Archive | March, 2011

Issue L: Wisconsin and La Follette’s Shadow

26 Mar

William Greider once wrote that the animating impulse behind the Republican Party in the George W. Bush era was to roll back the twentieth century’s progress on the environment, worker’s rights, civil rights, and the New Deal.  Perhaps no place better represents this fight to undo progress than the state of Wisconsin.

The Badger State looms large in the history of the American Progressive Movement.  Wisconsin’s most important governor, Robert M. La Follette, was a fiery populist who fought for the working man and against corporate power.  His followers nicknamed him “Fighting Bob” for his struggles against a bipartisan political system corrupted by railroad money.  He started out as an unremarkable politician in the late 1800s, serving as a Republican in Congress.  After he lost the 1890 election, the establishment offered this former farmer a bribe to fix a court case.  La Follette refused and began a 10 year people’s campaign against the political system, railroads, and the lumber companies that controlled the state.  Once elected governor in 1900, La Follette began a system of reforms copied across America.

His accomplishments included the invention of primaries for party nominations.  La Follette’s idea intended to break the control of party bosses.  In education, he invented the “Wisconsin Idea,” a highly influential idea in the history of American higher education.  The idea brought the University of Wisconsin into close contact with the real world: government professors advised city planners, agriculture professors taught farmers, and engineering departments improved manufacturing.  This public service function of higher education is uniquely an American idea.  Governor La Follette also broke up the monopolies in the state, made corporations pay their fair share in taxes, and protected the forests and small farmers.  He also strongly supported women’s suffrage and opposed the Ku Klux Klan.  Many of the ideas came from German immigrants who brought the ideas of worker’s compensation and disability insurance from Otto von Bismark’s social welfare system.  Wisconsin started the nation’s first worker’s compensation system.

When the people of Wisconsin sent him to Washington as a senator in 1906, they intended for him to become the ambassador of Wisconsin reform ideas to the rest of America.  A fiery orator, he opposed the corporate takeover of Washington.  He derided Theodore Roosevelt as too weak on the Progressive cause and ran against him in the 1912 Republican primary as the stronger champion of reform.  Senator La Follette was the original antiwar and anti-imperialist politician, opposing the United States entry into World War I.   The senator argued strenuously against this war of imperialism on behalf of big business and the corporate oligarchy in a filibuster.  In fact, the Senate had to invent the cloture rule to end his filibuster.  A man of extremely strong principle, he defended the rights of Socialists being imprisoned for their beliefs like Eugene Debs and criticized Congress’s refusal to seat Socialist congressmen.

After such brave and unpopular stands, you would think the old man would retire.  He instead ran for re-election to take on the war profiteering companies that benefited from World War I; he won by the largest landslide in Wiconsin history.  After two party hacks were nominated by the Republicans and Democrats for president, La Follette ran as a third party candidate in 1924 for president.  Senator La Follette called for the abolition of child labor, defense of freedom of speech, nationalization of the railroads, municipal ownership of power companies, and a national referendum before the nation went to war.  Exhortations to vote for the “lesser of two evils” prevailed, and the Republican corporate hack Calvin Coolidge won the election in a landslide.  The election had the lowest turnout in American history which suggests that millions of people were discouraged from voting for the man they believed in.  La Follette died the following year; before he died he warned America that the unjust Treaty of Versailles would cause another world war and that rising bank and farm failures in the 1920s would lead to a financial crisis.

La Follette stood for everything great and good in America.  Everything cowardly scoundrels like Glenn Beck denigrate on a nightly basis in the comfort of their New York studios.  Progressives like La Follette stood for America when America wouldn’t stand for itself in its darkest days of pro-war hysteria.

Wisconsin politicians since then love to pay tribute to the great man.  The recently defeated Senator Russ Feingold admired La Follette and followed his principles when in office, voting against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act.  But these days, gee, they just don’t make them like they used to.

Governor Scott Walker represents the antithesis of everything Robert La Follette ever stood for.  He hates the unions and the working class.  He cut taxes for big corporations and planned to sell off the public power plants in no bid contracts.  Walker has cut into  environmental regulation while serving as the errand boy for Koch Industries and their pro-pollution far-right agenda against the people.  The Koch brothers, the top Tea Party financiers in America, make billions off of American taxpayers by mining on public lands and eating up biofuel subsidies.  They are the type of monopolists La Follette and the Progressive Party were born to fight.

In fact, unlike past governors, he refused to be sworn in near the bust of Robert La Follette in the state capitol.  Governor Walker likes his unpopular stand in this collective bargaining battle, but he is not standing up on deep principle or on on behalf of the little people who have no voice.  He’s too busy fighting to end kindergarten for four year olds.

In short, Scott Walker wants a Wisconsin without Robert La Follette.  The people of Wisconsin have decided they want a Wisconsin without Scott Walker.


Wisconsin Historical Society – “Career of Robert La Follette

Fighting Bob – “About Robert La Follette

Issue XLIXb: Diversity is in the mind, not in the skin

18 Mar

In order to help us remake our mental map of the world, we need to understand different ways of thinking and of seeing the world, with different geographies and realities.  True diversity is in the mind, not in the skin.  But before we can reconceptualize East and West, we need recognize who the pretenders are.

What it does not look like

Jorge Luis Borges famously questioned literary nationalism in his speech “The Argentine Writer and Tradition.”  Argentinean writers were fascinated with uncovering the true, indigenous tradition of Argentina by relying on the local gaucho (cowboy) oral tradition.  They would write stories in what they thought was the strongest rural gaucho dialect possible.  Whoever used the most country (i.e. hick) language was the best storyteller and the most “Argentinean.”

