March 25, 2011- 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, he obtained a doctor of philosophy degree from Jesus College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. He’s also holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an M.A., MPhil and PhD from Yale.
Cronon has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and written books, such as Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (Hill and Wang), which have been broadly recognized as paradigm shifting studies of American history and ecosystems.
In the best “Wisconsin Idea” tradition, and old progressive principle that said University of Wisconsin professors should share their knowledge with the people of the state, Cronon has been a public intellectual of the highest order. He and I have shared many platforms and 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.
Because he in an engaged intellectual, rather than a distant and disconnected one, Cronon has observed the great debate over Governor Scott Walker’s assault on labor rights and related attempts to consolidate power with a sharp eye. And Cronon has contributed to that debate in the best tradition of the public intellectual, developing a “Scholar as Citizen” blog that, among other things, examines the role played by Washington-based think tanks and corporate-friendly advocacy groups in shaping Governor Walker’s policies and 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,” Cronin wrote in his first blog entry.
The professor developed a study guide at the website that asked questions and provided answers about the activities of the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded group organized almost forty years ago by movement conservatives to influence lawmaking in the states. “The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills’ that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)”
“If you’re as impressed by these numbers as I am, I’m hoping you’ll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote,” Cronon continues, before providing background, links and recommendations for books—several of them friendly to conservativise activism and activists.
In addition to developing the study guide, Cronon drafted a thoughtful op-ed for the New York Times, in which he sought to put Governor Walker’s actions in historical perspective. In that op-ed, the professor noted that: “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, with a note that:”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.”
That might have been the end of it. But, then it was revealed that the Republican Party of Wisconsin had decided to go after the professor.
The party’s Stephan Thompson launched the intimidation campaign with a letter to the UW that read: “Under Wisconsin open records law, we are requesting copies of the following items: Copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell.”
The listed names are those of legislators and union leaders involved in the current debate in Wisconsin.