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March 2011, Week 4

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Fri, 25 Mar 2011 19:47:38 -0400
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[For William Cronon's blog about the Wisconsin
Republican Party's effort to access his emails, see
http://scholarcitizen.williamcronon.net/2011/03/24/open-records-attack-on-academic-freedom/
-- moderator]

Wisconsin's Most Dangerous Professor

     Why are Republicans desperate to see Bill Cronon's
     emails? Because ideas and history matter

By Andrew Leonard
Mar 25, 2011
http://www.salon.com/news/wisconsin/index.html?story=/tech/htww/2011/03/25/wisconsins_most_dangerous_professor

I just bought two books by the University of Wisconsin
historian William Cronon: "Changes in the Land:
Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England" and
"Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West."

A week ago, I had never heard of 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 search 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 obvious goal is  to find something damaging or
embarrassing to Cronon -- although judging by Cronon's
account, smoking guns seem unlikely to be lying around
in plain sight. (Eight of the names referenced in the
request belong to the eight Republican state senators
targeted by Democrats for recall.)

I can't do a better, more eloquent or more profound job
of summarizing the issues at stake than Cronon himself
does in a lengthy blog post that the professor posted
Thursday night. Everyone should read it. Nor do I want
to get bogged down in a discussion of whether the
Wisconsin GOP's tactics should be properly
characterized as a McCarthyite attack on academic
freedom. I believe they should be, but I want to make a
larger point.

Despite following events in Wisconsin fairly closely,
before Cronon's post about the open records request
started rocketing around Twitter and Facebook late last
night, I hadn't realized that Cronon had published
another, even more interesting post two weeks earlier,
"Who's Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in
Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn't Start Here)."

In that post, as part of his effort to understand the
historical roots of the nationally coordinated state-
level legislative attack on unions, Cronon focused his
spotlight on a relatively under-the-radar group called
the American Legislative Exchange Council.

     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 percent of these
     bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the
     controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)
     [On Portside: http://lists.portside.org/cgi-bin/listserv/wa?A2=ind1103C&L=PORTSIDE&P=R2337&1=PORTSIDE&9=A&J=on&d=No+Match%3BMatch%3BMatches&z=4 
     -- moderator]

Cronon surmises that his efforts to highlight the role
of ALEC precipitated the Republican open records
response. I have no way to judge whether that is true.
But what I do know is that the Republican effort to
gain access to Cronon's university emails has resulted
in bringing far more attention to Cronon and to ALEC
than would otherwise have been the case.

And that gives me hope. In an earlier post today, I
quoted another blogger noting how humiliating it was
that progressives didn't even realize that efforts to
restrict striking workers from eligibility for food
stamp programs dated all the way back to 1981. We've
been asleep on the job. But if there's one good thing
to come out of the aggressive ultra-conservative agenda
so visible since the 2010 midterm elections -- with
special attention to events in Wisconsin -- it is that
we are all paying more attention than ever to what's
been going on in this country for the last 30 years.
It's not just that issues like "collective bargaining"
are suddenly part of mainstream debate. We are also
looking harder at the laws that are getting passed and
more closely examining the institutions -- like ALEC --
that have been so instrumental in moving reactionary
agendas forward. By attacking William Cronon, the
Republican Party of Wisconsin has insured that his
every future utterance will command a mass audience --
not just of his fellow historians, who esteem him so
highly -- but of everyone who cares about the future of
this country.

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?

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter,
@koxinga21.

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