Monday, March 28, 2011

"And He's Not Even a Marxist!": The Nation's Shabby Coverage of William Cronon's Persecution

In case you haven't heard the story, William Cronon is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has recently become a victim of persecution on the part of the state's Republicans. They are filing a lawsuit demanding access to Cronon's emails that contain words such as “Republican,” “collective bargaining,” “rally,” and “union.” You can find Cronon's blog that explains what happened and why here

Of course, any thinking individual who values freedom of speech is appalled at this most recent show of contempt for the Constitution of the United States on the part of the GOP. However, some progressive journalists have taken a very strange approach to defending the right of a scholar to mention the word "union" in his emails. This is an excerpt from an article that The Nation, a magazine that I subscribe to and like, has published on the subject in its blog:
Many faculty members call themselves “Marxists” or “socialists,” and some describe themselves as “anarchists” or “revolutionaries”—but Cronon doesn’t. He’s not Bill Ayres, the education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who happily defends his Weatherman past. Cronon describes himself as a “centrist.” He says he’s never belonged to the Democratic (or the Republican) party.
How is it relevant at all whether Cronon is or is not a Marxist, an anarchist, a satan-worshipper or a creature from the Blue Lagoon? Are we to have different standards for people based on how they identify politically? Is a persecution of somebody who is politically centrist more egregious than the persecution of a radical?  I couldn't care less about Cronon's politics in this situation. All that matters to me is that he should be able to say, write and publish whatever he wants freely and without fear of persecution.


NancyP said...

Historical perspective: The traditional label used by anti-intellectual legislators for professors was "Marxist" or "Communist" or "socialist" or "Godless".

This particular bit of harassment skips the usual labels and goes for Cronon on the basis that he is not drinking the Tea. In other words, they are going after him BECAUSE HE IS A MODERATE and independent. Intimidation of a single 70s style Maoist professor, if any such still exist, isn't going to have the same effect - (academic and non-academic) people will say, well, there's one crazy guy at State U. - isn't there always one crazy guy in any organization? The intimidation of a professor who writes in a moderate, reasoned tone about well-accepted concepts such as the importance and existence of unions in American history is meant to inhibit all political and historical discussion by professors.

The Republicans pursuing this hope that he will have expressed a personal opinion somewhere in an email to a colleague or friend using the university email address. They want any evidence of disparagement of a Republican politician or of the local or national Republican party, and then use it to claim that he was using state facilities and time to campaign, which would be illegal and possibly a firing offence. They don't have to FIND such evidence, they merely have to keep the prof. entangled in legal matters and make him spend 20% of his salary on his own lawyers (any smart prof realizes that the University lawyers don't have the interests of professors at heart). Meanwhile, the prof. should expect to get a few death threats and to perhaps need to go into hiding for a while, depending on what the talk show hosts do with this.

Personally, if I were this historian, I would point out the danger to academic freedom and to common sense, mention the Danish population wearing yellow stars to confound the Nazis, and let the colleagues, students, audiences take it from there. Let a thousand FOIA requests bloom!

Clarissa said...

"This particular bit of harassment skips the usual labels and goes for Cronon on the basis that he is not drinking the Tea."

-This is brilliant! I wish you had time to write a blog of your own but I imagine you must be extremely busy for that.

" I would point out the danger to academic freedom and to common sense, mention the Danish population wearing yellow stars to confound the Nazis, and let the colleagues, students, audiences take it from there. Let a thousand FOIA requests bloom!"

-What a great solution! It would be the best thing to do in such a situation.

Izgad said...

As a State employee, this professor works for these republican politicians. I hate to say this but it does give them, in theory, the power to look into what he says about them and to try fire him for it.

This is a reason to make all universities private businesses. I do not want to work for republican politicians.

Clarissa said...

An employer is not the same as a slave-driver. Since when is it permitted for employers to censor the speech of their employees? Isn't the constitutiin of the US protecting the rights of people whether they are employed or not?

I also don't see the difference between worling for a Republican who owns a business and runs the state.

Pen said...

Do the people requesting this FAOI realize the privacy concerns of other individuals besides Cronon himself? Even he states that though he has nothing to hide, there are certain correspondences that are expected to remain private. If his turning over of information to the Republicans would result in a conflict with school policy regarding student-staff interactions, then something needs to be done to address that issue. And for some reason that's not something I see these people doing. And if he chose to comply, what would happen? Would his correspondences be made public? Would the privacy of those students be forever altered? Would the people going after Cronon try to attack his students and other people with whom he has had contact via his school email?

