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William Cronon is back in the news. The University of Wisconsin environmental history professor who penned an op-ed in the New York Times comparing his state's governor, Scott Walker, to Joseph McCarthy has now been named the head of the American Historical Association (AHA). In response to his piece last March, the Wisconsin Republican Party demanded to see a record of Cronon's emails, claiming that they were part of the public record because he taught at a public university. But Cronon was more clever than that. As he told the Chronicle of Higher Education in an interview this week: "I've always been very careful -- probably because my father was a dean -- to make sure I never use institutional e-mail for personal or political purposes."

As I wrote at the time of the controversy, whether Cronon engaged in political activities using his university email accounts, that is, while he is "on the job" seems beside the point since academics, like most professionals, don't clock in and out. What I also said at the time was whether Cronon was engaged in some kind of anti-Scott Walker campaign on "company time" is almost irrelevant since his whole job is basically politicized.

Just consider the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where Cronon is on the faculty. It was named for former senator Gaylord Nelson, who, according to the center’s website, introduced the first federal legislation to mandate fuel-efficiency standards in cars, control strip mining, and ban DDT as well as the use of phosphates in detergents.

The Nelson Institute says its mission is to act as a “catalyst and model for interdisciplinary collaboration on environmental initiatives across departments, schools, and colleges, and including governmental, private, and non-profit entities.” It sponsors film festivals on “environmental justice” and sustainability projects for students. Its scholars worry about how the temperature in Wisconsin is climbing and try to come up with ways that citizens can reduce their carbon footprints. Its magazine criticizes the oil industry. It sends undergraduates to work in internships for environmental advocacy organizations.

The whole field of environmental history is a political one and it's a shame that the AHA has decided to elevate a scholar of it to this position. Cronon tells the Chronicle that he is "deeply committed to being nonpartisan in my professional work as an academic and in my political work as someone engaged with environmental issues and interested in perspectives from across the political spectrum." But his perspective sounds a long way from nonpartisan to me. He explains: "Certainly the history of climate change—both how it has affected people and how people have affected it—is a valid and important domain of historical and scientific inquiry. Indeed, the struggle to understand climate change -- although inevitably focused on the future in terms of our present concerns -- has been profoundly dependent on historical evidence." He warns that "we also need to be on guard against polemical efforts to undermine critical inquiry, amplify doubt beyond reasonable limits, or to twist evidence in misleading ways toward preferred political positions -- whatever those positions might be."

Yes, well, I think we know which side is engaged in those "polemical efforts" and which side is engaged in "critical inquiry." I guess it's too much to ask that the AHA elevate some military history expert who has studied civil war strategy. Those professors are simply not trendy or political enough.

12 thoughts on “William Cronon back in the news — now, as head of AHA”

  1. Scott says:

    As I learned in Professor Cronon’s American Environmental History class, there once was a time (late ’60s to early ’70’s) when support for environmental legislation was actually bipartisan. Cronon’s job isn’t inherently politicized-it only may appear so to people whose dogma it is to refute the legitimacy of environmental science as a whole. This pathetic article is an example of why it’s important to educate people to consider a variety of narratives, which is something I believe Cronon teaches remarkably well.

  2. F.F. says:

    Just to point out, environmental history is not enviromentalist history.

    Environmental history is studying the effect of the changed environments over time. This is not a straightforward environmentalist subject. Professor Cronon’s academic work, for example, is most famous for pointing out that many environmentalist ideas about the past state of “nature” are in fact quite fictional, and that ideas about bucolic handling of the land by Native Americans are equally false.

    It’s an interesting and rich field of study, one that you seem to be a bit ignorant of. Why not read Professor Cronon’s most famous work, _Nature’s Metropolis_, and then come to a conclusion about the value of his scholarship?

    Or you could just be partisan about something that you don’t know about. It’s up to you. It looks just a little ignorant.

  3. Sigrid says:

    Ms. Riley also neglects to qualify (and consequently grossly oversimplifies and misrepresents) Professor Cronon’s “comparison” to Senator McCarthy, a comparison that was nothing if not measured, restrained, even-handed, thoughtfully considered, and appropriate. “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.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/22/opinion/22cronon.html

  4. Chris says:

    It’s curious that the author implies that Cronon’s belief on climate change suggests partisanship.As the last few climate change skeptics in the scientific community abandon ship, the notion that belief in climate change suggests alliance with the Democratic Party becomes all the more ridiculous. It would be amusing, if it weren’t so dangerous.

  5. D. Larson says:

    As others have pointed out, this piece is riddled with inaccuracies. As an environmental historian and long time member of the American Society for Environmental History I am somewhat surprised to learn that “The whole field of environmental history is a political one.” Does she mean to imply that any field of historical inquiry that occasionally deals with politics or public policy is inherently politicized? Or is she suggesting that environmental history isn’t “real history” (apparently unlike military history) and thus is somehow simply a political act, rather than an intellectual undertaking comparable to other fields of specialization?

    It would be interesting to learn how her narrow and inaccurate view of an entire field of history developed. Is it based on extensive reading? Comparative study? Or does it simply reflect her own assumptions about the politics of those who might prefer to study environmental issues in historical context? Whatever those may be, she apparently also assumes that “some military history expert who has studied civil war strategy” would necessarily hold opposite views. It’s unfortunate this column wasn’t published with footnotes so we could consider her evidence.

