History is a powerful thing – just ask University of Wisconsin professor Bill Cronon. One of our own history professors, he recently received an open records request from the Republican Party for applying a bit of history to the current debates raging within Wisconsin.
Before we even get into how interesting Cronon’s initial conclusions are, and how dead-on accurate the actions of the Republican Party have guaranteed they are, let’s address the legality of the open records request.
The law exists to provide “all persons” with “the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.” As those employees, professors are not legally protected from the law, although I believe any communications with students are. So, in general, the request is legal, albeit a bit sketchy – but I believe the intentions behind it reveal far more than Cronon’s emails ever will.
Cronon’s blog, Scholar as Citizen, was born out of research he did for a New York Times op-ed piece. Its goal was to try to understand how Wisconsin seemingly went from neighborly to battleground overnight, how a Capitol known for its ability to communicate was forced to fracture so visibly over the past months. The picture he paints is historically accurate. This state was at the forefront of the mid-20th century reform movement. Wisconsin was led by Republican politicians during that time and this state does have a passion for transparency, discussion and cooperation in pursuit of the common good. But over the past two months, things have operated in a radically different manner, as these new Republicans took the “model bills” constructed in secret and seclusion by the American Legislative Exchange Council and implemented them without debate. The ALEC site brags that 18 percent of the laws they introduce to legislatures are passed into law, not at all an insubstantial number.
Yet even as Cronon followed the evidence of these groups’ emerging power over the Republican Party, he did not balk at the right of like-minded citizens to join together and advance their own positions. He merely pointed out that “ALEC is an organization that has been doing very important political work in the United States for the past 40 years with remarkably little public or journalistic scrutiny” and that “it’s time to start paying more attention.”
That was all it took for the Republican party to invoke the open records law as a right to search through his university email address in search of something, anything that could be used to discredit or smear Cronon. Suddenly the application of a historical sketch to the political realities of today was grounds for a public attack. As Paul Krugman pointed out in his own New York Times op-ed “American Thought Police,” the hard right attempted to do something similar in 2009’s smear campaign known as Climategate. Climategate resulted from the right getting a hold of thousands of emails between climate researchers in Britain’s University of East Anglica. What they found after pouring over every line was one remark, which out of context looked like one scientist was trying to alter the appearance of a data set.
Whether the Republican Party will be able to find a similar line in Cronon’s emails will be interesting to watch, but ultimately irrelevant. I mean, if Fox News can copy-paste protests with palm trees in the background into coverage of what we did at the Capitol, then I think it would be a gross underestimation of their abilities to assume they can’t spin an out of context line. Still, though, what this story tells us is a lot more than whether or not the open records law is being used appropriately, or if Cronon is a secret socialist radical union-backer poisoning our minds against … something.
This is the incoming president of the American Historical Association, a man who has no political affiliation with either major party, applying his considerable knowledge of history as well as his professional ability to evaluate and follow emerging evidence to create sound conclusions. That is what historians do. And when, in history, powerful authorities seek to discredit the claims made by outside parties intent only on discerning truth through the following of evidence, you can be relatively certain those conclusions hit close to the reality.
Don’t just think about this story in terms of whether or not the open records law should be used against a university professor. Instead, read what professor Cronon has to say, learn about ALEC, learn about the historical narrative of the Republican Party and take this latest crusade as another example of how they do business, because that is what this is all about.
John Waters ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in journalism.