'Have You No Sense of Decency?' The Wm. Cronon Story

By James Fallows

By James Fallows  (See UPDATE and correction below)

BEIJING, China. I don't mean to keep butting in and have just a minute to type this out, but I think it's important to direct attention to a new abuse of power underway in Wisconsin.

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William Cronon (right), whom I know very slightly, is as good as the American academic establishment can now produce. He is president of the American Historical Association; he is the Frederick Jackson Turner professor of history at the University of Wisconsin; his Nature's Metropolis and Changes in the Land are books any writer would be proud to claim.

Because Cronon dared write an op-ed piece in the New York Times* pointing to Wisconsin's long tradition of bi-partisan, "good government"-minded support of collective bargaining rights, and criticizing Gov. Scott Walker for his campaign against organized labor and collective bargaining, the Wisconsin Republican Party is launching a legal effort to look through his email archives to see if he has been involved in the recent protests in the state. The putative rationale is that Cronon's messages were sent on the University of Wisconsin's email system and therefore are covered by the state's open-records law.

Cronon gives a very, very detailed description of the case here, with an impassioned and, to me, 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. I encourage you to read that, and Josh Marshall's explanation of the case here. I hope to say more about this later.

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.
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* UPDATE and correction: In earlier haste I misread Cronon's chronology. The Republican request to see Cronon's email records actually came on March 17, before the NYT op-ed but two days after he had made a blog post about the situation in Wisconsin, including the role of a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council in promoting anti-public sector union efforts in several states. That post is here. The attempt to intimidate is the same. But Cronon's "offense" came a week earlier than I said, and in a far less visible venue, which if anything makes the bullying reaction worse.

And, as several readers have noted, I should have made clear that this kind of intimidation is less acceptable in Madison than it would be in Beijing, since in Wisconsin such concepts as "academic freedom" and "the First Amendment" are supposed to apply.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/have-you-no-sense-of-decency-the-wm-cronon-story/73010/