Madison, Wisconsin: Since the appalling attacks of September 11, much energy has been devoted to establishing the myth that virtually all Americans enthusiastically accede to the appalling “war on terrorism.”
Even progressive enclaves like Madison, Wisconsin was said to be experiencing a “backlash against its deep-rooted ant-war convictions (Salon, 10/19/01).”
Madison citywide elections on April 2 put the final nail in the coffin of the newly supposed truism that prowar sentiment and jingoistic spasms have become the defining political dynamic of post-9/11 Madison.
Two progressive candidates for the Madison School Board, Carol Carstensen and Bill Clingan who were targeted by a right-wing group, the Madison School Board Recall Committee, trounced their opponents, ending the group’s seven-month highly publicized political effort.
In the weeks preceding the 9/11 attacks, socially right-wing Republicans in the Wisconsin legislature sneaked into a large budget bill a patriotism law that requires all Wisconsin public schools to lead students in the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem.
In an effort to protect students who objected to having this state-orthodox view foisted upon them, especially in the wake of 9/11, the Madison School Board in early October 2001, passed a measure requiring Madison schools to play merely an instrumental version of the national anthem, to reluctantly comply with the state patriotism law. The measure was meant to ensure that patriotism was not getting shoved down the throats of students who objected. The local media immediately labeled the Board’s actions as anti-Pledge and it was widely reported that the Board’s measure actually banned the recitation of the Pledge in Madison’s schools.
Subsequently hammered by loud constituent criticism and denounced as “oddballs” by Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott McCallum, and nationally by Rush Limbaugh and much of the right-wing, most of the progressive-dominated Madison School Board quickly retreated and passed a policy emphasizing in a daily announcement that participation in the recitation of the daily Pledge or Anthem is voluntary and would continue.
A special School Board meeting on the topic on October 15 attracted over 1,200 people. The gathering quickly became raucous when the crowd began chanting” U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.,” and booing students and community members who were speaking against the mandated Pledge and Anthem.
Matthew Rothschild, editor of Madison-based Progressive magazine, called the display a “lynch mob.”
The controversy drew international attention and a group of local Republican political operatives aligned with religious right activists announced at the October school board meeting that they would begin a recall of the author of the original proposal to play an instrumental version of the national anthem, and they would also target other progressive school board members running in the spring 2002 election.
School board member Bill Keys, a popular retired teacher, past president of the Madison teachers’ union and long-time LGBT civil rights champion, scoffed at the efforts of the group calling themselves the Madison School Board Recall Committee Madison School Board Recall Committee, to remove him, and he remained vocally opposed to state-enforced patriotism in the aftermath of 9/11.
“Madisonians know what this is about. My favorite line was from an e-mail. It reads: ‘What message are you sending to our children? The right to dissent is more important than the fundamental principle of freedom?’ I mean some of these people just have no conception,” Keys said during the controversy. “These are intemperate, rush-to-judgment times, and some folks want to use it to reclaim power.”
This is all about civil liberties and inclusion, and the right of every child, every child, to feel safe, valued and cherished, and not to be coerced into pledging allegiance to something that he or she may not believe in. I have heard from some educators that they feel <intimidated.They> don’t want this policy of enforced display of patriotism, but they are intimidated. If adults feel that way, what about the kids holding minority views?”
Keys and the Madison peace and civil rights community became the object of increasingly vehement Republican scorn in October and November. And it became clear that the “recall” Republicans were attempting to use perceived public support for mandated patriotism as an instrument to end the liberal-progressive domination of Madison city politics.
In e-mails Keys was called “treasonous, anti-American, fascist, queer lover, fag, communist, terrorist”_all of the appellations were apparently intended by the writers to insult Keys.
Former U.S. Rep. Scott Klug (R-Madison), the honorary co-chair of the Madison School Board Recall Committee, fired off numerous shots at the Madison left/progressive community as Madison formulated a response to the attacks on New York and Washington.
Snidely referring to the Madison left-peace community as the “bead and sandal crowd,” Klug was quoted in the local media as saying: “This is Madison. Before this is over, there’ll be somebody somewhere holding a bake sale for Osama bin Laden, saying he’s been misunderstood and is the way he is because he didn’t have any mittens as a child in Saudi Arabia.”
Not only Board member Keys but also the Madison School Board as a whole (where progressive enjoy a six-to-one majority) had already become the bane of the right wing for its insistence that school district policy respect LGBT rights. Its positions, such as officially objecting to the Boy Scouts of America’s discrimination against LGBT people, supporting domestic partner benefits in contracts, and hiring a district-wide LGBT counselor among other initiatives, inspired intense hostility in conservative circles.
The recall group’s web site read: “the pledge…vote exemplifies the arrogance, lack of judgment and failure to represent the majority that has characterized the Board over the past few years. While they reversed their (pledge) decision a week later, we say, ‘enough.’ It is time to take back our schools from those with an agenda that places their interest in social engineering above the education of our children.”
Claiming 100’s of volunteers and the overwhelming majority of Madison citizens, the recall group officially began its effort against Keys on November 11, leaving 30 days to gather 31,903 signatures.
As the recall effort continued through December, avid support for Keys’ defense of civil liberties and criticism of the recall effort became more frequent in the Madison media; unsolicited money and support started pouring into Keys’ home.
Despite record mild Wisconsin winter temperatures in November and December, on December 12, the deadline for the recall petition, the recall committee conceded that it had gathered only some 13,000 signatures, far short of the necessary 31,903_falling spectacularly short in their high-profile campaign.
In a December 13 column in the Wisconsin State Journal, the conservative voice of Madison’s two daily newspapers, columnist George Hesselberg blasted the recall group: “Yes, we need to teach the children. The chapters on McCarthyism and the erosion of civil rights would make good reading now, provided the schools are allowed to teach it in current events class.”
At a victory party on the night of the recall failure, recall target Keys said, “The people spoke loudly, and they said that the recall effort against people protecting individual rights is not what Madison is about. Madison is about protecting rights, and dissenting when dissent is necessary,” said Keys. “Madison is still Madison, and political dissent and support for civil liberties are still alive and well” in the post 9-11 political culture.
On April 2, 2002 progressives Carol Carstensen and Bill Clingan celebrated their decisive victories against the Recall group’s endorsed school board candidates–proving that standing up for the right to dissent in Madison in the face of flag-waving, self-proclaimed patriots is supported by most citizens at the polling place.
“The Recall Committee was always the work of a cynical group of conservative political operatives, and a small group of hate mongers. They have been getting their asses kicked for so long here that they felt could exploit the emotion after 9/11, generate a database of names and win some elections,” said former Madison Common Council and Dane County Board member, and civil rights supporter Andy Janssen. “We remain progressive and dedicated to civil rights, whether the right-wing likes it or not.”
Mike Leon is a free-lance writer from Madison, Wisconsin. His work has appeared in The Progressive and In These Times. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org