Swans Commentary » swans.com April 9, 2012  



Wisconsin Past And Future


by Gilles d'Aymery


Book Review



It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest, co-edited by Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle, Verso, January 2012, ISBN-13: 978-1844678884 -- a collection of essays and comics by (in alphabetical order) Patrick Barrett, Mary Bottari, Roger Bybee, Ruth Conniff, Gary Dumm, Simon Hardy, Frank Emspak, Ashok Kumar, Tom Morello, Michael Moore, John Nichols, David Poklinkowski, Matthew Rothschild, Sharon Rudahl, Charity A. Schmidt, Kim Scipes, and Nick Thorkelson -- 181 pages, paperback.


(Swans - April 9, 2012)  Cheese comes to mind when one thinks of the state of Wisconsin. It is the leading cheese producer in the U.S. It's also the home of the cheeseheads, those fans of the iconic Green Bay Packers, one of the oldest franchises in the National Football League and the only community-owned team, who wear the triangular foam hats in support of their endearing team. Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle manufacturer and another iconic brand, is based in the state, as well as some major manufacturers such as Briggs & Stratton and multinationals like Johnson Controls. Beside its agricultural, sporting, and manufacturing prowess, Wisconsin is also famous for the richness of its politics, its long history of progressive liberalism, best represented by "Fighting Bob" La Follette, and its huge swings toward hard-right popular movements (cf. Joseph McCarthy of yesteryears and today's Paul Ryan).

In 2010, the hard right won the governorship and both branches of the legislature. The new governor, Scott Walker, did not waste time to "drop a bomb" by presenting a "budget repair bill" that cut taxes on the wealthy few and expenses on all social services -- education, heath care, public transportation, environmental protection -- and, worst of all, abrogated collective bargaining, the right of workers to negotiate their working conditions. In other words, he was intent to emasculate the public sector. The reaction was immediate. Between February and June 2011, Wisconsin became the site of the largest popular demonstrations in decades. People of all walks of life -- students, teachers, steelworkers, nurses, firefighters, correctional and police officers -- gathered in Madison, occupied the Capitol, chanting "an injury to one is an injury to all," and, among many other howling invocations, the old Woody Guthrie's "this land is your land." The manifestations reached their paroxysm when between 150,000 and 200,000 came out in Madison, Milwaukee, and all over the state. It was done in such a non-violent and organized way that when the governor ordered the chief of police to clear the Capitol manu militari, the chief refused, advancing that no violence or destruction was taking place, and people had the constitutional right to assemble.

It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest, co-edited by Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle, retraces the history of Wisconsin and the momentous times that occurred in 2011 through a collection of some 18 essays written by people who saw first-handedly these events unfold. It is accompanied by a few comics, a genre Paul Buhle regularly conveys. Though the book appears to be targeted at political and labor activists at first glance, it would be an error to ignore it because its historical perspective is very rich. Mari Jo Buhle, Mary Bottari, and Ruth Connif provide a geography of political Wisconsinite activism. Readers will learn about this little known yet powerful organization, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Created in 1973, ALEC has been pursuing a far-right agenda ever since, giving made-to-order legislations to governors and legislatures all over the country. Unknown to the masses, they are slowly taking over. Pretty scary, and the book is worth reading if only to learn about this very far-right-wing beast. Of course, the Koch brothers, Betsy DeVos (the sister of the infamous Erik Prince), the Bradley Foundation (this one based in Wisconsin, by the way) are hidden in full sight behind the curtain, lavishly financing Scott Walker and his retrograde agenda. We watch TV and browse the Web on our iPads, but those guys are nowhere to be found, and we go to sleep satisfied as the country is slowly taken over by modern-day fascists. This book, which I surmise won't be widely read, should be a wake-up call.

Political and labor activists will appreciate the work of various essayists. I'm not sure that the labor movement is up to the task at hand. Which task? Which labor movement? But Kim Scipes, who contributed to this collection and has been interviewed for Swans by Michael Barker and whose work has been reviewed by Paul Buhle, would disagree with me. For him, the future is up for grabs. We just need to seize the moment. Correlations are made by two other essayists between the search for participative democracy in Wisconsin and the Arab Spring. I'll demur commenting on this since the Arab upheavals had everything to do with bread and butter and little with democracy (except in Western imagination), same as the Wisconsin storytelling.

Anyway, an informative little book... Mind you, Scott Walker won everything he asked for, notwithstanding the mass demos. Now the daily story is about the November presidential election. Still, people are bubbling like a natural water spring. Will it come to the surface? And will the sparkling water be right or left? Or will it be humane?


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Gilles d'Aymery on Swans -- with bio. He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art18/ga304.html
Published April 9, 2012