Borges did not criticize relying on the local gaucho tradition.  He may even prefer it to the unreasonable love of literature from their former colonizer, Spain.  But does fetishization of the local idiosyncrasies really make one Argentinean?  Is piling on local flavor really making you a local?  Or does it make you a tourist?

Borges pointed out that in the Koran there is no mention of camels.

“I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work.  It was by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, and no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is to have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels.  I think we Argentines can emulate Mohammed, can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color.”

Similarly, the Buenos Aires intelligentsia misrepresented the gaucho tradition by overemphasizing differences and overdoing their manners of speech.  They were caricaturing and fetishizing the gaucho like a foreigner would.  A real gaucho would not talk like that, and a real Argentine would not get away with such a parody of their tradition.

Is this some old, irrelevant speech from a country most of us have ever visited?  Not really.  Think about other situations.  Do hip hop artists overemphasize the violence of the ghetto, the hardness of their life, the desperation of the ‘hood, and the ghetto-ness of their slang?  Would someone from the inner city really talk like that or are these artists outsiders (or selling to outsiders)?  Who is more authentic?  The people really in the ‘hood just live the life, not rap about it.

The same can apply to Indian writing in English.  Do Indian writers always emphasize mangos and spicy chutney in their stories? Is the pushiness and coziness of family life being told or implicitly accepted?  Are these Anglicized urban Indians selling to outsiders or are they telling it like it is to those who instinctually live it without question?  In the real India, rural India, the stories are always known in advance but are told over and over again with different spins or emphases.

George W. Bush was born in Connecticut and after a few years in Midland public schools went to boarding school in Massachusetts and then to Yale and Harvard.  When he ran for Congress in the 1970s, he lost to a good ol’ boy from Texas Tech who emphasized Bush’s blue blood Yankee roots.  A distant relative of the Queen of England does not poll too well in West Texas.  After Bush’s loss, he decided to never be out-Texaned by anyone again.  He emphasized his (slight) Midland roots, and he even bought a ranch with no cattle the year before he decided to run for president.  Bush’s walking and talking parody of Texas was marketing for the non-Texans while he did what he could for the New England country club class he was born to serve.

How do you know when something is real then?  There are many George W. Bush’s playing on their movie set ranches, pretending to be something they are not to outsiders and gullible locals.

The truly authentic will exude their diversity in how they act and think.  You don’t see Obama sporting beach clothing and talking about how much he likes to surf.  He exudes the Hawaiian cool attitude and relaxed nature in his every move.

But what are diverse ways of thinking?  The next report will discuss some different ways of thinking in the world.

Issue XLIXa: Reconceptualizing East and West [a series]

13 Mar

When Sultan Mehmet captured Constantinople and ended a Western empire that lasted 1,123 years and 18 days, he walked into the desolate palace and found ruins.  The Byzantine Empire outlasted the Roman Empire for centuries, and it had now met its end by the Turkish Muslim king who began the Ottoman Empire.

As the sultan stepped into the Palace of the Emperors, he whispered these immortal lines in Persian:

The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.

Given the recent events in the Middle East, perhaps the West should feel as irrelevant and defeated as the old Byzantines.  History’s movers and shakers now populate the East and not the West.  For the first time in maybe centuries, events and ideas in the East inspire history in the West.

Madison, Wisconsin is a strange place to imagine would be where the globalization of ideas began to reverse its direction.  Cairo’s protests inspired massive resistance in Wisconsin.  Al Jazeera (which spread the seeds of revolution) received surprising praise for its substantial and serious news coverage (especially compared to American news) from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  The export of ideas and ideologies (or at least the credit for them) has flowed from West to East for decades if not centuries.  The current of ideas, backed up like the Aswan Dam, just burst through from East to West and (like the Nile) from the global South to North.  The West is stuck and in decline.  If it is to remain relevant, it needs to copy the best of the other side’s ideas.

The old ways of teaching history and conceiving of the world do not give us the appropriate language to speak intelligently about this new world.  Mehmet even changed the name of Constantinople to Istanbul so we may need a new map to this world as in his world.

How can we find this language?  Where do we begin?  How do we re-conceptualize East and West?  The following Bhatany Report series will seek to answer these questions and re-orient our Eurocentric understanding of the world.  First, we will challenge certain orthodoxies on the origins of ideas.  Then we will challenge the idea that increasing diversity in employment, politics, and power will increase a diversity of the mind.  And finally the Bhatany Report will explain how and why we can fix our own mental maps.

Dispatch from London: The Middle East’s Laundromat

8 Mar

This morning’s edition of the Guardian fronted the news that the head of the London School of Economics and Political Science had resigned last night over donations from Libya.  Colonel Qadaffi’s son received a Ph.D. from the institution that may be fraudlent.  Lord Megnhnad Desai (an economics professor) supervised the dissertation that a quick Google search revealed to be ripped off of the IMF’s website.

Is it really that unusual?  London is the Middle East’s favorite spending place.  An Egyptian owned Harrod’s and sold it to the Qatari royal family.  A few steps north of Oxford Street finds offices of all the Middle East airlines.  U.A.E. money paid for the Sheik Zayad Theatre in the LSE’s New Academic Building.  Hijabs and rather stylish burkas parade down Regent Street shops.

It’s in a central time zone (not too far from the Continent, Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Asia, or the Eastern U.S.A.).  The tax laws are favorable to foreigners in a wayAmerica’s are not.  Financial regulation like Sarbanes-Oxley did not apply here; a little known fact about the AIG implosion is that it began at their division in London.

Is there a better way for this city to exist and prosper?