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On Wisconsin: The View from Pakistan

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ISLAMABAD, February 22 -- one of the stock lines I use in my public speaking around the U.S., when I'm trying to interest Americans in Pakistan and/or Haiti, goes something like this: "I grew up in an all-white town in Wisconsin. When I tell childhood stories, my wife says it sounds like Lake Wobegon. If you go from small-town Wisconsin to Haiti at age 16, as I did, you never go all the way back." I say this not to caricature or lampoon my home state, but to share a sense of how much the world opened up to me once I left Wisconsin, how much I've learned by traveling outside the United States.

So I want to note how apt it feels that, nearly 30 years later and just as I'm hitting the ground on my latest visit to Pakistan, one of the most interesting places on our planet is Wisconsin. I feel proud of the public employees who, while taking care to say that they're willing to negotiate on wages and benefits, are refusing to succumb to the Republican governor's bullying over their basic right to be unionized. (No writer has articulated the stakes in Wisconsin better than Paul Krugman.) I'm proud of the tens of thousands of citizens who have been occupying the state capitol and the square around it, in sub-freezing weather, just at the far end of State Street from my alma mater.

And I'm proud of the Democratic state legislators who are currently in undisclosed locations in Illinois, helping force the issue by highlighting where responsibility for the situation lies. They're doing honor to the great home state of Liberace and George Kennan and, more to the point, Fighting Bob La Follette. In 1964 Norman Mailer wrote, memorably, that "so long as there is a cold war, there are no politics of consequence in America." Well, guess what? There are finally politics of consequence in America again, and it makes me proud to be an American and, equally and more specifically, a Wisconsinite.

I recently asked what the revolution in Egypt might mean for Pakistan. The answer(s), of course, is/are that you can't draw a straight line from Cairo to Islamabad or anywhere else, and that history is perpetually surprising. As Mosharraf Zaidi rightly notes,

The intoxicating images from Tunisia and Egypt have inspired people all around the world, but that doesn't mean every country that gets Al Jazeera on TV is about to ignite with popular protests against ineffective and corrupt governments, swarming into the streets and demanding change.

But as we watch with fascination and horror the carnage unfolding in Bahrain and now in Libya (at least I hope plenty of Americans are watching), we'll do well to reflect that it has more to do with us than "only" its effect on the price of gasoline. I don't mean to be glib along the lines of "Cairo in the Midwest," as the New York Times has styled it. (East Coasters are always surprised when people from what they patronizingly call "the heartland" turn out to be intelligent and engaged and college-educated, and not just a bunch of hicks.) Protesters aren't being gunned down in the American Midwest, though they have been before (Kent State, May 4, 1970).

The point is that no self-respecting human being likes to be bullied, whether in Tripoli or in Madison. And in America, less urgently than in Libya but urgently enough, it's high time we reclaimed an honest and legitimately popular politics. It won't always be pretty, and it's probably too late to forestall some severe disruptions in our economy and society. But taking matters into our own hands is vastly preferable to allowing the dinosaur that is the oligarchic and corrupt American establishment to continue lumbering along as it's been doing.

In 1994 in Kathmandu (where I had been a student with the University of Wisconsin College Year in Nepal program in 1986-87), I had the honor of interviewing Ganesh Man Singh, the late revered "Gandhi of Nepal." Nepal at the time was undergoing its first political crisis since the semi-revolution of 1990. I asked Ganesh Man Singh how the military might figure in the coming events.

"It affects the people how much?" he replied. "That is the question. The police and army will make the people scared. If the government is successful, they will keep the people scared.  But I don't think we will be scared."

I've always remembered what I learned that day: that the world is of a piece.

ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004) and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010). He is currently writing Bearing the Bruise: A Lifetime of Learning from Haiti, to published in fall 2011, and collaborating with filmmaker Naeem Randhawa on a collection of stories by and about Muslims living in America. Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans

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