Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wisconsin, Protest, and Godwin's Law

There was a big event in our town yesterday -- the technical college that was said to be the first of its kind in the nation, the grandaddy of our state's technical college system -- marked its 100th anniversary.

Wisconsin's governor, Scott Walker, showed up to give a speech and was jeered and heckled by a couple of hundred protesters. (They were, according to news accounts, silent and respectful for all the other speakers at the centenary event.)

I trust there's no doubt among those who know me or who have read this blog how I feel about the legislative tsunami that has ripped up our state's social contract in the last six months since Mr. Walker took office. (And in case there was any doubt, I suspect that the foregoing sentence has erased it, even if you didn't follow the link!)

But I dislike the drowning-out of the governor's speech. I would have preferred to see protesters respond to him silently -- perhaps turning their backs, or holding up a big sign that observes he has made unsustainable cuts to education in our state. I think there are moral reasons to take that route, but I also think tactics, and yes, PR strategy, are still important. There may be deep polarization and few undecided people in our divided state, but nonetheless not everyone has the same emotional investment on either side that the most loyal partisans do. And for those who are less certain about their support of the governor or of his critics, I fear that the length to which the protesters went risks marginalizing their own message.

DairyStateMom made essentially the same point over breakfast this morning, and I reflexively agreed (because she's very smart, because I did agree with her, and because it's always wisest to do so when neither of us has had our morning coffee quota).

But then I paused and fulfilled Godwin's Law.

I would feel differently, I allowed, about drowning out a speech by Hitler (an act that would have carried with it far greater risk to the heckler, I'll note). So in that case, where does one draw the line?

"Scott Walker isn't Hitler," she said. "He's not sending people to the gas chamber."

Indeed he isn't. And I do deplore the casual characterization of political opponents as Nazis, from whatever corner of the political spectrum it comes and whoever the target is -- at least within mainstream politics.

Yet that principle embedded in that position, and underlying Godwin's law itself, raises* the question: Can we ever make that characterization? And what is the standard?

And if we believe, as I am inclined to, that the looming changes wrought by our governor, his legislative majority, and their corporate financiers risk increasing the deaths of poor people who will be failed by our healthcare system while systematically disenfranchising voters whose circumstances make it more difficult for them to submit to new Voter ID procedures, is the comparison more apt than we give it credit for?

Or, to turn to another context in which the accusation of fascism is lodged, would a president who went to war on the strength of lying propaganda, who authorized the torture of prisoners, and who in the process instituted a national security state that places increasing shackles on personal liberty and privacy, be legitimately characterized thus?

Here's a case that's not quite the same thing, but similar enough: The other day Will linked to an item pointing out the gross disparity between the prison sentence (15 years) of a homeless man who robbed someone of $100 and a businessman (40 months) who committed fraud in the millions billions.

"Some'll rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen," Woody Guthrie sang.

Should we be less willing to make such fine distinctions [ADDED] that treat the fountain-pen robber less severely, just as the pin-stripe-suited proto-fascist is?


*Free English major tip for the day: It does not "beg" the question, however often you see the latter term misused in just that way. Here's a good rundown on the distinction between the two.

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