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Friday, August 12, 2011

As goes London, so goes Wisconsin: the messages

To get a full perspective on what happened in the Wisconsin recall elections, you must follow the money.   In the election to recall six GOP senators, four Republicans retained their seats while two lost.  This was largely seen in the news media as a blow to organized labor.  It was clearly a blow to workers, whether members of organized unions or not.  

The six election contests pulled an incredible amount of money into the state for this state senatorial contest:  near to $30 million.  Money for the Democratic candidates  came heavily from organized labor; for the Republicans it came from conservative PACs, funded by corporate interests such as the Koch brothers.  At first take, with the 4 to 2 dominance of the Republicans, it would seem that the corporate money won. 

Counterpoint to the money is some other events.  When Gov. Walker opened the State Fair last week, he could barely finish reading his opening statement because of the shouts and taunts of protestors.  And then, a group of young people turned the Fair into a riotous rampage.  The governor ordered out the state troopers and the Fair officials imposed a curfew refusing admission to anyone 18 or under after 5 p.m. unless accompanied by an adult of at least 21.
Wisconsin state police patrol the State Fair 

One might find it a coincidence that young people are rioting in Britain at the same time they are in West Allis, Wis.  Like most experienced observers and analysts of human events, I don't believe in coincidence.  Similar effects generally  come from similar causes.

In both the West Allis and Tottenham incidents, race and social discrimination were underlying factors.  And we have probably seen just the beginning.  Another sign of the undercurrents at work was the killing of two police officers in Rapid City last week.

Current events recall another time of turbulence and my connections to Wisconsin. It was during the late 1960s and early 70s.  I had a place in Wisconsin where I retreated to work and practice one of my avocations:  silviculture, the science and practice of forestry in respect to human interaction with forests.  The land was depleted sand land along the Wisconsin River that was being reclaimed through forestry.  I had some acres where I could alternate work on those interminable student papers which are an English professors lot, do my personal research and writing,  interspersed with interludes with shovel, chain saw, and lopping shears.  (And days of hand spreading tree fertilizer to help the sandy soil support tree growth.)  The trees were all red and white pines, working toward a time when the forest became mature enough to support some mixed hardwoods. 

It was a time of violence and great unrest with inner city riots, the Symbionese Liberation Army robbing banks and taking hostages, the Red Army Faction terrorizing Europe, the American Indian Movement occupying government and college buildings and taking over Wounded Knee. The pine forest was a nice place to escape the petty, often nasty politics of academic departments and the rages of students in response to the Viet Nam War, civil rights struggles, and bourgeois America in general.  However, one August morning the rumble from a truck bomb blowing up the mathematics building at the University of Wisconsin rolled over the pine lands.  The perpetrators had developed their explosive skills by blowing up remote microwave towers in the county where the pine forest was centered. 

I knew a number of people who lived in that region of Wisconsin, which was less than an hour's drive from Madison.  Like me, they were former workers in the field of journalism and communications who now held academic and managerial jobs.  Some of us formed a loose alliance of associates that took on moonlighting projects in communications production and consulting as a means to earn some extra money and to keep our hands active in producing direct communications.  One of my colleagues, a film maker and polling analyst, and I were acquainted through contract work we had done on occasion for a government information agency.  We were approached about being part of a project to collect and analyze propaganda and other communications from the radical groups that were operating throughout the country.  The purpose was to subject any documents and statements that were collected to a critical examination using all the known methods of critical analysis of communications.  The point was to find out everything that could be learned about the groups, their members, and their purpose and intentions.  Many of the people in our moonlighting group had advanced training and experience in communication theory and textual criticism.  When we agreed to participate, we joined a team that comprised most of the disciplines involved in communication research:  rhetorical analysts,  language content analysts,  literary analysts, linguists, psycholinguists, social psychologists and sociologists,  and specialists, like my close colleague, in graphic analysis.  The idea was to draw what conclusions we could from any messages from the radical groups and to assemble rubrics, procedures and protocols for performing an exhaustive analysis.  A number of groups like this were being assembled throughout the country, and were a measure that had produced some effective results during World War II and the Cold War.

The pine forest was the place we chose to gather and do our work.  It was a quiet, very beautiful place to do such work.  I recall sitting around in lawn chairs in the light that filtered  through the canopy of pine boughs overhead, perusing manuscripts and  conferring about what we were finding through our particular approaches to  analysis.  We would write individual reports, some of us clacking away on portable typewriters, others scribbling away on yellow legal pads, others dictating into tape recorders.  When weather or mosquitoes made us seek refuge inside, we gathered in window-walled A-frame cabin that gave a full landscape view of the surrounding forest trees.  In town a few miles away, there were transcribers who would type our various reports on IBM typewriters and make copies on the rather cumbersome  photocopy processes available back then.
I remember that time with a certain nostalgia.  The work was intense and and urgent, which is why the atmosphere of the pine forest facilitated it.  And it was organized but informal.  When we needed to rest our eyes and brains, we could go for long walks through the forest and observe the wildlife.   We felt there was an importance in the contributions that we could make from our various disciplines, and there was a sense of purposeful accomplishment.  We were able to identify characteristics of the messages and statements, some of which came from people who had been arrested and interrogated, that could separate groups that engaged in violence from groups that were merely registering protests.  And we were able to define what circumstances would push some people into acting out with violence and cruelty.  We could also identify individual personalities and complete rather extensive personality profiles of them.

