Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Historians as Partisans, Partisans as Historians


"Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different. But there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — that may help explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered." - Historian William Cronon, "Wisconsin's Radical Break"



Having read Cronon's historical works, I cannot say I'm surprised by his criticism of things (terrible things) like "self-certainty." He also slips in vague and undefined concepts like "good government" that are allegedly imperiled by the effort to revoke absurd union privileges--not rights--and try to balance his state's budget. Go figure.



But perhaps most unacceptable for a historian, Cronon decides this situation can be better understood by historicizing the issues and then fails to deliver. Now he may be correct in attempting to historicize the issues (though he does not do so from the vantage point of intellectual history and is, thus, bound to fail), but when he executes it, he only historicizes it back to the era of statist Progressives without pointing out what those people were all about.



In Cronon's rehash, La Follete and the rest of the Wisconsin progressives were just do-gooders looking out for the little guy against big meanies in industry. They won alleged rights for Unions and others that are something to be proud of and now new big bad meanie Scott Walker comes along and undoes a century of "PROGRESS." Cronon is entitled to his philosophy of anti-industrialism (read "Nature's Metropolis") and he's entitled to use his knowledge of history to advance that philosophy all day (just like radical Marxist historian Sean Wilentz), but he should be more upfront and honest about it.



He should also learn to define sloppy terms like "good government." Who objects to good government? The rub is how one defines the role of government and thus evaluating what sorts of government actions are good and which are not. Cronon's progressive heroes were statists, eugenicists, and demagogues. And the Unions they secured "rights" for were notoriously racist and corrupt labor cartels.



But you'd scarcely know any of that living in the William Cronon fantasy land of revisionism--since at the time Progressives were in the minority and were derided as the dangerous demagogues that they were--except of course in what was at the time a bizarro state called Wisconsin.



The article is good for laughs though, like this particularly hyperbolic and dishonest rant:

"Mr. Walker’s conduct has provoked a level of divisiveness and bitter partisan hostility the likes of which have not been seen in this state since at least the Vietnam War. Many citizens are furious at their governor and his party, not only because of profound policy differences, but because these particular Republicans have exercised power in abusively nontransparent ways that represent such a radical break from the state’s tradition of open government.

 "Perhaps that is why — as a centrist and a lifelong independent — I have found myself returning over the past few weeks to the question posed by the lawyer Joseph N. Welch during the hearings that finally helped bring down another Wisconsin Republican, Joe McCarthy, in 1954: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”"

William Cronon is a lot of things (at times even a decent historian)--but he could only be a centrist in a way far left of center place like Madison, Wisconsin. William Cronon hesitates at the Rubicon of nationalizing industry and thus, in Madison, he's a wobbly centrist. As for honorable Wisconsin politics--give me a break. The state of Wisconsin has created the most corrupt union-dominated class of state sycophants I have seen in a long time. Creating mobs at the drop of a hat to threaten a legislature and governor with assassination over modifying what are unheard of privileges that no one deserves to have granted to them through the force of the state. Has Mr. Cronon no decency to understand the other side's argument at all? No, of course not. He decries partisanship because it means challenging entrenched interests and lazy assumptions--all of which Wisconsin is drowning in at the moment.



Besides, where is the accountability and "open government" of the Democratic State Senators? Cronon completely ignores (probably as some sign of his independence and centrism) the Democrats of the Wisconsin Senate, who, instead of rallying the public and delaying motions on the floor of the legislature (as is their job), fled to another state and did the opposite of their job. They did this for no other reason than to avoid a vote they knew they would lose, indeed to prevent a vote from occurring at all (so much for all the superficial talk of "process.") It was a shameless attempt to bring the government to a halt and prevent the lawful will of a fairly elected majority to do its job. Had the Republicans done that in years past when in the minority one can scarcely imagine the outrage and calls for decency that would have poured in upon them from the likes of William Cronon. But I'm sure it would have been as laughably absurd as his current faux outrage.

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