Sunday, 20 August 2017

Geekrant vs Lafollette's Land.

Greetings, geekranters, yet again my blog has arrived on your electronic doorstep, jampacked full of witty anecdotes and well executed "bon mots" or at least my attempt at those two things.  

Most of my last few blogs have centred around Madison, how this city is a great place to live and my adjustments to living here. These have been relatively light blogs about how attractive the place is, the people to be found here and the stuff people get up to. However, now I have to go deeper, for no analysis of Madison and Wisconsin as a whole can be considered complete without addressing the issue or rather issues, as there are many, of politics. 

I have endeavoured, for the most part, in these digitised pages to keep clear of talking in this area. I am an immigrant here, a transplanted individual and I feel it would be bad form of me to pass judgement on a place that has been so welcoming to me. Still, it is a subject that must be addressed in any blog that talks about life in a place different to the one that the author is familiar with. The rythmns of our lives are set by the decisions, ideas and, all to frequently the arguments of politicians. My life here, therefore, is directly affected by this, so I probably should spend a little while on the subject and then be done. 

I am a child of the 1980s, that's not to say that I remember much of them, but the fact remains that I am a child of the 80s. A child of Thatcher's Britain, brought up in decade of Gordon Gekko and filofaxes, Top Gun and Duran Duran, The A-Team and the Hoff's perm. My first memories of anything deeper than TV in terms of America, are of a face on the news. A man who fascinated me in retrospect, because even as a child I wondered how could a man that age have jet black hair with only a touch of grey. That man was Ronald Reagan. 

So one of my first memories of the United States was the "Happy Cowboy" of 80s legend, despite the fact that he left office in January 1989 when I was 5 and most 5 year olds don't watch the news. As you may have noticed from my previous blogs, I'm kind of a geek. 

I mention this not because I have any great love for the late President Reagan or great dislike, for that matter. Instead, I mention this to show how fascinating I have always found American politics, despite living (for most of my life at least) too far away to take meaningful sides in the debate. 

Most nations are defined seemingly by their political leadership, at least to those looking in from the outside, America is perhaps the ultimate example of this. Many other nations find themselves defined by other things like ethnic identity or ancient borders, some by allegiance to a certain monarch, others still are divided by religious issues. 

 The United States, however, is different. Its foundation has always been found within the maelstrom that is political and ideological struggle.  It is a nation created around a concept, a nation founded upon a 18th century notion of what freedom is, what liberty looks like lived out in a government and a citizenry. Its existence is a product of just such a violent struggle, a war between the feudalistic mercantile past and the new ideals of The Enlightenment. 

Such musings bring me, eventually, to Madison. I'm writing this blog in our apartment which lies on the East side of Madison. Five minutes away lies a crossroads known as Union Corners. Nowadays, It's an easy place to dismiss, to ignore, after all it's just an intersection, a bar on one corner, across the road a purveyor of the sort of literature that the British government used to call "Obscene Publications". Still another corner has a little shopping area with pizza takeout places. An anonymous place.   

But 150 years ago, this place meant a lot more. This was the place that Union regiments assembled before marching away to the bugle call of the US Civil War and the rebel yell of the grey coated Confederates.  To stake a claim in the battle for just what the word "America" means and just what "liberty" is all about. 

"We hold these truths to be self evident..." Begins the preamble to the United States Constitution and it this area that makes American politics so fascinating to me. No two Americans are ever going to exactly agree on what that phrase means applied to a person's life, which is okay, for it is in the midst of these opposing viewpoints that America grew to be the nation it is today. It is also the question that drove men to the U.S. Civil War. Even now the United States is continually asking the questions, " Just what truths are self evident?", "Are some truths more self evident than others?", "Where is liberty best expressed". Everyone seems to see their own beliefs and ideals to be supported in the Constitution. Madison is no different. 

To say Madison is a liberal city would probably be an understatement. Madison's politics engender amongst many in Wisconsin an attitude that is similar to the attitude many American football fans have to New England Patriots Quarterback, Tom Brady, if  you're a fan, you're a fan, if not... well you pretty much can't stand the guy.  

Some quick geography here, (if I may digress slightly and primarily for my British readers) because the way a state is made up can get kind of confusing when talking about political stuff without some orientation, so to speak. 

So when it comes to the United States, state politics are almost as important to ordinary people as federal politics are. In fact, state politics are essentially a miniature version of the larger federal political merry go round. There's an executive (the Governor), a legislature (State House's and Senates) even a judiciary with a State Supreme Court. These organisations are as representative of the people as the federal government is.  

The Wisconsin State Assembly (the lower house of the State Legislature) has 99 representatives from every part of Wisconsin. That's where geography becomes important. As I noted on many occasions, the American Midwest is made up of many states with a similar geographical makeup; mainly agricultural states with a few large cities and a multitude of much smaller towns. This geographical reality directly affects politics in these states and that is certainly true of Wisconsin and, of course, Madison. 

Madison lies in Dane County, which as it happens is arguably the most liberal county in Wisconsin. This fact is relatively hard to escape from within the city, not that anyone would ever force politics down your throat in Wisconsin, but the political sensibilities of the populace do exist as a kind of background radiation to life here. 

There's the University, UW Madison, which was at the centre of anti-war protests during the 1960s, one of the former governors, a man called Robert "Fightin' Bob" Lafollette pretty much founded progressive politics in the United States and union activity abounds. 

 In fact, in 2012, there were large protests within Madison, in response to Governor Scott Walker's attempt to limit collective bargaining by unions whose members were employed by the state. The protests went on for weeks, if not months, depending on how you measure it, and even involved the occupation of the Capitol building by the protesters and a recall election for the Governor. 

 Hippies and hipsters both equally find a home here, which is reflected in the city's rich cultural life. There are several top music venues which are regular stops on American tours for many top bands, stand up comedy and improv nights are everywhere, even downstairs at a pizza place (that's Glass Nickel on Atwood if you're interested), Madison even has its own symphony orchestra.  

All of which can separate Madison from the rest of Wisconsin, it has to be said. While Madison has remained as liberal as it ever was, much of the rest of the state now returns Republicans to the state legislature. It is interesting that Wisconsin in 2016 voted Republican in the general election for the first time since 1984. By the way, that's the last time Reagan was on the ballot. Although you couldn't drive the city in November without being swamped by "Clinton/Kaine" posters and bumper stickers, a 15 minute drive out of the city would lead you into an ocean of "Trump/Pence" flags. Scott Walker, a Republican,  survived his recall election for just this reason. 

Madison, of course, isn't alone in this difference. Nationally in the United States, the votes for Hilary Clinton were predominantly found in areas with a large urban population, whereas votes for the Republicans came from small towns and rural areas.  

It is true therefore at times, that Madison can seem like a cosmopolitan liberal island floating in a sea of rural neo-conservatism. Wisconsin divided, like many other states, by different ideas of what America means. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness being found, like so many other things, in the eye of the beholder. 

I have no side to take in this debate, I am not a citizen and therefore proscribed from voting. In this blog, I am simply writing as an observer. I love Madison, my adopted home town and the rich cultural melting pot that comes partially from its political leanings  but I also appreciate the simpler way of life that many seem to seek in the countryside here. I truly hope that conversation and debate never ceases between both sides.  

America, it seems to me, is a nation that has always experienced tension between differing visions of its identity and maybe it has grown most through those tensions. So I am glad of both sorts of people and both opinions, for in the space between them, I wager, lies a brighter future. 

Thanks for reading. 

Goodbye Geekranters!