Identity Matters: Occupying the New Wisconsin by Anne Pryor

Our latest post is from Anne Pryor, a folklorist and ethnographer from the Wisconsin Arts Board who lives and works in Madison.  Here Anne considers the uses of identity — historical, playful , fictional  — in protest, to make claims of community.

— Susan Davis

Since February 2011, tens of thousands of Wisconsinites have been performing their discontent. Many have used ideas of identity to succinctly communicate their distress over political changes shepherded by Gov. Scott Walker. In protest signs and songs, in playful and serious tones, they have invoked Wisconsin symbols to connect with fellow Badgers.

The spark that ignited the Wisconsin uprising was the “Budget Repair Bill,” the main provisions of which would eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees and increase their pension and health insurance payments, allow cuts to Medicaid, and separate the flagship Madison campus from the rest of the University of Wisconsin system. The bill was the spark but how the proponents of these changes operated was the fuel for the fire of outrage. Many in the state perceived in the new political leadership a meanness of spirit and a lack of respect for others, something that doesn’t go over well in kindhearted Wisconsin. It signaled an abandonment of core Wisconsin values, leading to such comments as “I don’t recognize my state anymore” or “This is not the Wisconsin I grew up in.”

How to communicate with a dismissive opponent? One way is to invoke group identity. Folklorists have documented that this creative element is called into active duty especially during times of social stress. Performance of identity in such events as mass protests makes manifest understandings that often lie dormant, framing community bonds and delineating boundaries interpretively and reflexively.

In Wisconsin, this turn to identity took various forms during the winter protests. Some were focused on loss of identity, as in this first verse of the song “Bring Back Wisconsin to Me,” with lyrics adapted from “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” by musicians Lou and Peter Berryman.

Wisconsin whose motto was “Forward”

Was populist as it could be

But now the new motto is “Backward”

Oh bring back Wisconsin to me

A less playful statement of loss of identity were protest signs at the Capitol in Madison with renamings of Wisconsin to “Wisconistan,” a reference to the non-democratic nation of Afghanistan, or “Fitzwalkerstan,” combining the names of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and his brother, Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, with Gov. Walker’s.  Another renaming was “Wississippi,” implying that Wisconsin was about to be more like Mississippi than itself.

Along with statements about loss of identity were others claiming identity. “Wisconsin Works Because We Do” summarized the idea that Wisconsin is a hard-working efficient state with a high quality of life thanks to public employees. Taking away collective bargaining rights was seen as a particular assault on “Wisconsiness” because of the state’s legacy, as Wisconsin was the first state to legislatively allow union representation for public workers and teachers (1959).

Drawing on the state’s history to establish protesters’ authenticity as the true Wisconsinites was one way of making claims of identity. The favorite historical figure employed for this was Robert La Follette. The symbolic hero of the protests, La Follette (1855-1925) was a Wisconsin governor, U.S. Senator, and 1924 presidential candidate, who, through his magnetic leadership at the turn of the 20th century, led a coalition of labor and farmers against the lumber, railroad and mining barons that ran the Republican party and the state. Known as Fighting Bob, he represents clean government, social reform, progressive values, and independent thinking, all held to be Wisconsin values. His bust on the second floor of the Capitol became a shrine during the occupation and protests.

Protesters claimed even the most infamous Wisconsin politician as an object lesson in what happens when the state’s core values are ignored, as evidenced in the third verse of “Bring Back Wisconsin to Me”:

They’re trying to stifle our voices

They’re trying to keep us derailed

They’ll find it’s not easy to do though

McCarthy once tried and he failed.

Invoking identity means reinforcing group boundaries. A favorite manifestation of this was signs, shirts and sculptures that disowned Gov. Walker with the sentiment, “Walker is a weasel not a Badger.” Bucky Badger, the iconic mascot of the University of Wisconsin, was held up in other ways as well, as in the sentiment, “Bucky doesn’t bust unions.”

Reference to ideas that only a local would understand was another way of invoking group membership and identity. One sign drew on the in-group joke of border state rivalry through mock sympathy for the 14 state senators who fled Wisconsin into Illinois as a way to delay passage of the budget bill. “A weekend in Illinois can’t be fun.  Thanks Fab 14.”

As of late November 2011, the energy of the protests has transferred into a recall campaign against Gov. Walker. Activists are working to collect by January 17 the 540,208 signatures required to force a 2012 gubernatorial election. As they stand on sidewalks or outside their cars in the cold of early winter, there is little of the creative symbolic representations of discontent seen during the previous winter’s protests. Messages are completely straightforward now: “Sign Petition Here!”

Many in Wisconsin feel that the February 2011 uprising, especially with its two-week occupation of the Capitol building, helped to inspire the national Occupy movement. And just as could be observed in Wisconsin’s protest messaging, Occupy’s most successful statement, “We are the 99%” invokes group membership. Unlike the highly localized Wisconsin symbols of identity, “The 99%” is diffuse enough to translate readily across the country or globe. It succinctly calls for identification with a group and delineates boundaries between an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ The myriad Occupy encampments across the country doubtless employ more localized symbols of identity as well.  I would enjoy reports and interpretations from readers of this blog of such identity matters.

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About Susan Davis

I teach in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois.
This entry was posted in Theme: Humanities Respond to Crisis (2011-12), Yearly Theme. Bookmark the permalink.

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