We all had a good laugh last week when Wisconsin State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) put out a press release asking, exasperatedly, “Why Must We Still Hear About Kwanzaa?” I am not sure exactly how it is that Grothman finds Kwanzaa to be such an unbearable burden that he has to drag himself to his computer to peck out that kind of response. It seems unlikely, for example, that anyone in his neighborhood was up late celebrating the holiday’s principles – like self-determination and responsibility – too loudly.
Indeed, Grothman’s release (pdf) links to a Green Bay Press Gazette story that states straight-up that it is not widely celebrated at all. Here in Milwaukee, with by far the largest African American population in the state, the major news outlets ran not one story on it.
Perhaps he was upset that Gov. Scott Walker polluted his Twitter timeline?
So Grothman got lots of attention for his rant, both locally and nationally, and for all I know he’s loving it. (This is not the first time he’s flogged this horse – consider this 2003 release, with similar timing and whining – but I do think it’s the first time he’s gotten big press for it.) But the attention is really just portraying Grothman as an out-of-touch whacko, and noting that he gets lots of things wrong, like thinking Kwanzaa supplants Christmas in celebrations, or calling it “fake” and “invented,” as though “Mothers Day” fell from the sky fully formed many millennia and roses ago. (And if you want to talk about invented cultural activities, Grothman proudly advertises his Kiwanis membership.)
All that joking hides the scary part of Grothman’s release: “Be on the lookout if a K-12 or college teacher tries to tell your children or grandchildren it’s a real holiday,” he writes. In addition to the link to the Green Bay Press Gazette, he links to a press release and video from the Madison Public Schools (warning, video plays automatically) about students creating artwork related to the holiday and giving to charity – not exactly the kind of things you should “be on the lookout for.”
This makes me fear a new McCarthyism. Grothman’s party is in full control of the state government, and they have not been shy about attacking public schools or teachers. And here is a party leader asking his constituents to keep their eagle eyes out for any teachers who might be getting out of line.
And no, I don’t really believe that one obnoxious press release is the harbinger of a larger Republican witch hunt against teachers and professors who don’t conform to some GOP ideal. But we should also not forget that Republicans targeted UW-Madison history professor Bill Cronon for writing against Walker on his personal blog and in The New York Times in the wake of 2011’s Act 10. Cronon saw it as an intimidation tactic and considered leaving the state. He held fast, and thankfully so did the university.
But how far are we away, really, from something bigger and more serious? As teachers lose their union protections and as men like Glenn Grothman rise to power, a new McCarthyism in Wisconsin could be on the horizon.