Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Democracy is breaking out...

I don't know, I hear all this stuff from Walker supporters about how the recall effort is somehow undemocratic because it is an effort to negate the will of voters in the last election. Yes, yes, elections matter; they matter hugely! They are at the heart of democratic governance, for sure.

But what do you do when the outcome is a state government that is less than democratic, not respectful of the will of a majority of its people, is running government itself in a way that stifles democracy, or worse, as in the voter I.D. laws, tries to suppress it? Do you wait until the next election, when even more harm has been done?

For an idea about the potential for more harm, I recommend looking at what the Repubs are doing with regard to redistricting. They have already used their unilateral power to redraw district lines to favor their party, and to remove political competition (i.e., democracy) from those districts. But now they want to change the rules they themselves wrote by moving up the changes for the recall elections. If they do this, they would also have to redefine the meaning of recalls altogether. After all, the point is that voters have the power to recall the people they elected when they feel need to do so - as hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin voters apparently feel need to do.

The Journal Sentinel made that point in an editorial this morning. For me, it does not exactly go unnoticed that the rightists of the Repub Party, once holding the reins of power, are not thrilled about putting themselves up before the democratic process. What Wisconsin Repubs, Walker, the Fitzgerald brothers, Vos, Darling, and so many others have been passing in the legislature and signing into law are patently unpopular policies - from education cuts to concealed carry. They have been defying their own constituencies in this state and harming the most vulnerable of our people with their cuts, and threatened cuts, to public health programs, public schools, senior care, voter and worker rights, and more.

Why would they be anxious to put themselves before the voters who are right now signing recall petitions all over the state? Surely they are lacking confidence that they can stave off political disaster. Surely they are feeling threatened for a reason.

Now we hear that the petition folks are saying they have already gathered more than 300,000 signatures! Is Walker losing any sleep at night? His approval rating now stands at 47%, which is an improvement over the past few months - it had plummeted below 40% earlier this year. He also has a narrow lead over any potential challenger, except for Russ Feingold, but that fantasy contest has also narrowed. The October report from Public Policy Polling also indicates the possibility of a 'recall backlash,' many independents who may not like Walker but don't like the recall either.

Of course, the recall initiative was always a high-risk venture. A successful recall would send a powerful message to state Repubs about their aggressive drive to turn the political culture of Wisconsin in a radically new direction, something not at all indicated by the 2010 election results. Many people who are signing the petition are fearful of our future, for good reason.

On the other hand, given how divided the state remains, and how close Walker's approval/disapproval ratings are - within a couple or few percentage points - the political hurdles that must be overcome to achieve a new state government are daunting, to say the least.

However, what is inspiring about the campaign is the exercise itself. Democracy has been breaking out in this state ever since this government took office at the beginning of the year. Complacency and inertia are on the wane, a very good sign for our future. What we are seeing is a resurgence of interest in government and the democratic process because we are also experiencing in our daily lives how government actually impacts us, our families and our communities, even how we feel about one another, how we talk to one another. This government came in with a whole lot of nasty rhetoric and bears great responsibility for the ugliness of our recent political discourse. Of this, they ought to be ashamed. Government by bullying and demonizing has never brought about admirable results!

By contrast, the energy of the recallers has been heartening, positive, and even full of good cheer. These are citizens taking responsibility for their government; they are being citizens in the best sense.

We saw this in the streets of Madison last winter and spring, again week before last, and we are seeing it now again on street corners and sidewalks, in parking lots on Black Friday - citizens who are engaged not a little, but a lot - and with enthusiasm.

Whatever the result, I hope this year's breakout of grassroots democracy will create the ground for a long haul struggle to reclaim government from the narrow interests of the corporate right and put it back where it belongs. And let us remember always that democracy depends less on elections themselves (remember, elections take place even in many dictatorships) than on what happens between them. Elections are not democratic if the system in which they take place is not democratic. Exercising rights of speech, press, assembly, etc., are the most essential ingredients of any democracy, the ones that make elections meaningful.

And it's that part in between that is being corrupted by the power of corporate money, special interests, secret private donors, and manipulative campaign ads paid for by the same. And that's what I mean when I say that I hope this breakout of democracy can become a true outbreak.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thank you, Wisconsin friends

I'm taking a break from blogging until Monday. But I wanted to offer some words of gratitude here for this Thanksgiving week.

First, I want to thank all you folks out there gathering signatures on recall petitions as the weather gets colder and nastier. I want to thank especially those people standing with their clipboards amidst the crowds at Lambeau Field on Sunday. I have no doubt you received a load of grief from many fans, evidenced by the fear on the face of one young man as I approached him, and his relief when I cheered him on.

I want to thank the tens of thousands of people who showed up in Madison many times this year, including this past Saturday, for your good spirit as you reclaim space for the voices of those silenced in this repressive, divisive atmosphere created by the politics of exclusion of the current state government.

I want to thank those dedicated workers who are on the front lines dealing with the impacts on real human beings of the cuts in health care programs, education, and other essential services. I want to thank dedicated public sector workers who hang in there despite the demonization of them that is all the rage these days from the political right, including those who have been picking up our leaves and who will be plowing our snow this winter. What would we do without you?

And a special shout-out of thanks to public school teachers who these days seem to be on so many Repub dart boards. I don't get it, and this, too, shall pass. What you do is so important.

I want to thank the Occupiers who have sent a burst of energy into our movements for social justice, fairness, and decency, and for helping to make the concentration of wealth part of our national conversation - finally!!

I want to once again thank the Wisconsin 14 for their witness, for taking the drastic step that helped bring the true intentions of the Walker/Fitzgerald brothers into the light of day. You also helped reinvigorate popular democracy showing that sometimes elected officials will actually respond to, even take risks on behalf of, the people they represent.

