Kill the Professors First!

William Cronon

I lived in Moscow in the 1980s.  I hung out with a lot of people who were considered enemies of the state- the founders of the Democratic Union, Gruppa Doverya, etc.  We NEVER had a conversation of any importance inside a building.  We strolled in parks, spoke on metro platforms, wrote things on pieces of paper that we then burned.  As a young woman, it was all very exciting to know “important” people who were working to bring down the regime.  In retrospect, of course, these individuals were never really that important in the downfall of the Soviet Regime and its replacement with the Putinist oligarchy of today. But we imagined the work as central to history, and oddly both the KGB and the CIA imagined these dissidents as important as well.

When did it happen that professors in the U.S. became like dissidents in the Soviet Union? Suddenly what we say is so important that it merits concerted attacks from right-wing bloggers, concerned citizens, and even the GOP.  The far right examines our syllabi with fine-toothed combs looking for evidence of both our biases as well as our stupidity and incompetence.  Our public writings motivate readers to send death threats to our university accounts.  Provosts are called and told we should be fired immediately.  And now our emails, at least if we teach at public universities, are under scrutiny by Republican politicians.

This sort of right-wing intimidation is what’s happening to University of Wisconsin history professor and incoming president of the American Historical Association William Cronon.

Cronon is being attacked for a blog post he wrote.  In the post, Cronon suggested that the recent explosion of far-right legislation in Wisconsin was not the result of local politics, but rather nationally co-ordinated and fully corporate-funded right-wing political groups.  In particular, Cronon singles out the American Legislative Exchange Council. Cronon writes:

The most important group, I’m pretty sure, is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which was founded in 1973… Its goal for the past 40 years has been to draft “model bills” that conservative legislators can introduce in the 50 states. Its Web site claims that in each legislative cycle, its members introduce 1,000 pieces of legislation based on its work, and claims that roughly 18 percent of these bills are enacted into law. (Among them was the controversial 2010 anti-immigrant law in Arizona.)

Further, Cronon writes,

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. I’m posting this long note in the conviction that it’s time to start paying more attention. History is being made here, and future historians need people today to assemble the documents they’ll eventually need to write this story. Much more important, citizens today may wish to access these same documents to be well informed about important political decisions being made in our own time during the frequent meetings that ALEC organizes between Republican legislators and representatives of many of the wealthiest corporations in the United States.

Cronon is very careful in his blog to provide a variety of resources for readers to make up their own minds.  Unlike me, his blogging style is far more professorial and far less polemical.  But despite his rhetorical caution, Cronon seems to have touched a nerve.  That’s why Stephen Thompson of the Republican Party has demanded that all of Cronon’s university emails be released through the freedom of information process.  Under the request, any emails that use the following terms would be made public: 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.

Why not just throw in Commie?  Clearly this is an attempt to intimidate all professors who are willing to speak out against the fascist (yes, that’s what the word means) alliance between the GOP and corporations to take over U.S. politics, a takeover that is now being fought at the state level.  Even University President Biddy Martin recognizes this when she said that

Academic freedom is one of the university’s greatest contributions to a democratic society.  No other institution is charged specifically with protecting the pursuit of knowledge, wherever it may lead. Individual faculty, staff, and students inevitably consider and advocate positions that will be at odds with one another’s views and the views of people outside of the university. It is the university’s responsibility both to comply with state law and to protect our community’s right to explore freely and freely express their points of view.”

Two decades after my life at the center of history in Moscow, it is clear to me that history moves in circles, not linear progress narratives.  It is also clear to me that those marked as “dangerous” are in fact not really able to stop global capital from its own seemingly linear march to world domination.

But something else is clear too.  Two decades later we have more tools available to us than ever: blogs, Twitter, Facebook, cellphone video recorders, and the sense that this moment in U.S. history is as important and central to our future as the 1980s were in Soviet Russia.  So in the words of George W. Bush, the hero of the GOP and large corporate interests, bring it on.

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