Reports of Its Death Were Pre-mature: A Response to Gabriel Noah Brahm

David Palumbo-Liu

In “The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: Saying ‘No’ to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality,” an essay derived from his op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, Gabriel Noah Brahm makes a number of pronouncements regarding the death of this and the lack of value of that. One core element of his essay regards a concern we share—the new presidency of Donald Trump and the notion of a posttruth and indeed even postreason age. However, we differ in terms of what or who might be responsible for this state of affairs. Brahm argues that disdain for the truth began with postmodernism and other associated intellectual ills. Happily, according to him, the academy has now been delivered from such evils by a historical shift evident in the recent votes in Philadelphia at the meeting of the Modern Language Association.

Brahm’s argument is that the votes at the Modern Language Association help us understand a fundamental shift away from political correctness, which Brahm describes as:

The self-righteous politics of selective outrage associated with “p.c.” makes vacuous expressions of indignation over abstractions like White Privilege, Western Colonialism, Neoliberalism or Global Capitalism more important than concrete scholarship rooted in reasons and evidence. Where p.c. prevails in the humanities, careful attention to complex works of literary merit worth reading is jettisoned in favor of simplistic moralizing, always harping on the same monotonous litany of concerns.

He declares “a victory for facts over trendy ‘post-truth’ epistemology” based on the fact that the Delegate Assembly voted down a resolution to endorse Palestinian civil society’s call for an academic boycott of Israel. As coeditor, with Cary Nelson, of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, Brahm has more than a passing interest in the topic.

To seriously address the issue of Brahm’s assertion that Israel is a “progressive cause” would take more space than allotted here, but readers interested in pursuing that line of reasoning, as expounded by Brahm and others, can refer to the volume just cited. Part of what I would say in response can be found in my review of that book, published in Symploké.

Instead of getting involved in what Brahm himself argues is a “complex” issue—Israel-Palestine—I will use this opportunity to focus specifically on what actually happened at the MLA, as those events occasioned Brahm’s op-ed.

I argue that much of what transpired at MLA smacked of the white-supremacist tactics and thematics we associate with Trump (amongst them his signature attacks on “political correctness,” which indeed sound a lot like Brahm’s), and that, pace Brahm, it is precisely the fields Brahm associates with “p.c.” that provide us with the tools we need to understand what happened in Philadelphia and also what is going on with our new presidential administration.

Let us thus turn to “the facts” and not Brahm’s opinions. Let’s look at two public debates which took place on the floor of the Delegate Assembly of the MLA that show the use of Trumpist tactics and thematics—in both cases the truths and facts that Brahm wishes to rescue were explicitly suppressed by the so-called MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, which trampled on precisely those rights. Rather than, as Brahm glosses the events, “effectively vindicat[ing] both academic freedom and academic responsibility, over the pseudo-academic license to indoctrinate at will,” the antiboycott vote exhibited the antiboycott side’s political will precisely to abrogate academic freedom and academic responsibility, to shut down dialogue and is so doing violate the basic premises of academic inquiry.

First, a resolution was put forward that decried the denials of academic freedom to Palestinians, and placed the blame for that on the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Now the Palestinians themselves and various international human rights groups have indeed borne witness to both these groups impinging on their rights—I have no argument there. But conspicuous in its absence was any mention whatsoever of the state of Israel and its own responsibilities in this area.

That resolution, put forward by the antiboycotters, is completely of a piece with the argument voiced by the white supremacist Trump campaign that “black on black” killing is more to blame for black deaths than police violence, which is in turn of a piece with the violence of the US state as exemplified in the so-called justice system and the prison industrial complex. In much the same way, denials of academic freedom to Palestinians are an essential part of the virtual apartheid system that exists in Israel and indeed preserves Israel in its current form.

Resolution proposer Russell Berman’s disingenuous offer to table the resolution in a spirit of “reconciliation” was seen by many for what it was—a desire to prevent even discussing the question of whether or not Israeli state policies might play any role in the suffering of the Palestinians. Debate of the issue would inevitably have exposed facts about Israel’s constant violations of academic freedom that its supporters are eager to keep concealed. The bad faith of Berman’s offer of “reconciliation” was made patently clear when, despite the calls to allow debate, he refused to withdraw his motion to table the resolution and discussion of it indefinitely.  At that moment of silencing, the bad faith behind the claim that we should not boycott institutions because we want to preserve “dialogue” was exposed; at that point a free inquiry into the “truth” was terminated by those attesting to argue “for scholars’ rights.”

