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Elmer in Dairyland

Between college and graduate school, I worked for a year in a factory in Verona, Wisconsin, which is a few miles and a paradigm shift outside of Madison. It wasn’t the worst place to work. We had a union. We had benefits. We chopped, folded and riveted large sheets of metal and turned them into the air diffusers that you can see in the ceilings of theaters and other large buildings.

I did the night shift for a while with a guy named Elmer. In his fifties, Elmer had been a farmer and hunter for most of his life, and in 1974 was operating a giant sheet metal sheer. Elmer would cut it, and I would stack it. After our orders were filled, we’d sit around and get drunk, because there wasn’t any supervision at night. Sometimes we got drunk before the orders were filled, and we were both lucky to escape the sheer with our fingers still attached to our hands.

As we drank peppermint schnapps at 4 a.m., I listened to Elmer’s stories about his life with great interest. Most of my friends in Madison had parents who worked for the government or the university. Elmer seemed to be as smart as any of them, but with a life experience that put him on another planet.

It was obvious that Elmer hated his job. He wanted to be outside, trapping muskrats and selling their pelts. I hated the job too, and ruminated about why anyone would think that hard work was a virtue. What was worse–having a job, or not having a job? If you worked eight hours a day and then got drunk, or watched television, to forget about the grinding assembly line, what kind of a life was that? What about raising your kids? Taking part in your community? Culture? Why not organize labor in such a way that that everyone had a useful job for four hours, and then could pursue their own happiness? Was there any lack of things that needed to be done? Was there any lack of people who wanted to make contribution in some way? What was the point of overworking some while underworking others?

I thought of Elmer as a friend. That he wasn’t became evident one night when Elmer and I got drunker than usual, and he accused me of looking down on him. “I hate college boys,” he snarled. He hated the entire University of Wisconsin. He hated the anti-war movement, especially the New Year’s Gang who blew up the Army Math Research Center in 1970. He hated music. He hated reading. He hated listening to me ruminate about better ways to organize labor.

I don’t know. Maybe I did see Elmer as an anthropology project, and he resented it. Or maybe he resented that I had a way out of that factory, and he was stuck there for the rest of his life, if he didn’t get laid off. More factory, then death. It wasn’t much to look forward to. We were the opposite of the Neil Young song: “Old man, look at my life/I’m nothing at all like you.”

There isn’t a word for Elmer in the American language. In 1974, people like Elmer were mostly compared to the sitcom character Archie Bunker, a working class buffoon on “All in the Family,” the most popular television series at the time. In the UK, young men with Elmer-like attitude are called “lads.” They like to drink, get into fights, and they have an extreme distrust of ideas, be they from intellectuals or artists or politicians. Having been manipulated and betrayed by ideas since birth, they feel comfortable only with resentment, which makes them muskrats in the snare of know-nothing fascist politicians.

In 2006, I was back in Madison on a visit, complaining at lunch to a high school friend about the Iraq war. “Who are the neocons?” he asked.

He must have seen my jaw hit the floor, because I didn’t have to ask, “We’re five years into the Bush administration and you don’t know who the neocons are!?” My friend has a Ph.D in science, is married to a teacher, has two great kids who are off pursuing their happiness as artists in Bohemian Milwaukee.

“I stopped watching CNN at some point during the Clinton administration,” he explained. “I watched the 150th report on Anna Nicole Smith’s latest scandal, and I thought, ‘This is a complete waste of time.’ I haven’t watched the news since.”

Fair enough. I don’t watch much television news for the same reason. But Madison is like that. It has a deserved reputation as an oasis city, like Austin or New Orleans or Berkeley. At the same time, it’s an oasis because the long progressive tradition made it a place where middle class people have stable middle class incomes. They can afford to get educated, raise their families and have something left over to go camping in Door County. They can have a perfectly good life and pay no attention at all to the news. Or to politics. Or to Elmer.

Madison is the sort of place that Republicans look at and think, “They’re not paying attention. We can steal their pensions, privatize their schools and destroy their property values. All we have to do is get Elmer to hate them more than he hates the rich.”

Since Elmer has no concept of how rich the rich really are, it’s easy to get him to hate Madison. All you have to do is publish the salaries of stable middle class teachers, which is what the Republicans did during the recall election. Elmer voted his envy, and the progressives lost.

What is the solution? How do you get Elmer to stop envying Madison and start aspiring to it?

Father James Groppi. That’s a name you don’t hear much any more, even in Wisconsin. But in the late 60s, Groppi was the adviser to the NAACP’s Milwaukee Youth Council, which was the Occupy Wall Street of that era.

A white Catholic priest, Groppi was able to read the New Testament accurately and discern that Jesus was a social and political revolutionary who wanted justice for the poor. Groppi looked at his mostly black parish on the north side of Milwaukee in 1967 and saw that his people were as segregated as any town in the former Confederacy and had little decent housing. He decided to organize marches from the north side to the white (mostly Polish) south side until the Common Council voted for an open housing law.

The Elmers of the South Side lined up by the thousands, jeering, threatening violence, displaying their guns, occasionally committing violence and arson. Politicians begged Groppi to stop, lest Elmer turn on the Democratic party. The church hierarchy begged him to stop, lest Elmer join some other denomination. Groppi responded by continuing to march, insisting on non-violence and relentless confrontation in the face of hatred. He did not make common cause with the Democratic party. He exposed it. He demanded that liberal Democrats resign from segregated Milwaukee clubs and picketed their homes if they didn’t. He demanded that aldermen with black constituents vote in their interest or get picketed at home and at the office. At one point he marched into the white South Side for 200 straight days. In the aftermath of the Martin Luther King assassination in 1968, Congress finally passed an open housing law, and the Milwaukee Common Council passed an even stronger law.

In conflict with the Catholic Church, which removed him from his Milwaukee parish, Groppi left the priesthood in 1976, ultimately becoming a bus driver. He died of cancer in 1985. The 16th Street viaduct, across which he marched hundreds of times, is now the Father James E. Groppi Unity Bridge.

Groppi never had a majority of public opinion on his side. He never won over the Elmers of Wisconsin. He didn’t need a majority of Elmers to achieve justice. He just needed enough people to make Milwaukee ungovernable by nonviolent means. That’s what Groppi did, and he got the laws he wanted.

The progressives of Wisconsin had enough people in Madison to make Wisconsin ungovernable. They had the state capitol. They could have called a general strike. Instead they listened to the Democrats and went home to work on the recall, and the national party predictably abandoned them. The Republicans then trounced them with the usual sociopathic lying amplified by money.

When the movement revives, as it will, it needs to follow Father Groppi and ignore the rigged elections. And when Obama shows up in Wisconsin this fall to beg for votes, as he must, everyone who took time out of their lives to participate in the demonstrations in Madison should make it clear that no Wisconsin viaduct will be named for the president.

CHARLES M. YOUNG is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent two-time Project Censored Award-winning online alternative newspaper. 

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