United Against Hate: An Interview With Mike McCabe

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Mike McCabe is former Executive Director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the author of [one of my all-time favorite books]Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics, and a 2018 candidate for governor of Wisconsin. In each role he’s been a principled voice of the people, taken on the entrenched monied interests that shamelessly control our government, and sparked grassroots activism in every county of the state.

In the tradition of Fighting Bob LaFollette, over the years Mike McCabe has brought his message of small-d democratic empowerment to all parts of Wisconsin

On September 1st Mike begins a new activist adventure. He will be the first Executive Director of We Are Many–United Against Hate. Announcing the news on social media, he said:

I have some personal news. I have accepted an invitation to become the executive director of We Are Many-United Against Hate. The group was started in late 2016 by Masood Akhtar, a Muslim American from India who was alarmed by proposals to establish a Muslim registry in the U.S. as well as a Muslim travel ban. I have been on this organization’s advisory board since nearly its inception and am committed to doing whatever I can to help it succeed in its mission.

This is quite a shift of focus for me professionally, but it is very much in response to the times and the disturbing conditions in our society. With the vacuum of moral leadership at the highest levels of our government, it’s up to the rest of us to fill that vacuum. As a citizen and patriot, I cannot stand on the sidelines and watch dangerous forces eat away at the moral fabric of our country. No nation filled with hate can be great. It’s time to put the shoulder to the wheel.

I asked Mike McCabe to answer some questions for State of the State. He graciously agreed. What follows are my questions and his unedited responses.

Give us some background on We Are Many-United Against Hate. When and why did the organization start?

The group was started in late 2016 by Masood Akhtar, a Muslim American from India who was alarmed by proposals to establish a Muslim registry in the U.S. as well as a Muslim travel ban.

What makes We Are Many-United Against Hate unique and special is that it doesn’t just express righteous indignation after each new eruption of hate-fueled violence and condemn the perpetrators from afar. It works to overpower hate one act of common decency at a time. When Baraboo high school students were photographed making a Nazi salute, We Are Many-United Against Hate went to Baraboo to help organize a community-wide response. Akhtar repeatedly traveled to Baraboo to plan actions with the superintendent, high school principal, mayor and other community leaders.

Two other leaders of We Are Many-United Against Hate — one a former white supremacist organizer and the other an ex-police officer whose father was killed in the mass shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek in 2012 — made powerful joint presentations as part of a series of events aimed at promoting understanding, healing, reconciliation and redemption.

Former white power/skinhead organizer Arno Michaelis (left) and
Pardeep Singh Kaleka  (right), whose father was murdered in a hate crime committed by a neo-nazi, went on a powerful speaking tour that promoted reconciliation and healing. The two
joined Masood Ahktar at UW Oshkosh last April.

This is a shining example of We Are Many-United Against Hate’s approach. But it is just one example. In repeated instances in communities far from Baraboo, the same kinds of interventions are made. Sometimes it’s done in the schools. Other times in community forums. Even one-on-one counseling and mentoring.

What We Are Many-United Against Hate already has achieved as an all-volunteer operation is being recognized nationally. The FBI director recently gave Akhtar the agency’s Community Leadership Award. Akhtar’s efforts also were saluted by the Southern Poverty Law Center with a Certificate of Appreciation for his contributions to the ongoing fight against hatred and intolerance in America. His name was added to the Wall of Tolerance in Montgomery, Alabama to provide inspiration to all those who choose to take a stand against hatred.

Masood Ahktar started We Are Many – United Against Hate in 2016. The organization is officially nonpartisan 

What will be your role as Executive Director?

This is Masood Akhtar’s group. He started this movement. I will be the servant of a Muslim from India, and I couldn’t be prouder to play that role. My job will be to build organizational infrastructure and capacity so the movement can continue to grow and prosper.

The biggest challenge of all is not climate change. It’s not the mass shootings. It’s not the relentless scapegoating and demonization of immigrants. It’s not the economy. It’s not the government. It’s not the schools. Or the news media. It’s not even apathy. It’s powerlessness.” 

Mike McCabe on the challenges We face

Do you see the open expression of hate in our society as strictly a product of the Trump years? Or is it more complicated than that?

Trump didn’t start the fire. He pours gasoline on it and fans the flames. He exploits conditions in our society for his own political gain. There will come a day when Trump is no longer president, but there will still be smoldering embers ready to ignite. There are root causes of the hate Trump capitalizes on. For example, large segments of our nation’s population are feeling left behind, watching their employment automated out of existence, struggling to make ends meet as their standard of living erodes. When jobs paying a living wage are hard to come by, immigrants and racial minorities get scapegoated even when the primary culprits are automation and globalization. Robots don’t become the targets of hate, people do. The grotesque economic inequality in America today is a breeding ground for hate and a recruiting tool for hate groups. That’s why We Are Many-United Against Hate calls for policies offering protection to vulnerable workers, such as living wage guarantees and a pilot program testing the effectiveness of a Universal Basic Income program.

McCabe: “Trump didn’t start the fire. He pours gasoline on it and fans the flames.”

In your 2018 race for governor you traveled the state of Wisconsin probably more than any other candidate and met thousands of people. Was it your sense that Wisconsinites are prepared to unite against hate?

Our campaign traveled over 100,000 miles in 11 months—the equivalent of more than four trips around the world without ever leaving the state. It was a blessing to travel to every part of Wisconsin to meet people living in very different places and living very different lives. We all live in bubbles. I can’t think of too many other experiences that get you invited into other people’s bubbles. I traveled from bubble to bubble. Everywhere I went, I heard about challenges and hopes and fears and dreams and nightmares. What I heard sometimes sounds defeatist. Other times powerless. Occasionally hopeless. Or even helpless. I get where these feelings come from. So much inequality. So much injustice. So much economic insecurity. So much divisiveness. So many barriers to real political representation. So many looming threats on the horizon. People want to curl up in a ball.

Acting on this impulse, many abandon civic duty and withdraw from public life. They say they don’t want to talk about politics much less take part in it. Take the climate crisis, for example. Many choose not to think about it. In all my travels, I lost count of the number of people I encountered who you could probably classify as climate change deniers. Yet only a few actually deny the weather is changing for the worse. Only a handful dispute that human behavior is driving the change. They just don’t think we can act quickly enough to do anything about it. So they choose not to worry. They don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to think about it.

The biggest challenge of all is not climate change. It’s not the mass shootings. It’s not the relentless scapegoating and demonization of immigrants. It’s not the economy. It’s not the government. It’s not the schools. Or the news media. It’s not even apathy. It’s powerlessness.

There is a world of difference between apathy and powerlessness. Apathy is not caring. From what I can tell based on thousands of conversations in hundreds of places, the powerless seem to care a great deal about what’s happening in our country. They just don’t think there is a damn thing they can do about it. That’s what we have to overcome to solve any of the king-sized problems facing us.

How can readers get more involved in We are Many-United Against Hate?

Join the movement at united-against-hate.org/join. Connect with us on social media at facebook.com/WeAreManyUnitedAgainstHate/.

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About Author

Tony Palmeri

Tony Palmeri is a Professor of Communication Studies at UW Oshkosh. He teaches courses in rhetoric and public advocacy, freedom of speech, the rhetoric of rock and roll, and the communication career capstone. He maintains a blog called "Tony Palmeri's Media Rants." Tony served two terms on the Oshkosh Common Council and ran for state legislature in 1996 and 2004. You can find more information about him at www.tonypalmeri.com

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