Thursday, April 7, 2011

Don't Turn Your Dairy Cows into Hamburgers, Wisconsin!

What do Wisconsin politics and nuclear catastrophe in Japan have in common? Wisconsin voters have much to learn from Japan about the state of their own backyard, and here’s why.

This spring is also the 25th anniversary of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, and as events as the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan unfold, the media has been reminding us how much worse things could be. Without understating the anxiety of the Japanese, or the concerns they have about whether their politicians and TEPCO management are telling them the full truth, it bears emphasizing that because they live in a liberal democracy, the Japanese are already many, many times safer in the face of nuclear catastrophe than were Ukrainians in 1986. Because they live in a state that respects freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and intellectual freedom of many sorts, the Japanese people would never be sent in to fight a nuclear meltdown in their shirtsleeves. Engineering expertise, both local and international, and the personal heroism of workers are rightfully praised for preventing complete meltdown in Japan, but freedom of speech and information deserves a fair share of the credit for insuring that the expertise and heroism were properly deployed.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, the Wisconsin Republican Party recently invoked its Open Records right to access the state-provided email account of a government employee, in order to search UW Madison William Cronon’s correspondence. As Chancellor Biddy Martin and William Cronon recognize, Open Records legislation is important legal support for freedom of information. In this case, however, there is reason to suspect that it may have been invoked for purposes of harassment rather than freedom. The Wisconsin Republican Party made its request soon after Cronon published an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times about Wisconsin politics. There was no evidence whatsoever that Cronon had abused his position at UW Madison in order to promote a political cause. The Wisconsin Republican Party appeared to be acting out of retribution rather than reasonable worry. The reasonable worry in this case comes from Cronon, Martin, and others, who fear that such acts of petty retribution, and the resulting fear of harassment, will discourage scholars from exploring politically sensitive topics. The great irony, as Cronon points out, is that Wisconsin was an early leader in promoting academic freedom.

I am no farmer, but I suspect that successfully dairies do not turn their best dairy cows into hamburger. What Wisconsin, and the United States in general, has going for it in times of economic, political, environmental, and social uncertainty is our free access to knowledge. Our free speech, freedom of information laws, academic freedom – all that enables our workers to be heroes, our scientists to do their best work, our citizens to hold politicians and CEOs accountable – that’s our best dairy cow in the herd. True conservatism, the conservatism that Wisconsin at its best has exhibited, knows the value of holding on to the good things you have. Wisconsin, of all places, should recognize the importance of taking good care of its dairy cows.

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