I don’t know but I been told

Clutching some plastic bags, walking down State Street, a man chants “Re-call Wal-ker!” There’s something disembodied and tired about it. Half a block behind him, another one starts up in response. It could be a jogging chant from Full Metal Jacket, but less disciplined.

Living in Madison from 2006 until early 2010, it was easy to underestimate the city’s reputation for protest culture. It stuck around like a charming old layer of rust, relying on a bunch of burnt-out caretakers. A more youthful version had replaced it, energetic but not like the caricature. Maybe its own caricature at times.

Scott Walker, and really the arm-in-arm, gang-like entrance of a bunch of new Republican governors like Rick Scott in Florida and Paul LaPaige in Rick Scott, woke it up. Suddenly, the protesters had an updated story to rally around. Now, Florida doesn’t seem to have much more than a few impotent teachers’ unions, but Wisconsin had a whole tradition, and for some, violating it was no different than violating due process. The determination with which people flooded the capitol and embarrassed the governor made protest feel less futile. These people had discipline and a goal, not a dozen different things to yell at each other about like the protesters at the 2004 Republican Convention. The victims-slash-heroes weren’t the escapists and the over-obsessed, but the people trying to keep their jobs and lives together.

Protesting has always struck me as a bit pointless and solipsistic, ineffective, an act of fooling yourself and performing a pretend legend. But for once it was inspiring.

The two men’s “Re-Call Wal-ker!” chants weren’t inspiring. Nobody stopped to cheer them. They were lost fragments of the equation. The protest had lost its urgency in them and become some kind of pesky compulsion stuck down in the brainstem, worming its Tourettic way out of their systems.

That isn’t where the real strength of this town is now, anyway. In fact, it burns my ass a little bit when people call Madison as a city “surrounded by reality,” or when Walker dismisses Madison’s formerly strong renter-protection laws as a foolish policy imbalance between “Madison and everyone else.” Here’s what that really means: Madison does a better job than a lot of other cities, and people resent its charm and function and resilience. Thousands of people have to work hard to make the town as nice as it is, and Madison does have its less-fortunate pockets, neighborhoods hidden from the bright centerpieces of small business and bike path. If places like Madison are overrun with so-called “Socialism,” it certainly doesn’t undermine anyone’s pride in local ownership.

A town not completely overrun with chain businesses? Not completely unpleasant to get around? Where consumer choice actually seems to matter? Where the very air isn’t discouraging to the creative and the entrepreneurial? Where at least some working people choose to be assertive in the face of potential abuse? Bah, frivolous bullshit! If that’s where America’s self-awareness is right now, then we’ve become a bit self-hating.

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