This is a beautiful state full of good, good people. Yet, even as I give thanks here, I am aware that right in my own city there are thousands of people who are suffering from deep poverty, discrimination, and a special kind of urban hopelessness. As we give thanks, let's also remember that we have to do better than this.

While we worry about worker rights, let's also worry about poverty. While we worry about protecting wages and benefits in the public sector, let's also remember those with no wages or benefits. While we loudly defend our democratic rights, let's remember those whose voices are barely heard amidst all the noise, who are most likely to be shoved farther to the margins by the current regime.

Let's remember that our struggle is not a just one if we are only defending our own interests and the interests of our particular sector, union, or interest group. Our struggle is only just if it has at its foundation a concern for the well-being of all, for the common good and the good of the commons.

Have a great Thanksgiving weekend!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Worried about civility

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is worried about civility in this state as our political discourse sharpens. I understand. We worry about that, too. We also would like to invite all those engaged in Wisconsin's popular democracy efforts right now to act like adults, to be the political culture we would like to be.

But let's also be clear about what is creating this acrimony. When parties representing one set of narrow interests uses cudgels of power to beat down the rights of others, those latter folks get upset. That upset ought not be equated with the atmosphere created by those with the cudgel.

And those with the cudgels need to take responsibility for the hatred, racism, and resentment that often gets unleashed in the spaces created by their politics of arrogant exclusion. When your policies increase the suffering of the suffering, when they squeeze more from those who have less and less to be squeezed, when they take rights that empower workers, students, poor people, and elderly to participate in democracy away from them, or make it harder to exercise them, they create fear, frustration, and growing feelings of powerlessness.

The Walker recall campaign did not create this acrimony, but acrimony from the right and the cudgel being used by the Walker/Fitzgerald regime helped mightily to create the recall campaign. People didn't take to the streets and shopping malls and Lambeau Field and their own front yards to gather signatures because they don't like Scott Walker or just for fun or because they are Democrats or because they don't like Repubs and on and on. And despite what the governor says, they aren't doing this because 'big unions made me do it!' They are doing it because of concrete tangible grievances having to do with the politics of deception of the Walker 2010 campaign, because of anti-democratic policies that have passed the state house and been signed by the gov. They are doing it because of the threats they feel to their livelihoods and well-being. They are doing it because it has become abundantly transparent that this current government exists to promote the narrow interests of its corporate and other rightist backers, not the interests of the public it is meant to serve.

Just want to make note of yesterday's front page article on the Bradley Foundation. The writers note that while we have focused so much attention on the Koch brothers, this Foundation has helped put Walker in the governor's mansion and been architect of many of his policies.

I didn't vote the Bradley Foundation into office, nor the Koch brothers and their offspring, Americans for Prosperity.

Yup, it's true; elections have results, as Walker's supporters love to tell us. Democracy is built upon them, but not on them alone. Some of the most important aspects of democratic participation are what happens between elections. The recall 'tool' (Walker loves to use that term, so we will, too) exists for a reason - to provide a mechanism through which the people can reverse an election when the outcome is undemocratic, a threat to democratic rights (like worker rights), or when it is discovered that a government is at the service of interests that are at odds with the common good.

I won't hold my breath, but maybe we could allow this recall process to unfold the way we do an election. They are both written into democracy here in Wisconsin. Sadly, elections themselves have become subject to the culture of nastiness that has emerged in our difficult times.

So what I do ask here is that all of us who care about these things raise ourselves to a different level. Even when that guy roared passed me with his car the other day when I signed the petition, I found myself wondering what his story is, his particular fear and anxiety. What is it that makes him feel such threat, as if his world is somehow rocked by my signing the recall petition.

Maybe if we could realize that most rage, resentment, and fear is based in pain and suffering, we could approach even the angry and resentful with the necessary compassion required to tamp down the fiery, volatile tones of this political era.

It's not as if life is going to get easier - not for a long while. But it can become kinder if we can figure out how to get to the point of realizing we are all in this together. We can go up in flames together, or we can figure out how to get through the hard times with a better world than this one, so full of injustice, violence, anger, and ecological unraveling. We can figure out how to re-knit the human community into one that has compassion at its heart and the well-being of all of us and the generations to come after us at the top of its priority list.

Friday, November 18, 2011

This is what I mean - it's nasty out there!

Example of what I wrote about yesterday:

Woman won't be charged in Walker posting 

Most striking to me is less what the headline is about, though the guy who posted this comment suggesting Gov Walker be killed rather than recalled is chilling at the least. We sure don't need this kind of thing going out over social networks. But the part that puts the chill down my spine (and the incidents that I described yesterday in a scarier context) is this:
"...blogger Heather DuBois Bourenane drew attention in September when NBC News anchor Brian Williams read to Walker a sharply critical letter from the Sun Prairie teacher at the network's Education Nation conference.

"DuBois Bourenane said the threat came in a 4 a.m. phone call Thursday from a man who wouldn't identify himself. She said the man told her in a deliberate but threatening tone that her life and the lives of her family were in danger because 'you've attracted the attention of some very bad people.'"

I want authorities all across the country to get serious about this.Whoever left that message on DuBois Bourenane's phone does not believe in democracy and is willing to put a chill on freedom of speech with the threat of personal violence to her family. Keep in mind that this political climate that often feels like a pressure cooker ready to blow comes at a time when this state has liberalized its gun laws and all kinds of people are and will be walking around with concealed weapons, angry, frustrated.

What made that guy turn his car around to confront my neighbor and I because I was signing the petition to recall our governor, a right written into our state's constitution? If he doesn't believe I have this right, then he doesn't believe in Wisconsin's version of democracy. And that's what worries me about a certain hidden rage coming to the surface these days.

