March 28, 2011

Republicans in Wisconsin Attack Historian

After the American Century

One of the most articulate and distinguished American historians, William Cronon, is now under attack by the Republican Party because he opposes their attempts to take away union rights. This is more than just a sad spectacle, as the Republicans have demanded to see Professor Cronon's emails and other documents, under the freedom of information act, to see what he thinks more generally. As the New York Times reports, this fishing expedition was prompted by an article he wrote for the newspapers.

For those who do not know his work, Bill Cronon is one of the pioneers of environmental history, whose writings include a book in Colonial history on  the transformation of the landscape during settlement of New England  and a fine history of nineteenth century Chicago, for example linking that city to the vast hinterland it affected through its control of the grain market. In short, his scholarly work is at best tangential to contemporary politics. He is widely respected and currently is the President of the American Historical Association.

I do not recall the "Freedom of Information Act" being used to demand access to  a historian's private correspondence or other writings on the rather slender grounds that he or she is a state university employee. We are not talking about criminal or subversive activities, but expression of opinion in support of the Democrats as opposed to the Republicans. The Bill of Rights guards against "unreasonable searches and seizures" such as this.

The current Wisconsin Republicans begin to remind me of another Republican from Wisconsin. His name was Joe McCarthy, and he destroyed careers during his witch hunts for communists back in the 1950s.  Professor Cronon is one of the best environmental historians in the United States. Targeting him at the very least will waste a good deal of his time and interfere with his scholarly work. At worst, it could send a chill through academic life, undermining freedom of speech.

As one who has read most of Cronon's work and met him both in Denmark and the United States, I find this attack completely unacceptable,  and one more proof that the Republicans have lost sight of their founding principles. They should aspire to be the party of Lincoln, not Joe McCarthy.