I gave the following short speech to the Oconomowoc Area Retired Educators Association breakfast in my hometown, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, on June 11, 2015.
I’m unapologetic about having chosen essentially to begin my book Home Free: An American Road Trip in Wisconsin, and to devote an entire chapter to this state. There are certainly other ways to drive around America and write a book about it, and a different writer would have written a different book. In fact, the abstraction that we call America is so vast and diverse that it’s simply not possible to see or to write about all of it, much less to understand it as a totality. So I might as well write about the thin and largely arbitrary slice of it that I’m in a position to know and learn about. In short, Home Free is my book about my American road trip, at the historical moment of my choosing, the fall election season of 2012.
That said, I did have several good reasons for beginning my trip and my book with a lingering visit to Wisconsin. One is geographical: Wisconsin is on the way from Seattle, where I live, to points east. Another is personal: Wisconsin is my home state, where I grew up, thus available and comprehensible to me to an extent that even otherwise more or less similar Midwestern states like Minnesota or Indiana would not have been. But there’s a third reason that all of you are surely aware of, what we might call the elephant in the room: the bitter and divisive confrontation between Governor Scott Walker and approximately half of the citizens of this great state, led by unions representing state employees, including teachers.
I remember well where I was in early 2011, when everything seemed to be at stake in the capital of Wisconsin. I was in the capital of Pakistan. One thing I’ve learned over more than two decades as an international journalist is that, as soon as you focus your attention somewhere, something is bound to happen somewhere else. Still, to read in Islamabad about upheaval in Madison felt odd. And it was somehow in the moment of that jarring juxtaposition that my inchoate notion of one day driving around America and writing a book about it began to coalesce into an intention.
The uprising in Egypt was also going on at that time, and the New York Times was tossing off glib and patronizing headlines like “Cairo in the Midwest.” Some of the Madison protesters, for their part, were encouraging parallels, and the magic of social media was also somehow supposed to be part of the change for the better that many felt to be in the offing. But I had made a personal byword of something a journalist friend in Thailand had said to me: “There’s no substitute for the sniff on the ground.” Ideologies and theories and scholarship and digital media are all well and good, but what you know is real is what you see for yourself. After having lived and traveled overseas for thirteen years, what I now wanted was to see America for myself. And when I did, I found that my eye had changed. I now saw the world, and my own country – and my home state – differently than I had. The quality and extent of the change were not easy to define, but what I knew I could do was what I had learned to do overseas: show up, meet people and take an interest in them, ask them to tell me what was on their minds and why, take notes, then write it all up.
Having done all that to the best of my ability in every region of the continental United States between Labor Day and Christmas 2012, with particular attention to Wisconsin, I now want to take advantage of your kind invitation to speak to retired teachers in my own Wisconsin hometown to air some of what’s been very much on my mind lately. I’m going to try to keep my remarks shorter than the 45 minutes you’ve offered me, because there’s a lot to talk about, and I want to hear what’s on your minds, as this state and this country slouch toward yet another bitter and divisive political season. Out of politeness I’m trying – as I tried in Home Free – not to be political, and I genuinely want not to be partisan. Partisanship is a losing game, especially anymore. But in human society generally, and certainly in Wisconsin and America today, it’s simply not possible to avoid being political. And politics is not only unavoidable but necessary, because these are no longer what we used to consider normal times.
I know that’s a disconcerting thing to acknowledge, especially in a place like Oconomowoc that has succeeded in remaining so comfortably normal for so long. One adjective that people, including me, tend to use to describe Oconomowoc is “idyllic.” It’s a pleasant adjective, and I have many fond and pleasant memories of growing up here. But an idyll, by definition, is something elusive and illusory, something imaginary or at least unsustainable. When I returned here in September 2012, specifically looking for change, what felt strange to me about Oconomowoc was how little it had changed in thirty years. What I would go so far as to call spooky was that it had to have taken real effort on Oconomowoc’s part to not change. Not changing is not normal.
Another way to say the same thing is that what’s truly normal is change. People, places, and things are supposed to change. I’ve changed a lot since I graduated from Oconomowoc High School in 1983. But one thing I’ve learned the hard way is that leaving home need not, indeed must not, cannot, entail leaving it behind. My hometown and the world at large are really the same place, after all. To me one indicator of the truth of this is that Oconomowoc figures tellingly in all three of my books of topical travel. Not only does it figure prominently in Home Free, but I begin the first chapter of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan with the sentence: “I had traveled a long road from Wisconsin to Pakistan.” And here’s how I start Chapter 1 of Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti:
If, at age sixteen, you go from an all-white town in Wisconsin to Haiti and back, you never go all the way back. I never really did go back to Oconomowoc, but I always went back to Haiti. Other interests, adventures, worries, disasters, and crossroads came and went, but Haiti always returned to insist on my attention.
