The American Thought Police

J.A. Terranson measl at
Mon Mar 28 10:29:15 PDT 2011

I think he should have noted that *both* parties are the "one party" he's 
diatribing, nevertheless...


"Never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public
plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to
the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always
be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by
predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty."

Joseph Pulitzer, 1907 Speech

Op-Ed Columnist
American Thought Police
Published: March 27, 2011 

Recently William Cronon, a historian who teaches at the University of 
Wisconsin, decided to weigh in on his state.s political turmoil. He 
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. Then he published an opinion 
piece in The Times, suggesting that Wisconsin.s Republican governor has 
turned his back on the state.s long tradition of .neighborliness, decency 
and mutual respect..

So what was the G.O.P..s response? A demand for 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.

If this action strikes you as no big deal, 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 

The demand for Mr. Cronon.s correspondence has obvious parallels with the 
ongoing smear campaign against climate science and climate scientists, 
which has lately relied heavily on supposedly damaging quotations found in 
e-mail records.

Back in 2009 climate skeptics got hold of more than a thousand e-mails 
between researchers at the Climate Research Unit at Britain.s University 
of East Anglia. Nothing in the correspondence suggested any kind of 
scientific impropriety; at most, we learned . I know this will shock you . 
that scientists are human beings, who occasionally say snide things about 
people they dislike.

But that didn.t stop the usual suspects from proclaiming that they had 
uncovered .Climategate,. a scientific scandal that somehow invalidates the 
vast array of evidence for man-made climate change. And this fake scandal 
gives an indication of what the Wisconsin G.O.P. presumably hopes to do to 
Mr. Cronon.

After all, if you go through a large number of messages looking for lines 
that can be made to sound bad, bound to find a few. In fact, it.s 
surprising how few such lines the critics managed to find in the 
.Climategate. trove: much of the smear has focused on just one e-mail, in 
which a researcher talks about using a .trick. to .hide the decline. in a 
particular series. In context, it.s clear that he.s talking about making 
an effective graphical presentation, not about suppressing evidence. But 
the right wants a scandal, and won.t take no for an answer.

Is there any doubt that Wisconsin Republicans are hoping for a similar 
.success. against Mr. Cronon?

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 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 

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 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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