Friday, December 23, 2011

End of the year exhaustion

Hi friends - it's been hard to keep up this blog as the year ends and there is so much to do. I think this dark time of the year is supposed to be restful. Funny, right?

But listen, we have one heck of a year ahead of us here in Wisconsin. We really do all need the rest. And I have to think about what I want to do with this blog, if anything.
My eclectic meditation table

Anyway, I could be blogging lots of news. We've got more Gableman scandal and it seems we will always have Gableman scandal as long as he sits on the bench. His record keeps revealing to me that he does not deserve to be there. But neither does Prosser. Yet there they sit, making crucial decisions for our state.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Who authored the bill - take two

Two stories covered the top of the fold in today's newspaper, and both revealed something essential about who our state government is really working for. The erosion of our democracy continues. The rise of government of, by, and for corporations, government corrupted by the influence and manipulation of  corporate-sponsored lobbyists, continues.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Who authored the bill?

That was a question asked repeatedly at yesterday's hearing on LRB 3520, the bill designed to ease environmental protections and the permit process so that one out-of-state coal mining company can open a gaping wound in the North Woods to get iron ore to sell on the international market.

Democrats (and a whole lot of us) want to know who authored the bill and why the rush? These are begging questions, obviously, since we all pretty much know the answers. Most bills come to hearings with the author's name/s on it. The absence is a first indication that something about this bill really smells.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Come to the hearing on the iron ore mine this Wednesday morning!

Friends, a reminder that our woeful state officials will be holding a hearing on the mining bill, LRB 3520, this Wednesday morning, 10:00 a.m. at State Fair Park, Tommy G. Thompson Youth Center. The mining industry wrote this bill. That would be the same mining industry that contributed to Walker's campaign.

For more info on this issue, read my post from a couple days ago:

And for more info on the hearing, visit this page at the River Alliance of Wisconsin.

This is billed as a listening session. We know what that means. They listen, and then do what they want. At least, that is what they hope to do. They shout, "JOBS!!", and expect everyone to fall in line, or at least to drown out those who care about things like forests and clean water. But as we wrote before: how you create jobs and what kind of jobs are questions of political and economic priorities and values. We can create other kinds of jobs that don't tear up our beautiful State of Wisconsin. These are choices, and the choices made by politicians depends a whole lot on who finances their campaigns, right? Don't let Walker, state Repubs, and mining industry lobbyists try to tell you that this is the only way we can provide employment for workers in our state! That is political deception in the extreme.

Let your voices be heard, if not in person on Wednesday, then by sending messages to legislators by phone, personal visit, or email. The timing, unfortunately, is pretty urgent.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Repubs prepare way for mining industry to tear up our state

And it's not even a state company. Gogebic Taconite, the company that wants to open a deep wound in our Northwoods, is owned by a privately held coalmining company, called the Cline Group, based in Florida - into these hands state Repubs want to put a good chunk of the northwoods. [see: Assembly bill would ease environmental regulations on new mines]

This is the part of our vast mental disconnect that I don't get. Mining proponents (not least of which is Tim Sullivan of Bucyrus who looks forward to becoming richer off the machines and equipment needed to rip up the earth, from here all the way to China) say they can dig out this iron ore mine while protecting the environment. How do you dig down a thousand feet across 4 miles of our wooded land and say you are not destroying the environment. YOU ARE DESTROYING THAT ENVIRONMENT!! YOU ARE DESTROYING THE ECO-COMMUNITY!!! AND IT WILL NEVER, EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN - EVER!!

So let's at least be clear and honest about what they are intending to do.

Now read again how deceptive and devious the Repubs are being. Rep. Jauch is correct when he says that dumping a 183-page piece of legislation - drafted behind closed doors - on the public and giving us 6 days to read, digest, and figure out how to respond is insulting. But it is more than that: it is anti-democratic, it is autocratic, it is how nasty governments we don't like in other parts of the world operate.

You will see here just what it is in the legislation that so pleases the president of Gogebic Taconite. Among these things is the easing of wetlands protections. From the other side of his mouth, he says they can mine in an environmentally responsible way. If they can be so responsible, why do they need these regulations 'eased?'