An essential part of this kind of analysis is to examine what kind of messages the people in these groups are receiving from government officials, community leaders, and society at large.  What are they being told and how are they interpreting it?  

The riots in London and throughout Britain demonstrate some of the circumstances we noted.  They began when people gathered outside a police station in Tottenham to protest what they thought was the wrongful shooting of a young man by the police.  That peaceful protest turned into violence with destruction of property, pillaging, arson, and looting.  The world had recently witnessed peaceful massive demonstrations such as that which occurred in Egypt and Madison, Wis.  We had also witnessed riots in Greece when the government began to impose some austerity measures.  But that demonstration in Tottenham quickly turned violent and repetitive, and it spread to other cities. There are a number of elements in the current social unrest that deserve remark.

When the events of the Arab Spring focused on Egypt, a peculiar circumstance emerged.  The demonstration was not violent, except when some factions allied with the government being protested responded with some violent acts.  But the demonstration could not be pushed into violence.  The reason was that it was being guided by its organizers who used cell phones and the social media to keep the demonstrators focused.  The messages they were receiving appeared to work.  They were steadfast in their demand that President Mubarak step down and they assented to allowing the military to form an interim government.  However, since that time democratic rule seems to be something those in charge are circumventing.  A strong anti-American propaganda campaign has been mounted.  The message that the demonstrators are receiving is that cooperation with the military was not a good choice, if advancing a democratic regime was their ultimate goal.  If the demonstrators are dissatisfied with Egypt's direction, the question will be if they will avoid violence in pursuing their goal. 

In Tottenham, the residents were receiving quite a different message.  When a gangster-type, Mark Duggan, was shot and killed by police after allegedly drawing a gun on them, the people of the community got the message that the divisions between them and the establishment had become a war.  Initially, they gathered in front of the police station to confront authorities with what they thought was an unjustified shooting.  When other elements joined them, the nature of the demonstration quickly changed.  And as in Egypt, cell phones and social media were employed by the agitators.  They coordinated their activities to avoid direct confrontation with the police as much as possible.  They used misdirection, as a principle.  They would attract police and firemen to one location by setting a car on fire while they concentrated their pillaging and looting activity in another place.  They tracked police activities with social media messages.  And they spread the revolt throughout Britain with their electronic messaging.  But what they were sending and receiving by mobile phone was a mere adjunct to the main message upon which they were operating.

Initially, the riots started with a racial issue.  As they spread, race became less evident and the British news media have noted that those arrested for looting have included university students, military personnel, youth workers, as well as members of the underclass that is bearing the large brunt of the austerity program in Britain.  The British press has characterized the looting as a "shoppers' riot," noting that it has focused not on police stations and government buildings, but on retail stores.  Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Freedland says, "If today’s looters have a political point to make, it is that politics doesn’t matter."

The riots and looting are centered, however, in neighborhoods that are particularly targeted by the budget cuts.   New York Times correspondents note that "In London, austerity means that there will be about 19 percent less to spend next year on government programs, and the burden will fall particularly on the poor. "  Among the services and resources being curtailed are drop-in centers for young people, other community services, like health centers for the elderly and libraries, and police forces are being cut.  The unemployment rate in the rebellious neighborhoods is at 20 percent.

To understand the messages sent from the rioting protesters, it is necessary to understand the messages they are responding to.  The neighborhoods being affected contain large numbers of emigrants who came to Britain looking for work, a situation reflected throughout much of Europe.   As there is in the U.S., there is a conservative animosity against the immigrant groups which has taken the form of hostile, defamatory allegations against them.  The message the neighborhoods of the underclass are receiving is not hard to interpret.  The verbal denigrations express an attitude directed toward them with an unrelenting unemployment rate and then the cut of services.  The message they are getting is that they don't count, and when it comes to the general welfare of the nation, they are despised and expendable.  They are not considered part of the nation, and there is no recourse for them in terms of jobs or public support.  The work ethic is broken because there is no work, and any trust has been broken by the denigrating words and the cutting of any legal means of survival.  And so, they riot, feeling no sense of obligation or community with those who have designated them undesirable and unwanted, made them outcasts.   

With a message like that, what are the alternatives?  One might move, if there were any place to go.  (That's how America was founded; it was a place to go.)  Or one can resort to any means of survival that is at hand.  In Tottenham, some teenagers broke into a McDonald's and cooked themselves a meal.  The British prime minister has made pronouncements against the criminality and vowed to fight back.  What does that mean to people who have no jobs, no hope, and have already been stigmatized as human offal?  It is important to note that not just immigrants and racial minorities are part of the insurrections taking place.  They include people in general who feel ostracized by their country. 

