Feeling the noise in our cross-wired America

Ron Legro

Ron Legro
Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, USA
October 12
A lapsed and reformed journalist, one-time for-profit soldier of fortune in the private sector, and political functionary, Ron is now re-learning the joys of hanging around while watching the microcosm unfold. But he's not above rising out of his enlightened stupor to call out perfidy and hypocrisy when he sees it. Ron was an award-winning reporter who worked at several newspapers, including the Milwaukee Sentinel and Wall Street Journal. His assignments took him aboard ice breakers and into the private lives of sexually miscreant clergy. In his years pounding the street with a notebook, he covered everything from tavern brawls to mob hits to political assassinations. He has contributed to various magazines, incuding Time. As editor-in-chief of a weekly public affairs journal, he led coverage of Wisconsin government down to every last legislative vote. Ron also pulled duty as a daily TV columnist and film critic, who spent most of his space examining the sociopolitical implications of mass media. He moved on to become a consultant to communities, nonprofit interest groups and government institutions on open networks. He's also worked for a power utility, several elected officials, a housing authority, and a university. He produced cable TV programming and once acted in a commercial, just to see what it was like. He and his dear wife enjoy beach combing on Lake Michigan near their home. They go bike hiking on city streets or trails. They like sailing and cross-country skiing, too, but never seem to find the time. They hang their laundry on clothes lines. That's them in the photo, regarding the ultra-modernist, bird-winged cathedral that is the Milwaukee Art Museum.

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MARCH 11, 2011 12:21PM

The Wisconsin GOP's terrible, terrible victimization

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On display once again in the wake of the Wisconsin Republican vote to destroy collective bargaining for public workers: the fetish of self-victimization that conservatives seem to possess in spades.

In the aftermath of their most successful power grab in history, Wisconsin Republicans are in some cases too distracted to feel celebratory; instead, they're feeling assaulted and persecuted. Even when they are the very top of the piggy pile, they perceive themselves at the very bottom of it.

Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald, the Wisconsin Assembly speaker and brother of state Senate leader Scott Fitzgerald (whose father was recently appointed by Gov. Scott Walker to run the Wisconsin State Patrol), actually took the floor yesterday to read aloud from some of the death threat emails he and other legislators say they have received.

Yes, that's right. The biggest issue for some Wisconsin Assembly Republicans after voting to undermine public employee unions? Their own safety. So concerned are they that they attempted to make it a big public issue, in much the way that Richard Nixon and his GOP made anti-war protests a law-and-order issue 40 years ago.

Now, before we proceed, a couple of stipulations:

1. Threats of violence and harm against anyone, politician or otherwise, are totally unacceptable and never to be taken lightly.

2. Any threats against Republican legislators in Wisconsin are being, and should be, investigated carefully.

But fair-minded observers also need to regard the following additional context:

1. Politicians of all political persuasions and in all circumstances, not just situations as volatile as the Republicans managed to engineer in Wisconsin, frequently receive threats. That's just reality. It is reality for many modern celebrities.

2. Those threats come from a very, very tiny minority of citizens, and are sometimes just empty threats from very angry people who can't control their emotions.

3. Other times, even more infrequent, such threats come from people who not only can't control their emotions, but act upon them, such as the January case in Arizona of the suspect who shot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wounded 13 others and killed six, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl.

4. And, ironically, it has rarely been the case that conservatives or Republicans or other authoritarian political figures have been the targets of actual violence. While such incidents are not unknown, mostly it has been liberals and Democrats in the cross hairs actually experiencing threats and even getting injured or killed, from FDR through JFK and Martin Luther King to Rep. Giffords.

Yet it is Republicans once again making a big, public, political deal out of all such threats, now going so far as to read them into the official Wisconsin legislative record. The implication is unmistakable: These threats against them are somehow of a special character, more real and more tendentious, and thus a sign that the Republicans face more evil opposition than those with whom they politically disagree. And then there's the fact that the threats are occurring at the very moment many, many protesters are in the streets. It's an attempt at making a causal connection between peaceful mass protest and isolated physical threats.

