On Cronon: History, Law, and the Public, 2 of 2

What follows is the second in a pair of posts on the recent events involving William Cronon, Wisconsin Republicans, and the intersections between historical scholarship, public engagement, and current politics.

Yesterday, Lukas focused on the paradoxical relationship between the legal apparatus of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Academic Freedom; below, Hank proposes a distinction between Cronon’s use of historical methods and historical knowledge, and the role of each in the the present controversy.

Part II: Hank: Methods and Knowledge in Public History

This whole thing has really taken off. According to Bill Cronon’s most recent blog post, he’s now had over 2,000,000 hits in the wake of uptake by media outlets like the New York Times, whose recent editorial (“A Shabby Crusade”) comes down unequivocally for “academic freedom.”

No matter what happens as this proceeds, it seems like the Republican request has at least guaranteed a high readership for Cronon’s new blog – Rebecca Black it ain’t, but issues of academic freedom haven’t been this high-profile in some time. Here’s hoping some good thinking emerges.

As noted above, Lukas focused yesterday on an interesting legal paradox: pace folks on both sides, the issue’s anything but cut-and-dry. (See comments on Cronon’s blog, the NYT, and everywhere else for assertions to the contrary from both sides of the intellectual/political aisle.)

Rather, there’s a conflict at play between state transparency, on the one hand, and academic freedom on the other. The conflict is enabled by the vagueness of the relevant legal language, fueled by heightened political tensions, and complicated by the fact that many, Cronon included, value transparency and academic freedom alike.

While I’ll leave you to Lukas for the rest, I would add that it’s Cronon’s status as a publicly-employed US historian that makes him an excellent test case, not only in the legal sense (though possible litigation would throw all of this in sharp relief), but in another sense as well, drawn from the title of Cronon’s new blog:

What exactly does “Scholar as Citizen” mean?

What do scholars offer present politics? Does it depend on the discipline – sociology vs. history vs. chemistry – and, within disciplines, on sub-fields? Amongst historians, does a US historian like Cronon have more to offer than, say, a medievalist? Does it matter *where you live* (Cronon’s made much of his place-based identity), or *what you know* (e.g. for the sake of comparison), or *how you think* (pattern recognition, textual analysis, &c.)?

Possibly all of these questions matter. What I want to figure out is (1) what Cronon thinks he has to offer as a “Scholar Citizen” (which is *not* the same as a “Citizen Scholar,” the analogue of the “Citizen Scientist”), and (2) how this relates to the relationship between “scholarship” and “citizenship” (or politics).

First, a clarification. We don’t know why the Republicans have filed their request (we have some ideas!), and they don’t have to tell anyone. Beyond accusations of McCarthyism (including one by Cronon himself), the best guess is that they’re trying to find out whether Cronon has used his publicly-funded email to “support the nomination of any person for political office or to influence a vote in any election or referendum,” a violation of state policy.

If Cronon has been involving himself in ongoing efforts to recall certain elected officials in Wisconsin, then he might be guilty of the latter; if this turns out to have been the case (though Cronon has asserted his innocence), it’s in part just a regrettable failure to separate personal and professional correspondence.*

Whether or not Cronon is guilty – and, indeed, to what end the Republicans might like to put such guilt – isn’t as interesting to me as what’s at stake more generally for historians and their engagement with the public.

So, to turn to the question posed above: what does William Cronon (as an esteemed US/Environmental Historian and President-Elect of the AHA) have to offer present politics?

Well, in the blog post that started all of this, Cronon says he’s “professionally interested in this question [i.e. the one in the title of the post] as a historian,” and then, crucially, goes on to state that, since he can’t believe that “the Koch brothers single-handedly masterminded all this,” there must be “deeper networks from which this legislation emerged.”

What this at least suggests is that Cronon thinks historians offer a nuanced sense of how big changes happen, and that this sense can help us get beyond diatribes attributing everything to individual actors like the brothers Koch. Historians are trained to tell stories about change (or the lack thereof), and, to this extent, I think he’s right to assert this skill as a possible asset in current debate.

If sensitivity to change (and a distrust of mono-causal accounts thereof) is one asset, another is refined textual analysis. This is evident in that first blog post – which is framed as a “study guide” and includes a note that “future historians need people today to assemble the documents..” – though it drops out in his subsequent Op-Ed (which focuses more on a third asset, discussed below).

It comes back even stronger, however, in his gargantuan follow-up post on “Abusing Open Records.” There, he includes the entire written request for his emails, and then proposes that we “subject Mr. Thompson’s email to some textual analysis” since “that is, after all, what we historians do: we read documents and try to interpret their meanings.”

