Home > Books, Politics > The Low Road, Wisconsin Edition

The Low Road, Wisconsin Edition

This is old news by now, and thoroughly written about elsewhere, so I won’t say much. William Cronon is a renowned historian at the University of Wisconsin, holder of the Frederick Jackson Turner professorship and the Vilas research professorship, and president-elect of the American Historical Association. As he explained in a long post at his blog Scholar as Citizen last Thursday:

Last week was quite a roller coaster for me. I spent the weekend of March 12-13 drafting an op-ed for the New York Times (published on March 22, and available at this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/opinion/22cronon.html) about the several ways in which I believe that Scott Walker and the current leadership of the Republican Party in Wisconsin have departed not just from the longstanding culture of civility and good government in this state, but in fact from important traditions of their own party. In the course of writing that op-ed, I did some research trying to figure out where the current wave of conservative legislation in Wisconsin and elsewhere might be coming from.

As a result, last Tuesday night, March 15, I launched my first-ever entry for a blog I had long been planning on the theme of “Scholar as Citizen,” about how thoughtful scholarship can contribute to better understandings of issues and debates in the public realm. In my first blog entry, I published a study guide exploring the question “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?” I by no means had all the answers to this question, but I thought I had found enough useful leads that it was worth sharing them to help others investigate the American Legislative Exchange Council further. So I posted the link for the blog on Facebook and Twitter, sat back, and hoped that viral communication would bring the blog to people who might find it useful.

My little ALEC study guide succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. …

What I did not anticipate—though I guess I should have seen it coming, given everything else that has happened in Wisconsin over the past couple months—was the communication that the University of Wisconsin-Madison received on Thursday afternoon, March 17—less than two days after I posted my blog—formally requesting under the state’s Open Records Law copies of all emails sent from or received by my University of Wisconsin—Madison email address pertaining to matters raised in my blog. (The acronym in many other states and in the Federal government for the laws under which such a request is usually made is “FOIA,” named for the federal Freedom of Information Act. …

Remarkably, the request was sent to the university’s legal office by Stephan Thompson of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, with no effort to obscure the political motivations behind it.

Josh Marshall wrote about Cronon’s story on Thursday at TPM, and then on Friday it spread across the blogosphere. I learned of it on waking up, when I turned to my RSS feed and found Jim Fallows sufficiently troubled to come out of blog hiatus and say a few words.

Cronon gives a … convincing argument about why this should be seen as a flat-out effort at personal intimidation, in the tradition of Wisconsin’s own Sen. Joe McCarthy. …

The reason this strikes me particularly hard at the moment: I am staying in a country where a lot of recent news concerns how far the government is going in electronic monitoring of email and other messages to prevent any group, notably including academics or students, from organizing in order to protest. I don’t like that any better in Madison than I do in Beijing.

Paul Krugman weighed in a little later, and the NYT has an editorial posted online, evidently scheduled to appear tomorrow, that concludes:

This is a clear attempt to punish a critic and make other academics think twice before using the freedom of the American university to conduct legitimate research.

Professors are not just ordinary state employees. As J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a conservative federal judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, noted in a similar case, state university faculty members are “employed professionally to test ideas and propose solutions, to deepen knowledge and refresh perspectives.” A political fishing expedition through a professor’s files would make it substantially harder to conduct research and communicate openly with colleagues. And it makes the Republican Party appear both vengeful and ridiculous.

I won’t add on. I have nothing useful to add. But I do want to point out one welcome consequence of Krugman’s post. He starts: “Regular readers may recall my praise for William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, a great book that had a big influence on my work in economic geography.” Indeed I did remember Krugman writing, at the end of January,

I’m rereading William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West — yes, on my Kindle, which has made a serious improvement in my life. And everyone with any interest in economics should read his account of the rise of the Chicago Board of Trade. Railroads changed everything. It wasn’t just the fact that stuff could be shipped further, faster, cheaper; the railroad also led to the replacement of concrete with abstract forms of ownership (the farmer owned a receipt for a bushel of grain, not a particular sack), standard-setting, futures markets, and on and on. If you’ve read Marc Levinson’s The Box, about containerization (which you should), it’s startling to see how many of the themes were prefigured by the grain trade, as standard-sized rail cars replaced flatboats, as grain elevators essentially began treating grain as a fluid rather than a solid, as conveyor belts replaced stevedores toting sacks.

I almost bought Cronon’s book after reading Krugman’s recommendation, then thought better of it. With all the other books I had in the queue, when would I read this one? I didn’t have to be convinced a second time though; I wasted no time downloading it Friday. I have set other books aside and am now reading it. So far so good, and I get to support Professor Cronon as I read.

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