Yesterday evening, Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn was dripping with disdain and condescension on the North Ave. I-43 bridge when he said of the Milwaukee occupiers that had shut it down: "They can sit and freeze their butts off, I don't care," saying he would not fulfill their "martyrdom fantasies" by arresting anybody. Then, as if he was claiming right to speak for the neighborhood where the traffic disruption was taking place, he pronounced: "If they're angry about the economy, go to Wall Street. There's 35% unemployment in this neighborhood. Who are they disrupting?" (see Occupy demonstration closes North Ave. bridge).

Mr. Flynn, do you not get the point you just made indirectly!? What are they disrupting in a neighborhood with 35% unemployment? What is there to disrupt? The disruption is the 35% unemployment! The disruption is the poverty caused by the flight of corporate manufacturers out of the city with no sense of responsibility to the communities they took advantage of for labor and resources for several decades, then abandoned without conscience or remorse. The disruption comes from the ensuing neglect on the part of this city - for which all of us are responsible in one way or another - for those abandoned workers and neighborhoods. The disruption comes from Repubs' refusal to support jobs bills, like funds for infrastructure repairs needed all through this city and state and nation. The disruption comes from the deep-seated racism that is often at work in hate-filled expressions like the postcard and phone messages I received earlier this year and that DuBois Bourenane received yesterday morning.

I want my state and city officials to take all of this a bit more seriously. I want them to understand that the protesters are not the problem, but that we have a problem, and that every dismissive, disdainful, nasty comment they make only adds to the problem. You are government officials! Act like it! A little disorder is one of the blessings of democracy. We were founded, after all, on a bit of disruption back in the 1770s. The tone you set matters!

In this political mean season, where tensions are at times filled with threat, we need leaders who will tamp down the nasty rhetoric. People are hurting out here, something that well-paid privileged government officials don't seem to get very well right now. We are a nation reeling with change, inevitable change, really big enormous change, and many are feeling threatened, left out, powerless, and frightened. What are we going to do in the face of that change? How are we going to handle ourselves?

I know this for sure: policies that continue to collapse the well-being of workers and unemployed, that feed divisiveness among us, that dismiss the impact of deeply entrenched poverty and racism on neighborhoods and their people, that forget that democracy must have space for vibrant, sometimes disorderly expression when people feel they are not being heard, and that break down our commitment to the common good, that sense of all of us being in this together - those policies are far more responsible for what is going on in our streets and the unleashing of more and more hate, than anything else in our culture right now.
Politics of exclusion and disdain lead in only one direction - and it's not a good one.

This is only the beginning of a 12-month period of political turmoil. We have got to do better than this!

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Photos: Margaret Swedish

Thursday, November 17, 2011

We are in urgent need of a new political culture

So I shared this story on Facebook yesterday, but here it is in more detail:

I was driving home from a morning gathering around 10:30 or so, and passed an older neighbor here in Bay View who had set up a table outside his house to collect signatures for the Walker/Kleefisch Recalls. It was 37 degrees and windy. A woman was sitting at the table signing. I thought, what a perfect moment for me to stop and sign, greet a neighbor, offer encouragement for his effort.

I parked, crossed the street, we shook hands and had a little chat as I filled in the form. Suddenly, a man turns his car at an angle to the corner and yells out his window, "I don't agree with what you're doing." I shrugged and said, "Okay." But clearly he had come for more response than that, so he said, "Scott Walker is doing a great job!" Now I didn't really want to get into an argument on a quiet Bay View street out there in the cold, so I just said, "We disagree."

Then he made some nasty comment about teachers, which I wish I had heard clearly so that I could quote it here, closed his window and drove off in frustration. What was going on for him? I know this right-wing anger. I grew up with it - fear of all things unfamiliar, things that feel threatening to their world - taxes and union rights, immigrants and African-Americans, people they think want to take their guns away from them...

But teachers? What is it about teachers that has attracted so much irrational wrath? All they do is teach our kids, work long hours through weekdays and weeknights and often weekends with their work load. Oh, and they have been getting paid pretty well and getting some great benefits so that we can attract good people to this profession.

Somehow they are responsible for - well, for what? I can tell you what Koch Industries and their subsidiary Georgia-Pacific are responsible for in the way of phosphorous pollution of our waterways, of funding right wing groups like Americans for Prosperity (a misnomer - it should really be called 'A Few Wealthy Americans for Prosperity for a Few Wealthy Americans') whose money has been used to elect politicians who favor the erosion of broad worker, voter, and environmental rights, corporate tax cuts that have added to our deficit woes and tight budgets, corporations that have steadily and successfully whittled away at union rights bringing about the collapse of wages which further erodes our tax base while adding to demands for public services adding to our deficit woes - and on and on.

But teachers?

Okay, here is how this story ended. When I was done, I crossed the street to get back to my car. This guy had turned his car around and was now headed in my direction. I didn't realize this until I heard a car behind me suddenly picking up speed. It's not that he actually tried to come too close to me in a really scary way, but I got the message. As he passed by, he laid on his horn.

All I could do was wave to him by way of his rear view mirror, and then feel very, very sad.

What has happened to us? When did our politics become so mean, so angry, so full of resentment? And why does this mostly come from the right? I don't mean to paint all conservatives with this broad brush, because many conservatives are as sad as I am about the deterioration of our political culture. But we all know, though it is not politically correct to say this out loud, that this kind of very personal nasty behavior tends to come from one extreme section of the political spectrum.

