'You have no rights" -- The tyranny of talk radio

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WELCOME, MCADAMS & SYKES READERS. When you've finished, you may want to read this as well.

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Since late in 2001, under the title McCarthyism Watch, Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, has collected and chronicled abuses of civil liberties in the post-9/11 era in the United States.

His book, You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression, tells 82 stories of people caught up in the web of the Patriot Act and other heightened security measures. (Rothschild will speak at a book-signing event Thursday, Sept. 28 at Harry W. Schwartz bookstore, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee.)

The Progressive , started by Fighting Bob LaFollette, is based in Madison, so it’s not surprising that there are a handful of Wisconsin stories in the book: the Baraboo cartoonist canned for cartoons about repression of civil rights; the Peace Action members from Milwaukee, detained and prevented from getting their flight to a demonstration; the Platteville protestor who was arrested for his “FUGW” sign; the Outagamie County supervisor booted from a Bush event for wearing a Kerry T-shirt.

And the worst story of all, in which the repression doesn’t come from the government, but from right-wing talk radio, which -- aided and abetted by the squishy local newspaper -- used the airwaves to shut up a dissenting voice in Milwaukee.

It’s ironic, since a mainstay of talk radio is to accuse intolerant liberals of enforcing political correctness on the population.

One case in Rothschild’s book demonstrates just the opposite, illustrating the tyranny of talk radio and how it stifles dissent.

We’ve all seen it happen – or all of us in Wisconsin, at least -- to Republicans who get out of line. They are derided as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) and forced to toe the party line or be replaced by someone who will.

The case in point is not a Republican officeholder. It’s a corporate executive who dared to speak out against the Iraq war and against the repression that was being carried out under the banner of the war on terror.

Rothschild wrote about it on The Progressive’s website at the time it occurred in November 2002:

Richard Abdoo is the CEO of Wisconsin Energy Corp., based in Milwaukee. Earlier this fall, Abdoo sent a $250 check to the peace group Not in Our Name (www.notinourname.net).

As a result, his name was listed as one of the 30,000 endorsers of the group's "Statement of Conscience Against War and Repression." And he was identified as "Chairman of the Board, president and CEO, Wisconsin Energy Corp." Abdoo said the donation was strictly a personal one.

Early in the workweek of November 11-15, rightwing talk radio hosts in Milwaukee got wind of Abdoo's endorsement and pilloried him for it.

The statement--signed by such celebrities as Susan Sarandon, Gloria Steinem, Ed Asner, Noam Chomsky, Danny Glover, Martin Luther King III, Alice Walker, and Kurt Vonnegut--calls on "the people of the United States to resist the policies and overall political direction that have emerged since September 11, and which pose grave dangers to the people of the world." It urges people to resist "the war and repression that has been loosed on the world by the Bush Administration. It is unjust, immoral, and illegitimate." The statement condemned the loss of civil liberties in the United States, the secret detention of immigrants, and the preparation for all-out war against Iraq.

(For the record, I have also signed the statement.)

Charlie Sykes of WTMJ said the statement was an "anti-American screed" and drummed up a campaign against Abdoo.

"Prompted by publicity about Abdoo's contribution, 100 to 150 people have contacted Wisconsin Energy since midday Tuesday," the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. One longtime stockholder told the paper that he was selling his stock in Wisconsin Energy Corp. because of Abdoo's "anti-American" views. The stockholder, Laurance Newman, warned about a possible stockholders' lawsuit and urged the company's board of directors to deal with this.

At first, Abdoo stood his ground. "I think every American has the freedom to state their views," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I'd still send the $250."

He seemed especially outraged at the suggestion by Sykes that Abdoo had not earned the right to criticize the United States. In his weblog November 12, entitled "The Shame of Richard Abdoo," Sykes wrote: "Amid the leftist elites who signed the statement, the presence of a prominent Milwaukee businessman is shocking enough. But more than most, Richard Abdoo has profited and thrived under the freedoms and the opportunities that others have secured for him."

Abdoo, who is the grandson of Lebanese immigrants, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "I'm an American. I was born here. My parents were born here. I'm proud to be an American . . . and I am really offended when someone questions my patriotism. And I'd use stronger language if I knew you weren't going to print it."

But the negative comments kept coming, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel itself editorialized against Abdoo on November 13, in a piece entitled, "An Executive's Bad Decision."

"The question is whether Abdoo, given his position and responsibilities, should have financially supported a manifesto that is so unbalanced in its condemnation of U.S. foreign policy, the Bush Administration's war on terrorism at home and abroad, and Congressional support for those policies," the paper wrote. "The answer is no."

On November 14, Abdoo backed down. In an e-mail to his employees, "Subject: Please accept my apology," Abdoo wrote:

"In recent days, my personal action to support a group that advocates peace and opposes repression has been made public. I deeply regret any misunderstanding, anger, and adverse publicity that have resulted.

"As much as I believed that my personal views would be separated from my position at Wisconsin Energy, I now realize that is not the case. I have learned a valuable lesson.

"Please accept my apology for the distraction, confusion, and pain this situation may have caused you.

"Thank you for your understanding."

The company refused to comment further on the matter.

But Charlie Sykes was still not satisfied.

"While Abdoo may owe an apology to his employees," he wrote in his weblog on the evening of November 14, "he certainly owes a more heartfelt one to the men and women [of the U.S. Armed Forces] whose service is smeared in the statement."

By the way, the statement's prologue said: "We believe that questioning, criticism, and dissent must be valued and protected. We understand that such rights and values are always contested and must be fought for."

Abdoo retired as chairman and CEO of Wisconsin Energy Corp. in December 2004, and presumably now has had his First Amendment rights reinstated.