A blog entry today on the Inside Higher Ed site helped me realize what's bugging me about the conversations around Bill Cronon and the Wisconsin GOP's crass efforts to intimidate faculty:
[Another reason to be skittish about working in public higher ed is] the open records request in Wisconsin for Bill Cronon's emails. Not that, as a public employee, these arent "public records", but that the whole thing was done in such an aggressive, punitive, antagonistic manner. If youre going to work for the government, even as an academic, you'd better make sure you're purer than Caesar's wife. And that no one who takes the time to peruse your every written word can infer otherwise. Which is, of course, humanly impossible.
This argument is reminiscent of others I have seen, claiming either that this is an attempt at intimidation on its face, or eerily reminiscent of how the Virginia attorney general went after the records of climate scientist Michael Mann, or that it is an outright repeat of McCarthy Era pressures. The first and second are true, but not the third. Clipatria's Chris Bray has pointed out the flaws in the parallel to McCarthy, but Bray hasn't gone further other than to say the sky isn't falling in various ways.
The email request by the private Wisconsin GOP and the email requests about university-based labor studies centers by the private Mackinac Center in Michigan are not the type of state-run investigation that was common in the McCarthy Era or that was attempted in Virginia in the last year. They look much more like the clumsy efforts of David Horowitz in the last decade. The difference from the Horowitz tactics is the use this year of state authority through the email request. But these requests have the same stench of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism that has followed Horowitz around for the last decade. (That fact that someone thought that Bill Cronon could be exposed as a left-wing nut through an email request is sufficient evidence of intellectual feather status.)
I think it is important to note both that these email requests are not the same thing as legislative investigations and also that they constitute organized pressure on universities. You don't have to call something McCarthyist to point out that it is wrong and a waste of taxpayer money. The waste of time and money is probably an important point to make to put such efforts into context: "This private organization is wasting YOUR taxes in hopes of finding something salacious in my email. I think what this will show is that my job is full of tedium. Do we really need thousands of dollars in lawyers' time to prove that?" In Florida, while my official email is less protected than Bill Cronon's in Wisconsin, my university could charge a private group a real chunk of change for the time a university lawyer spends sorting through my email to make sure FERPA-protected emails aren't released. (If it weren't for FERPA issues or issues of confidential matters, I'd gladly send any group a live stream of my spam and let them sort it.) I suspect the Florida equivalent of the Mackinac Center might pop for a $2000 fee once or twice, but unless anything explosive showed up, that would get very tiresome very quickly.
As I wrote earlier this month, I may have thicker skin than colleagues, though I don't think of myself as especially tough. I just suspect that exposure of these tactics and their probable motivation and certain stupidity is a better choice than attempting to compare the Wisconsin GOP to Joseph McCarthy. And, where possible, these attempts should bring down proper ridicule in the form of public requests to be included as a target of ridiculous fishing expeditions/shame attempts, such as Judith Butler's 2002 request to be added to an official "disapproved academics" list drawn up by Campus Watch.
The title of this entry is drawn from the Russian proverb Доверяй, но проверяй (trust, but verify, as Ronald Reagan used at one point). This organized pressure by private organizations should be something to observe, but the first thing is to make fun of it as perfectly legal idiocy.