I wrote a letter to the editor once responding to Sen. Ron Johnson's insistent climate change denial, a postion I find threatening to our human future. The Journal Sentinel published it. I received an anonymous postcard in the mail that reads in part, and in somewhat hysterical handwriting: "Only an idiot would believe in global warming...If you're really worried about our kids and grandkids, vote Barack Hussein out! Get rid of Pelosi, Ried [sic], and the gay blade Barney Frank. Green house gas emissions are the least of USA's problems, but just for you, I'll try not to fart."

Someone else left a vaguely threatening message on my answering machine at home referring to our president with a racial slur I cannot bring myself to write. Really, we have come to this...

A friend showed me a postcard that her spouse received in the mail - also anonymous, always anonymous - referring to him in what these folks consider a true expletive - a 'liberal.'

Liberals and teachers - you just can't get much more evil than that, responsible for all things wrong with this world. What's scary for me is this sense that a lot of these people really believe the world should be rid of us.


At Occupy Milwaukee rally
I share these stories because I feel it so essential that all of us rise to the challenge of this kind of political anti-discourse by a refusal to respond in kind or through confrontation, and by creating a new political culture. If this recall succeeds, things could get very ugly in this state. Our politics has become not only resentful but volatile. There is something that the religious right + corporate right + political far-right have stirred up in this culture since the 1990s that has opened spaces for the emergence of a lot of deep-seated resentments that are visceral responses to the many ways in which our world has changed.

Indeed, we are reeling with change. Population growth, the collapse of the post-World War II industrial dream as the backbone of a middle class, the surge of so many immigrant populations from around the world into our communities, the widening chasm between the wealthy and everyone else -- all this and more has created a whole lot of fear, and that fear is not being addressed at all by our current politics. Indeed, it is being stoked by those few with money and power who stand to gain from the politics of resentment. They can wield it as a weapon against anything that threatens their project to move this country away from a broad inclusive democracy to a nation of, by, and for the wealthy.

So let's actually be the world we so wish we could create - tolerant, respectful, able to absorb the anger and let it pass through rather than resist or respond in kind, peaceful, compassionate, inclusive, and most of all, in solidarity with all those who are feeling themselves on the margins or being pushed in that direction.

We're all in this together. That guy in the car may not realize it, but that is the case.

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All photos: Margaret Swedish

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Need for serious recall

So the campaign to recall Scott Walker is now underway, and there will be others yet to come, making for a wild political year. It's Recall Season in Wisconsin. Some of my friends and colleagues know I have at times expressed a certain skepticism - not because I don't think Walker needs recalling - he played politics of deception to get elected and politics of exclusion once in office, and the trail of money supporting him over the years has yet to be fully explored - but because of concerns about its prospects for success.

If this does not succeed, please, Wisconsin friends, do not become demoralized. This is a hard thing to do when even many Walker opponents are uncertain about using recall as an expression of political disagreement, however profound. He was elected, the wisdom goes, so let him serve his term and oust him in the next election.

But then others say, but just look at all the damage after only one year in office...

So we'll see how this goes. Most news pundits continue to focus their coverage on the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers and the undermining of the union recertification process itself. We do have a fiercely anti-union politics in this country right now, and this really ought to have surprised no one. Follow the path from Reagan to now. The politics of the corporate right has been taking over our national politics from the bottom up and using slick media tools to ramp up this anti-labor sentiment - along with bogus emotional issues like gun rights, abortion rights, and gay marriage, great tools of manipulation that hide the real agenda of the corporate right.

But if this remains the heart of the public debate, I fear this will not only not succeed but erode the politics of the state further. Because what is really needed is a politics of solidarity that centers on the situation of our state's most threatened populations - the poor, the discriminated against, the disabled, the elderly, immigrants, students, and all sorts of 'marginal' populations (only marginal because our culture puts them on the margins - not only Repubs do this). The advocacy work of the unions themselves needs to be about this solidarity, not only about protecting the interests of their members. The more labor joins with others in that solidarity, the more positive impact this campaign might have on Wisconsin's political culture.

Let's remember, please, that most public sector workers actually work on behalf of these very populations. That's why their demands matter. It's a question of putting the interests of those they serve at the top of their publicly expressed concerns. Many people think of these workers as spoiled or over-compensated, rather than providing vital services that meet the needs of the populations that, you know, have those needs.

The problems this state faces are abundant and frightening. Our state is in the hands of people who have little regard for the majority of us, especially workers and poor people, or for the lands, forests, and waters that make up the beauty and wonder that is Wisconsin. Collective bargaining rights may be the least of our worries if we allow mining companies, developers, and corporate polluters like Georgia-Pacific and immense industrial dairy farmers, to run our state politics, to write our laws and then hand them to the Fitzgerald brothers for passage in the statehouse. Think about the clash between environmental groups and unions over the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline extension. Unions want jobs for their members. Ecologists and climate scientists see the pyrrhic nature of this demand, knowing how the oil tar sands pose a threat to the planet whose consequences are beyond imagining - though we are beginning to imagine it.

There won't be any good union jobs in a world facing ecological collapse.

Or, closer to home, think iron ore mine in the Hurley area - unions also see good jobs while the Bad River Band and environmentalists see the imminent ruin of land and forest, and grave threats to a watershed relied on by many for drinking water.

We need a serious recall - a recalling of values and principles, a recalling of a social contract that understood that inequity and injustice is built into the capitalist system and therefore a strong publicly funded social safety net is required to keep those injustices from tipping into social unraveling and chaos.

We need a recall of the interrelationship between humans and their eco-communities, and how if you unravel those communities, if you ruin and toxify them, you threaten the future of the human as well.

