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What Does It Mean for Wisconsin To Be “On The Map"?
It's a term often used when things are going well. But it cuts both ways.
With the Brewers clinching the NL Central on Sunday in Milwaukee at a sold out American Family Field, the Packers delivering a thrilling win on Sunday Night Football, and Kohler’s Whistling Straits playing host to a U.S. victory in the Ryder Cup, it was another big sports weekend in the state of Wisconsin.
With the Ryder Cup, in particular, bringing people from all over the nation and the world to visit southeastern Wisconsin, it gave many an opportunity to talk up the state and sing its praises.
And with good reason! Wisconsin is a wonderful state and when the right moment comes along, it’s important that we let people know just how great it can really be here.
One of those common refrains that you’ll hear in times like these is that a big event or a big moment like this really puts Wisconsin “on the map.”
But, what exactly does that mean?
For as often as it’s said, perhaps we should take a moment to think about what we’re talking about when we talk about being “on the map.”
This term is something we’ve heard a lot this summer. Bucks officials and Common Council members said this summer’s championship run put Milwaukee and Wisconsin “on the map.” It was a phrase that was said ad nauseum by those bringing the DNC to Milwaukee. The phrase comes up a lot in moments of accomplishment around here (and sometimes in moments where that accomplishment merely is a mirage, too).
The obvious part of what they’re referring to when they say that is a celebration of recognition, more or less, of standing out among the rest, of getting people to notice you who otherwise wouldn’t. And that’s a good thing, of course. But let’s not pretend that being “on the map” doesn’t cut both ways. Wisconsin puts itself “on the map” all the time in ways no one should be proud of, and often reflects poorly on our state.
For as much as Milwaukee can be the City of Champions and Wisconsin can be a wonderful place, this state gets a lot of rather undesirable national attention on a fairly regular basis.
Just look at our national politicians who regularly make their way into headlines and news shows. Like Ron Johnson, who has gleefully promoted ivermectin (even the horse paste kind!) as a covid treatment and this week said vaccinating people during a pandemic “could be dangerous.” He’s on national television or radio on a near daily basis. Or how about Glenn Grothman, who was using crucial time on the House floor debating the most recent stimulus bill to use racist stereotypes to talk about Black families. Or how about when State Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley made national headlines when she equated the state’s “stay-at-home” order from the early days of the pandemic to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Or take the recent story of Waukesha’s school district opting out of a free school lunch program for its students. Or Robin Vos’ sham election “investigation,” which has attracted national attention (as has State Rep. Janel Brandtjen’s somehow even less legitimate undertaking), and is bound to draw even more as it comes to a conclusion. A national Los Angeles Times piece just examined the startling rise in Milwaukee’s homicide rate. Our state’s chaotic approach to managing the coronavirus — from the tragic spring election to the court decision that abruptly tossed statewide response measures to the dangerous covid spike in fall and winter — has regularly made its way into national headlines. In Wisconsin, it’s always something. It wouldn’t surprise me to see this list of terms legislative Republicans are looking to ban from schools — things like “equity,” “multiculturalism” and “social justice” — draw some fresh attention from outside the state.
The point is, we’re “on the map” all the time, just not always for the reasons we’d want to be.
So often in the Before Times — when the news cycle was perhaps a bit slower and less serious — Milwaukee would often be tripping over itself to discuss and promote any new list that would rank it as the “best new” this or the “most underrated” that, all with the thought that this kind of attention was putting us “on the map” in some way. City leaders, particularly in the business community, talked endlessly throughout the 2010s about Milwaukee’s “perception” problem, but failed to address the realities that were so often driving it.
Talking about “perception” is always a convenient way for leaders to criticize something that’s unquantifiable, and therefore, difficult to dispute. But it is something that matters. The perception of this state matters in how people see it as a place to build their lives. If they see the chaos and dysfunction and prejudice in our politics, it’s going to be a place that struggles to see the possibility in its next generation’s future fully realized.
Let’s celebrate wins like when the Bucks win the city’s first championship in 50 years, absolutely. But we can’t make putting Wisconsin “on the map” an actual priority. It is mostly nonsense terminology, and not a meaningful goal.
Milwaukee and Wisconsin finding its place “on the map” is little more than an inevitability. What we do that puts there is what really matters. We can keep striving for those grandiose celebratory moments that put us on the map in a positive way, but we need to address the bad moments that put us “on the map” in a negative light, too. For as much as the term is used, we have to recognize that it cuts both ways.
Aim for new heights and strive for fresh eyes to recognize the great city of Milwaukee and state of Wisconsin, of course. But let’s clean up the other side of that equation, too, because these perception cartographers will put us “on the map” regardless of the merits of our actions.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.