Cronon goes on to put these skills to use, inferring from the document “the story Mr. Thompson would like to be able to tell” about him (and the motives behind telling it). If the first asset of the scholar-citizen was something like “causal sensitivity,” this second asset might be “textual sensitivity” – confronted by reams of documents, it takes a trained eye to distill out the motives and means behind them.

So far, so good – the scholar-citizen (or historian-citizen) offers what amount to methodological skills that can help ground and clarify present political debate. But Cronon does more: beyond a sense of how change happens and how to track it happening, he spins a narrative of what has happened – an account of the history of twentieth-century conservatism, and of Wisconsin politics in particular.

This third asset – specific knowledge of the past – feels (*to me*) like a different sort of scholar-citizen tool than the first two – and it’s here where (again, *to me*) Cronon works himself into a bit of a bind.

Why? Because, as he puts this third asset to use in his NYT piece, it espouses a certain (decidedly small-c) conservatism that should give us pause. Throughout the Op-Ed – from its title to its historical backbone – Cronon expresses a preference for centrism, one that he naturalizes to the State itself (“Wisconsinites have long believed that [..] when something needs fixing, we should roll up our sleeves and work together..”).

It’s an attractive position, but what if you don’t agree with it? There are those at either extreme of the political pole (poll?) for whom centrist solutions (like Mitch Daniels’ now-infamous “truce on so-called social issues”) represent either good-faith (but erroneous) concessions – i.e. that Daniels agrees with his fellow conservatives on the issues but undervalues them – or bad-faith mis-representations of idiosyncratic beliefs – i.e. that Daniels doesn’t agree with his fellow conservatives on the issues.

To argue, as Cronon does to a certain extent, that history warns us against certain forms of behavior is to involve oneself in the debate *at a different level* than when one offers up skills like document-reading or change-tracking. When he asserts, on his blog, that “this is not the way citizens or politicians have historically behaved toward each other in this state,” he invokes precedent in order to dampen what he calls, in his Op-Ed, a “radical break.”

What does this mean for us?

Okay, time for some conclusions. I’ve tried to address what Cronon sees himself as offering, and I’ve broken that down into “causal sensitivity,” “textual sensitivity,” and “specific knowledge.” I’ve also suggested that, of the three, the last is the exception: that, in the case of his Op-Ed, Cronon has used past precedent to advocate his own political and temperamental centrism.

This isn’t to say that skepticism about mono-causal arguments and a nuanced approach to documents – as assets – don’t import their own assumptions. They do. But I think readers might agree that there’s something to distinguish these two assets from the third, and that whatever that is might be relevant to the question of what a scholar-citizen is and how historians interact with the public.

So, finally, to those general conclusions I promised. For one, I think “methodological assets” make more sense as generalizable tools for scholar-citizens. It’s my sense that what distinguishes professional historians *is not* specific knowledge of the past – the world is full of US history buffs – but rather a more subtle sense of what to look for and how to look for it. To me, Cronon’s more interesting when he’s helping us figure out what questions to ask than when he’s reminding us that Republicans used to vote differently than they do now.

We all have personal politics, of course, but if Cronon – as a publicly-funded scholar to whom strict demarcations of the scholarly and the political apply – wants to continue to offer his (prodigious) skills as a historian in current debates, he might do well to differentiate between those skills so as to avoid the hot water.

Side note (sort of): I can’t decide how different this whole thing would be if Cronon were an historian of something else (say Early-Modern Europe, like the man he’ll succeed as AHA President), but something tells me that his assertion that his “professional interest as a historian has always been to research and understand the full spectrum of American political opinion” isn’t quite right (see his CV for evidence that his work as a historian has been much more limited – groundbreaking as it’s been – than this characterization suggests).

Finally, a note on blogging. It’s important to note that the FOIA request came in *before* Cronon published his Op-Ed: coverage of this timing has been spotty in the prodigious response to these events, but both this fact and the traffic Cronon’s blog has subsequently received are suggestive of the important, if somewhat bizarre, potential utility of blogs for scholar-citizens on Cronon’s model.

Of course, Cronon has benefited tremendously from his own fame, the political nature of his posts, and the attendant media attention once the records request came in. But there’s more to this: if Cronon is serious about continuing his blog into the foreseeable future, and given that he’s rising to head the largest association of historians in the world, we may be on the cusp of a wider conversation about the role of blogs for scholars and the relationship between writing in this sort of forum and our more “scholarly” efforts for printed, peer-reviewed media.

