Sunday, August 24, 2014

Political Protests in Wisconsin and the Middle East: A Common Denominator?

Imagine some of the blue-collar unionists in Wisconsin's Capitol in February, 2011 suddenly "losing it," insulting officers of the Capitol Police keeping an eye on the protest going on in the rotunda. Due to a video made public (and related news stories), a clan of officers taking down just one protester, who was actually there merely to observe a protest two years later, we don't have to imagine such a scene, albeit "downsized" from that of protesters en masse being attacked.   

From the video: The young man being thrown to the floor and jumped on had last made reference to his right of peaceful protest, which the police presumably punished him for anyway. How much power do rights have if force refuses to recognize them?  Image Source:

Had there been a full-blown confrontation in February, 2011, imagine how quickly the barefoot dancers would have run in horror past all the blood, open wounds, and death. The distance between Madison and Manama back in February, 2011 would have been significantly narrowed, but not eliminated. A common denominator does indeed exist: the propensity of human nature to abuse a monopoly of power and to view other people as objects rather than ends in themselves.

The inhabitants in the United States are muffled from the starker political protests that go on in other regions of the world; so much of the status quo is presumed in the U.S. Also, the difference between a real dictatorship and the republic form of government, and the difference between the political culture of Bahrain and that of Wisconsin make a difference, to be sure. However, a political protest by a mob is inherently unstable; the police and military in Wisconsin are just as capable of abusing their legal right to use lethal force just as the police and military in Bahrain, Syria, Egypt, or Libya.  This point is often lost on people living in a society whose political system has been stable for over a century.

Just a week before the protests in Madison that began on February 17, 2011, a Madison police officer had been dismissed for "overbearing, oppressive, or tyrannical conduct." Should people who have problems with impulse control have a gun just inches from trigger-happy fingers? The capital of Wisconsin could become something more like the capital of Bahrain, or a major city in Libya than we might suppose. That is to say, such a slide would not take as much as might be assumed. 
On Saturday, February 19th, "Libyan forces opened fire on mourners leaving a funeral for protesters Saturday in the flashpoint city of Benghazi." The Libyan death toll from protests reached a hundred, while Wisconsin senators were praising the lack of any violence in five days of mass protest in Madison. The contrast could not be starker. Besides the obvious difference in violence, protecting the bargaining power of public-sector unions in a republic is a world away from deposing a dictator.
Even so, the potential of an underlying common denominator based on human nature, from which violence is possible at any large protest, should not be so easily dismissed even where there are limited aims, a mitigating political culture, and a relatively open political system. To support this point, I now turn to the matter of the commonality of human nature playing out in the concurrent protests going on in Madison, Wisconsin, Manama, Bahrain, Sana, Yemen and Benghazi, Libya.

For one thing,  Madison may not have been any less corrupt than Manama at the time of the concurrent protests. Apart from the progressive students that the university there is known for, the city itself is rather provincial.  For example, Robert Lafollette remarks in the preface of his autobiography that the political boss in Madison in the early years of the twentieth century had been rather corrupt. That boss kept Lafollette out of politics for years due to his "reformist" tendencies.

In the 1930s, the city bosses in Madison's city government twice thwarted the will of the people expressed in two referendums that Frank Lloyd Wright's plan for a city building on one of the city lakes be built (Monona Terrace was finally built in the 1990s). The reason, according to a PBS documentary on Wright, was that the city "leaders" didn't like him.

In the early 1990s, a professor on chemotherapy, fighting for his very life, also had to fight for tenure simply because he had been critical of a local bank that had endowed a chair in banking. The senior faculty member occupying that professorship was determined to force the well-published professor up for tenure out. 

During a short visit to Madison about twenty years after the fact, I discovered that the case had hardly been forgotten by long-term staff and of course the senior faculty. The tenure vote had somehow been "misreported." After the professor's lawyer counted the ballots and discovered the dean's office's "mistake," the school had to recommend tenure to the university tenure committee,  which had the final say. Unfortunately, the banking professor bullied the committee members and the tenure motion went down. As for the bully, the dean's office subsequently rewarded him with an associate deanship. The university apparently knows how to reward its own. One of the vice chancellors at the time of the incident would offer a shrug with a grin when asked years later as to why the dean's office had lied about the tenure vote. "[That faculty member] was a problem." In other words, lying about an election result at a state institution was justified if you wanted the guy gone. The screenwriters for The Sopranos couldn't come up with a better plot.

During my visit, I was stunned when a legislative staffer of one of the members of the legislature's Education Committee admitted to me as an aside that the University of Wisconsin is run like the mafia. "It is an open secret in the state-house," he said. Two staffers at the university subsequently confirmed for me the sordid nature of the university's administration. "It would not surprise me if what happened to that business professor years ago were the norm," a long-time employee told me with a shrug. 

A tenured professor told me that the university's chief of police had been sharing confidential police records of students with their parents, and that officers had been taking students' IDs on the basis of mere suspicion. The university's chancellor at the time told that professor that he did not want to "take on" the chief as she was a rather "assertive" lesbian who did not take well to being hemmed in, even by her boss. This means that the university's police force was essentially free of accountability, at least as far as the university is concerned.

Lastly, I learned that the provost's office had taken over a department in the humanities because its chairperson had been using funds vindictively. The chairperson of another such department, since promoted to the provost's office, had acted at the request of his friends in other departments to push out visiting professors as if with utter impunity, hence brazenly. 

