Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cronon tests the waters, and the sharks show up

Over at Salon, Andrew Leonard writes
A week ago, I had never heard of [Professor William] Cronon. This is embarrassing, since it doesn't take much digging around to discover that he is one of the most highly regarded historians in the United States (not to mention president-elect of the American Historical Association).

But that was before Cronon's fascinating opinion piece in Monday's New York Times detailing how Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's political agenda flies in the face of "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." A devastating new broadside in the battle for Wisconsin, Cronon's Op-Ed deservedly went viral.

But in today's political climate, there are consequences for taking a stand. As surely nearly everyone who has been following developments in Wisconsin already knows, the Republican Party of Wisconsin has filed an open records request demanding access to any emails Cronon has sent or received since Jan. 1 containing [the following] search terms...
Cronon believes the open records request was sparked by a lengthy blog post he describes thus:
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.
Here's that blog post. A taste of it:
That’s why events like the ones we’ve just experienced in Wisconsin can seem to come out of nowhere. Few outside the conservative movement have been paying much attention, and that is ill-advised. ... This is especially true when politicians at the state and local level promote legislation drafted at the national level that may not actually best serve the interests of their home districts and states. ALEC strategists may think they’re serving the national conservative cause by promoting legislation like the bills recently passed in Wisconsin–but I see my state being ripped apart by the resulting controversies, and it’s hard to believe that Wisconsin is better off as a result. This is not the way citizens or politicians have historically behaved toward each other in this state, and I for one am not happy with the changes in our political culture that seem to be unfolding right now. I’m hoping that many of my fellow Wisconsinites, whether they lean left or right, agree with me that it’s time to take a long hard look at what has been happening and try to find our bearings again.
Here's Cronon's NYT op-ed that's gone viral. A taste:
The policies that the current governor, Scott Walker, has sought to overturn, in other words, are legacies of his own party. But Mr. Walker’s assault on collective bargaining rights breaks with Wisconsin history in two much deeper ways as well. Among the state’s proudest traditions is a passion for transparent government that often strikes outsiders as extreme. Its open meetings law, open records law and public comment procedures are among the strongest in the nation. Indeed, the basis for the restraining order blocking the collective bargaining law is that Republicans may have violated open meetings rules in passing it. The legislation they have enacted turns out to be radical not just in its content, but in its blunt ends-justify-the-means disregard for openness and transparency.
At the moment, I agree with Andrew Leonard:
If good ideas are ever to drive out bad, both need more exposure. And that's why I just bought two of Cronon's books. We can't shape the future without understanding the past. The potency of Cronon's current involvement in the hottest political struggle of the day is all the proof I need that my own understanding of how the world works will benefit from more exposure to his work -- whether manifested in a blog post, New York Times Op-Ed, or book. What better response could there be to an attack on academic freedom than to spread that academic's ideas as widely as possible?
So I've bought two of Cronon's books, too.

edited (4:00 pm) to add: Over at Halfway There, Zeno has a look at ALEC's draft legislation. Take a look.

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