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“Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of…”: On Wisconsin, Michigan, and the most famous question in the USA

By Mark Nowak

About a decade ago when I was researching Ronald Reagan for my verse play about the 40th President of the United States firing striking PATCO workers (“Capitalization”), I discovered that the Reagan administration had – like the great cut & paste poets and artists of history and of today – Apple X’d and Apple V’d perhaps the most famous question in America. The final section of “Capitalization” sets the scene:

Any doubt remaining as to
the Reagan Administration’s attitude
toward those who dared to defy it
was erased in March 1982.

By the spring of ’82, PATCO workers had long since been fired and were “selling bathroom fixtures/in Long Beach, Calif., pipefitting in Drexel Hill, Pa.,/baking in Honolulu…” and various other jobs at drastically reduced salaries (if they had found jobs at all). But this annihilation of the striking PATCO union members was not nearly enough for our dear Mount Rushmore-worthy Prez. The Gipper also wanted – like his pal Maggie Thatcher’s vindictiveness with the UK miners – to propel into action an economic and political juggernaut (aka, neoliberalism) that could rip and shred the social fabric much easier without resistance from trade unions. And so, as we hear at the end of “Capitalization, a detailed questionnaire was sent to the home of each former striking PATCO worker:

The phrasing of the first question
was particularly significant:
“Are you now, or have you ever been
a member of PATCO?”

In recent weeks, the Tea Partiers and the Grand Old Partiers (GOP) around the country have seemingly Apple X’d and Apple V’d the question again, only this time shifting the final phrase of that infamous American question from its original HUAC version (“the Communist Party”) through the Reagan-Afrika Bambaataa cut and paste 2.0 era version (“PATCO”) to this new Shepard Fairey-era 3.0 operating system phrase (“a public sector union”). The purge emerged (how’s that for rhyme, poets?) in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the Wisconsin Republican Party for the records of University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon (you can read a recent Guardian overview of the story here if you’re not familiar with the details; see also UW emeritus prof Stanley Kutler’s “Who says it’s not about destroying unions?”). Last week, the red scare tactics expanded to neighboring states. As Steven Greenhouse wrote in the New York Times, “A conservative research group in Michigan has issued a far-reaching public records request to the labor studies departments at three public universities in the state, seeking any emails involving the Wisconsin labor turmoil.” [Aside: “turmoil”? C’mon NYTimes editors, you are charging us to read your online stories now!—you can do better than “turmoil” to describe 100,000 people protesting inside and outside the Madison capitol, no?]

Greenhouse’s article goes on to describe how the group, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which describes itself as “a nonpartisan research and educational institution” that receives money from numerous conservative foundations, asked professors from the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State University “for any e-mails mentioning ‘Scott Walker,’ ‘Madison,’ ‘Wisconsin,’ or ‘Rachel Maddow’.” [Note: I have made these four phrases the sole tags for this Poetry Foundation post.] Greenhouse also notes that several professors who received these requests said it “appeared to be an attempt to intimidate or embarrass professors who are sympathetic to organized labor.”

But this is a poetry blog… What does this have to do with poetry?

Well, if you’re someone that needs an even more direct connection to poetry – besides the fact that politically active poets also teach at these institutions (Khaled Mattawa at Michigan and his ongoing presence and voice on Libya is just one example) – one of those FOIA requests went to a friend of many who will be reading this, M.L. Liebler at Wayne State University (where he teaches both poetry and labor history courses). Liebler is editor of the new anthology Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams, which features an intro by Michael Moore, a Flint native who I’m guessing the fellow Michiganites at the Mackinaw Center for Public Policy don’t quite see eye to eye with.

When I interviewed Peter Rachleff, a labor activist and professor from one of Wisconsin’s neighboring states (Minnesota), he summarized what we’re seeing in Wisconsin and Michigan like this:

Now, in the space of a month, the dots are again being connected.  Right-wing — and economically elite — social and political forces want to take away public sector unions’ rights to collective bargaining, teachers’ tenure protections, and public employees’ rights to free speech.  This is a power grab, an attempt to pull tighter the reins of economic, political, social, cultural, and intellectual power.  They want to suppress labor education programs, independent historical scholarship, and free speech, from the halls of academia to your neighborhood elementary school, from your workplace to your public square.

I’ll end my return to the Harriet blog with the warning of a poet, Langston Hughes, and one of the quotes I most often repeat these days at my readings and talks (from his essay “My Adventures as a Social Poet”): “I have never known the police of any country to show an interest in lyric poetry as such. But when poems stop talking about the moon and begin to mention poverty, trade unions, color lines, and colonies, somebody tells the police.”

And, if in old skool Harriet style, you want to comment on this post, feel free to post one on the link to this article on my Facebook page. Because the issue, to me, demands discussion; because, as Rachleff said when we spoke, Such an attack demands a unified response.  We are all at risk.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, April 3rd, 2011 by Mark Nowak.