Monday, September 3, 2012

Progressive History Professor

The following was the first blog that I attempted to post on September 3. Due to my inexperience (incompetence?) it was not posted properly. So I am attempting to post it today, September 22. Apparently, some people have already received it, for reasons that I cannot begin to fathom. Anyway, here is my inaugural blog.

My name is John Buenker and I am a retired history professor who has been on the faculty of three different public universities for more than 40 years. I have spent most of my adult life reading, researching, and teaching U.S. history. Like most of my friends and colleagues, I am appalled at the colossal ignorance and deliberate distortion of that history by extreme right-wing politicians, "think tanks," and "foundations." Like the characters in George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, they constantly rewrite history to suit their selfish purposes and to legitimize their own wealth and power. One of the most blatant examples of their sophistry occurred in Wisconsin during the campaign, unfortunately unsuccessful, to recall Governor Scott Walker, when a "think tank"calling itself the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute issued a "Report" making the astoundingly absurd claim that the very Progressives who instituted recall in the first place would have opposed its use against Walker and several of his henchmen.In reality, the WPRI is a tax-sheltered ultra-conservative Republican propaganda mill financed by such behemoths as the Northwester Mutual Foundation, the Charlotte and Walter Kohler Charitable Trust, the Wausau Paper Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Lubar Family Foundation, and the Roe Foundation. Its chairman is Charles Lightbourn, the former senior vice-president of the Wisconsin Energy Corporation, a longtime associate of Tommy Thompson, and chairman of "Bush for President-Wisconsin" in both 2000 and 2004. Its board of directors include the president of Bank Mutual, the former CEO of the Wausau Paper Corporation, the president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association, and the CEO of Northwestern Mutual. One of its "notable commentators is Charley Sykes, Milwaukee's bush league Rush Limbaugh.             

The "Report,' grandiosely titled "THE History of Recall in Wisconsin,"  was researched and written by a WPRI "fellow" named Christian Schneider, a "resident history buff," with no formal training or experience in historical research, who spent "days digging in the archives. If his "end notes" are accurate,he occupied most of his time reading such blatantly anti-La Follette, anti-progressive newspapers as the Milwaukee Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal. His only scholarly source is the feature article in the 1911-1912 Wisconsin Blue Book, entitled "Progressivism Triumphant: The 1911 Wisconsin Legislature, but the author shows no sign of even having read it, let alone understand the meaning of Wisconsin progressivism that it elucidates. One of its most incredible distortions is to portray Progressives and organized labor, then and now, as "special interests," when the term, as coined by :La Follette and his colleagues, obviously meant corporations, the politicians whom they bribe, and the Progressive Era's functional equivalents of the WPRI. This is a trick that right-wing Republicans and Democrats invented in 1912 and 1914, and which their descendants have used consistently down to the present day. In his final attempt to turn history upside down and inside out, Schneider warns that recall and similar devices to make government more responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens "will become the tool of special interests--whose influence Bob La Follette spent his entire career trying to reduce." (That is not quite analogous to taking the Lord's name in vain, but about as close you can get in this state.) He even has the chutzpah to invert one of La Follette's cardinal maxims:"the supreme issue involving all others is the encroachment of the powerful few upon the rights of the many." Despite Schneider's "Alice in Wonderland" attempt to cast today's progressives as "the powerful few" and Walker and the WPRI as the champions of "the many," anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of real history knows that the exact reverse was true then and still is today. As someone who has spent nearly 15 years reading and analyzing thousands upon thousands of La Follette's correspondence, speeches, and writings, I guarantee it. But don't take my word for it. The real history of the Progressive Era in Wisconsin is one of the most documented chapters in the chronicles of any state, so read some of it for yourself You can't know what actually happened by reading a slipshod article that would not even be accepted as a term paper in History 101, written by a "resident history buff" whose "days digging in the archives paid off." (A question for the staff of the WHS library: what is this piece of junk history doing in the collections of what purports to be <and actually is> the finest collection of American history this side of the Library of Congress?)                          