How blogs link up with the (ever) rising tide of the “Digital Humanities,” and how either is going to impact traditions of research and publication in history and beyond, is an open question, but one can hope that the present conversation around Cronon and his plight might extend beyond Wisconsin and Academic Freedom into a deeper discussion of historical methods and the relationship between scholars and the public.

*It should be pointed out that, as the New York Times reports, “The university is in the process of responding to the request, a process that includes removing documents that are exempt, like communications with students and discussions of unpublished research.” From the perspective of the University’s legal office, there’s nothing unusual about the request (they get hundreds of such requests a year), and the fact that they’re removing exempt materials complicates Cronon’s first-order justification for resisting the request, which was based on his legal obligation to confidentiality on certain matters.


6 thoughts on “On Cronon: History, Law, and the Public, 2 of 2

  1. Hank

    Hi Ben: Thanks for this – I think your post is spot-on. Let me see if I've got you right:

    So the scholar-citizen can, in an individual blog, prod the rest of us in the public sphere toward the sort of thoughtful deliberation characteristic of the (pseudo-)public sphere of the academy? And Cronon, in particular, offers this up (it's between each of the lines in his posts here) because he believes in it deeply like a lot of other 80s-90s academics?

    Part of what I was trying to get at in my post is what Cronon's contributions – and blogging efforts – would look like if this hadn't all hit the fan.

    So, while I see your point that his drive for deliberative democracy is uniform before and after the FOIA request, I wonder more generally what this will do for blogging by senior historians and what, in general, such fora have to offer the profession and the public.


  2. Ben Schmidt

    Yeah, that's pretty much it. I want to disentangle Cronon from the general project of academic blogging, though, because as amenable as that deliberative democracy language is to the public sphere, he's clearly out there on his own limb right now.

    On the whole, I worry this might be bad for senior historians and blogging, partly because it tends to reinforce the misperception that to blog is always to engage politically. So I'm trying to say that Cronon is trying to engage procedurally, not partisanly, as a way to perhaps excuse what might otherwise seem like an inexcusably partisan foray into the public sphere for a university professor.

    That's also to say I don't have a unified theory of what historians offer. Method, knowledge, writing skills, all play a role; it will be different for every person, right? Slightly off topic, but I like this Felix Salmon post about why academics make better bloggers than journalists. That gets well at one advantage–we work by distinguishing our views from others, which works quite well online.


  3. Hank

    I like it. As I said over on your own turf, I think these are all skills historians (or, in some cases, scholars/academics in general) have to offer.

    What I don't agree with is the conclusion drawn by Andrew Leonard over at Salon. That is (and this is all from his last paragraph), while I agree that all ideas “need more exposure,” I don't think platitudes like “We can't shape the future without understanding the past” and the more specific suggestion that “The potency of Cronon's current involvement [proves] that my own understanding of how the world works will benefit from more exposure to his work” make sense, in light of my suggestion that the content of his work in CL or NM isn't where we should look for clues to the current crisis.

    Now, maybe Leonard means to look for methods or “habits of mind” – but I doubt it, and I don't think exclamations about the historiographical import of Cronon's work should do more than establish his reputation for those (like Leonard, it turns out) who've never heard of him before.


  4. scritic

    Excellent post!

    I like the idea that what a scholar-citizen contributes to the public discourse is a certain kind of method. I also like the way you've separated the method part from the more political, normative aspect, where certain political preferences get expressed, as arising naturally from certain scholarly claims.

    But I think we're missing one big part of the picture of what it means to be a scholar-citizen. Who is the scholar-citizen's audience? When we write in journals, it's fairly clear we write for other academics. The audience is less clear for academic blogs but my guess is that we're looking for an audience outside our field: interested actors who can use what we write (both the method and as well as the “specific knowledge”) in their own work. (I am thinking of journalists, scholars from other fields, etc.)

    But it gets complicated for the scholar-citizen if his point is to intervene in specific political battles (as opposed to just policy debates — and I use this only for analytic convenience). It's not clear to me that a scholar-citizen's audience is enough for him to actually be able to make a difference politically.

    Cronon, obviously, is the exception here. His blog-post exploded out of the sphere of its intended audience once the Republicans decided to use the FOIA to embarrass him. In a sense, he was all too successful at doing an intervention but he's certainly paid a price:

    – The debate seems to have shifted from being about Wisconsin and the ALEC to one about academic freedom and the FOIA.
    – The content of his blog-post, its scholarly method, its spirit of deliberative democracy (as Ben points out), all of that is lost.

    I guess my worry is that scholar-citizens will always have a hard time breaking into the actual political conversation, but if they do, the spirit of scholar-citizenship (at the risk of essentializing) gets lost.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s