Everybody's Talkin'

Across America, a new kind of conversation fills the air

| July/August 2002 Issue

Everywhere I look these days, people are talking. I see them, often with concerned expressions and emphatic hand gestures, clustering in the corner at parties, gathering impromptu on the sidewalk, huddling together in offices and coffeeshops. What’s everybody talking about? I don’t know for certain. But I’ve always used my journalistic credentials as an excuse for eavesdropping, and here’s what I’ve heard. The small stuff of real life—What’s new? How’re the kids? Did you hear the one about . . . ?—still dominates conversation just as it has, with good reason, since the invention of human speech. These are the subjects that connect us, and they’re more important than ever in a fast-paced, constantly changing world where it’s easy to feel forgotten. But woven into talk of last night’s ball game and the coming weekend I now hear more earnest discussion of current affairs than at any time since Ronald Reagan became president and convinced America that everything was fine, so we didn’t need to worry about all that boring political stuff. The truth is, politics is hard to ignore these days. Long-simmering rage from people halfway across the globe brought death and destruction to America’s shores last September. We’re now deeply embroiled in a war whose goals and enemies seem to shift every few months. Evidence that the world’s weather is changing due to decades of pollution seems incontrovertible. And, in an event that I believe triggered many people’s need to talk about serious issues again, we have a president who owes his job more to savvy lawyers, a strategically placed younger brother, and shameless Supreme Court justices than to American voters. While Republicans’ capture of the White House didn’t ignite huge protests, it did spark plenty of talk. And from what I hear on the street, our democracy looks in bad shape. The patriotic upswell after 9/11 reaffirmed most people’s faith in America, but not in the government. Everyone sees officials in Washington and state capitals bowing at the feet of lobbyists on almost every issue, from fuel efficiency standards to subsidies for giant factory farms. At no time in my memory has the wishes of the American public seemed to count for so little. That’s why I am heartened to see people talking again. As Margaret J. Wheatley, a longtime observer of social patterns, points out in this issue’s cover section, (page 54), all significant social change, from a stop sign at a dangerous intersection in your neighborhood to a global movement overturning injustice, begins with a few people striking up a conversation.
One of the most promising talkfests I’ve ever been part of happened this spring when 7,000 folks got together in Austin, Texas, to exchange ideas and hopes. It was the opening act of the Rolling Thunder Downhome Democracy Tour, a lively mixture of county fair, political rally, and music festival that is headed for Tucson, Seattle, Atlanta, and Minneapolis through the summer and fall. (See www.rollingthundertour.org for details.)
Jim Hightower, a Texas agitator who spreads progressive common sense with his newsletter (Hightower Lowdown; http://www.jimhightower.com) and best-selling books, set the tone by announcing, "The corporations think they are the top dogs in America and all the rest of us are fire hydrants. Well, as you can see today, the fire hydrants are rising up!" He went on to compare this event with another conversation that took place 130 years earlier a few miles away around a kitchen table in Lampasas, Texas. Four down-on-their-luck farmers got together to talk about their plight at the hands of rapacious railroads and greedy middlemen. Before the evening was over they had planted seeds that would blossom as the Populist movement. In a few years the movement had 10,000 organizers across the Midwest and South, talking to people about how things needed to change. This was at the height of the Gilded Era, a time much like our own when any challenge to wealthy powerbrokers seemed futile. But the Populists kept talking—to friends, to neighbors, to anyone who didn’t walk away—and before long even industrialists and politicians had to listen. Without the Populist movement, the reforms of the Progressive Era, the labor movement, and the New Deal never would have happened.

The crowd in Austin was treated to an all-star roster of rousing speakers, including U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., Granny D, and Molly Ivins, who told the cheering crowd, "I want to urge all of you, when you’re out there organizing on the issues, to remember to have fun."

Fun was in ample supply all day at the Travis County Exposition Center (more typically the site of rodeos and livestock shows than of democratic uprisings), with bands of every stripe from Norteño to rap, face painting for the kids, a farmers’ market, a pirate radio station powered by an exercise bicycle, free grilled cheese sandwiches at the Organic Valley booth, fajitas from the East Austin Lions Club, and organizers in armadillo costumes roaming the crowd with Palm Pilots taking everyone’s address. "We want to stay in touch," Hightower explained. "We don’t want this to end today." Organizers set aside a pavilion for dozens of enthusiastic group discussions on topics ranging from the politics of water to the Chiapas revolt. Local political and social organizations drew interested crowds to their tables, and people still had energy left for more talk about ideas and action at the Utne Reader booth near the exit.
Ice cream impresario Ben Cohen chose the event to promote his True Majority campaign, which included a radical carnival sideshow (winners of the softball throw, for instance, knocked over a nuclear missile and saw a schoolhouse pop up). The campaign aims to reach beyond activist circles to speak with everyday people about trimming military spending so that we can improve education, promote children’s welfare, and fight global poverty. (For information, see www.TrueMajority.com.) "The true majority of Americans do not want to be identified as progressives," he told the crowd. "They don’t want to come to our meetings. They’re exhausted and overwhelmed. Yet they feel the same as we do about the issues."
Author and filmmaker Michael Moore echoed the same theme. "Opinion polls show the American public is very progressive on most of the key issues," he said. "The media, which is owned by rich guys, has done a fabulous job of convincing us that Americans are conservative. We have to start understanding that we are in the majority. We just need to get people out to vote" And the best way to do that, he counseled, is to start talking, to everybody, about what is really going on in our lives and in the world. And that, I am happy to report, is what already seems to be happening.