William Cronon did his job, what more do you want to know?

I’m a regular reader over at the Volokh Conspiracy. Here is Jonathan Adler’s take on the GOP’s FOIA request on UW historian William, and I can’t not respond to some of the arguments I am seeing over there. It’s always a conundrum whether you should answer there or move your points to your own turf, but since I lurk there and this response is long, I’ll post it here.

Argument 1: The liberals abuse FOIA all the time, therefore, this is just the Republicans doing what liberals do all the time. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Palin was subjected to FOIA, yada.

Ok, but since when does “Bobby does it all the time” constitute a legitimate reason for doing something once you are over the age of 7?

The assertion that liberals use FOIA more than conservatives strikes me as an assumption based on impressions and anecdotes rather than empirical evidence. I’ve never seen a study or a survey. I’ve never seen any data. Is there any? Or is this just something that people tell themselves is true?

Why do we need a FOIA request here at all? Cronon told everybody what he thought. Upfront. It’s out there. No secret.

So we need a FOIA request to do what, exactly? Prove that Cronon’s doing his job? That he’s not doing his job? The op-ed proves he did his job.

Because thinking and writing is a professor’s job.

He used the historian’s craft to compare the leadership conduct of a current leader with a past leader and to warn people of potential dangers. It’s not like he spent his days writing romance novels here.

I personally think his comparison to McCarthy was overwrought, but then, I also thought Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes’ statement comparing NPR to the Nazis was wrongheaded, too.
I disagree with them both.

But…but…but what if Cronon made his arguments on company time?

So what if he did?

Making arguments in public–even bad arguments or arguments you consider to be repulsive–is part of a professor’s job.

Argument 2: “Royalty” professors need to be taken down a peg; other state employees are subject to email seizure, so should professors’.

Professors work and sacrifice a very long time to get the privileges they have. I worked for ten years: if you think it’s easy, go try it. Prince Charles inherited his position. No comparison, except that Charles is pasty-white and rather bad on television and lots of professors are pasty-white and bad on television, too.

Second, see above. Professors are subject to FOIA.

It’d just be nice if FOIA requests were used to uncover something we don’t already know or we needed to know rather than to investigate somebody who wrote an op-ed. Again, what’s the FOIA request for? To find out his secret thinkythoughts about Wisconsin leadership? Whether he has political ideas? All that seems pretty clear to me by now.

Argument 3: If any employee in a private company were caught writing emails criticizing his boss on company time or using company bandwidth, he’d be fired.

Ok, first, government and private industry are different and do different things and have different roles, cultures, and obligations. They are different institutions. Last I checked, Republicans were fond of pointing out these differences.

Second, Walker is not Cronon’s boss.

Walker is a public servant. He directs the governor’s office, and he’s the state’s chief executive, but he’s not the CEO, exempt from criticism from anybody who works for the state. It’s not Cronon’s obligation to genuflect or, even, to keep a party line.

In fact, it’s nobody’s role to genuflect, praise, or avoid criticizing American public officials. That’s one of the nifty things about America.

By contrast, Max Nikias is, in fact, my boss, and a wonderful, enlightened, brilliant, gracious, and gifted man he is, too, in every possible way.

Academics may be state employees, but they are free–and have always been free in the US–to critique elected officials.

Milton Friedman did it. I do it. Why?

Because it’s our job to make arguments in public.

Even arguments that sensitive governors and his buddies don’t like very much.

I strongly suspect that Ray LaHood would not like this blog if he read it. I don’t write and think to be liked or to curry favor with this administration or the next one.

I write and think because it’s my job.

Argument 4: I’m a taxpayer and Cronon works for me, and if he did this work on the taxpayer’s dime and with taxpayer bandwidth, then I an entitled to see those emails.

Yeah, sure, whatever. You’re also entitled to inspect the toilet paper in all public buildings to make sure they aren’t using a lavish 4-ply when when a single-ply will do. Entitlement doesn’t mean it’s great use of anybody’s time or worth doing.

William Cronon is also a taxpayer in the state of Wisconsin.

So does he work for Walker or does Walker work for him?

This discussion rather brings up the no-win situation that the contemporary professoriate exists in, particularly for faculty in the humanities.

A. Write an op-ed that annoys people, have them up in your jock for your ideas.

B. Write only for scholarly journals and have them up in your jock for living only in the “ivory tower”; or

C. Write nothing, and have them up in your jock for not being relevant or failing to engage with contemporary social problems.

You might not like what Cronon thinks and writes, but you probably don’t like any number of things that we, as a taxpaying collective, collectively invest in. I hate that my taxes go to fund the US’s apparently permanent state of war. Don’t even get me started on those banker bonuses.

It’s quite obvious that some people hate the fact that we pay collectively for a professoriate. Bootyhootyhoo.

Thomas Sowell actively argues that it’s bad to have a professoriate playing with ideas, as he plays with ideas.

It is in the nature of democratic collective action that no one taxpayer’s preference is strictly enforced. Check in with the residents of Libya to see whose preference set they are living with.