I hope this campaign will focus on the corruption of our politics by billionaires like the Koch brothers who use Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and their vast wealth as tools of deception and manipulation of our people. I hope the campaign helps people realize that all this passionate focus on issues like gun rights have been part of that manipulation, great distractions that keep the public focus away from the concentration of wealth and erosion of democracy itself that is what is really at stake here (I get to carry my gun in my belt, who cares if my water is giving me and my children cancer?).

I hope the recall is a recall of what democracy really is and that it will promote a renewal of democratic culture by helping people realize what is really happening here, and how Wisconsin has become a political center for the most anti-democratic tendencies in the country, a testing ground, if you will, for how far these people can go.

I hope it is a recall of the value of dialogue, mutual respect, cooperation and compromise, the supremacy of the right to human well-being within healthy eco-communities over the right to wealth generation and corporate profit-making, the importance of neighborhood and community if we are to return to a social and cultural sanity that is being lost amidst the noise being fomented by these rightists to keep us from caring about one another.

Yes, we need a recall - a really profound one.

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All photos: Margaret Swedish

Monday, November 14, 2011

The death of manufacturing and the death of a neighborhood

Everyone who cares about the city of Milwaukee ought to read this entire article from yesterday's front page:

Where city factories, and now babies, die


There is something so very wrong here, even more than what these journalists penetrate as they describe what the death of manufacturing has to do with the shocking levels of poverty, deaths of babies, and abandonment of whole neighborhoods.

Just one rotting factory at the 30th St. Industrial Corridor.
This story is about the 30th Street Industrial Corridor, a stretch of toxic wasteland that I had the opportunity to briefly tour in September with the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee. There have been other studies and articles written about the link between poverty and the crash of this neighborhood - due in large part to the moving of manufacturing out of the U.S. as corporations chased growing cheap labor pools in other countries.

But for me one of the most shocking things was the abandonment of these workers who once built and assembled the things that we used, that created the base of a broad middle-class. Racism had a lot to do with this, as we all know but hardly ever say out loud (it needs to be said out loud). The tax money of the middle and upper-middle classes poured out of the city as the affluent moved out to suburbs and exurbs. We failed to see the connections between the two, mostly because we didn't want to, and we certainly failed the moral test of the mutual responsibility that comes from living in this world and in a particular community.

For me, one of the shockers was that all these manufacturing companies could just close up and disappear with no sense of responsibility for what they were leaving behind. As our tour guide said, some of them left in the middle of the night - a way to avoid scrutiny and outcry. Left behind were not only abandoned workers and their families, but also a toxic contaminated mess, land so polluted that the city can't even make plans to reclaim this area without having to remove hundreds of thousands of tons of contaminated soil off the top (the guy said 2-3 FEET covers much of the area) and old seeping waste tanks buried underground.

This is among the aspects of capitalism that reveals its voraciousness, selfishness, and greed - that these companies felt and feel no responsibility about leaving in a responsible way - taking their factories apart and cleaning up the mess on their way out. No care for the humans; no care for the land and community.

It's a lot like Walmart and other big box stores. They come; they go; they leave their big box store and paved over land behind for someone else to worry about.

It is not time to rebuild the manufacturing economy of the post- World War II era. It is time to build a new economy altogether, one that puts the well-being of our communities at its heart, one that promotes the health and happiness of the people who live in these neighborhoods, one that does not tear at the fabric of the human community but binds us together.

Friday, November 11, 2011

State Repubs want to throw 65,000 people off Medicaid rolls

The mean season in Wisconsin continues to unfold...

I don't know, friends, when I think about that story the other day about doubling the costs of security for Guv Walker, and when I think about the undemocratic, nearly dictatorial control of the Grover Norquist no-tax-increase crowd - as if this in and by itself is some deep, profound political concept, rather than what it is, a simplistic design to collapse government services in places where they are most needed and for the people who most need them - I wonder more and more how we will like living in a society like the one Walker & Co. are creating - a mean society, a society with escalating numbers of people living in desperation and deprivation, collapsed hopes and dreams.

You certainly know why Walker might feel the kind of paranoia that means more armed protection...

So read this story carefully, if you have not already:

Lawmakers OK changes that could drop 65,000 from Medicaid

You and I know how easy it would be to avoid these cuts made by people who do not have a financial care in the world, who have no fears of losing access to excellent health care, who think it a travesty that anyone thinks they, in their privilege, have any social responsibility in this world in which the wealthy and the corporate giants take more and more of the society's wealth to themselves.

We are in a selfish, mean, season. We are in an unraveling time when it comes to the political culture of this state.

Listen to the cold-hearted cruelty (I don't know how else to name it) hidden in this statement from Walker's State Health Services Secretary Dennis Smith (the position ought to be renamed to something like the drive-more-poor-people-into-poverty-and-illness secretary):
"Under our approach, individuals would lose coverage only if they make the choice not to pay a fair share of their coverage," Smith said, adding later, "We're at least giving people a choice."

Keep in mind who we are talking about here - families that sometimes have to decide between food and medicine, paying the rent or paying the doctor bills. An example from the news story:
For instance, a single parent with two children who makes more than $27,795 a year would typically see his or her annual premiums rise to $1,390 from $120 - a more than tenfold increase. In all, the higher premiums would apply to 91,500 BadgerCare Plus participants - almost two-thirds of them children.

And then when these children go to school, the rightwing Repubs will get all upset if they don't test well!!! And then schools' funding will be in jeopardy and teachers will be blamed - not hunger, not lack of preventive health care, not the poverty into which Repubs are driving more and more of our people.

Photo: Margaret Swedish
For what? So that Wisconsin can become even more 'open for business' than it was before; so that mining companies can get tax breaks to blow open more holes in our countryside; so that more Walmarts can be opened to take advantage of the rising pool of cheap, non-union labor, to staff their stores where more and more poor people undermine their well-being by shopping there because it's all they can afford, which ensures that more poor people will be exploited by companies like Walmart.

