ended with the case being thrown out by summary judgements, but lamented that no small film company could have ever survived the millions of dollars taken to defend him and the movie.

Stone then criticized the press for buying into the notion that creative types were hiding behind the First Amendment to make money. About his own saga, he said that in five years, he saw only two newspaper articles that showed the complexity of the case -- an indication, he said, that instead of taking principled stands, journalists promote a "vague collective guilt that has a profound effect on all who create."

In the end, Stone urged the altie papers to "return to your roots and make a difference." But that clarion call may have fallen on deaf ears, especially in the environment that is the Big Easy. The Bourbon Street area where the convention was held is a non-stop block party, fueled by the muggy heat and the sense of letting go. Booze is in everyone's hand, the food is great and some of the best jazz in the world can be heard here (along with dozens of mediocre, but enthusiastic cover bands). One highlight was a night spent at a tiny jazz club called the "Funky Butt" (motto: "It's Tight, It's Cute, It's Well Hidden"), where one of the Marsalis brothers and his top-notch cohorts blew the audience away until three in the morning.

Maybe the combination of heat and reputation translated to sweaty, sloppy desires. According to Rebekeh Gleaves, an investigative reporter for the Memphis Flyer, the real theme of the conference began to unfold at the onset.

"Forget awards, forget informative sessions, forget Oliver Stone's rambling sermon -- I learned that the point of this conference was grubbing down with as many people as possible," Gleaves wrote. "On Wednesday, one of our southwestern colleagues (let's just call him Cowboy) taught me that in his mind and the minds of many, a conference site is actually governed by a different set of rules than the rest of the world. Kind of like diplomatic immunity, or an enclave country. Within an hour of our meeting, Cowboy had plainly asked me to make out with him. Thinking, 'Whatever happened to dinner?' I told him that I have a boyfriend -- and I do -- believing that this was all the answer I needed. Without missing a beat, he said, 'Well, I have a wife,' in a tone that suggested that I should comply because he had more to lose."

"After four days of unsolicited gropings and sniffings in elevators and crowds," she continues, "I couldn't help but wonder if all this reporting we've been doing on the sex scandals of others might have made some of us just a wee bit randy..." (A full account of Rebekeh's experiences can be read at http://alternettest.wpengine.com/story.html?StoryID=11235 )

Not exactly news, but the Masher appreciates Rebekeh's candor and desire for transparency. Maybe things will be different next year, when the AAN convention moves to Madison, Wisconsin, where the act of wearing a block of cheese on one's head may replace the 32 oz. frozen daquiri in one's hand.

LA Weekly Raises Journalistic Bar on Drug War

Often profoundly stupid social policy provokes great journalism. A great example is the July 6-12 issue of the LA Weekly, which offered a comprehensive and highly intelligent menu of great writing and insight on the drug war. The Weekly tackled everything from zero tolerance laws to drug testing, "raves on the run," and the Federal attack on the drug MDMA, known for its powerful influence on communication and understanding. Try to get your hands on the issue or go to http://www.laweekly.com/archives/contents.php3?issue=0133.

The Masher congratulates Judith Lewis and Charles Rappleye, the issue's editors, and new executive editor Laurie Ochoa, for doing such a great job. If we're lucky, the Village Voice Company will turn these gems into a book, or create a special Web site for the public to easily access all the articles.
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