Day 5 in Madison, Wisconsin: Middle East and Middle West?

Day 5 in Madison, Wisconsin: Middle East and Middle West?

Paul Buhle: Day 5 in Madison, Wisconsin – Middle East and Middle West?

If not for the variations on ?Walk Like an Egyptian? directed at Governor Scott Walker (?Walker Like an Egyptian,? and so on) and if not for the ?Hosni Walker? visuals with the Wisconsin governor and deposed dictator?s faces side by side or merged, I could almost swear that the very, very on-script demonstrators circling the Madison Capitol on a chilly but sunny Saturday had put the ongoing events in Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, and Bahrain out of their minds. We had plenty to think about.

Then I passed the Tea Party crowd of several hundred (outnumbered by our side by a proportion of just about a hundred?300 versus 30,000, more or less), cordoned off from us for safety, and heard just a smattering of the day?s rhetoric. ?THIS IS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, NOT THE UNITED STATES OF THE MIDDLE EAST!?

And there it was, the Glenn-beckian specter of disorder, chaos, and who knows what else, but something a great deal worse than Rush Limbaugh?s vision of us as welfare cheaters and slackers looking for the handout called the union wage and benefits.

I looked around me again. It was hard for an aging old leftist, even the distinctly syndicalist, non-Leninist type, not to recall the phrase about revolutions as a ?festival of the oppressed.? It was only a democratic revolution, if that. (The third or fourth most popular chant began with a megaphone-holder asking what ?democracy looks like? and being answered by the crowd, ?THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE.?) But it was festive, more festive than the late summer Sweet Corn Festival in nearby Sun Prairie, scarcely more sober than the brat-and-beer festivals that seem to run, in one location or another in Wisconsin, for months at a time.

There were people of all types: schoolchildren carrying signs about protecting their teachers, old-timers from the 1960s (labor and/or civil rights as much as the antiwar or student movements), more than 90 percent from assorted parts of Wisconsin but also visitors from Chicago, Minnesota, Iowa, and some nostalgics from the East and West Coasts come to revive their memories of youthful radicalism on the campus. It was a demographic revolution as well, in no small part because the service unions like SEIU are as heavy with minorities and women as the roofers are still white and male.

(And where were Tea Partiers from? Joe the Plumber from Ohio showed up, certainly. There was a reputed bus from Wichita, Kansas, greeted by a home-made sign, ?TEA PARTYERS UNITE, NO, THAT’S WHAT GOT US HERE IN THE FIRST PLACE.? The rest were home-grown right wingers of the usual sort, led naturally enough?the first speaker at their rally?by a proud nonunion contractor.)

We were happy to see each other. We felt (at least many of us felt) that we were part of a worldwide movement, weighted toward youth and the adults most in contact with them, but really cutting across any categories that could be imagined. We cheered and laughed constantly, and not only because the homemade signs, funny or interesting, had doubled, tripled, and redoubled as the days went on, in the search for the most ingenious possible.

Then again, this was Wisconsin?a thought never far away from any minds in the home grounds of Bob LaFollette, anti-war warrior and anti-monopolist, father of the Wisconsin Idea (and whatever remains of it, after decades of attempted privatization at many levels of university and other life). The phrase presented repeatedly in an evening rally was THE WORLD IS CATCHING UP WITH US, showing what Wisconsin, at its best, has meant in the nation and the world. Not as a mere labor cause, although that remained central in the minds of all. But as a push toward mass mobilization with its own logic, beyond protest and beyond elections. Where would it go? Nothing could be more important, or interesting, or perhaps even funny, than finding out.

-February 19, 2011

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