Remember that this is the Walker administration that did Koch Industries a favor by easing pollution regulations, that re-wrote regulations on the construction of wind farms to make them almost impossible to create, that gives more and more permissions for giant livestock farms that pollute soil, waterways, and our bodies, that promotes more and more sand-mining for natural gas fracking in our beautiful western counties.

Hey, and they are even making us pay for it through corporate tax breaks!!!

Oh, yea, Gov Scott Walker and the Repubs are opening Wisconsin for business, all right.  They are offering up the beauty of the state to some of the most ecologically damaging industries around.

As if this is the only way we can create jobs here. As if this isn't really a political choice about what kinds of jobs in what kinds of industries you intend to try to create them. And to find out what those choices are, check out the campaign donations and the lobbyists making a steady beat to our State Capitol. Just to be clear about this, a quote from the third article linked below, by Al Gedicks:
"They were also worried that Wisconsin’s mining regulations would not allow such a mine to be permitted. GTAC executives discussed these concerns with several legislators and contributed more than $40,000 in 2010 campaign contributions to Republican candidates involved with the mining issue, including Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee)"  

This analysis was published in September, and now, as promised, the Repubs have taken matters in hand. There is a reason they don't want you to know what's in this bill, and Gedicks gives us one example:
"Under the provisions of this bill (LRB 2035), which only applies to iron mining, the mining company will no longer be required to do a risk assessment of accidental health and environmental hazards associated with the mining operation. Existing water quality standards that protect water in the Great Lakes basin will be sacrificed if they conflict with 'the need for waste sites and processing facilities to be contiguous to the location of the iron deposits.'

"Just in case the authors of the bill may have overlooked some potential environmental obstacle, the bill states that, 'If there is a conflict between a provision in the iron mining laws and a provision in another state environmental law, the provision in the iron mining law controls.' In other words, the Iron Mining Law proclaims that the expansion of the mining industry is the official policy of the state and all other considerations are subordinate to mining." [emphasis added]

Thus do we see how our Wisconsin democracy is taken from the people and power handed to the corporations. This is a scandal, folks, and I hope you will make your voices heard about this - before it is too late. These guys are clever and devious. They are putting this bill out there just in time for the holidays when they hope we are not paying attention. Let's prove them wrong..

For more info:

The Enviromental Track Record of Taconite Mining
Permitting for Penokee Mine Shouldn't Be Rushed
Resisting Resource Colonialism in the Lake Superior Region 
Statement by Mike Wiggins, Jr., chairman of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Americans for Prosperity's successful campaign to create party of climate change deniers

Just this quick note today. Why is it so hard to get Repubs to say one intelligent thing about global warming and climate change? This was not always true. What happened?

This article explains: Americans for Prosperity Takes Credit for Bullying GOP Lawmakers Into Climate Denial.

Read that headline again, then just sit a moment and take it in. Think about what this means. AFP, founded by the Koch brothers, founders and funders of the Tea Party, have bullied their paid-for politicians into denying, obfuscating, ridiculing one of the gravest threats to humanity - ever!

Take it in on ethical and moral grounds. Take in what this means in terms of the common good, the good of the commons, and the prospects for a decent future for our descendents. Think about what these people are doing for the sake of their short-term interests, for profits and power.

Then, if you are a citizen of Wisconsin, think about the power these people have over our [s]elected officials. Remember that AFP and other Koch-funded groups put enormous amounts of money into influencing campaigns, running ads that do not tell the truth or outright lie, that manipulate people with conservative beliefs to deny what is actually occurring all around them. Think of the role of the propagandists, from Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to our own Charlie Sykes.

Think about this. And if you are still looking for any motivator to get involved in citizen efforts to restore government with integrity, government that serves the real interests of its citizens, here is a really, really good one.

Then while you're at it, read this, from those wild liberal radicals at the journal, Nature.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Climate change in Wisconsin

Some of my readers here know that in my work life I am focused on the many ecological challenges facing our world right now, trying to raise awareness, trying to encourage people to engage these realities, trying to help articulate with others how we are going to live through some difficult times as ecosystems come under increasing stress from our industrial civilization. Among those stresses is the accelerated warming of our atmosphere caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Right now in our state political culture, we are dominated by two sides of a bad coin: business people and politicians who are global warming deniers or who know it's happening but don't want to do anything about it; and then the way-too-many of our citizens here who are incredulous, skeptical, getting their info from political pundits like Charlie Sykes, as if he has read even one authoritative study on the issue.

