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The Best Writers Reveal Life’s Simplest Truths

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Good writers are always able to put things in perspective for you. They have a certain knack for clarifying issues, breaking them down into their fundamental blocks so that we finally understand the world as it is.

Professor William Cronon, who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is deemed a brilliant historian. The recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Award” and the president-elect of the American Historical Association is the author of books on environmental history that have won the biggest awards a historian can take home.  By all accounts, the man can indeed write, and over the last couple of weeks he demonstrated those skills in two of the most significant internet pieces I have read.

The first appeared on his blog, Scholar as Citizen, and ironically, was the very first post on the newly created blog. For those of us curious as to why state legislation being introduced in Wisconsin matches legislation in numerous other states, Professor Cronon gave us all an explanation. That first ever blog post, entitled Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?, represented the best in straightforward journalism based on sound research.

Professor Cronon alerted all readers to a little-known group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). What does ALEC do? It drafts model laws which are then introduced by Republicans in state legislatures.  The blog post took apart the current Republican talking point that the Wisconsin legislation came as a response to the state’s current economy. By the time he was done, the notion that putting an end to collective bargaining with public employee unions is an emergency response to this year’s fiscal crisis was laid bare as a falsehood of the highest order.  Instead of being a response to the current fiscal crisis, the legislation has been a Republican priority for decades. The only change is that current state budget challenges make it convenient to push through a national agenda locally.

How important was Cronon’s blog post? First, it went viral, millions of people clicked on the post in a matter of just a few days.  But second, and even more importantly, it so enraged the Republican Party that its Wisconsin leadership filed a request under the freedom of information act to obtain access to the professor’s private emails. While legal, the request has been decried by journalists across the country as the ultimate fishing expedition, a broad request that appears to be seeking something of note that can be used to silence a critic.  The second piece of note was an op-ed Cronon penned for The New York Times. In his editorial, “Wisconsin’s Radical Break”, Cronon explained in simple detail the basis for the ferocity of the recent protests in Wisconsin.

It had been a very long time since I had revisited lawyer Joseph N. Welch’s famous admonishment to Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. For those who may have forgotten, the words go like this: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”  Cronon insisted that the phrase came to him as he thought about the recent behavior of the state’s newly elected Governor Scott Walker. In associating the two, Cronon refers to the two men’s eerily similar personae: aggressive, self-certain, and seemingly indifferent to contrary views.

As someone who thought Americans had simply become too jaded to ever display such a level of outrage at our government, I had been surprised to see protests reminiscent of a bygone era even if I understood their importance. But once Cronon raised the issue, I began to understand why tens of thousands have taken it upon themselves to denounce the actions of Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin legislature.  Indeed, the issue is about so much more than the actual legislation that was putting an end to the process of collective bargaining for public employees in that state; it is about the approach, the “above the people attitude,” that is so galvanizing.

In reading Cronon, I quickly understood why Mainers in my home state are outraged by the actions of our governor, the man who has been dubbed “Front Page” LePage. It is not simply the similar push to disrupt unions or roll back environmental regulations that is causing the anger, it is about an aggressive style that displays a complete indifference to the viewpoint of others. It is about the NAACP can “kiss my butt” comment and more recently, calling those who would protest his decision to remove art work from the Department of Labor building, “idiots.”

If you are not familiar with Professor Cronon you should be; his is a rare voice in today’s noisy internet.

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