The Upside to the GOP Targeting of William Cronon

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 28, 2011 4:39 PM


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Long before William Cronon rocked Wisconsin Republicans' world, he rocked mine when I read his first book, Changes in the Land. It pretty much reoriented my intellectual framework. (Another journalist seems to have had a similar experience.) Here's the 1984 NYT review of the book that launched Cronon's career. But I'm just a piker. There are famous, accomplished others who have been similarly influenced by Cronon's work. As for the current political attention he's receiving from angry Republicans, it's worth recalling that this isn't the first time that Cronon has found himself in the crosshairs for something he's written. As I discussed in a previous post, environmentalists gave him a good working over in the mid-1990s for this provocative essay. He struck a nerve then, and I think he's right to assume he's struck another nerve recently--with Wisconsin Republicans. Most of the commentary in the media (regarding the current controversy) that I've read sides with Cronon's view--that the FOIA request for his university emails is a politically motivated witch hunt. One notable exception is Jack Shafer at Slate, whose headline says it all:

There's No Such Thing as a Bad FOIA Request

That's a debate worth having, but with Cronon I see an upside to this ugly episode because as distinguished and well known in academia as he is, Cronon is now being discovered by a wider public. Consider this admission from Salon's writer:

A week ago, I had never heard of Cronon. This is embarrassing, since it doesn't take much digging around to discover that he is one of the most highly regarded historians in the United States (not to mention president-elect of the American Historical Association).

A commenter elsewhere also observes:

the [Salon] author, Andrew Leonard mentions that he just purchased two of Cronon's books; when I checked at Amazon, those two books were ranked something like #45 and #51 "” not bad for history publications!!

Indeed. So as much as I abhor the the Republican attempt to intimidate a critic, they have introduced a brilliant mind and gifted writer to a broader, worldwide audience. In doing so, they have also shined a spotlight on their own brass knuckle tactics. And before this is all over, they may have even ignited a useful debate on the appropriate use of FOIA. UPDATE: Paul Krugman in his NYT op-ed column today, writes about "the Cronon affair"and makes a climate connection:

The demand for Mr. Cronon's correspondence has obvious parallels with the ongoing smear campaign against climate science and climate scientists, which has lately relied heavily on supposedly damaging quotations found in e-mail records.

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