I was with one such skeptic over the weekend and, really, it is amazing to hear deniers speak with such authority when they are not acquainted with the science, haven't read the experts, have had only one conduit of noise on the topic from the political right. I mean, I tried to mention the research I've read, the studies, the workshops by scientists that I've attended... Doesn't matter. Runs into the mental brick wall of all that punditry that confirms a world view, whether or not it is accurate.

And isn't that, after all, a central aspect of our dysfunctional political culture right now?

Despite all that, climate change resulting from human-induced global warming is impacting Wisconsin already, and these impacts are going to become increasingly severe with rising temperatures in the atmosphere.

So it's best to arm ourselves with good info. I recommend a great resource to you from the UW-system, Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.  You will find some really good visuals and video that lay out the challenges and what to expect over the course of this century. Fair warning: it is more than a bit unsettling. These are not changes we can take back. We will have to learn to live in a new reality, which will mean many upheavals in all our lives.

At the same time, we have to decide how bad things are going to get - and that's about policy choices and lifestyle choices. We're all in this one together and so none of us can escape the impacts. But if we continue putting in office people who dismiss, disdain, obfuscate, or deny this reality, we only ensure that things are going to get a whole lot worse for our kids and grandkids.

This should not be a partisan issue, nor should it be in the hands of corporate lobbyists who profit from the very industries that are changing our climate. This is about simply being a human being, a species that, like all others, needs a habitat in which it can survive and thrive.

Wisconsin really needs some leadership on this stuff, and that has to come from all of us.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Milwaukee has a racism problem

Ya think?  Of course, saying that can get you into a lot of trouble, a lot of rage directed at you. "We're not racists! We just don't like those people! We don't want to live near them. They are all drug addicts and lazy, living off the government dole!And we are terribly afraid of 'them.' Their neighborhoods are full of crime and they don't have morals like we nice people with nice houses and neat lawns."

But we are not racists...

I've heard it so often growing up here. We pretend that our de facto segregation, disdain for poor people in the 'inner city,' our disdain for MPS, etc., is about something else. We know what it's about.

Yesterday's front page story saddened me: Racial gaps found in traffic stops in Milwaukee. Again, people can say what they want, from Police Chief Ed Flynn on down, but we all know what it's about. The stats show that it is not even explained by crime rates. Read the article and you will see that. And, yet again, Milwaukee has among the highest rates of racial and ethnic disparities in this business of arbitrary traffic stops, or pedestrian stops, than other cities keeping track of such things. Why are we always so high on these lists?

I grew up in Wauwatosa. I remember what happened if an African-American walked down my street. I remember as a young person how shocked I was by long-time neighbors when a mixed-race couple dared to look at a house for sale across the alley and then actually bought it - a man from Biafra married to a white Montessori school teacher, two young daughters. I remember how embarrassed I was that my Mother was one of the few long-standing residents on that block who would actually greet them and do some neighborly chat. She thought they were really nice people with adorable children.

It's not that nothing has changed, it's that the change has not been nearly enough. Laws changed, civil rights were enshrined on paper, but this is one of those realities not truly addressed until the attitudes deep within are addressed.

Sandra and I became dear friends for reasons beautiful and always-to-be-cherished. She had raised her kids in a tough neighborhood holding a 3-generation household together. She told me about her son, how hard he worked, going to school, taking part-time jobs. He saved money so that he could buy a used SUV and a gold chain. What did he get for this? He was stopped repeatedly by police and ordered to go spread-eagle while they searched his vehicle. His mother pleaded with him not to react. Of course, the consequences if he had tried to defend himself or even say something out of understandable anger could get him in a whole lot of trouble. This was about who had power, not who had rights.

He eventually got rid of the SUV and stopped wearing the gold chain.

