27 March 2011

On the topic of persecution

From the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter 5, verse 11:

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Witness the treatment of Dr William Cronon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A highly-distinguished environmental historian who, unfortunately, I previously knew only by association (his daughter was on the same soccer team in elementary school as my sister), he recently made a contribution to the New York Times editorial page which has already made the very thorough rounds of the blogosphere. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it – I am very sympathetic to the argument. Our state does indeed have this proud tradition of supporting social reforms, in part because of the German immigrant population carrying forward the reform traditions of the European Continent after 1848. But further than that, I would argue – as it seems Dr Cronon is close to doing – that the ‘reform’ tradition is motivated by what I would term a Tory-radical sensibility: the notion that we are and must be held accountable to each other across generations and across the narrow boundaries of our interest group (as Dr Cronon aptly puts it, ‘common problems deserve common solutions’). Dr Cronon concludes that the assault by Governor Walker on collective bargaining for public employees ended up driving a deep wedge in the body politic, and runs completely roughshod over this small-‘c’ catholic participatory-political tradition of his state and of the historical Republican Party.

The response from the state’s Republican Party was swift and predictable: when the message goes against the official party narrative, always attack the messenger. A representative of the party, Stephan Thompson, made a request under the Freedom of Information Act for all of Dr Cronon’s emails going back to the beginning of the year containing a number of different keywords (including ‘Republican’, ‘union’, ‘recall’, ‘collective bargaining’, ‘rally’ and a number of names of related people). The obvious aim is very similar to what was sadly done to the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit by less legal means – use carefully-edited and massaged selections from Dr Cronon’s e-mail account to, if possible, publicly embarrass him and dismiss him as a partizan hack who violated the university’s policy of using his professional e-mail for political purposes. You can read Dr Cronon’s own account of these events here.

Ethically, Dr Cronon has the right of the matter. Having used his own resources (his own computer and his own e-mail address) in pursuit of the research that went into his blog post and into his NYT editorial, he has been very conscientious in following UW-Madison’s policies. The spirit of the open-records policy is that it is meant to be used as a safeguard against suspected wrongdoing by professors; it is not meant as an instrument of intimidation and blackmail against academics who fail to conform to a particular political narrative. As Dr Harry Brighouse notes over at Crooked Timber, if student-professor confidentiality is subject to these sorts of political football games, it could have profound detrimental effects on the tenor and ethos of the academic community.

I actually tend to think that as a result of Dr Cronon’s prophetic outspokenness on these issues, and as a result of such efforts to intimidate and silence him through open-records requests, his ideas and his input are going to gain a lot more traction in more than just the blogosphere. I certainly hope that this is the case, and that the blessings of Our Lord on those who speak the truth as they see it, and who are persecuted for doing so, may be so demonstrated.

EDIT: Fixed the links.


  1. Matt, to be clear, did he use his personal email address or his institutional email address? I ask because the latter isn't his property; it belongs to his employer and its use is subject to regulation by same. Kalamazoo College, for one, is pretty clear about using college resources for political activities. All that being said it's the first rule that gets broken, and I think the state Republican Party is foolish for pursuing this even though they're probably on safe legal ground doing so. Just because you can do a thing doesn't mean it's a good idea. See Tenured Radical and Jack Shafer for two other takes on this.

  2. Hi Charles! Sorry about using the myopenid.com persona; Google's being reticent about allowing me to comment on my own blog for some reason.

    But yes, from what I gather he used his own personal e-mail address and computer to gather information for his ALEC piece. Not only do I personally believe Dr Cronon is telling the truth about the matter, it seems that it would be a foolish thing for Dr Cronon to lie about.

    Actually, the nuance of the open records law is intriguing to me. It pertains specifically to 'the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them'. As we should assume Dr Cronon was telling the truth, that he wrote his blog post and editorials specifically as a private citizen rather than as a government official (that is, as a professor of UW-Madison), the FOIA request doesn't seem to have as firm a legal platform to stand on as Mr Shafer appears to suppose.

    That said, I agree with Tenured Radical that THE UNIVERSITY has every right to investigate Dr Cronon in the event that they feel he has abused his position as a professor (given that UW is officially if rather lukewarmly backing him up here, that seems like a fairly remote possibility).