    I would note that the mission statement of the ASEH says nothing about fighting Republicans or subverting grand old institutions like the AHA. Indeed, it offers only the following agenda:

    “Our organization advances a greater understanding of the history of human interaction with the rest of the natural world, fosters dialogue between humanistic scholarship, environmental science, and other disciplines, and supports global environmental history efforts that benefit the public as well as the general scholarly community.”

    Now that doesn’t sound very partisan to me, but apparently I wouldn’t know because my professional identity for the last two decades has been as a member of a “political field” that is not worthy of membership in the AHA because we’re too “trendy” (unlike those cutting-edge historians of Civil War military strategy).

  6. Gee says:

    Yes, well, I think we know on which side Ms. Riley is engaged in her “polemical efforts,” which sadly do not resemble “critical inquiry” or even careful research into current and recent presidents of the AHA, its processes, etc. I guess it’s too much to ask that PD elevate some scholar-cum-journalist who has studied even the basics. This wannabe is simply not solid, although she certainly is — as she so awkwardly puts it — “political enough.”

  7. David Schwalbe says:

    Firstly ,the drive in this country to exploit the natural resources ie., iron ore ,copper, oil and natural gas and big coal, to the detriment and expense of all else that affects our climate and environment ,cannot be overstated.With the push to eliminate the EPA by those who would most benefit by that action occuring is an effrontery to those who actually understand the impact and ramifications of an America without an environmental watchdog.I am appalled at the author’s narrow world view, seeing as how the state of New York, in which she resides, and by that state’s plan of virtual non regulation of fracking , it is already threatening the valuable, and dare I say, irreplaceable fresh drinking water resources in that state.To attack Professor Cronin for his employment in the environmental history department at UW Madison is short sighted and smacks of a suspected bias on behalf of the author for her employers.
    .Perhaps the Koch brothers industry profits, sponsors this news letter and therefore the message attacking a scholar, who by the very nature of his critical thinking, has exposed the vitriol that is propelling this country into the environmental nightmare that it is ever increasingly becoming.More importantly the profits from the oil industry are used to insidiously influence runaway politics not only nationally but also on a state by state basis on every level.The Koch Brothers special interest money has caused far to many problems in our state and the authors attack is unwarranted and should be viewed as what it is,pure and simple character assassination based on a faulty supposition.
    Secondly to state that a historian who specializes in the American Civil War would a be more fitting head of the AHA is preposterous.It seems as if the Civil war is the only part of America’s more than 200 year history, that is relevant to the articles author.I feel that Naomi should stick to writing about philanthropy and stay away from corporate hack work,it is unbecoming, and down right poor policy concerning this news letter. and the subject addressed herein.

  8. PlasticCup says:

    I won’t take up Ms. Riley’s questionable characterization of the AHA leadership; in 2003, the organization’s president was James McPherson, the very kind of “military history expert who has studied civil war strategy” that she mentions.

    Nor will I address the fact that the GOP targeting of Prof. Cronon pre-dated his article drawing comparisons between Scott Walker and Joseph McCarthy.

    Nor will I point out that at least one other University of Wisconsin History professor with a more conservative reputation – Jeremi Suri – drew similar comparisons between Walker and McCarthy in the same period.

    Instead, I want to note that one of Ms. Riley’s central claims is simply inaccurate. Prof. Cronon was elected president of the AHA *before* any of the controversy surrounding Scott Walker. Her insinuation – that the AHA chose Cronon because of the political turmoil – is flat-out wrong. I would hope that a thinker and writer of Ms. Riley’s level would avoid such errors, especially when they are used in service of her larger argument. I would further hope that she would correct this piece to reflect the inaccuracy.

  9. Shelby says:

    Re: the above comment – I should have written “ambassador *for* the profession.”

  10. Shelby says:

    Professor Crono had already been chosen as President-elect of the AHA before any of the political upheaval in Wisconsin came about. His op-ed in the N.Y. Times had nothing to do with it. And he was chosen both because he has been among the most important historians of his generation and because he is a notable public intellectual: a vital ambassador to the profession. His work is not inherently political, except in the sense that critical inquiry causes people to question their basic assumptions. And as a public figure, until this spring, he has not openly engaged in politics — on the UW Madison campus, he has always taken a meticulously non-partisan and moderate approach (sometimes frustratingly so to those who wish he’s more openly advocate more environmentally-friendly politics). This editorial reveals nothing about Cronon’s politics, and everything about the writer’s ignorance about Cronon himself and the workings of the AHA.

  11. Peter Shulman says:

    Actually, the 2003 president of the AHA was James McPherson, a “military history expert who has studied civil war strategy.” In fact, McPherson is a dean of the field of Civil War history — military and otherwise.

  12. Gretchen Adams says:

    Since you have not done even the most rudimentary research on this issue let me help you locate a very recent AHA president who is not only a Military historian but “civil war strategy” as well:
    James McPherson, 2003-04 president of the AHA. Surely *he* is military enough for anyone.

    Gretchen Adams, AHA member since 1999, historian of “untrendy 19th c dead white men and their politics since 1996!”

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