Whatever happened to standard police procedure, which, typically, is to withhold actual threat information to preserve the integrity of the investigative process? If you're a politico like Jeff Fitzgerald, you just can't wait to share your upset with the entire populace, almost literally gossiping about it in a staged fashion. It's reminiscent of GOP House Whip Eric Cantor, who announced just about a year ago that threats had been made against him and that someone had fired a bullet through the window of his campaign office in Richmond, Pennsylvania.

Surely threats have been made against Cantor, as they have against most politicians of all stripes. but Cantor actually went on to accuse Democrats of using the threats for political advantage. As it turned out, that role belonged to Cantor himself. Richmond police eventually issued a statement saying the bullet in question actually had been fired into the air and then struck the office window on its downward angle back to earth. In other words, it was very likely an errant shot from a nearby woods, and not a sniper assault.

Now, it is true, Democrats on occasion have noted that they themselves were threatened. Democrats, however, don't blame the other party for these threats, and don't typically appear on the floor of their legislative chambers to read off the actual texts of threats in public, like Fitzgerald did yesterday.

What was he thinking? Well, you don't need to possess telepathic powers to divine that. Fitzgerald was thinking -- and hoping to convince others to think -- that the latest batch of threats were not from some very tiny oddball minority of fringe-case nut jobs, but that they somehow characterized in a fundamental way the many tens of thousands of protesters who continue to show up outside the Wisconsin Capitol. Those protesters have been amazingly peaceful and polite, albeit upset and loud, but they've already been characterized by various Wisconsin Republicans as "slobs" and "hateful" people. And now comes Fitzgerald to make the final, implied connection.

The threats, Fitzgerald said, were the reason for the heavy security measures that all but shut the Capitol to the public, an act explicitly banned in the state's constitution. "I love this job. I love debating. But I'm not going to risk anyone's life," the Republican from Horicon said on the Assembly floor. After the vote, the entire Republican Assembly caucus left the legislative chambers in extraordinary fashion, escorted by a large group of state troopers and agents of the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation. If words alone could puncture hearts and heads, they surely did have something to worry about.

Strangely, the Democrats weren't afforded nearly such tight and awesome security, if they even wanted it. Another causal meme: Democrats can move more freely among the protesters who (more meme) wish we Republicans harm. Those Democrats can't, however, move very freely within the halls of the Wisconsin Capitol, on occasion in the past few weeks barred from their offices and tackled by police in hallways. Thugs, you say? Union thugs? Well, police are, in fact, unionized. But that doesn't mean those isolated incidents reflect the views or behavior of all officers, who like the protesters have been overall poised, as well as remarkably even-handed.

The reality is this: After three weeks of protests that collectively have drawn hundreds of thousands of people to rallies around the Capitol, only a handful of people have been cited for misdemeanor conduct or arrested, and no one has been arrested for any act of physical violence, because that violence has not occurred. A high school soccer game or stadium rock concert might produce more arrests. Mahatma Gandhi himself probably couldn't have arranged a more peaceful demonstration of such size.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that fewer than ten Wisconsin State Patrol officers stood dressed in riot gear among many other police at the scene, and that those officers were never called into action.

And while words on some protest signs and out of the mouths of some protesters were at times angry and derisive, they did not threaten violence. Only the handful of privately delivered emails mentioned by Fitzgerald did that, and they were and are a sad but omnipresent feature in modern American discourse.

Yes, it was true: Some citizens actually banged on drums, pounded on doors and shouted to be let in. In another time and place -- the year 2000, Miami-Dade County, Florida -- right-wing demonstrators trucked in by the Republican Party, many of them GOP staffers, did all these things and worse, and actually stopped the presidential election recount. The Republican Party later formally feted those apparently upstanding public heroes. But Wisconsin Republicans were not impressed with the Madison variant.

Then, in the evening, came further justification for all the heavy security that the administration of Republican Gov. Scott Walker had summoned, helping raise tempers in the first place. Fox News Channel made the reported Wisconsin threats its top story of the evening in a segment headlined, "Fear, Loathing and Death Threats in Wisconsin." Here's the lead-off, from Fox's own transcript:

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Tonight: Well, it is downright ugly in Wisconsin! At this hour, state Republicans are getting death threats! The state capitol -- well, it's on lockdown, thousands of protesters pounding on the doors, but access is denied. Protesters were dragged away by police.