And to bring the point home, allow me to quote from a speech I gave this January at Texas Christian University, titled “Beyond Ferguson.” With reference to the April 2014 killing by Milwaukee police officer Christopher Manney of a mentally ill black man named Dontre Hamilton, I told the TCU students:
Milwaukee is where I grew up. Actually, the point of where I grew up is that it’s very much not Milwaukee. … There are towns like Oconomowoc in suburban counties all around America, and in those towns live white guys who grow up to become cops. I know those guys. I went to high school with them.
I’m venturing so far afield in order to circle back and insist, not only as an observant reporter but much more importantly as a Wisconsinite and an American, that Wisconsin today – whether we like it or not – is in the thick of things. If the Madison occupation now feels like ancient history, that’s only because we Americans have such a talent for distracting ourselves. The peaceful but assertive occupation of our state capitol square, by 80,000 or more middle-class citizens in sub-freezing weather in February and March 2011, was a canary in our national mineshaft, a very meaningful harbinger of disputes and confrontations still to come, well beyond Wisconsin and well beyond 2016.
Given that, what I insist on is that Wisconsin has a story to tell that the rest of America needs to hear. You have an opportunity and, I would go so far as to say, an obligation to tell that story, and to work hard to amplify it beyond the state line. Why? Because Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is a leading candidate for President of the United States. And he is a credible candidate only, and specifically, because he defeated the recall referendum here in Wisconsin in 2012. Now, in 2015, Wisconsin has an opportunity – and, I would argue, an obligation – to follow through on what erupted here in 2011, and to redeem the defeatist whimper with which that chapter of the story ended.
I promised earlier to avoid being partisan. And I’m sticking to that, because one thing that’s clear to me is that the failure of the 2012 attempt to recall Walker had a lot to do with the obvious fact that the state Democratic Party, like its parent party nationally, is feckless as well as politically and morally compromised. So this is not about this party versus that party. Both parties are hollowed-out relics anymore, anyway. What it’s about is what kind of state and country we citizens want to live in, and what effort we’re willing to go to to preserve or rebuild such a state and country. The stakes have rarely been higher, and by the same token the opportunity has rarely been greater. These are not normal times, and there is no longer a status quo for which to make excuses. That’s frightening, I know; but it’s also liberating.
And Wisconsin, whose state motto is “Forward,” has an opportunity to lead America forward into a future better than the globally and domestically damaging, confused, and leaderless years in the wilderness that we’ve endured ever since the bitterly disputed presidential election of the year 2000. Here’s a simile that should mean something to Wisconsinites: If we stand indecisive or paralyzed like a deer in the headlights, we’ll end up the political equivalent of road kill. The way to avoid that is to be both vocal and active in politics – real politics, not fake or feel-good politics – and the time is now. The worst possible thing is just to stand there while others seize control of our destiny. If you believed in 2011, and still believe now, that Scott Walker is bad for Wisconsin, then please exert yourself to communicate to the rest of us why he would be bad for America. If, on the other hand, you believe Walker has been good for Wisconsin, then by all means try to convince us of that. What none of us are entitled to do is to take our ball and go home – because this country is home to all of us – or to stand around, unilaterally declaring ourselves to be right and those of our fellow Americans who disagree with us to be wrong.
I want to end by returning to my reasons for driving around America, and by noting again the revealing timing of my trip. One of my motivating premises was that America is not separate or different from the rest of the world. As I headed home to Seattle up the West Coast in mid-December 2012, I felt that I had proved that premise, at least to my own satisfaction. And I had seen for myself that while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. That’s part of the problem with trying to govern these so-called United States. Whether the center will hold was an open question in 2012, and it remains one now.
And as I was writing my book through the spring and summer of 2013, things were getting ugly again in Egypt, with a military takeover there and then hundreds killed in raids on encampments of ousted President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters. I remembered the condescending “Cairo in the Midwest” New York Times headline about the Madison capitol occupation of two and a half years earlier, and the defiance and hope expressed simultaneously by both the Wisconsinites who had challenged Governor Walker and the Egyptians who had overthrown President Mubarak. And I wondered: If this is how things are turning out in Egypt, how can we expect them to turn out in Wisconsin?