Put that message in conjunction with the social attitude, and the actions of government in Wisconsin.  And other places, like Philadelphia, that have experienced some uprisings that authorities find inexplicable.  In Wisconsin, the messages of insult and denigration have been extended well into the middle class.  The public workers and their labor unions have been targeted.  The Governor and his minions have taken away their collective bargaining rights, calling the union members greedy, thugs, and designating them enemies to be conquered and eliminated.  This resulted in massive but peaceful protest demonstrations.  The Democrats initiated the recall elections against some of the state senators who endorsed and voted for the pogrom against the unions and the workers, which include teachers and public workers, but significantly did not include police and firefighters.  The message is out there.  The objects of the pogrom have officially been designated as greedy thugs and economic leeches, so the battle lines have been drawn.  The workers have tried peaceful protest and recall elections, but the democratic processes are not working for them.  They, like the looters of England, have had the point driven home for them:  politics doesn't matter.

One of the reasons Wisconsin was progressive in its collective bargaining laws was because of bitter and stultifying labor struggles.  After some massive and economy-stalling strikes, it chose to establish a legal process for bringing people to the bargaining table and having the sides in labor negotiations work out agreements.  That avenue is gone.  Politics does not matter.  So, what is left.  The young blacks rioting at the State Fair have given us an inkling.  And one is reminded that Wisconsin has a history of protest actions that are quite different from what took place in the state capitol late last winter.

Wisconsin is not the only state in which under the guise of fiscal responsibility a pogrom is being carried out against the poor, the middle class, and the work force.  And the U.S. government put on a pageant during the debt talks with messages that cannot be missed.

House speaker John Boehner sent out a booming message that most of white society could not hear, but blacks and other minorities could not miss.  When he reached a point in negotiations with Barack Obama that he decided to break off, he did not give the president the courtesy of a call.  In fact, Obama tried to call him, but was avoided and rebuffed.  Finally, Boehner called him and told him he would no longer negotiate with him.  One colleague who often works on Republican campaigns said, "Oh, no, no.  Do those people have any idea what they have just told African Americans?"  Another colleague of mine who is black sent out e-mail that recorded just what the message was:  he wrote, "The President just got niggered."

What both men were referring to  is a tactic that has been used against blacks when they  venture into territory reserved for white privileges.  They snubbed and treated as if they are not participants but bothersome things to ignore.

Boehner's performance has been reinforced by Mitt Romney, who is basing his run for the president on attacks against Obama.  He is not attacking Obama's policies and decisions, but has launched a full-fledged offensive against the person.  His message is that Obama has been worthless and useless, and what an indignity it has been to have someone like Obama in the White House.  Obama is persistently portrayed from the right as not part of America, as being something other, as being of questionable worthiness.   Obama is being niggered.

People have denigrated Obama because of his experience as a community organizer.  But community organizers know what the messages and their effects are that come into communities.  They know what happens when messages of denigration and oppression meet that segment of their community which operates largely from the reptilian cortex.  What happens is incidents like those with the young blacks at the Wisconsin State Fair.  Obama, even at his sternest, tries to keep the conflict at a low key by not feeding the aggressions of the Cantors, the Boehners, and the McConnells with responses that will encourage more insult and denigration.  However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that these leaders and other loud voices from the Republican side have clearly stated that their main purpose is to take down Barack Obama, even if they have to bring the entire country down to do it.  There is no lack of discussion and repetition of this message, so the entire country has heard it.

Nobody thinks the debt of the nation does not have to be addressed with all aspects of our spending and our revenues to be revised.  But the message coming from the right is that the debt will be resolved only through the total subjugation of the poor and the working middle class.  Corporations, many of which are currently making record profits, and their executives, many of whom are providing themselves with exorbitantly lavish bonuses, are the only ones who count.

The message that is coming through the loudest and the polls indicate the vast majority of Americans have heard  is that politics don't matter.  And when people cannot and will not engage in respectful, constructive discourse, the reptilian cortex starts taking over.

The right wing seems to think for some reason that the working people in Wisconsin should meekly accept their demeaned and powerless status and submit to the voiceless inequality assigned to them without protest.  That kind of submission is not in Wisconsin's history, nor that of the country as a whole.

The working people and those who want to work but cannot find work are being niggered.  Without regard to race or gender, of course.  And there is a part of the stereotypes of the underclass that is being ignored, that of the razor-slashing resistance to subservient  humiliation.   But the riots and burnings and gang attacks and police killings should be a reminder.

And for South Dakotans who feel removed from all this:  remember what happened to two police officers who fell in the line of duty in Rapid City last week.  The messages have penetrated deep into the reptilian cortex, which operates on the flight or fight level.  And some desperate people have no place to go. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States