Izgad said...


Liberty means that my employer is free to impose any condition he wishes on me if I want to work for him. I am of course free to turn down a job over any condition I do not wish to live up to and find a job somewhere else.

As a libertarian I take this obvious principle to its logical conclusion and oppose the government involving itself in any private agreements between consenting adults. Thus I oppose laws dealing with minimum wage, sexual harassment, worker safety and discrimination.

Clarissa said...

Your definition of liberty is exactly the same as my definition of slavery. Why would anybody want to return to the Dickensian world of misery and abuse for the people who work is beyond my comprehension. This isn't even conservatism. It's regression, pure and simple. Why don't we just return to the caves and be done with this boring business of civilization, then?

Jonathan said...

No, a state employee does not work for the state legislators, but for the people of the state. The legislators themselves work for the people too. Usually at a state university there is oversight (a board of regents appointed by a governor, say,) and allocation of some funds by legislatures, but a university professor does not work "for" any particular politician. I am as much my state representative's boss as she is mine. Or more so.

Izgad said...

Slavery is defined by the presence of armed force to coerce people into their labor. My "Dickensian" world has no such force. Your liberal world depends upon it. (What is government action if not the threat of force?) So who supports slavery here?

Clarissa said...

Do you think that the big scary government sends the army to kill people guilty of sexual harassment, or something? That's not at all how it works. So unless you offer concrete examples, I fail to see how liberal world depends on armed force more than conservative world.

What would you personally gain in a world where anybody could abuse you in any way they want because you are an autistic Jew?

Pagan Topologist said...

We know what a society without government looks like. Check out Somalia. Government is necessary to prevent chaos and extreme danger to everyone. The only debate is how much government should do. It has rarely been enough, as far as I can tell. Of course, it does sometimes exert counterproductive pressure.

Izgad said...

Obviously conservatives depend on force of government to make people pay for school prayer and abstinence education. That is why I am not a conservative. All government action carries within it the implicit threat that if you do not obey this law or pay for that program armed police officers will take you away to prison or even kill you. As a libertarian I always support the limiting of coercive action and will therefore only use government coercion if it serves to limit a greater physical coercion such as someone trying to hit me over the head with a baseball bat because I am an autistic Jew. Someone who does not want to hire me for a job or only wants to pay me $3 an hour or insists that I sleep with him if I want the job is not using any physical coercion. The fact that I might desperately need the job is my problem and should be grateful to anyone willing to give me a job instead of leaving me to starve on the streets. Thus when the government steps in to give me a better deal than I otherwise would have gotten they are implicitly putting a gun to this person’s head even though he engaged in no physical violence, thus increasing the amount of physical coercion in play, and are using this physical violence to take something from him and give it to me. This is robbery.

I support the existence of government, just a minimal one that only involves itself in physical protection. I am not an anarchist, though I would argue that the problems in Somalia in the 90s were caused less by absence of government than by decades of brutal Marxist dictatorship, which, when it finally collapsed, left a gap quickly filled by tribal feuds and radical Islam. You cannot simply look at the problems of no government while ignoring all the problems that governments cause.

Clarissa said...

Are these fears based on any real events? Have there been any actual cases where armed police officers took away or even killed people who harassed employees or discriminated against them?

It just seems like you are willing to consent to a lot of very real harassment and abuse that was taking place in the past on a regular basis, work 18-hour days, have no weekends, have an unsafe work environment (all of these things that actually existed) simply to allay what I see as completely groundless fears.

"Thus when the government steps in to give me a better deal than I otherwise would have gotten they are implicitly putting a gun to this person’s head even though he engaged in no physical violence, thus increasing the amount of physical coercion in play"

-Where has anybody been threatened with any gun for abusing employees? Not even in the Soviet Union did that happen.

I prefer to see workplace rights as a mark of a civilized society where the people who don't want to be abused on a daily basis created an environment where blatant abuses are not possible any more. The governments of all countries were always extremely unwilling to help civilized people to do that. But the civilized people put the proverbial gun to the government's head and made it not interfere. I'm sure that you remember that the governments everywhere always sent in troops to assault union protesters, and not vice versa.

At this point, we are still managing in this country to prevent the government from messing too openly with these achievements of the civilized people. Workers' rights are not guaranteed by the government. they are guaranteed by people coercing the government into staying away.

Izgad said...


