The Bill Cronon-Wisconsin Republican party tangle is making me — and many others, judging by the responses I’ve seen on academic listservs — think a little more deeply about how we use our e-mail addresses. Like many, I’m troubled by the possibility that someone could ask to see my e-mail correspondence on any old topic. But I also recognize that they have that right, or something like it, and that the same Freedom of Information laws allow me to ask for others’ e-mails — not everyone’s, but anyone’s who works for a publicly funded institution, like a university. That’s part of the price we pay for a public culture, which keeps us from the Hobbesian state of everyone’s liberty (with guns) against everyone else’s. It’s also what makes that culture vulnerable, but that makes it all the more important to use our public profiles in ways that enhance that culture’s viability.

One way for academics to deal with the FOIA threat is to use private e-mail addresses for more sensitive correspondence. That may work for some, though it seems impractical to me. Another is to simply fight back: try to embarrass the McCarthyites, write editorials about them, and hope that the public agrees with you. In this case it probably does, but given the anti-academic tenor of a large swath of U.S. society, who knows…

Most of us in the blogosphere recognize that, as far as our public pronouncements go, we’ve waived our rights to privacy: our comments can be used against us, but we go ahead and make them in the belief that the virtues of public communication trump any such risks, as long as we’re sensible in what we say. Since we’re actually trained to be sensible, that shouldn’t be too difficult (though one sees evidence of its difficulty all the time, on other blogs of course ;-)).

But it’s worth considering different kinds of blogging policies. For instance, I sympathize with The Tenured Radical‘s blogging ethic:

My blogging ethic is neither to name or to accurately describe individuals unless I am writing about a public event, or commenting on information already published about that person in a reputable source. Unless I note otherwise, situations, pseudonymous people and professional dilemmas described here are fictional. Uncivil or mean-spirited comments toward me or anyone else will be deleted, as will advertisements for products or services disguising themselves as comments.

The second line, and to a lesser degree the first, seem more like a disclaimer, a way of defending oneself in advance in case a comment upsets someone. But since blog commentary is commentary, and not typically the (more defensible) results of peer-reviewed research, it’s wise not to flaunt one’s opinions about other people too noisily. That accords with a general philosophical ethic of critiquing ideas, not the people who hold them: keep ad hominems to a minimum, and stick to the issues. The third sentence is even wiser, and I tend to follow at least the second part of it, while working to soften mean-spiritedness where it arises. (In a recent instance of it, the uncivil party simply went away after a few rash comments. But if this blog were as popular, or as unpopular, as some, then I’m sure the incivilities would be grosser and I’d be tempted to delete them rather than replying politely and hoping they go away.)

But when, as in Cronon’s case, one’s duties as a citizen call for public criticism of specific individuals, then one should expect to be criticized back. It should be clear to anyone who’s examined the case that the Wisconsin Republican party is aiming to intimidate Cronon into silence. Cronon’s not new to public debate (environmental scholars will recall the brouhaha that followed his New York Times Magazine essay “The Trouble with Wilderness“, though that was with erstwhile political allies while this one isn’t). He has fought back admirably, in this instance, where others might not have.

But in the public sphere of reasoned debate — and this is the public sphere I believe all academics ought to be fighting for — the Republicans’ action would not be considered fair. They’ve provided no reasons for wanting to see his personal e-mails, nor does the matter he was writing about — the funding behind their campaign to destroy public sector unions — entail needing any kind of information that could only be gotten from his e-mails. In the forum of reasoned and informed opinion it’s they, not Cronon, who are (I believe) the clear losers.

The fact that such a forum doesn’t necessarily exist, however — it has to be built and defended repeatedly in the face of efforts to erode it — is all the more reason to make our positions clear and fight back with the strongest arguments we can muster (as he has done). If we believe our arguments are stronger, and if we believe that reasonable people will judge them to be that way, then it’s worth the effort to engage in the debate.

But that second “if” is a big one. In the famous debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, the preceding couple of paragraphs would have expressed the Chomskyan position: people are essentially rational creatures, equipped with an innate capacity for deliberative reasoning, and if there exist social forces that work to dilute and curb such reasoning abilities, then those forces have to be fought with the tools of reason. They are all we have, or at least all we can afford to replace tyranny with.

The Foucauldian position would be somewhat different: it’s that power will influence and shape our very understanding of “reason,” and that one person’s “reason,” or at least one social or epistemic community’s, will not be equivalent to another’s. So the struggle is to be fought with every means at our disposal: rhetorical, aesthetic, expressive, and even through sheer power itself, if there be such a thing. Foucault’s broader argument was that power and knowledge are never completely separable, but his more important point is that new situations generate new capacities for speaking, and that it’s up to us to bring those new situations into being. That would include generating new concepts of what’s reasonable, or what’s beautiful, or what’s right and good.

For all that’s happened since their debate occurred, its general terms remain with us. And while I’ve tended, over the years, to favor Foucault’s view over Chomsky’s, my own philosophical commitments have been shifting somewhat, thanks to my readings of Peirce and Whitehead, among others. My hunch now is that the aesthetic and the political — sheer power itself, even — are not at all incommensurable with reason. Reason evolves — it becomes more encompassing and inclusive, when it’s allowed to do that — and an expanded concept of rationality can both include and depend on an aesthetic and an ethic. By the same token, an aesthetic of life, such as that championed by Foucault or by Deleuze, exhibits its own rationality, which can be reasonably discussed, though that discussion will never exhaust it.

A process-relational view agrees with Foucault (and other poststructuralists) that there are no unchanging universals, because apparent universals emerge historically and mutate even in our midst. They are “universal” for the given — limited — “universe” in which they are such; no more, no less. But they may have the capacity to grow into greater, more expansive, more widely shared universals, if cultivated appropriately. New things do arise under the sun — these include new ways of speaking and of being human, or of becoming human, if the human is recognized as an open-ended project — and predicting their emergence is impossible. At the same time, such a view would concur with Chomsky (and Habermas and others) that ideals of communicative and deliberative reason retain a powerful emancipatory potential and ought to be cultivated, finding new and innovative forms as social and technological opportunities arise for them.

Blogging can be a reasonable project, an ethical one, and an aesthetic one. Political persuasion, deliberation, and critique can be the same. Political action tends to go further than words — but it, too, has its aesthetics and its ethics. That’s why I favor nonviolent and non-authoritarian forms of action, but also those that have a beauty about them; but that’s a discussion for another time. Action, however, no matter how beautiful or ugly, is best when it’s complemented with persuasive reason. Cussing (smearing opponents) and legal tactics (lawsuits, subpoenas for e-mails) tend to be ugly, not beautiful, acts. Truth helps render them beautiful, while lies (like James O’Keefe’s deceptions in editing his NPR sting video, or even Michael Moore in his sloppier and less defensible moments) can make ugly the most beautifully carried out act.

In the case of Cronon vs. the Wisconsin Republicans, all the ugliness appears to be on the latter side.


(1) It seems that Stephan Thompson, the executive director of the WI GOP who filed the open records request for Cronon’s email, works in Governor Scott Walker’s office, which means that he can be FOIAed for every document he has composed or responded to that has “cronon” — or whatever else you’d like to know about — in it. (Thanks for that tip to an anomymous member of the ASLE listserv. I haven’t independently verified that it’s the same Stephan Thompson, but that should be easy to do for someone who wants to do that.)
Sounds like fun brewing.
(2)  If you wish to register your symbolic support for Bill Cronon, here is a Facebook page to do so: Support Professor William Cronon:
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