Thin Ice

April 3, 2011

Now I’ve repeated this over and over and over again, my friend. This blog IS NOT in any sense of the word an official outlet for the core group of the Thornapple CSA. It’s not the Thornapple CSA newsletter. It’s not supposed be a forum in which any business, official or otherwise, of the Thornapple CSA gets conducted. It’s kind of a joke, really. The Thornapple Blog is a substitute for real food, you know. That pale imitation that fills the barren root-cellar days between the last pumpkin and the first pick-up. That measly morsel meant to stand-in for piquancy with mere mechanisms: alliteration, puns, irony, sarcasm…  You know what I mean. It’s a gambol, hop and hurdle into bad taste where good taste would normally prevail (and need I say that I mean that literally).

But still there is paralyzing fear that pervades my prose: What if I get taken seriously!

This thought came up over coffee this week in conversation with a professor from another school. Her graduate mentor, William Cronon, is in the news because of some comments he made in a blog about the American Legislative Exchange Council. Here is The Wall Street Journal account of what happened next:

In response, the Republican official requested emails sent from Cronon’s state-university account that referred to “Republicans,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and certain labor unions and their leaders. Cronon and his supporters see a rank effort at intimidation and embarrassment. Slate’s Jack Shafer, meanwhile, points out that the Republicans seem to be looking for evidence that Cronon has used university resources to “support the nomination of any person for political office or to influence a vote…”—an action that’s forbidden by state law.

Now we learn from The New York Times that the Mackinac Center is seeking similar e-mails from Michigan professors. There are some fine lines at stake here. On the one hand, laws intended to prevent state employees from using their jobs or public resources to tweak the political process seem unassailable. But there are going to be some gray areas, like when said employee is in a position to provide information that could be decisive. Sometimes it’s easy to say “Just the facts, ma’m,” but other times the facts themselves are going to be deeply value laden. Making a fair comparison between two farming systems would be a case in point, because the comparison will follow one set of standards if you are working from the assumption that farming is just another sector in the industrial economy, and a very different set of standards if one takes an agrarian view. This is a philosophical quandary on which I have waxed loquaciously in my book The Agrarian Vision.

Fortunately for me, the contest between industrial and agrarian philosophies of agriculture is not one that Republicans and Democrats are particularly interested in, so I don’t expect to get dragged into the kind of snafu that has been plaguing Cronon on that one. Some of the things I write about in the Thornapple blog are more attention-grabbing for the political class however. Which takes me to the other hand. Although I’m not using State of Michigan resources to write this blog, I do sign it as a professor at Michigan State University. I explained the main reason I do so last week. As a professor of food ethics, I research and write many articles and give public talks. That’s what the State of Michigan pays me to do. I also use the blog to put out ideas in a more accessible and open forum. We professors are frequently told that this is part of the job, too, and one we don’t take seriously enough. So I’m not shy about the fact that there is usually a point about food ethics lying deeply behind  the excess verbiage in my usual blog, nor am I so modest as to pretend that I’m an amateur on that subject. Not only would it be entirely appropriate for me to use MSU resources to write this blog, it’s exactly the thing that the college administration is encouraging professors to do more frequently! And the actions reported above will almost certainly put a damper on that.

Professors are not the only people paid to put out information, and any bit of information can be inconvenient for someone at some point of time. I had originally thought of an internally focused blog this week, focused more on Thornapple Beeswax, but that got censored by the boss. I wanted to celebrate a certain amateur spirit that I admire in CSAs, but Diane was sure that someone would take it the wrong way. So it seems I need to stress not only that this blog is not the official voice of Thornapple CSA, I need to stress that no professor’s view represents Michigan State University.

As for those of you out there who are thinking about a FOIA subpoena for my e-mails, have at it. You’ll be looking at a lot of one word replies. I’m notoriously non-communicative in e-mails. And there is absolutely no question that complying with such a request costs time and money. As such, it becomes a way for people who have lots of money to hire lawyers to intimidate and hamper people that are saying inconvenient things. So I don’t agree with Shafer (see above) when he writes that there is no such thing as a bad FOIA request. Maybe some recent blogs offer a better message to all those people whose delicate feelings are bruised when someone skates out on thin ice: HEY! LIGHTEN UP!

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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