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

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