That's the world they are creating. It's a world I organized against creating over decades in my work in Washington DC when the US and big corporate 'free-traders' (a misnomer if ever there was one) were doing this to Mexico and Central America. Now it has come home, and how do we like it? Because this is not free trade; this is rigged trade, rigged politics, taking advantage of this strain of fierce individualism that is still way too pervasive in our socio-political culture.

If we don't feel the connection between our lives and the lives of these 65,000 people, then we are living an illusion that will come back to haunt us.

This issue is not over. It now goes to the federal government which must approve it by the end of the year in order for it to go into effect. That means it goes to the President of the United States who can decide that this will not stand. If you care, you could make your voice heard in Washington.

There's another message you could send to your state politicians as well - this whole problem could be resolved with minute tax increases on corporate and individual wealth which that class would hardly feel. They could still vacation in Cancun and buy yachts; they could still afford expensive security details. If we believe they have more right to our public wealth than the poor do, we are a sorry state indeed.

And for all of you BadgerCare advocates out there, all you who provide services to these populations bearing the brunt of the politics of meanness, thank you!! Your work is tireless and often despair-inducing. You see the politics of meanness where it plays out in the lives of real human beings, something that Walker & Co. have intentionally blinded themselves from seeing. And yet you press on, pricking our consciences every day, reminding us that poverty is the underside of an economic/political system for which we are all responsible.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

One more on guns

Okay, yes, one more on our gun insanity. Did you see this article in the morning sports section?

Law will allow transporting uncased long guns

We are gun crazy. We are insane. These are hunting associations run amok.  This is in-your-face gun policy aimed at every person who ever thought it a good idea to have some gun control laws. How will we ever undo this damage?! Once you put guns and permissive laws like these into effect, just try and reverse them any time soon.

Here's what one hunting educator had to say about this law, as quoted in the article:

Wisconsin hunter education instructors, who for decades have taught long guns should be transported unloaded and in a closed case, are overwhelmingly opposed to the new law.

Is it because change is hard? Or something else?

"If it was for safety reasons, I'd be all for it," said Gary Egan, 64, of Marshall, a Wisconsin hunter education instructor for 28 years. "But this law seems to make things easier for violators and does nothing for safety. There's no place for uncased and loaded guns in a vehicle, in my opinion, whether it's legal or not."

We agree. And we also agree with those who are coming to realize that their votes for the Walker/Fitzgerald regime last year was not a vote for this.

Really, I will write this again, it's almost as if they are begging for someone to shoot somebody. Maybe they will eventually try to prove that that's okay too.

With best wishes to Gabby Giffords...

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Needing protection

This was one of those eye-popping stories from today's paper:

Protection costs for Walker, Kleefisch more than double

I mean, I would love to have the info to know if they face more credible death threats than Gov. Doyle did, who was not exactly well liked by many Wisconsites. I would like to know how much of this is real, how much is paranoia, and whether or not Walker & Kleefisch feel at all that any of the vitriol of their supporters, or the policies that they have rammed through our state politics without popular support, have anything to do with creating this level of threat.  There are, after all, other styles of governing that do not leave people feeling so frustrated, powerless, and angry.

This is not to excuse a single credible threat. Sadly, these are part of our political culture now. I know what it means to be Barack Obama, for example. Being the first African-American president means you, your wife, and your 2 children are the subject of daily credible death threats because there are still white people who resent your mere presence on their TV screens. I am aware of this from my long time doing political work in DC. Members of Congress, too, get freaked out by the steady volume of threats that have increased exponentially in the past decade or so.

So, on the one hand, this makes me very sad. On the other hand, it reveals the consequences of a politics of rage and hate, resentment and division, and enormous frustration when those who now 'govern' (or try to 'rule') have often been part of that kind of politics, or even benefited from it.

I mean, listen to a little Charlie Sykes or Rush Limbaugh - these people are not innocent of creating the culture that gives rise to this kind of rage and resentment. They stoke it. They empower it.

There is no excuse for this on any side of the political and cultural divides; but, still, I would like to know more. I would like to know who is making these threats and why. I would like to know what leads law enforcement officials to be this concerned, and whether or not this level of protection is about something real or feared, often perhaps with good reason.

But here's the other thing that makes me crazy: Walker & Kleefisch, who are the targets of these threats, have just approved one of the nation's most permissive concealed carry laws in the nation!! People can now walk armed right into the Capitol!!

So this is my crazy-maker for this day: WI Repubs and Lena Taylor have just made our society less secure and a whole lot more frightening, and the result is more insecurity and more fear, and then more armed guards and more tax money to pay for more armed guards. We allow our people nearly unlimited access to guns, including high-powered handguns. And then we ramp up security.

And one day, we will wonder where our democracy went. Maybe that's what the NRA wants - a nation of scared people cowering behind walls and moats defending their property and their lives with guns (or 'works of art,' as Sen. Taylor calls them) against enemies, real or not, a statewide and nationwide O.K. Corral.  Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

I guess this story was for me yet another sad commentary on the state of the political culture. It will take a long time to repair these breaches of distrust. But let's remember where they came from - they came from a backlash against the broad social contract constructed over decades that included things like worker rights, civil rights, voting rights, affirmative action, Social Security, Medicare, more cultural inclusion of gays and lesbians, immigrants and people of other cultures, fair housing acts, more stringent environmental protections, and a tax structure that once helped prevent the kind of concentration of wealth we're seeing now, leading to the impoverishment of the middle class, a progressive tax structure that was one of the hallmarks of our relatively stable society.

