What is the role of the public philosopher in the case of Madison, Wisconsin?

I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t know why it’s happening. I don’t understand.

I’m not Naomi Klein, and I’m not Scott Walker.

I want to be honest: I’m confused.

Why am I confused? Not because I haven’t read the news, watched video, or poured over commentary. Not for lack of trying or for want to empathy but because I’m in doubt whether the events, as their unfolding, fit our tried-and-true conceptual frameworks.

For many leftists, the situation could not be any clearer. The right, in making an assault on collective bargaining, is seeking to break labor’s back. At issue is the right to freely associate, the right to be autonomous, and the capacity to resist capital. Hence, protests in the street = shock doctrine resistance.

Those on the right state that there is a budget shortfall and insist that this is a good, exigent way of closing that shortfall. What’s more, unions are sclerotic, ineffective, and overly powerful. In the age of increasing competition, unions are bureaucratic dinosaurs. As a result, new legislation = fiscal and political responsibility.

Are we witnessing the playing out of an antinomy of old understandings (the last vestiges of the New Deal vs. the triumphal push of neoliberalism), or is this the coming–not with one event but slowly and over time–of new understandings? I’m not sure that either narrative makes sense of this historical moment, and I want to admit as much.

The political situations in Tunisia and Cairo seem much clearer: resistance against the tyrannical state, the desire for political freedom, etc. But in Madison, Wisconsin?

There is, I grant, a quietism inherent in my conception of public philosophy. Dogmatism on left and right smells fishy; the task of public philosophy is to think seriously in order to sort things out.