It is no secret among academics at other universities that vindictive politics characterizes the university. Madrick, for example, writes of Milton Friedman's brief stint as a faculty member there: "After a difficult year as a young associate at the University of Wisconsin embroiled in faculty politics, Friedman returned to Washington to work for the Treasury in the early years of World War II."[1] The fraud at UW certainly goes beyond the sort of petty politics that doubtlessly go on at every college and university. The "this goes on everywhere" defense mechanism and enabler can only fall with a loud thump for anyone with a larger perspective.

In short, the city (and the University of Wisconsin) may suffer from a corrupt insider element that does not feel itself constrained either by fairness or the law, and this could potentially sow the seeds for revolution. The seed, after all, is in the harvest.

That Wisconsin is a republic (i.e. a policy characterized by representative democracy) whereas Bahrain was a kingdom at the time does not mean that abuse of power by public authorities is not possible in either polity, given the under-current of human nature. Outside Sana University in Yemen, for example, a few hundred people complained on February 17, 2011 of corruption and poor government services. According to USA Today, Mouath Hamed said that corruption was killing Yemen. Why haven't Madisonians and UW students protested the corruption in their midst?
Unlike the protesters in Madison, the protesters in Sana declared, "This is the beginning of the revolution." They faced sticks and electro-shock weapons as the students in Madison danced barefoot in a warm rotunda during winter.

The capital city of a republic can be so corrupt that protesters in such a city should demand mass resignations of  entrenched, corrupt and incompetent civil servants in order to clean up the people's house. It could be objected that my American cultural bias shows through here; to expand protest demands merely to include getting rid of civil servants can be labeled as an Americanization of what in terms of the Middle East protests would include the ouster of top government officials and the cessation of extant constitutions. To be sure, the American constitutions are already democratic.
However, it is only to the extent that a constitution really is democratic that it can be expected to not be treated by protesters like a constitution in the Middle East that props up a dictator. For instance, to the extent that office-holders in a republic can protect themselves as entrenched incumbents from the electoral check afforded to the people by a democratic constitution, the protests of the people could eventually come to approximate those in a dictatorship, even in America, if the pressure rises to a certain critical threshold. That is to say, the curtain of political stability that we presume distinguishes us from them could be ripped down the middle if the corruption continues to get worse.

Depending on the salience of popular sovereignty in the American republics, it is possible that the sort of demands made by the protesters in the Middle East could be carried by westerly winds and take root in the United States. I am not advocating such protests because they risk the total collapse of civic order. Also, unlike dictatorships, republics can perhaps repair themselves without such violence. Even so, fundamental protest that treats the system of governance itself as illegitimate could take root in any of the United States if sufficient public frustration builds up amid the hubris of wealth and power manifesting in corruption and other abuses of power.

Abstractly speaking, human political nature is a constant in the human race; accordingly, the potential for escalation and ensuing violence should not be summarily dismissed on the basis of an assumed sui generis American civic culture that is somehow immune from revolution. In the American context, the driver to watch is the extent to which the corruption of wealth entrenches itself in the halls of government at the expense of government of, by and for the people. Public officials desiring favors, good relations, friendship, or money are tempted to develop cozy relationships with entrenched private property interests at the expense of the public good and justice. At the time of their respective protests at least, Madison and Manama may not have been so different in this regard. Therefore, even though the pictures of the respective protests in Manama and Madison clearly suggest marked differences in the nature of the protests, the underlying dynamic might have been more alike than the barefoot dancers in Wisconsin could have known, for they were generally blind in their festivity to the true corruption in their midst. It is far easier to see corruption in the other's yard than on one's own street.

America is not an island isolated from human nature. We are not so exceptional or protected as the political culture we have built up may suggest to us.  As incredible as it may seem, both in terms of aims and governmental reaction, the protests that were spreading throughout the Middle East in early 2011 could manifest at some time manifest in any of the United States. It is not as though American public-private connections are so pristine or salubrious that fundamental protest could not take root. We are not so different--not so immune--as we might suppose. It may be that the Tea Party included traces of this more fundamental level of protest in the 2010 election season in declaring that the U.S. Government had gone beyond its constitutional authority in certain respects and was to that extent illegitimate as a government. It should not be lost on any of us that the subterranean human political dynamic stemming from human nature can surface at any time, anywhere. Specifically, the human proclivity to engage in corruption and even violence and to protest arrogant governmental encroachment on human liberty are the real dynamics going on under the surface anytime, anywhere, there is political authority and mass political protest.  A political culture can moderate this dynamic only to a certain extent, even if appearances seem to say otherwise. Any type of government invented by man is mortal, and flawed, being constructed by and inhabited by human beings. Likewise, human nature is mortal, and flawed. The interaction of political organization and human nature cannot be segmented by region or political system such that one area or type is somehow different, or safe from the latent violence that is almost inherent in the interaction itself. So the protests in Madison and Manama were in some important ways very distinct, but in a more fundamental sense they were made of the same stuff--albeit realized outwardly differentially because of the different types of polity and cultures.

In the end, good, stable government may depend on caritas seu benevolentia universalis (higher human love, that is, universal benevolence) rather than privilege and partiality. The people of any polity have the right and  responsibility to insist that the people they put in authority over them use their power on the basis of compassion rather than corruption.

1. Jeff Madrick, Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2011), p. 32.

Sources: (poster of Mubarak and Walker at the protests in Wisconsin)  (on the psychology/corruption in the Madison police dept)
Iona Craig, "Protests Spread, Worsen in Middle East," USA Today, February 18, 2011, p. 8A.
Dennis Cauchon, "In Wis., Pitched Battle by Unions," USA Today, February 18, 2011, p. 1A.

Jeff Madrick, Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2011), p. 32.
Concurrent lead stories on protests in Libya and Wisconsin on February 19, 2011:

On La Follette of Wisconsin, see:,_Sr.