Voice in the wilderness

Nevada voted for Barack Obama last year, but don’t be misled: This remains a conservative state. Democrats hold a voter registration edge, but a large majority of the party’s members would barely qualify as centrists in other states.

In this political climate it’s not easy to be a liberal. It can be tough in Las Vegas, but it’s even more trying in Northern Nevada. Yet there is one brave soul up there who has brazenly swum against the current for almost three decades — University of Nevada, Reno journalism professor Jake Highton.

And Highton is not your run-of-the-mill, kinder-gentler liberal. He’s an old-school, unreconstructed leftist.

He’s also the best professor I had in college. This wasn’t because of his political views, but because of his knowledge of and passion for journalism. Highton’s high standards and enthusiasm for this business have inspired hundreds of young people to become good, aggressive and ethical journalists.

This is Highton’s greatest legacy, but there is another important aspect to his tenure in Nevada. For more than 20 years, Highton has written a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune, raging against injustice, excoriating reactionary forces and celebrating rare progressive triumphs.

Highton is Nevada’s H.L. Mencken, a no-holds-barred critic of the established order, a radical assaulting the barricades.

Unfortunately, Highton also has been a voice in the wilderness, a fact that he is well aware of.

“My constant lament is that my column has absolutely no impact,” he says. “Only a handful of people read it. I used to put my e-mail address at the end but got no replies, so I have long since ceased to waste words. My annoyance is that it’s a good column (in my immodest opinion). No, not brilliantly written. No undying prose. But I take positions week after week that no one does in Nevada and precious few in the Establishment press across the nation. The column is socialistic, atheistic and leftist. It is constantly criticizing U.S. domestic and foreign policy. In short, anyone intensely interested in public affairs, as I am, ought to read the column.”

Part of the problem is that his column appears in a small-circulation newspaper. Highton surely would generate more reaction — pro, con, otherwise — if the column appeared regularly in, say, the Reno Gazette-Journal or the Review-Journal. Still, he is proud of his affiliation with the Tribune.

“The Sparks Tribune may be the freest newspaper in America,” he writes. “It prints my radical views that no other newspaper would.”

Yet Highton’s writing deserves a larger audience. His columns are well-researched, thoughtful and provocative. He presents a legitimate point of view that you will find nowhere else in the state’s mainstream media. As he puts it, he writes for the “civilized minority.”

Over the years, Highton has published his columns in book form. There are now 14 volumes, with feisty titles such as “The Spirit That Says No,” “Against the Mainstream” and “Disdaining Lies.” His latest collection, “In League with the Future,” is loaded with fierce polemics. Consider:

On George W. Bush: “He disgraced the presidency. He left America at its all-time low in world prestige and all-time high in domestic abhorrence. … History, far from absolving Bush, will judge him as an ignoramus, an unlettered, uncultured dolt.”

On Obama’s appointment of conservatives to key posts: “Enough of pragmatic politics. The nation needs boldness, not pragmatism, not business as usual, not the same-old, same-old. Obama needs backbone to stifle the absurd reactionary bleats of ‘lurching to the left.’ “

On government bailouts: “America has long had socialism for corporations and social Darwinism for everyone else. It privatizes the profits and nationalizes the losses. The latest example: trillion-dollar bailouts for failing financial giants, behemoth banks, gigantic insurance firms and backward-looking automakers.”

On Congress: “Congress really has just one party, a party oozing love for Big Business. It lets corporations set up tax havens offshore, avoiding $50 billion in taxes yearly. Subsidies. Outsourcing. Sweatshops. Plants abroad with scandalously low pay and inhuman hours.”

“In League with the Future” also reveals Highton to be well-read and cultured. He quotes classic literature, savors the fine arts and travels widely. Visiting his beloved Paris, he devotes a column to masterpieces on display in the Louvre and other museums. “Very little in life is perfect,” he writes, “but the Paris art banquet comes close.”

At age 78, Highton has slowed down a bit, but not in his desire to teach the fundamentals of good journalism. He also voraciously absorbs the day’s news, filters it through the prism of history and crafts opinions worthy of publication. Thanks to modern technology, those opinions are readily accessible by readers living beyond the borders of Sparks. If you’re interested in reading Highton’s column, go to www.dailysparkstribune.com.

But if you want his latest book, you can’t find it in local stores or order it on the Internet. Send me an e-mail and I’ll let you know how to get one and join the “civilized minority.”

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is the Review-Journal’s director of community publications. His column appears Friday.

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