In removing the possibility of discussing such a fundamental issue, Berman and those who voted for his motion violated one of the basic principles of something they always hold out to be our beacon: liberalism. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Those mounting analyses of political and cultural phenomena from the standpoints of postcolonial studies, studies in race and ethnicity, and others Brahm associates with “political correctness” are not “expressing” “indignation” when they see such blatant acts of hypocrisy emanate from self-anointed guardians of the liberal west—they are issuing an indispensable analytical critique that, among other things, helps shed light on how the rhetoric of “reconciliation” may be used to cover the tracks of exertions of raw power.

Second, the antiboycott resolution that, having been passed by the same assembly, must now be voted on by the general membership, demands that the MLA “refrain from endorsing the boycott.” This resolution amounts to a prohibition of a mode of protest the United States Supreme Court has declared a constitutionally protected form of free speech (NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, 1982). The resolution makes even the act of endorsing, in a nonbinding manner, a boycott of Israel impossible—the MLA would be acquiescing to the same kind of silencing we saw in Russell Berman’s motion to table discussion on Resolution 3 indefinitely.

Given that Trump has vowed to destroy BDS, if it passes that resolution, the MLA will be doing Trump’s work for him, and at the expense of its own members and of their right to deliberate the issue. But beyond that, passing that resolution would also set a terrible and destructive precedent—it would mean that it is permissible to deny MLA members the right to comment on what the United States Supreme Court holds to be a basic right.

In both of these cases and many others during the convention, scholars engaged in critiques of colonial knowledge, of gender epistemologies, of privilege and power and race had more than enough material upon which to shine a light. In numerous other scholarly associations that do not regard histories of race and colonialism merely as matters of “trendy ‘post-truth’ epistemology,” the logic and justice of the boycott has made itself felt. These associations not only engage with the facts of racial discrimination and injustice that the Trump administration is likely to make all the more urgent in both Israel and the US but also recognize that the study of these facts requires scholars also to take action for justice. In this, they represent not the past, nor a “trend,” but an indispensable and permanent element of both current and future scholarship.

Indeed, no matter what the general membership decides in the spring, it’s hard to imagine that even if the antiboycott measure is passed this will be a sign of the “end” of anything—the Modern Language Association voted down a resolution to support the anti-apartheid boycott after all. With truth comes power, and the more this issue is debated, the stronger the case for BDS appears. This is why opponents of the boycott resolution felt debate had to be tabled and a resolution to deprive scholars of their right to free speech introduced.

While the move to table the resolution placing the blame for Palestinian suffering solely on them was voted passed by the Delegate Assembly, one should note that the margin of that vote was exceedingly slim: eighty-three “yes,” seventy-eight “no” to table—it passed by the narrowest margin of any of the resolutions, five votes.   The antiboycott resolution also won by a very small margin—eight votes out of a total of 194 vote cast. The vote against the resolution to endorse the BDS call was the widest, seventy-nine “yes” ; 113 “no.” However, it is important to put this in perspective. That a small handful of volunteers could muster a 40 percent vote in favor—with both presidential candidates, the governor of New York, numerous state legislatures, two hundred college presidents, twelve past presidents of the MLA, and major Israeli organizations aiding indirectly or directly the other side—is remarkable. And with the Trump administration bent on endorsing more settlement building, and more violations of human rights, it is highly likely that the pro-boycott side will grow in strength.

 

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One response to “Reports of Its Death Were Pre-mature: A Response to Gabriel Noah Brahm

  1. Member of the MLA

    Palumbo-Liu is wrong about many things. MLA has now joined every other major U.S. academic association in rejecting BDS. Even the anthropologists association (AAA) – where the history of racism and colonialism is indeed taken very seriously and where pro-Palestinian sympathy is widespread – has rejected the misguided movement to boycott Israeli universities. The overwhelming majority of MLA members have had enough of these perennial boycott resolutions and the recent double vote against BDS was decisive. This may come as great disappointment to people like Palumbo-Liu, who have devoted years to trying to sway MLA to adopt some version, any version of their bizarre anti-Israel fixation, but their years-long efforts to convince colleagues to endorse their boycott have come to naught.

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