Can Flynn or Mayor Barrett or my old neighbors even imagine what it is like living with that sort of thing every day of your life - that sense of vulnerability and powerlessness, the fear and rage that would simmer inside, that awareness of the message the world is giving to you about who you are and how you are thought of by society? I can't; Flynn can't; none of us who grew up in privilege can. And then we wonder at the results that come from growing up at the other end of racist attitudes. We wonder at the suspicion and anger. We wonder why kids feeling this in every part of their lives don't perform better on school tests, or feel they have any shot at a decent future.

And here's the other thing: what happened to Sandra's son and to those cases mentioned in this article also violate the Constitution. The ban on unreasonable search and seizure does not end at the color line or neighborhood boundaries. And one of the most disturbing trends in the culture right now is that so many people are willing to see the Constitution gutted for the sake of some ephemeral sense of security.

I met someone over the weekend who said this clearly, this time in relation to the threat of terrorism in the US - to save the Bill of Rights, sometimes you have to violate the Bill of Rights - that old 'destroy the village in order to save the village' metaphor that we learned from the Vietnam War.

What really are we trying to save when we do this? Because it's not the Constitution and it's not democracy. It is the dominance of one class of people over another. We want our rights protected, our property rights, our privilege, the racial and class identity of our neighborhoods. And, well, shucks, if you have to trample on the rights of others for that preservation, so be it.

We are a long way from the kind of vibrant racial, ethnic, cultural diversity and inclusion that is essential to vibrant, inclusive democracy. We ought not be accepting routine, even mundane, violations of the Bill of Rights for any of our citizens. This article makes clear that there is not much connection between this kind of arbitrary police action and crime rates. Crime rates tend to go down when neighborhoods do not fear or suspect the police, when a relationship of trust is established, when neighborhoods pull together and form community bonds that open up and protect safe spaces.

In this article, Flynn says: "Yes, of course we are going to stop lots of innocent people. The point is, do folks understand what their role is as a cooperative citizen in having a safe environment...That level of inconvenience, if it's coupled with respectful treatment, is something communities will accept to be safe. If the price of me walking down my neighborhood in safety is once a month (a police officer stops me), people are going to say 'That's OK with me, it's about time we saw the cops here.' "

You can't dismiss violations of rights this way, violating civil rights as a matter of acceptable inconvenience. Sure, in high crime neighborhoods, lots of residents love seeing the police around. But what are they doing while in their streets? What are they demonstrating? What attitudes do they communicate?

Yes, work with neighborhoods. Get people talking about what's going on, passing important information, getting to know one another, counting on the police to come when called, to take them and their concerns seriously. Absolutely! Have block meetings, invite the officers, build trust. Yes, and yes. But don't cross the line to racial profiling. Don't cross the line when it comes to civil rights - because that undermines the very trust you are trying to build.

And don't make it fearful for African-Americans to walk down the streets of white neighborhoods by giving in to the race-based fears of some residents. Work with them, too, so that we can overcome the fears and deep-seated old attitudes and build understanding across the barriers of racial fears until those fears are dissolved by recognition and incipient trust. Milwaukee can boast some great work in this regard over the years; we need to deepen it, do more of it.

To say racism is not at work in what is described in this article is defying reality. We know it is at work. A lot of good community policing is being done in Milwaukee now, especially compared with some really bad old days under chiefs like Harold Breier. Crimes rates are down. Applause, please; this is very encouraging. Kudos to the police department for their role in creating this trend, along with all the neighborhood groups, community organizations, churches, and others who are working together to help make our neighborhoods safer.

But we have to stop being afraid to talk about how much racism itself sets a trap for a whole lot of young people who get the message early on that white privileged society has no place for them except in their own neighborhoods where those harboring these fears so hope that they will remain, out of sight, out of mind. Now there's an incubator for some troubling behavior if ever there was one.

But let's be clear about who is responsible for it. We all are. And that means that overcoming this history buried deep inside our psyches is also the work of all of us. Let's create a city where everyone feels included and respected, and where everyone's rights are honored at the same standards set in the Constitution.


Photos: Margaret Swedish

Friday, December 2, 2011

The right to protest - if you can pay for it

I wish these guys would quit proving me right - that I don't think they believe in inclusive, vibrant democracy. Now the headlines screaming from the front page: Walker & Co. want protesters to pay to exercise one of the most fundamental rights of democracy, the right to free speech when that right is exercised as protest.

