A year ago this weekend, my husband and I attended a rally in Madison to protest changes made by our then-new governor and a state government whose Republican majority supported him. That Governor Walker won the election with only a 52% majority perhaps foretold the divisiveness to come, but I don’t think many of us anticipated the cataclysmic changes or acrimonious conflicts ahead.
Over the past year, the elimination of collective bargaining rights for public sector employees (with the exception of police and fire fighters), the draconian cuts to public school funding (in the neighborhood of 900 million dollars), the implementation of voter identification requirements, and dozens of other measures taken to ostensibly “manage the money” of our state, have split its people and created an atmosphere of such vitriol and mistrust that friends and families have parted company and once-strong professional alliances have broken beyond repair.
Whatever merit existed in these changes and whatever “good” they have contributed to the state budget, they have come at too great a cost to the spirit and people of the place I have called home most of my life. I continue to protest the manner in which these changes have been enacted and I am anguished by the attitudes of disrespect and indifference with which those in the majority have flouted their power. But I am equally affronted by much of the oppositions’ language and inability to focus on policy rather than the individuals with whom they disagree.
Over a million signatures—540,208 were required–were collected to force a recall election of Governor Walker and his lieutenant governor, and other signatures have ensured the potential recall of other state legislators, including our own district’s senator, the majority leader of the state senate.
These recall elections will take place within the next few months. I’ve joined thousands of others in supporting the recall elections, but I dread the anger, distortions, and noise the campaign advertising will likely spew and the bitterness they will engender. My conscience led me to protest the choices and to participate in what I felt were just actions to stop those in power from creating further damage, but I’m so disappointed it’s come to this, and I’ve tried to proceed cautiously. I want to remain hopeful regarding the outcome.
What continue to sadden and perplex me are the perceived and dangerous changes in our degrees of dialogue, courtesy, and compromise that have shadowed this entire process, a reflection of the larger national shifts in political and social discourse, and in the sensationalized way they are presented and reported by our media.
I wonder a lot these days about lines that are drawn with humorous intent that then becomes sarcastic, then cynical, and then hate-fueled…when do these lines become too dangerous to cross? When do they become walls?
At what point do words incite action and then violent action? Are there a given number of rally cries, or decibels, that convert a crowd into a mob? When does a discussion become an argument and an argument a war? When does a perceived threat overtake reason?
What creates the necessary energy to make me forget my connection to everyone in my community and align myself with only those who think as I do?
What, finally and irreversibly, causes us to see each other as enemy?
When did some Germans, or Poles, or Hungarians look at their Jewish neighbors and begin to see them as expendable? And how did “some” become “more” and then “enough?” What shift allowed Rwandan Hutus to pick up axes, and knives, and spears to murder their lifelong Tutsi neighbors? How could the English elite turn away from my own ancestors’ starvation? How could they ignore Irish people eating dirt and families dying in fields? How could anyone ever consider anyone else his property? How were the United States shaped by justifying the destruction of those who were already settled here? Is it possible to freeze the moment when my vision alters, my self-awareness fades, and my heart turns?
We’re always walking on see-saws and there are tipping points everywhere.
People read historical accounts of human atrocities and shake their heads. How did that happen; what were they thinking; how could they allow it? But I doubt those living into such times conceived what they would become. We must always be aware of our words and their power, our energy and what it can harness, our shadow and where its neglect may lead us.
The usual suspects: greed, power, fear and ignorance are like liquid mercury, and only mindful attention to the direction they’re flowing and ways they’re joining forces—within and without–works in our favor. So we must slow down. See the human frailty in ourselves and the other. Be brave enough and energetic enough to counter injustice before it overwhelms.
We must never be willing to sit back in silence when there are people and governments who must be held accountable for their behavior, but we have to focus on the behavior, the flawed thinking, the likely damage, not engage in hating the individuals. And we must be willing to take a long and penetrating look at our own motives and behavior. Make apologies when necessary. Proceed with care.
Begin and end with love.
A news program I admire for its maturity and impartiality is The News Hour on PBS; an added attraction is that women guests, reporters, and newscasters are as prominent as men. I especially enjoy David Brooks and Mark Shields for their respectful way of presenting opposing views: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/indepth_coverage/politics/political_wrap/