Thin-Skinned in Whitefish Bay (and Places Nearer and Farther) | FREE WHITEWATER

Thin-Skinned in Whitefish Bay (and Places Nearer and Farther)

There’s a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about complaints against public speech in Whitefish Bay that’s illustrative of threats to free speech in small towns, including Whitewater. In Whitefish Bay, a group called Bay Bridge placed an anti-racism sign in a designated space at the public library.

The sign drew the ire of some Whitefish Bay residents, including former Bucks player and current Bucks analyst Steve Novak:

WHITEFISH BAY – A sign addressing systemic racism was recently removed from the Whitefish Bay Public Library grounds following vocal criticism from some in the community — including former Milwaukee Bucks player Steve Novak.

The sign, which was placed in a rock garden display outside the library by Bay Bridge Wisconsin — a group that focuses on “raising awareness of racial and cultural bias in our community” — described its vision for the North Shore suburb.

“Whitefish Bay will be a welcoming community that recognizes systemic racism, and actively works to address and dismantle it,” the sign read. “How will you be a bridge in helping to repair and build a more equitable community?”

Emails sent to library staff, which were obtained by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel through a public records request, show some residents were offended by the sign and its message. About a half-dozen residents, including one who said she was a library benefactor, wrote to complain. Others complained in person at the library, records show.


“There is an offensive sign posted in front of the public library that incorrectly generalizes our community. It says that Whitefish Bay recognizes systemic racism,” Novak, who works as an analyst for the Bucks on Bally Sports Wisconsin (formerly Fox Sports Wisconsin), wrote in a June 8 email to Nyama Reed, the library’s director. “What group has taken the liberty of speaking for our community in such a hateful, damaging and inaccurate way?”

One can leave aside the overwrought – absurd, really – contention that the sign is somehow ‘hateful.’ (If Novak thinks the Bay Bridge Wisconsin message is hateful, he either thinks anything is hateful or knows nothing of the meaning of the word.)

Novak’s particular politics don’t matter here, but his response exemplifies how many traditional conservatives and how almost all right-wing populists see the world. It’s not the same. The populists are even more extreme.

The small-town traditional conservatives (among others) often want to use government to limit speech they don’t like. They’re quick to argue that something shouldn’t be said, and that the government should stop it from being said. When I began publishing FREE WHITEWATER, traditional conservatives predominated, and had this sort of view: isn’t there some way to stop this speech?

Time has been cruel to the traditional conservatives in Whitewater – they’re mostly old, tired, spent.

There’s a more vigorous conservatism that has supplanted these traditionalists in places across America, including Whitewater – right-wing populism. Their views on speech depart from the traditional conservatives’ views, and are more restrictive: they’d prefer government stop private publishers’ speech that they don’t like, but also demand government insist that private publishers carry the speech that they, the right-wing populists, want.

Note well: if the conservative populists want to express themselves, they can do so with their own sites. They have no rights in others’ private property.

The conservative populists advance no doctrine of law, and show no understanding of legal precedent; they show every sign of discarding any law or right that runs counter to their own appetites.

In these conditions, council members, school board members, city officials, and school district administrators superintendents will be pressured to discard individual rights to mollify a rightwing horde.

There are times one thinks that places like Whitefish Bay or Whitewater would have been better off without any officials than with appeasing, placating ones.

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