William Cronon is about as distinguished an academic as you will find in the United States. The Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas research professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cronon holds degrees from UW, Yale and Oxford. He’s been a Rhodes Scholar and a MacArthur Fellow. His book “Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England” was a paradigm-shifting study of American history and ecosystems.
Maintaining the Wisconsin Idea tradition, Cronon has been a public intellectual of the highest order. He and I have shared many microphones over the years, and I have always been honored to be in the company of so serious, so thoughtful and so generous a scholar.
It was with an eye to the Wisconsin Idea that Cronon began this month to contribute to the debate about Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill. His “Scholar as Citizen” blog examined the role played by Washington-based think tanks and corporate-friendly advocacy groups in shaping Walker’s agenda.
“After watching the sudden and impressively well-organized wave of legislation being introduced into state legislatures that all seem to be pursuing parallel goals only tangentially related to current fiscal challenges -- ending collective bargaining rights for public employees, requiring photo IDs at the ballot box, rolling back environmental protections, privileging property rights over civil rights, and so on -- I’ve found myself wondering where all of this legislation is coming from,” Cronon wrote in his first blog entry.
The professor developed a study guide that asked questions and provided answers about the activities of the influential American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded group organized almost 40 years ago by movement conservatives to influence lawmaking in the states. Cronon provided background, links and reading lists -- naming books from across the ideological spectrum.
In addition, Cronon wrote a thoughtful op-ed for the New York Times (also published subsequently by the Cap Times), in which he sought to put Walker’s actions in historical perspective. In that op-ed, the professor noted: “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. Many citizens are furious at their governor and his party, not only because of profound policy differences, but because these particular Republicans have exercised power in abusively nontransparent ways that represent such a radical break from the state’s tradition of open government.”
Cronon added: “Perhaps that is why -- as a centrist and a lifelong independent -- I have found myself returning over the past few weeks to the question posed by the lawyer Joseph N. Welch during the hearings that finally helped bring down another Wisconsin Republican, Joe McCarthy, in 1954: ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?’
“Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different,” Cronon concluded, noting: “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.”
Within days of Cronon’s initial blog, he was targeted for attack by the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
Stephan Thompson, a former aide to Walker who now works with the party, launched the intimidation campaign with a letter to the UW that -- using the state open records law as a pretense -- demanded copies of Cronon’s emails regarding the current controversy.
Cronon’s response was typically thoughtful: “The timing of Mr. Thompson’s request surely means that it is a response to my blog posting about the American Legislative Exchange Council, since I have never before been the subject of an open records request, and nothing in my prior professional life has ever attracted this kind of attention from the Republican Party. It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to infer that Mr. Thompson and his colleagues aren’t particularly eager to have a state university professor asking awkward questions about the dealings of state Republicans with the American Legislative Exchange Council. This open records request apparently seemed to Mr. Thompson to be a good way to discourage me from sticking my nose in places he doesn’t think it belongs.”
The professor also suggested that, while he has nothing to hide, he hopes the Republican Party of Wisconsin will rethink its request. Cronon explains: “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 Gov. 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.”
So where does this leave us? A highly regarded, reasonable and moderate professor asks some tough questions that powerful political players do not like.
An organization associated with those powerful pols then moves to attack and silence the professor -- and to intimidate other doubters and dissenters.
William Cronon wrote in his op-ed: “Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy.”
I have known Walker for the better part of 20 years and I have defended him more than once when I thought he was being unfairly attacked. I would like to think that Cronon is right that the governor is not a modern variation on McCarthy.
But the definition of “McCarthyism” -- the set of tactics used by Sen. McCarthy in the late 1940s and early 1950s and later emulated by his allies and apologists -- is a steady one. It involves the use by powerful and connected players of the tools of government to intimidate and silence those who dare to raise questions.
When the Republican Party of Wisconsin, which has operated from the start of the current conflict as the political arm of the Walker administration (despite the fact that many Republicans oppose what the governor is doing), goes after a distinguished professor for asking reasonable questions, there is a word that describes so crude and blatant an attempt to intimidate a dissenter: McCarthyism.