Monday, March 28, 2011

Late to the party: On William Cronon

I know, I know: the bullying, counterproductive, and essentially indefensible political intimidation of one William Cronon began last week.  My blogging colleagues, especially some far better-known than I, have even been commenting on the developing skirmish for days now.  Cronon himself – no slouch at either close reading or carefully measured prose, from my brief skim of his shiny new blog – looks more than ready for this fight.  No one, on the wider disciplinary or interdisciplinary level, knows who the hell I am, and I know that no one who cares about this sort of thing hasn't already read about it elsewhere.  I'm pretty much the ranting late-night cable-television crazy of the academic blogosphere.

But my ego somehow remains oversized, even after the drubbing it took courtesy of the job market this past week.  I have a voice, I have an informed point of view (I hope so, anyway), and I feel like I have an obligation to echo what my eloquent colleagues have already stated.  I'm not eloquent, though, so I'll just spit it out: the Wisconsin GOP is trying to carry out a political hit on Cronon.  It's disgusting and indefensible politics, of which Republicans ought to be ashamed if they really believe in individual freedom, small government, or any of the thinking that undergirds the Bill of Rights.  I have little doubt that Cronon will be forced to comply with the FOIA request, which is, after all, legal.  But I also have little doubt that Cronon, who already knows this better than anyone, will treat this as the sucker-punch that starts a brawl.  He's going to make the GOP character assassins look
  • foolish at best;
  • pretty damn stupid, more likely than not;
  • and materially corrupt at worst.  (Long odds on this one, I admit.)
In fact, I'm counting on him to do so.  We academics committed to free intellectual inquiry, to say nothing of public intellectual engagement, need him to do so.  The implications of this political bullying, if left unchallenged and unchecked, are pretty dire for us.  Politicians – the GOP in this case, but let's not kid ourselves that a single political party holds a monopoly on dirty, unethical, or counterproductive tactics – cannot be allowed to believe that they can scare the shit out of people who legally and legitimately critique, question, and challenge the wisdom of those politicians' actions. 

And yeah, it's a little trite, but I don't mind trotting out my constant counter-example of Research Country.  RC is most emphatically not the United States: it has never experienced a time when responsive representative democracy or full freedom of political speech were respected, or even attempted.  This makes RC an imperfect comparison, which I acknowledge freely.  That said, I can tell you a shit-ton about the pernicious effects of political witch hunts on higher education, not only for the unfortunate targets but also for the larger institutions, and for the students who find their educations compromised by political forces that would prefer not to have intelligent analysts even allowed to present canned facts to lecture classes.  Political oppression is only one of the ills that plagues RC's universities, sad to say, but it's one of the most insidious and widespread, even in the fanciest institution here that likes to pretend that it can rise above the politically crippled mediocrity that most of RC's higher education has come to be.

I am comforted to think that the Wisconsin GOP seems to have awakened a sleeping giant.  Or, at least, unwisely sucker-punched a skillful bar brawler.

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