Thought Police

Mar 31, 2011

Several listeners have asked me why I haven’t commented on the battle over collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin.  Well, there’s a good reason for that.

Which is, that we’ve got more than enough in Michigan to wrestle with to keep us all occupied. That doesn’t mean, as one of my devoted admirers e-mailed me, that I am a “gutless wonder.”

Matter of fact, I would like to get an inch or two off my gut. Seriously, I have a hard time accepting that anyone should lose their collective bargaining rights in America, no matter who their employer.

But I have an even harder time with anyone trying to suppress anybody’s freedom of expression in any way.

Which brings me to a very ominous development I first read about on the political blog Talking Points Memo, a story which involves Michigan and the Wisconsin mess.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Midland-based think tank best known for supporting free-market economics, is asking, under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, for all the emails by labor studies professors at our state’s three major public universities -- Michigan State, the University of Michigan, and Wayne State. 

All the e-mails, that is, that these professors have sent regarding the union strike in Wisconsin, that state’s governor, and, oddly enough, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

Why are they asking for these e-mails? The managing editor of the Mackinac Center’s newsletter wouldn’t say. But some fear the center wants to use them to attack liberal professors for using state resources for what could be called improper political activity.

That, or cow them into not expressing their points of view.

Well, even though I am a full-time faculty member at Wayne State, nobody seems to have asked for my e-mails, since I am not in the labor studies department. I haven’t sent any e-mails about Wisconsin that I can remember, and, in any event, I generally use an America Online account for any e-mail more personal than, “please order the same textbooks next semester, Joe.”

But have I sent personal e-mails on what is technically company time? I plead guilty, and also plead guilty to doing work at home on my own time. I also suggest that the entire economy would come to a screeching halt if we fired everybody who ever sent a personal e-mail on company time.

And I am certain that the idea of anybody trying to create a chilling effect against free speech of any kind, is about as un-American as anyone can get. There seems to be a new spirit of intolerance in this country, especially when it comes to public employees, and especially in regards to teachers.  

To quote one U of M professor whose e-mails have been requested, “I see it just simply as part of the political environment we exist in right now.” Well, that’s not good enough.

Similar environments existed in the days of Stalin and Hitler, in the American South during segregation, and in Washington, during the Red Scare of the early Cold War. They ended in part when people spoke up for their right to speak out. I hope everyone who has an opinion speaks out loudly on this issue, too.

After all, that’s the only way that any kind of progress is made.