The Big Chill: The Ghost of Joe McCarthy in Wisconsin

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

William Cronon, a historian who teaches at the University of Wisconsin started a blog, “Scholar as Citizen,” devoting his first post to the role of the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council in pushing hard-line conservative legislation at the state level. BforAZ included a link to his richly detailed post in The Devil's Workshop For The Corporatocracy.

Cronon then he published an opinion piece in The New York Times, Wisconsin’s Radical Break, suggesting that Wisconsin’s Republican governor has turned his back on the state’s long tradition of “neighborliness, decency and mutual respect.”

Screenshot-9 That's when the ghost of Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism reared its ugly head in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Republican Party demanded copies of all e-mails sent to or from Mr. Cronon’s university mail account containing any of a wide range of terms, including the word “Republican” and the names of a number of Republican politicians. This FOIA request is clearly motivated by retaliation for Cronon exposing the inner workings of ALEC and the web of right-wing think tanks with which it works, and his critical opinion of Gov. Scott Walker. The purpose of the Wisconsin GOP is the "politics of personal destruction." Tail Gunner Joe still haunts Wisconsin.

Paul Krugman writes today, William Cronon and the American Thought Police:

If this action strikes you as no big deal, you’re missing the point. The hard right — which these days is more or less synonymous with the Republican Party — has a modus operandi when it comes to scholars expressing views it dislikes: never mind the substance, go for the smear. And that demand for copies of e-mails is obviously motivated by no more than a hope that it will provide something, anything, that can be used to subject Mr. Cronon to the usual treatment.

The Cronon affair, then, is one more indicator of just how reflexively vindictive, how un-American, one of our two great political parties has become.

The "politics of personal destruction" has been with us for a long time, but its practitioners reside almost entirely on the political right. They still regard Joe McCarthy as an exemplar of power politics, not the destructive demagogue he was.

Now, in this case they’ll probably come up dry. Mr. Cronon writes on his blog that he has been careful never to use his university e-mail for personal business, exhibiting a scrupulousness that’s neither common nor expected in the academic world. (Full disclosure: I have, at times, used my university e-mail to remind my wife to feed the cats, confirm dinner plans with friends, etc.)

Beyond that, Mr. Cronon — the president-elect of the American Historical Association — has a secure reputation as a towering figure in his field. His magnificent “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” is the best work of economic and business history I’ve ever read — and I read a lot of that kind of thing.

So we don’t need to worry about Mr. Cronon — but we should worry a lot about the wider effect of attacks like the one he’s facing.

Legally, Republicans may be within their rights: Wisconsin’s open records law provides public access to e-mails of government employees, although the law was clearly intended to apply to state officials, not university professors. But there’s a clear chilling effect when scholars know that they may face witch hunts whenever they say things the G.O.P. doesn’t like.

Someone like Mr. Cronon can stand up to the pressure. But less eminent and established researchers won’t just become reluctant to act as concerned citizens, weighing in on current debates; they’ll be deterred from even doing research on topics that might get them in trouble.

What’s at stake here, in other words, is whether we’re going to have an open national discourse in which scholars feel free to go wherever the evidence takes them, and to contribute to public understanding. Republicans, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, are trying to shut that kind of discourse down. It’s up to the rest of us to see that they don’t succeed.

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