Check out the list: virtually every one of these things is under attack right now, and the rollback began 10-20 years ago. It has been very successful, and it has torn the cover off of old animosities and prejudices, helping to re-create the politics of resentment that has brought our democracy to the edge of collapse.

So I hope nobody tries to commit violence against any of our elected politicians. It would be beyond tragic. It would actually pose a grave threat to our state's democracy. And I hope we can use this story as yet another stark warning: we need to start healing these breaches so that the social contract can be restored and a culture of tolerance and inclusion reborn.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Out of our minds, with guns blazing

Once again, it's hard not to write about the gun mania that has overtaken our politics. What is this about, really? What is it about this culture that has made getting as many of us armed and dangerous as possible something so essential to the feeling of cultural and ego-identity satisfaction, proclaiming rights not articulated in the Constitution as constitutional.

Let's be more honest than we are usually allowed: There really is no right to concealed or open carry of individual weapons anywhere in the Constitution - this is a figment of the fantasies of an amazingly successful and aggressive gun lobby known as the National Rifle Association.

Oh, and it is also an incredible distraction from what truly ails us as a culture. It's a way to stir up that mythical thing called 'the base,' making that 'base' feel good about themselves while all the drivers that are making life increasingly stressful and eroding its quality go unaddressed because certain people are benefiting rather lavishly from the status quo - from the increasing stress and suffering.

We cannot even have a mandatory 4 hours of training to get a concealed carry license. We cannot have this minute percentage of the hours required to drive a car in order to carry around, hidden from view, a lethal weapon that in the emotion of a bad moment could be used in very, very bad ways. Police officials are not pleased.

State Sen. Lena Taylor was the lone Democrat to join the Repubs on this one. So, Ms. Taylor, what's with that?!?!  Explain, please, because I was with you when you left the state earlier this year (bless you and the WI 14), but you have lost me now. Last June, you referred to guns as 'works of art,' and now you believe these works of art should not require actual training in how to use them. Put a paintbrush in just anyone's hands and see how many works of art actually appear. Any 'art' requires training. But let's also quit this inane NRA-pleasing hyperbole - guns are not a work of art. They are at best a form of sport, and at worst, well, you know, Gabby Giffords, for example, and then a lot of things in between.

Some progressives speculate that Taylor wants to run for state office and thinks this may be a path in that direction. If so, my heart is heavy. I suppose next will come campaign donations from the powerful NRA.

And this is what happens to our poor democracy. From the Uppity Wisconsin link above:

"In the most recent poll, done in May by a national polling firm for the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE), voters statewide opposed concealed carry by a 60%-32% margin. By almost 3 to 1 (60%-21%) they said they would feel less safe if concealed weapons were allowed in public, and by a 2 to 1 margin (48%-23%) they said they were less likely to support a candidate who backs concealed carry."

But you see, the opinions of voters and majorities like these simply do not have the same representative power in public office as the clout of special interests like the NRA - and Americans for Prosperity, and Karl Rove's American Crossroads, and Club for Growth, and the consortium of right-wing billionaires who are preparing for 2012 elections. If you care about our democracy, please read this NY Times article from the other day:

Outside Groups Eclipsing GOP as Hub of Campaigns

I try never to exaggerate, but this comprises the biggest threat to our constitutional democracy in my lifetime, and it has been brought to you in large part by our corporate bought Supreme Court justices, especially this Roberts/Alito/Scalia/Thomas era. You see, while everyone was focused on Roe vs Wade as these guys were being considered, the real agenda just passed us by - that what the right really wanted was a court that would give absolute rights to the power of money and large corporations.

Not unlike the way the gun rights issue has just been used and abused in our state. Manipulation of people's anxieties, fears, and prejudices is a very dangerous game, and it is right now being played masterfully by the extreme right wing.

If we want our democracy, we will have to struggle mighty hard to gain it back. I, for one, am getting tired of seeing my government in the hands of those who do not have the well-being of my state and its people at heart. It will be a long slog, but it starts with getting corporate money and unlimited funds from the richest 1% out of our politics.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Some see shocking destruction, others see 'jobs'

If you get the Journal Sentinel, you saw this photo that nearly filled yesterday's front page:

http://www.jsonline.com/news/wisconsin/133308968.html

If you didn't see it, please check out the link and then just let yourself feel your reaction to it. Then visit the photo gallery for some more stunning photos:

http://www.jsonline.com/multimedia/photos/133307493.html

This is what Gogebic Taconite and their supporters want to bring to the Hurley/Ashland area of our state.

They want to open an enormous wound that can never be repaired.

But this is the thing - where some see destruction on a vast scale from these giant iron ore mines, others see jobs in a bad economy.

What future do we want for this Packer fan?
As if this really is the only thing we can think of to provide some employment. When you consider the long term costs in ecological destruction, the threats to other parts of the economy (tourism being one), and the collateral damage that will come in terms of more development, higher housing costs (that almost always happens), demands for water, and such, seems to me to be a myopic trade-off, to say the least.

Again, it is crucial to note this: permitting this mine - just like permitting huge industrial dairy farms that pollute, make animals and us sick, and threaten the livelihoods of family farmers - is a political decision far more than an economic one. Because we could make other decisions to create employment opportunities in other kinds of industries that might also pay well - without sacrificing the ecological future of our state.

When it comes to our political parties, these days it sadly comes down to whose interests they represent. Whatever we think of the Walker/Fitzgerald regime, we know whose interests they represent - some of the dirtiest, most toxic industries around.

When I saw this photo of Michigan's Empire Mine, and after reading the article, I found myself wondering: If this photo alone does not shock us into action, what will? If we continue to say yes to this - and to industrial farming and to the shipping industry that is fighting efforts to keep invasive species out of our lakes and to the Koch brothers' Georgia-Pacific Co. which wants the right to put more industrial pollution into our waterways - then we are simply deciding to run faster along this course towards the ecological wreckage of our state.

