“Have you left no sense of decency?”

In the midst of the battle in Wisconsin, the Republican Party has revived McCarthyism to attack William Cronon, a distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin.

Cronon dared to write an op-ed column for the New York Times criticizing Governor Scott Walker, the Republicans, and their corporate sponsors for union busting. Now the state Republican Party has demanded that the university turn over all email from him with the words “Walker,” Republican,” “rally,” etc.

Cronon has academic tenure and is a public employee (many of whom have trade union protection and seniority rights). The University of Wisconsin faculty is not unionized. What the Republicans probably want to do is to have the university fire Cronon because of his criticism. This would threaten not only all university faculty everywhere, both tenured and those who struggle to get tenure, but also the seniority rights and protections of all public employees.

The title of this article quotes attorney Joseph Welch’s retort to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, the most famous moment from the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. McCarthy, a role model for Walker, had run rampant for four years inverting and expanding the anti-Communist fears generated by early U.S. cold warriors.

Funded by powerful reactionaries and aided and abetted by most of the press and political establishment, McCarthy blustered and bullied until he went too far, attacking his own Republican administration the way some “tea party Republicans” today are attacking the Republican leadership.

McCarthy died of both his alcoholism and his sociopathic delusions in 1957, but Wisconsin’s McCarthyite Republicans, whatever their mental state and blood alcohol levels, are using his methods in their attacks on Cronon.

In the old days, of course, the FBI and the CIA hid their mail openings and wiretappings without warrants. Teachers, scholars, and intellectuals were always targets for McCarthyites but the main target was always the labor movement, primarily the industrial unions in those days, whose gains in members and rights they fought to take away.

I know and respect William Cronon’s work. It deals with the relationship of human societies to the natural world, looking at the interactions of native peoples and settlers in colonial New England and later in the American West. Cronon has won many distinguished awards for his writing and teaching.

But that is not the point. Cronon’s op-ed piece for the New York Times looked at the organized campaign to enact anti-public-employee-union legislation throughout the country and also to disenfranchise working-class and minority voters who are both the victims and the political enemies of the right.

With all of his achievements, including the fact that he is the incoming president of the American Historical Association, William Cronon is a public employee of the state of Wisconsin, a commodity no different to Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans than any janitor or secretary whose trade union rights they are seeking to destroy. And they see themselves, the Walker administration, not as “public servants,” elected officials, but as his employers, with the right to hire or fire him as they see fit and then use that as a precedent to destroy public employee unions.

Of course, intellectual freedom is not only the basis of all serious learning and teaching; it is the foundation of citizens’ democratic rights. In the attack on William Cronon, we see exactly the kind of bullying and intimidation that employers in non-union situations have always used against workers when it suited their interests. It is evidence that labor’s struggle and Wisconsin’s struggle are everyone’s struggle.

But what can and should be done?

First, University of Wisconsin officials, whose own prestige and high salaries are based largely on the achievement of Cronon and other working faculty at the university, should defend everyone’s civil liberties and democratic rights by refusing to yield to these attacks and not turning over anything.

Secondly, the movement to recall the sort of Republican legislators who have brought about this crisis in Wisconsin should use the assault on Cronon’s citizenship rights as a rallying point, the way people’s movements have used other vicious assaults on the rights of individuals to rally support.

Finally, what is needed in Wisconsin today and nationally is a new version of the La Follette civil liberties committee, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate’s Labor Committee during the late 1930s.

The La Follette Committee investigated attacks on trade unionists and teachers, subpoenaed business executives and officials of private detective agencies, and turned the tables on the intimidators. We need little La Follette committees to protect rather than – in the McCarthyite tradition – attack civil liberties at the state level, and we need a big committee at the national level. These would help throw the bullies back, because bullies are almost always cowards and cowards run when they face serious resistance.

Photo: U.S. Army counsel Joseph Welch, left, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, right, at the hearings in the Army-McCarthy dispute, Washington, D.C., June 1, 1954. (Bill Allen/AP)



Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.