Later, Van Susteren interviews Rep. Fitzgerald, who explains why some Democratic Assembly members had serious trouble getting into the Capitol to vote on the bill (although their Republican counterparts seemed to have no problem whatsoever doing likewise):

FITZGERALD: It was pretty difficult today. And the problem, Greta, was, is that we were trying to secure the building so we could get legislators in to take a vote. You know, last night, when we did the conference committee and the senate passed the bill, it was very difficult for myself and the majority leader, my brother, to even get out of the building to a safe place. So you know, within an hour of that last night, they probably had anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 students storm the capitol building, break open doors and force their way into the building. So it's been very, very difficult and high-charged times here in Madison.

"They" being the opposition, which according to past GOP statements is apparently non-diverse and collectively orchestrated by "Obama's D.C. union bosses." As for "break open doors": Well, that's a stretch, too. Police reported no break-ins. True, some door knobs were terribly stressed or at least horribly soiled by countless hands tugging on locked doors of the people's building. In some cases, police -- whom Walker exempted from his union-busting measure but who have been amazingly sympathetic to the protests, to the point of sometimes marching with the protesters off-duty -- simply let people in, as state law instructs.

Still later in the Fox-cast:

VAN SUSTEREN: Can you describe the level of threats? I have been reading that there have been death threats. But give me some idea of what the Republicans are going through.

Yes, yes, Republicans are going through such a terrible, terrible time. Listen in:

FITZGERALD: Yes, there's been threats on the Republican senators, Republican assembly folks, and I even think some threats on Democrats, as well. So I think it's all over the place. But yes, some very specific death threats, spelling out how to kill elected officials, very scary stuff. And unfortunately, there's some people out there that have a real problem. And it's very scary stuff, and you know, that's why I took a vote today on the floor. There wasn't a lot of debate because I was really concerned for the safety of my members.

Why, as Walker put it in an interview with Fox's Sean Hannity, the protesters have "come in front of my home. And also they've come in front of lawmakers' homes."

Horrors! You mean, like the anti-abortion protesters who "come in front" of the homes of medical professionals? But by the way, Scott Walker's home is the Wisconsin governor's official residence -- a gated and security-patrolled mansion far from the street. It's probable he couldn't even see the protesters he was told were out there. Oh, all this fussing about democracy is such a terrible threat to his safety and well-being.

Yes, yes. The people "out there" do have a "real problem," but it's a problem with Republican politics. Nevertheless, to hear Fitzgerald and others tell it, the real victims of this week's action in the Wisconsin Legislature weren't hundreds of thousands of public employees deprived of their collective bargaining rights, charged hundreds of dollars per month against their salaries and told they'll never be able to get more than a rate of inflation increase in pay forevermore. No, they weren't the victims. The Republicans who victimized them are the victims. As usual. US Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) said the protesters represent "mob rule." But it's the organized mob inside the walls of the state Capitol who have committed larceny.

ADDENDUM:  On Friday, The Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation said it had identified and located a person suspected of sending at least two threats against elected officials. The identification was made Thursday night and according to the news release, "the suspect subsequently admitted to authoring and sending two emails threatening to kill the governor and members of the Senate." Rep. Fitzgerald apparently read aloud on the Assembly floor from those emails. So, one guy sends criminally threatening messages, and all of a sudden we're hearing Republicans not only making a big deal about that in public, but complaining about "mobs" and "thugs" outside the Capitol, all in the cause of trying to make a connection between the two events.

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So well said. Republicans truly have psychotic problems and victimization is it. Besides your excellent points, just look at Gingrich and all other adulterous repubs. who are now blaming their own hard work and love of country for abandoning two wives while they were ill, then married the staff person he chased around his desk while he was in office. I think it has something to do with using the ideas of the religious right to ensnare the religious right.
What do they say: It's had to know when the devil is duping you.
Go in peace.
So well said. Republicans truly have psychotic problems and victimization is it. Besides your excellent points, just look at Gingrich and all other adulterous repubs. who are now blaming their own hard work and love of country for abandoning two wives while they were ill, then married the staff person he chased around his desk while he was in office. I think it has something to do with using the ideas of the religious right to ensnare the religious right.
What do they say: It's had to know when the devil is duping you.
Go in peace.