William Cronon is about as distinguished an academic as you will find in the United States. The Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he obtained a doctor of philosophy degree from Jesus College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. He’s also holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and an M.A., MPhil and PhD from Yale.

Cronon has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship and written books, such as Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (Hill and Wang), which have been broadly recognized as paradigm shifting studies of American history and ecosystems.

In the best “Wisconsin Idea” tradition, and old progressive principle that said University of Wisconsin professors should share their knowledge with the people of the state, Cronon has been a public intellectual of the highest order. He and I have shared many platforms and microphones over the years, and I have always been honored to be in the company of so serious, so thoughtful and so generous a scholar.

Because he in an engaged intellectual, rather than a distant and disconnected one, Cronon has observed the great debate over Governor Scott Walker’s assault on labor rights and related attempts to consolidate power with a sharp eye. And Cronon has contributed to that debate in the best tradition of the public intellectual, developing a “Scholar as Citizen” blog that, among other things, examines the role played by Washington-based think tanks and corporate-friendly advocacy groups in shaping Governor Walker’s policies and agenda.

“After watching the sudden and impressively well-organized wave of legislation being introduced into state legislatures that all seem to be pursuing parallel goals only tangentially related to current fiscal challenges—ending collective bargaining rights for public employees, requiring photo IDs at the ballot box, rolling back environmental protections, privileging property rights over civil rights, and so on—I’ve found myself wondering where all of this legislation is coming from,” Cronin wrote in his first blog entry.

The professor developed a study guide at the website that asked questions and provided answers about the activities of the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded group organized almost forty years ago by movement conservatives to influence lawmaking in the states. “The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett, and (surprise, surprise) Paul Weyrich. Its goal for the past forty years has been to draft “model bills’ that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its website claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18% of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)”

“If you’re as impressed by these numbers as I am, I’m hoping you’ll agree with me that it may be time to start paying more attention to ALEC and the bills its seeks to promote,” Cronon continues, before providing background, links and recommendations for books—several of them friendly to conservativise activism and activists.

In addition to developing the study guide, Cronon drafted a thoughtful op-ed for the New York Times, in which he sought to put Governor Walker’s actions in historical perspective. In that op-ed, the professor noted that: “Mr. Walker’s conduct has provoked a level of divisiveness and bitter partisan hostility the likes of which have not been seen in this state since at least the Vietnam War. Many citizens are furious at their governor and his party, not only because of profound policy differences, but because these particular Republicans have exercised power in abusively nontransparent ways that represent such a radical break from the state’s tradition of open government.”

Cronon added: “Perhaps that is why—as a centrist and a lifelong independent—I have found myself returning over the past few weeks to the question posed by the lawyer Joseph N. Welch during the hearings that finally helped bring down another Wisconsin Republican, Joe McCarthy, in 1954: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

“Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different,” Cronon concluded, with a note that:”The turmoil in Wisconsin is not only about bargaining rights or the pension payments of public employees. It is about transparency and openness. It is about neighborliness, decency and mutual respect. Joe McCarthy forgot these lessons of good government, and so, I fear, has Mr. Walker. Wisconsin’s citizens have not.”

That might have been the end of it. But, then it was revealed that the Republican Party of Wisconsin had decided to go after the professor.

The party’s Stephan Thompson launched the intimidation campaign with a letter to the UW that read: “Under Wisconsin open records law, we are requesting copies of the following items: Copies of all emails into and out of Prof. William Cronon’s state email account from January 1, 2011 to present which reference any of the following terms: Republican, Scott Walker, recall, collective bargaining, AFSCME, WEAC, rally, union, Alberta Darling, Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, Rob Cowles, Scott Fitzgerald, Sheila Harsdorf, Luther Olsen, Glenn Grothman, Mary Lazich, Jeff Fitzgerald, Marty Beil, or Mary Bell.”

The listed names are those of legislators and union leaders involved in the current debate in Wisconsin.

Thompson concluded: “We are making this request under Chapter 19.32 of the Wisconsin state statutes, through the Open Records law. Specifically, we would like to cite the following section of Wis. Stat. 19.32 (2) that defines a public record as ‘anything recorded or preserved that has been created or is being kept by the agency. This includes tapes, films, charts, photographs, computer printouts, etc.’ ”

Cronon’s response was typically thoughtful: “The timing of Mr. Thompson’s request surely means that it is a response to my blog posting about the American Legislative Exchange Council, since I have never before been the subject of an Open Records request, and nothing in my prior professional life has ever attracted this kind of attention from the Republican Party. It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to infer that Mr. Thompson and his colleagues aren’t particularly eager to have a state university professor asking awkward questions about the dealings of state Republicans with the American Legislative Exchange Council. This open records request apparently seemed to Mr. Thompson to be a good way to discourage me from sticking my nose in places he doesn’t think it belongs.”

The professor also suggested that, while he has nothing to hide, he hopes the Republican Party of Wisconsin will rethink its request. Cronon explains: “My most important observation is that I find it simply outrageous that the Wisconsin Republican Party would seek to employ the state’s Open Records Law for the nakedly political purpose of trying to embarrass, harass, or silence a university professor (and a citizen) who has asked legitimate questions and identified potentially legitimate criticisms concerning the influence of a national organization on state legislative activity. I’m offended by this, not just because it’s yet another abuse of law and procedure that has seemingly become standard operating procedure for the state’s Republican Party under Governor Walker, but because it’s such an obvious assault on academic freedom at a great research university that helped invent the concept of academic freedom way back in 1894.”

So where does this leave us? A highly regarded, reasonable and moderate professor asks some tough questions that powerful political players do not like.

An organization associated with those powerful pols then moves to attack and silence the professor—and, by any reasonable measure, to intimidate other doubters and dissenters.

William Cronon wrote in his op-ed that: “Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different.”

I have known Scott Walker for the better part of twenty years and I have defended him more than once when I thought he was being unfairly attacked. I would like to think that Professor Cronon is right that the governor is not a modern variation on Joe McCarthy.

But the definition of “McCarthyism”—the set of tactics used by Senator McCarthy in the late 1940s and early 1950s and later emulated by his allies and apologists—is a steady one. It involves the use by powerful and connected players of the tools of government to intimidate and silence those who dare to raise questions.

When the Republican Party of Wisconsin, which has operated from the start of the current conflict as the political arm of the Walker administration (despite the fact that many Republicans oppose what the governor is doing), goes after a distinguished professor for asking reasonable questions, there is a word that describes so crude and blatant an attempt to intimidate a dissenter: McCarthyism.

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