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Professor Cronon’s Weak Cases



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It doesn’t take a lot to become a national media darling these days if you’re from Wisconsin. All you need to do is yell “Fox lies!” over and over again, or make a prank call to the governor, or point at an assembly colleague and hiss, “You’re f***ing dead.”

Yet the latest political stylings of UW-Madison environmental professor William J. Cronon make the “Fox lies” guy seem like John Locke.

Cronon believes he has recently “discovered” conservatives, and has set off to study this odd little subset of American society, as Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees. (Cronon has described himself as a “centrist independent,” which, in the UW-Madison environmental department, might actually be true.)

Cronon’s big accomplishment is unearthing a secret 40-year old organization called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. This stealth organization, whose main purpose is to promote model legislation that has worked in other states, remains a secret to about 1 percent of state legislators throughout the country. The other 99 percent either attend their well-publicized annual meetings, or swear when they get their incessant mailings.

His case has been taken up by the twitchy, bearded soothsayer of the Left, Paul Krugman of the New York Times, who calls ALEC a “shadowy” organization. Of course, a legitimately shadowy group called the Greater Wisconsin Committee is currently running a television ad accusing a sitting Wisconsin Supreme Court justice of being an accessory to child sex crimes 33 years ago. The ad is so objectionable, the victims cited in the case have asked that it be taken down. I wouldn’t suggest holding your breath waiting for Krugman to criticize groups like the Greater Wisconsin Committee.

Krugman also takes up Cronon’s other pet cause, the fact that the Republican party of Wisconsin has dared to request his (Cronon’s) work e-mails via the Freedom of Information Act. The print media, which normally treat FOIA requests as sacrosanct, somehow have been slow to rush to the Republican party’s defense.

Of course, when “shadowy” liberal interest groups like One Wisconsin Now filed open-records requests for UW-Madison professor e-mails, the press treated it like old-fashioned gumshoe research. Apparently, liberals aren’t considered the “American Thought Police” (the title of Krugman’s column) for doing exactly what the GOP is doing.

The national public’s first taste of Professor Cronon was this piece he wrote for the New York Times, in which he compares Gov. Scott Walker to one of Wisconsin’s most enduring political figures:

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. But there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — that may help explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered. McCarthy helped create the modern Democratic Party in Wisconsin by infuriating progressive Republicans, imagining that he could build a national platform by cultivating an image as a sternly uncompromising leader willing to attack anyone who stood in his way. Mr. Walker appears to be provoking some of the same ire from adversaries and from advocates of good government by acting with a similar contempt for those who disagree with him.

Although he concedes the tautology that Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy, he goes on to compare the two, simply to be able to shoehorn the two names together into the same paragraph.

Isn’t there a word for unfairly smearing your political opponents by connecting them to unpopular political figures?

Oh, yeah: “McCarthyism.”

Have you no sense of irony, sir?

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.



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