Part of the problem here, in addition to how we each define slavery, is how we each define abuse. Any situation in which an individual is physically capable of walking away is, as I understand it, by definition consensual, making abuse, under such circumstances impossible by definition. Coke cannot send enforcers to coerce me to buy their products or to work in their plant for $3 an hour. (What they can do is try to “convince” me to go along with their desires by bombarding me with images of big breasted super models.) Government, by definition, is an institution that claims a monopoly on “legitimate” violence. I do not have a choice whether or not to do as the government wants me. If fail to comply the government can confiscate my property, put me in jail and even kill me. You are correct no government official has directly put a gun to my head. That being said, for all intents and purposes President Obama, along with all the Democrats and Republicans in Washington, has a gun pointed at both of our heads. The fact that he does not directly use it does not mean that this power is not real. On the contrary this is a power so real and obvious that it requires no demonstration. Now the Soviet Union was an extreme version of this. Stalin literally did send millions of people to slave camps and to their deaths because they failed to comply with his every whim.
Now you are also making the mistake in assuming that there is even such a thing as “the people.” The people do not exist; there are just 300 million individuals in this country. (One of the things I really like about Ayn Rand was how she made fun of this notion of the “public welfare.”) Now these 300 million people desire the wealth of their neighbor and therefore easily fall victim to politicians who tell them that they have some sort of right to take it. So “the people” beg and even demand that the politicians step in and “save” them. Leading to government, an institution already by definition far more powerful and dangerous than any corporation.

Clarissa said...

My friend, you are not answering my questions. I really want to know what you personally will gain from going back to a society where "dogs and Jews aren't allowed," where there is no weekend, no protection from harassment, 18-hour working day? What will you personally gain from this?

I also asked whether you had a single concrete examples of any government anywhere on the planet enforcing anti-harassment laws by "confiscate my property, put me in jail and even kill me"?

These are concrete questions that you disregard not for the first time, choosing instead to go on a tangent about Stalin and Coke.

Izgad said...


What will I gain from going back to a society of “no dogs and Jews” and eighteen hour work days? I certainly will not be greatly harmed by it. If a business does not want my patronage or to hire me I will simply find someone else who will. It is a fact that segregation has never been able to exist on a mass scale unless directly enforced by the government or where the government agrees to turn a blind eye to the use of violence by private citizens to protect it. I have no intention of working eighteen hours a day, seven days a week so I will not. The value of my labor on a free market will be enough that I will have no need to. In a free market I will gain freedom from the blackmail by any citizen who seeks to accuse me of discrimination and the subsequent byzantine bureaucracy created by politicians and activists to reap the benefits of a racial animosity, which, while they might not have created, they have continued to stoke.
Can I give an example of the government using coercion to support anti-harassment laws? My point is that the very laws themselves are de facto forms of coercion so it is impossible to give an example where they do not. To give another example, take a mafia enforcer (say a Ukrainian one) going around at the beginning of the month to local businesses and “suggesting” that they “donate” money to a very worthy organization. Now according to American racketeering law, it does not matter whether this enforcer ever pulls out a gun or directly threatens anyone. As far as the government is concerned, as long as it is understood by the business owners that force would be used if they do not comply, it is as if a gun was pulled out and a threat was made. I apply the same standard to government.
Yes government is a form of racketeering, albeit one that I consider far more preferable to the mafia’s. I am willing to go along with the government’s racketeering as long as it serves to protect me from the threat of physical violence, particularly from the likes of the mafia. The moment the government steps beyond this boundary it becomes just another tyrannical force interfering with my life. Of even greater frustration is that fact that lying behind the government is every other person in this country (including you) who desires to use the government as a means of forcing their values on me.
I hope I have answered your questions to your satisfaction.

Pagan Topologist said...

I think you still miss Clarissa's point, Izgad. Employers, absent government coercion, may well use force to prevent valuable employees from leaving. Coal-mining company towns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are a case in point. A person born into one could never leave, since the "money" which was paid to workers was good only at the company store, so it was not possible for anyone to leave and look for employment elsewhere. Only government can protect workers from such treatment, although unions can help. This is why the suppression of unions has been such a violent activity in many cases.

Izgad said...

I am ok with government using force to stop employers from using direct physical force against others. For example if an employer hired thugs to stop his workers from unionizing or from going on strike. Your example of a company town is not physical force. The workers freely entered this contract to take company money and they are free to leave and even to exchange this company money with others, say perhaps a third party money changer. If the company were to devaluate their own currency that would be them violating their contract with their worker, a form a physical force, and would thus justify government interference. I should point out that this is the kind of contract that governments regularly violate with their free printing of paper money and their deficit spending.