To "give the devil his due," Schneider is correct about one historical reality. Not all progressives of 1911-1914 or 1926 were enthusiastic about recall. It was never really high on their agenda. Many progressives sided with those who feared that allowing the recall of judges would pave the way for a purge of anti-labor judges by their rival Social Democrats and their allies in the Wisconsin State Federation of Labor and the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council. The progressive Republicans cooperated with those groups on myriad pieces of legislation, but did not want to enhance the power of the SDP. Almost all Socialists and labor leaders were broadly "progressive, but not all progressives were socialists. In fact, Charles McCarthy, in The Wisconsin Idea boldly asserts that "the way to beat the socialists is to beat them to it." The recall of anti-labor judges was the major issue of concern among many progressive Republicans.

Did this distortion of history by opponents of recall play a major role in its defeat? There is obviously no way to say with any certainty. It provided at least some voters with a rationale for rejecting a progressive device while still feeling that they were honoring Wisconsin's progressive tradition. It was certainly a devilishly clever scheme, not quite on the same level of sophistication as the schemes described in 1984 or Animal Farm, but with much of the same malicious intent. One thing is certain: to control the present, it is absolutely necessary to manipulate much of the past.

Speaking of controlling the present, I can't resist saying something about the complicity of "the media" in acquiescing in the trashing of the past. (I hate the use of the word "media" by itself. It explains nothing unless you combine it in the phrase "communications media.") If you look at a Progressive Era Wisconsin Blue Book, or its functional equivalent in other states, you will find, first of all, that there were hundreds of newspapers being published in each state. Most larger cities had more than one. Secondly, they were openly and proudly partisan, listing themselves, as Democrat, Republican, Independent, or even Socialist or Progressive. Many were even published in German, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish, Czech, or Italian, to name but the most prevalent. When you read a paper, you knew exactly what you were getting. To get a balanced view, you had to read at least two. Sometimes, it was hard to believe that they were writing about the same issue or event. Many politicians or factions even bought newspapers which they could use to get out their message or explanation of issues and events. Nobody ever thought that they were getting unbiased versions of anything. Flash forward to the recent past. First of all, the number of newspapers has been drastically reduced, largely because more and more people relied on radio, television, the internet, or any number of electronic marvels. Equally as important, those still extant almost all claimed to be independent, objective, and comprehensive in their coverage. (Imagine, for example, what someone from that era would make of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.)  Many of these newspapers also own radio or television stations and have web sites, giving them a virtual monopoly on information. But that's OK, right, because they are all objective and independent?  They proudly proclaim themselves as politically independent or neutral. (Lets not even discuss the New York Post or Fox News, which are of another genre, or maybe even another planet.) Although critics may charge that they are too "liberal" or "conservative," most communications media are really "neutered."   Most of them bend over backwards to present "both sides of the story," even if there isn't a viable other side. Most journalists, especially those in the "print media," are reasonably intelligent and well educated. They know that creationism is not a viable alternative to evolution, that "trickle-down economics" is ridiculous, that the math in Ryan's budget does not add up, that there is global warming and that we humans contribute mightily to it, that women can't avoid getting pregnant during "forceable rape" because their bodies won't permit it, that Obama was born in the United States and is not a Muslim or a socialist, that "reality shows" aren't "real," that "people with guns" are way more lethal than those without.and that "the Donald" is full of whatever substance you care to verbalize. And yet, to choose but the most egregious recent example, politicians and pundits focus on questions like whether Todd Akin should withdraw from the campaign instead of on the mind-blowing absurdity and ignorance of his ideas.          

In case some of you haven't guessed it already, the purpose of my blog will be to place the issues of the day in their historical context and to provide at least some historical perspective. It is also to provide me with an outlet so that I do not upset my wife with my frustrations.


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