Is this what we want? Do we allow these corporations and their politicians to manipulate our economic needs and stresses to open our state for dirty businesses, instead of businesses that promote the health of our natural resources and our people, and that are ecologically sustainable?

Are we lacking the creativity to build our state economy on something other than polluting industries and low-wage retail outlets (like Walmart in South and West Milwaukee)? I certainly don't believe so. I believe we are being manipulated into supporting a lot of really bad decisions. And I hope we can come up with a new sustainable, nature-loving, quality of life economy in time to pass on a healthy, beautiful, precious Wisconsin to the generations coming up after us.

So when these moments of decision arrive in terms of what businesses will be allowed to grow and thrive in our state, supported with our tax money, keep this photo in mind - and ask yourself, is this what we really want?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Contaminating Wisconsin - the debate over mining

Really, it's hard not to blog about guns again. The Assembly went ahead and passed the 'castle doctrine' law - that you can shoot anybody you want to if they come into your house or car uninvited. This gun business has become a mark of our cultural pathology. What are we really afraid of? Fact is, I think we are most afraid of finding the real answer to that question.

I agree with State Rep. Fred Kessler on this one: "I am deeply troubled with the whole trend." Prosecutors, members of the bar, judges are almost unanimously opposed. Time to stock up on bullet proof vests.

So what I'm blogging about today is mining and the toxifying of the State of Wisconsin, this beautiful land of rolling hills, farms, lakes and rivers, wetlands, prairies, forests, and some of the most beautiful shorelines in the world. And we are pretty awfully reckless with these natural wonders.

You've probably been following the debate about relaxing rules and regulations around the mining industry focused lately on the proposal of Gogebic Taconite to begin open pit mining for iron ore up in the Hurley/Ashland area. It is a dreadful proposal, despite the inevitable claims by the company that this can be done in a way that protects the environment. This always astounds me - how insane do they think we are that we are supposed to accept the argument that you can open the earth to massive mining without harming it? The question is how much harm are you going to do?

And this morning the Journal Sentinel had a great answer on the front page. Lee Berquist writes about another mining project, the Flambeau Mine near Ladysmith, considered to be the 'poster child' of environmentally sound mining practices. Copper and zinc were gouged out here from 1993-1997 and it turns out that the toxic contamination of soil and water is serious and continuing. Read about it here.

Wisconsin politicians are good at turning over more of the state's natural gifts to destructive industries. We are mining sand used by natural gas companies for fracking, implicating us directly in this ecologically destructive industry. It is destructive where the drilling is underway; it is also destructive where the sand mining is underway.

Now, politicians, many journalists, economists, op-ed writers, and pundits tend to tout these industries as job creators, saviors of local economies. The implication here is that any job is a good job and that these are the ones available, potentially. But that is not a statement of economics so much as a political statement reflecting which sectors of the economy have power over the political decision-makers. Mining is one kind of industry; there are others.

Our state is blessed with possibilities for a different kind of economy, one that harvests solar energy and wind, one that focuses on water research and protecting natural water systems, one that boosts energy efficiency through every part of the society, from homes to factories to larger buildings and systems, one that supports the end of industrial farming and subsidizes the re-invigoration of the family farm, that supports the development of more organic farming and farmers markets (especially since right now demand exceeds supply), or that instead of gutting public services restores funding for teachers, health workers, and firefighters, or that prioritizes repairing the infrastructure of our schools and transportation, one that commits to mass transit and restores priorities like high speed rail.

It is not impossible to develop industries that respect the beauty and natural richness of our state. But right now we simply have the wrong people in office, backed by the wrong kind of corporate interests, to make that happen.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The castle doctrine - or how we regress to lower forms of life

So this is among the priorities being debated in Madison right now, championed by, well, who else? the NRA-loving Republicans!

'Assembly to Take Up Castle Doctrine'

I swear, there must be people out there chomping at the bit to shoot somebody. The new laws just keep making it easier and easier, almost begging for it.

So somebody comes into your house uninvited, you blow 'em away, and then ask them what they're doing there. Presumably it will then be safe for you to do so.

I remember back in my childhood when a lawyer in my Tosa neighborhood accidentally shot the boy delivering his newspaper.  Folks were pretty traumatized.

But I fear we are losing the ability to be traumatized by our own cruelty or stupidity. Something is really wrong with us, with this culture, when we value the use of guns and the right to do violence more than then right to have decent work, a roof over our heads, decent education for all our kids, to be free of discrimination, to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and have good healthy food to eat.

Interestingly, a lot of these gun rights extremists are also among those who oppose things like climate science, the E.P.A., civil rights, voting rights for the poor and non-white people, quality education for all, a concern for the common good and the good of the commons. Who has taken over my culture? Give me back the one I'm losing, the one where we care about each other, where we are outraged by vast inequities and cruel discrimination, where violence is not the first response to our often unwarranted fears. You are making this world ugly and harsh!

Evolution of the human species does not necessarily mean progress in human compassion, social conscience, or a commitment to the common good and the good of the commons. Right now it feels like this culture is regressing to lower forms of life, as if we learned nothing from generations of war and hatred and discrimination and injustice and indifference to human rights. Something that began to knit us - in the advances in respect for human and civil rights over the past several decades - is now coming undone in the face of fierce resistance from those who feel threatened by those advances in human dignity and integrity.

Friends, we need a new culture. The one that creates concealed carry and the castle doctrine takes us in a terrifying direction. It must be dismantled and a new one created, one more appropriate for the real world challenges of this generation.