William Cronon is a professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the prize winning author of many books such as Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, which revolutionized the study of environmental history. He is known as a guy with such a deep and abiding love of Wisconsin and its traditions that he leads the "get to know us" bus tour of the state offered to new faculty each year. Glaciers, rocks and history are on his agenda; politics and cheese he leaves to fellow-Wisconsinite and Capital Times editor John Nichols.
But this mild-mannered professor kicked a hornet's nest this week with an op-ed in the New York Times on Governor Scott Walker, and the push back was immediate. The Wisconsin GOP is now demanding his emails.
Facts Will Not be Tolerated
Professor Cronon is not known as a raging leftie. To the contrary, his recent support for Chancellor Biddy Martin and, by extension, her controversial plan to partially privatize the University of Wisconsin system, put him firmly in the more conservative camp of the debate raging on campus over the proposal.
Because Cronon is not considered particularly political, his Times piece this week, titled "Wisconsin's Radical Break", took many by surprise. In it, he makes the case that "Republicans in Wisconsin are seeking to reverse civic traditions that for more than a century have been among the most celebrated achievements not just of their state, but of their own party as well." Cronon points out that collective bargaining rights were extended to state workers by a Republican governor in 1967.
But the larger point of his piece involves the destruction of Wisconsin's long-held traditions of civility, open government and open records:
The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees. It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect. Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin's citizens have not.
Polling shows that Cronon speaks the truth when he writes: "Mr. Walker's conduct has provoked a level of divisiveness and bitter partisan hostility the likes of which have not been seen in this state since at least the Vietnam War." The accompanying graphic emphasizes the famous phrase, "Have you no sense of decency?", that was the beginning of the end for Wisconsin Republican Joe McCarthy.
All this truth telling was a bit too much for the WI GOP.
The Only Tradition Some Understand Is McCarthyism
Shortly after the publication of the Times piece, the state GOP filed an open records request for Professor Cronon's emails. The request includes key words that suggest that the GOP believes that Cronon is conspiring with the unions or is behind the protests and the recalls. The notion is laughable, but the request is not. Cronon nails it in his "first blog post ever," when he suggests that it is nothing but a bully tactic to intimidate critics and stifle dissent.
From the post:
My most important observation is that I find it simply outrageous that the Wisconsin Republican Party would seek to employ the state's Open Records Law for the nakedly political purpose of trying to embarrass, harass, or silence a university professor (and a citizen) who has asked legitimate questions and identified potentially legitimate criticisms concerning the influence of a national organization on state legislative activity. I'm offended by this not just because it's yet another abuse of law and procedure that has seemingly become standard operating procedure for the state's Republican Party under Governor Walker, but because it's such an obvious assault on academic freedom at a great research university that helped invent the concept of academic freedom way back in 1894.
The "legitimate questions" over the influence of a national organization involves the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which Cronon speculated might be behind the Wisconsin proposal to rid the state of collective bargaining rights for workers in an earlier article, which apparently generated millions of hits to his previously little-known blog.
Cronon makes clear that he supports the open records law as a "precious guardian of our democratic liberties," but notes that it can be abused in a way that "discourages dissent and undermines democracy." In a gentlemanly fashion, Cronon asks the state GOP to withdraw its open records request. Now the issue is squarely in Walker's hands. Which tradition will he adhere to? The tradition of open government and civil debate that has characterized Wisconsin since its founding, or the tradition of unfounded accusations and witch hunts that were the hallmark of the McCarthy era?