Solidarity with Bill Cronon
Republicans: attacking labor, women’s rights, teachers, and now… nineteenth century historians?
The background, for those who don’t follow Josh Marshall (who has written about this here), is that Bill Cronon, a professor at U-Wisconsin, has come under bizarre but clear intimidation from the Republican Party. First he wrote a blog post, showing the influence that a bunch of shady national convervative groups have on state politics. He followed up writing an op-ed in the New York Times decrying Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
Then, the Republican Wisconsin Party counterattacked, filing a Freedom of Information Act Request against Cronon, arguing that since he is a public employee (Wisconsin is a public university), he has to turn over all his email records to the Wisconsin Republican Party.
This hits personally to me for a couple of reasons. First, like Josh Marshall I cannot speak highly enough of Cronon’s academic work. Marshall mentions Cronon’s Changes in the Land, certainly a fantastic book. But for my money, his study of Chicago– Nature’s Metropolis– is simply one of the best and most original books on American history ever written. It is a rare book that both contributed significantly to my thinking about academic topics like urbanization, westward expansion, and industrialization, but also, if I can sound melodramatic, changed the very way I think about the natural environment. A major theme is how the logic of Chicago’s urbanization is intricately tied in with environmental changes miles away (deforestation in Wisconsin, destruction of Nebraska’s prairie, etc…). That the idea that we can divide between rural and urban is complete fantasy: rural America looks the way it does because urban American looks the way it does.
Nature’s Metropolis is an incredibly deep book, and I’m probably not going to do justice to it. But I took away from it the profound ways that the spread of market relations completely reshape so many aspects of the human experience, often in ways that are completely obscured to people themselves. Land becomes a commodity, and so we get perfectly identical plots of square farmland in Kansas (all the better to buy and sell in New York City by speculators who know nothing about the physical land in Kansas). So do animals and timber, changing the way we interact with non-humans and with forests. Cronon, in a chapter that is only rivaled by E.P. Thompson’s famous essay on work discipline shows how railroads required abstract and predictable time schedules. The result was time zones, where everyone measures time, not by the sun any longer, but by an artificially imposed grid, which pretends that everyone in a massive block of land has the same time. Everywhere the market goes, then, the messy real earth is replaced abstraction, commodification, and a fictional homogenization (fictional because, for instance, every bag of grain is actually different, but we have to pretend it can be classified as the same, so that it can be bought by someone who has never seen it.)
Anyways… the second, and clearest, reason to be offended by the Republicans’ treatment of Cronon is that it is a clear attack on the idea that historians might engage in public debate and dialogue. I’ve constantly been frustrated by the unwillingness of historians to engage in public discourse, and am thrilled when prominent ones try to make their voices heard. This blog was created partly to do our small part in getting the voices of historians out into the world.
And lets be clear, asking for his emails is entirely about silencing Cronon and intimidating other professors who were thinking about speaking out. Yes, they can’t fire him (yet) because tenure is designed to protect people in situations like this. But they can harass him, and publish his personal emails to the world. As Cronon writes, “they’re hoping they can embarrass me enough to silence me as a critic.”
Read the rest of Cronon’s response to this. He is entirely correct, Freedom of Information laws are supposed to allow the people to keep the government accountable. By subverting them, and turning them into tools to silence dissenters, they are being used for the exact opposite effect. If the Bill Cronons of the future stay silent, because they don’t want Scott Walker reading all their emails, democracy loses.
My hope is that, combined with the more general assault on teachers, public universities, and unions (including academic labor unions), American academics might start to wake up a bit, and re-engage publicly. If it can happen to Cronon, who with his prestige, tenure, and moderate reputation, is as well-protected as one can possible get, it can happen to anyone.
So, anyway, let me end by suggesting that everyone go out and buy a Bill Cronon book, if they don’t already own them, as a small way to show solidarity (and educate yourself). There is Changes in the Land, a fantastic environmental history of colonial New England, Nature’s Metropolis, my personal favorite, and Uncommon Ground, which I’ve never read, but just ordered.