What could be more basic to our constitutional system of governance. We were founded on protest, for crying out loud!! The rights in our constitution are not commodities for sale to those who can pay.

I know these guys don't believe in democracy when it counters their intentions to remake government of, by, and for their corporate backers and billionaire donors. But still, let me give this a try, a lesson in what it means to be a governor.

Now, Scott, you proudly say, ad nauseum, that you are a budget-cutter. You think that a proud statement, rather than an empty statement. It means nothing at all until you put content into it - and your content is hurting the people who are suffering most from the recession, from poverty, from the concentration of wealth in this state and nation.  You also are proud of your slogan, "Open for Business," as if that means anything on its own. It is also empty - until you put content into it. And your content is eroding worker rights and well-being, putting yet more downward pressure on wages, compromising the health and education of our kids, threatening more and more of our environment, our quality of water, soil, food, forests, wetlands, and more.

And here's the other thing about being a 'governor,' as in one who governs (different from one who dictates or uses power to hurt people rather than enhance their lives and participation in the decisions that impact their lives): governors have to create budgets, this is true. Governors also have to defend democracy itself, not try to stifle it. In a real democracy, you would be happy to provide protection for the rights to vibrant protest, opposition, and debate. You would keep the spaces for democracy open. You would understand that providing protection and defense for all the rights contained in the federal and state Constitutions is your absolute mandate.

And if you believed your policies to be broadly in the interests of the majority of your constituents, you would not fear those constituents, their voices, their protests, their recall petitions, their presence in Madison.

That's my lesson on democracy for the morning.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Wisconsin's political struggles must address growing poverty

Yesterday's Journal Sentinel was very distressing, no? Front page headline - more than 4 out of 10 kids in Milwaukee living in poverty. This is a moral scandal of huge proportions.

You know, when I read about the need for testing standards and teacher evaluations in our public schools, I try to imagine what it's like dealing with over-crowded classrooms in which so many kids are hungry. When I read demands that parents must be more involved in their kids' education, I wonder if those making those demands can even imagine what it's like to be a family living in poverty, trying to scrape by on whatever work you can get, if you can get any.

Sometimes it feels like a complete failure of imagination - and compassion. So many privileged people feel they are privileged only by virtue of their cleverness and ingenuity, not by benefit of their class or race background.

But we're not supposed to talk about race, right? The unmentionable skeleton in the closet, along with gaps between rich and poor, the mere mention of which is considered 'class warfare' - by the rich.

Here's another mark of our shame: more children in this country are getting health insurance, an increase of a million from 2008-2010. Guess what? Obama's health insurance reform legislation, the Affordable Care Act, is a major reason for this increase. In many states, eligibility has been expanded through Medicaid programs and the process simplified.

Our peculiar shame? Thirty-four states had a significant increase in the number of children covered. We are one of the few states (including Kansas and Minnesota) that saw an increase in the number of uninsured children.

Good job, Scott Walker and all you Repubs in the state legislature! I guess I would say that your failure of imagination - and compassion - is more than grave. You are jeopardizing the health and lives of our state's children.

So, once again, my friends, I just want to say this: this struggle for democracy in Wisconsin, for a decent political culture and a government responsive to the needs of our citizens, has to expand to put poverty at the top of the agenda. If solidarity with the poor, the unemployed, the most marginal of our people is not at the heart of recall campaigns and occupations and protests in Madison, we will be failing this same moral test.

These two stories yesterday present us with stark reality that is simply not acceptable, not in a state or a country that is only suffering like this because of skewed priorities and the shredding of the social contract. We are suffering budget squeezes not because we lack the resources to provide necessary social services, but because of an insidious spirit that has come to corrupt our politics over the past two decades, one in which so many of the wealthy, the powerful, and secure feel no sense of social responsibility for the larger community of which they are a part - whether they like it or not. Extreme individualism has becomes the most corrosive influence on the political culture right now and its results are not pretty. Actually, they are pretty nasty.

Meanwhile, on the other end is real human suffering which these stats show is also getting worse.

A moral crisis is most definitely what this is, especially if you have the courage to actually put a face to it, especially if those faces belong to our children.

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!


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.


All photos: Margaret Swedish