In Philadelphia recently (7 January 2017), Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement activists failed by a wide margin in their attempt to hijack the Modern Language Association (MLA) for an extreme fringe anti-Israel agenda. Only seventy-nine delegate assembly members voted for a resolution to support academic boycotts of the Jewish state, while a solid majority of 113 voted against. It was a big blow to BDS at MLA, if not a mortal wound. The coup de grace comes in June, with ratification by the full MLA membership of another proposal—which passed in the delegate assembly, 101 to ninety-three—to reject academic and cultural boycotts altogether for the foreseeable future as a tactic at odds with the fundamental purposes of the organization.
And what do we learn from this? First, it was a victory for scholarship over political correctness.
Second, it was a victory for facts over trendy “post-truth” epistemology—a rejection of the “alternative facts” put forward by MLA Members for Justice in Palestine, in their trumped up charges against the Jewish state.
And third, it signaled the waning of “identity liberalism” in American life more broadly—as a new and exciting trend toward affirming Western civilization’s universal values takes hold, both in the academy and at large, among citizens appalled equally by alt-right and alt-left cultural relativism.
P.C. and BDS Are Dead Letters
Political correctness in academia puts knee-jerk support for certain preferred “victim groups” over everything else. 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.
Moreover, instead of learning to tolerate diversity of opinion and embrace ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty as inherent to the human condition, students are hectored by “activist” teachers into holding a handful of approved positions on “race, class, and gender.” That there is more to life, no student thus inoculated against independent thought is meant to dream.
So, it is important to recognize that BDS as a “movement” on American college campuses feeds off this anti-intellectual environment. It doesn’t come out of a vacuum—or rather it comes out of precisely the kind of vacuum of informed judgment that p. c. labors to produce.
It aims to make the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict into another one of those “simple” issues with only one “right” (ultra-left) side to take. Opponents of the MLA anti-Israel resolution who emphasized in debate the narrowness, imprecision, and injustice of this Manichean myth-making, therefore, took a stand against boycotts of Israel by standing, more broadly—in effect if not in intent—against scapegoating of the West in general as the source of all the world’s problems.
Perceived as an “outpost of the West,” Israel came in for criticism by BDS at MLA. By the same token, putting a stop to BDS meant putting the brakes on postcolonial theory’s radical-chic opposition to universal Western values basic to liberal democracy around the world.
The anti-BDS vote thus effectively vindicated both academic freedom and academic responsibility, over the pseudoacademic license to indoctrinate at will. Where p. c. everywhere mau-maus its enemies (those who insist on thinking for themselves), at this year’s MLA a majority of those debating the issue refused to be shouted down into submission by those who wanted to put the association’s imprimatur on a dishonest slander campaign dedicated to smearing Israel.
Twitter Politics: The Alt-Left Learns from the Alt-Right that Learned from the Alt-Left
It wasn’t just Trump voters who invented the idea of the “post-truth” universe in which anything goes and wishing makes it so. That fictional universe, one in which everybody’s preferred “narrative” all by itself (cut loose from actual states of affairs) competes to convince the credulous, was imagined long ago at places like Yale, Duke, and University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1980s. Postmodernist academics anticipated the move from truth to “post-truth” decades ago, with what were then au courant doctrines of simulation, deconstruction, discourse and social construction of reality.
Now that these theories are passé in the academy, they’re reappearing in practice on Fox News, BuzzFeed, Twitter, and in the blogosphere. At a time when both presidential candidates and scholar-activists, like Steven Salaita and his supporters, make names for themselves with ribald tweets and vulgar blog posts, serious scholars seem to be over this junk. Fortunately for both Israel and the MLA, a return to common sense, common decency, reason, and evidence was all the rage at the scholars’ convention this year. Perhaps one might even call it a recoil.
For there at the illustrious confab, a group of anti-BDS faculty calling themselves, significantly, MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, showed up to debate the BDSniks.
They came armed with little more than truthful statements about the Jewish state, the discriminatory nature of the anti-Israel activists’ agenda, and a healthy appreciation for the authentic purposes of research and teaching in the humanities.
It worked! The majority vote affirmed both that there is no basis in fact for singling out Israel for boycotts and no ethical basis for cultural and academic boycotts, period. Thus, the hardcore BDS fanatics were revealed as a marginal group, unrepresentative of the organization much less the profession as a whole.
R. I. P. Identity Liberalism, Long Live the MLA!
So, is this the end of business as usual for the past twenty-five years in the humanities, during which time politically correct dogma has tended to crowd out free inquiry, while the task of inculcating settled beliefs about the nature of “liberation” from “oppression” displaced all other issues?
Writing in shock and awe after Trump’s dumbfounding upset victory at the polls in November, Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla mused, in a much-discussed op-ed, that perhaps one good thing could come of it, if only real liberals—in the broad sense of those who support universal values, like freedom of speech and equality under the law—took stock and reevaluated what went wrong. If such people faced up to the fact that “identity liberalism” (as he called it, referring to p. c. identity politics coupled with neglect of class-based concerns) had failed them, then maybe they (we) could find a way forward to a better future,one in which an outdated faux radicalism that has only ever appealed to a tiny minority of citizens no longer drives our American politics into a ditch, maybe!
I would say the same about our colleges and universities, in relation to this highly symbolic victory at the MLA. MLA is the largest professional organization of its kind, so it is a bellwether. And just as many voters on the left, in the last presidential election, didn’t seem to find stale identity-politics-as-usual very inspiring (the real “identity” energy had shifted to the far right, proper home of illiberal cultural relativism anyway), so too at MLA the majority appears tired of beating up on “the West” as the sole item on its list of “Fun Things I Gotta Do Today.”
Israel is a Progressive Cause: Put on Your Pussy Hats and Stand With Us
As a “Western” democracy and standard-bearer of a flawed liberal humanism, in a region not known for it, Israel attracts more than its share of critics. But as leading French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy, has lately reminded, it is in many ways a “model democracy,” in fact. A place where minority rights, women’s rights and gay rights are respected as equal under the law, and freedom of speech flourishes even under daily threat from terrorism. As a defender of civilization against barbarism on the front lines of the war with Islamic State, al-Qaida and the totalitarian ideology they represent, Israel should attract admirers.
While MLA members might not all be quite ready for that, there is hope. As this win over anti-Semitic boycotts demonstrates, there is light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. One sees more clearly than ever that BDS—understood as a symptom of a floundering p. c. agenda—is not primarily a “left versus right issue” but rather an occasion for people of integrity, across the board, to stand together for basic intellectual liberty and fundamental pedagogic, professional, and civilizational ethics. This will be key, in the years ahead, to a robust defense of the humanities in terms of the meaning and value of a “liberal education.”
That I personally canvassed for Hillary Clinton in my community (a tiny blue dot in a sea of red) may not be relevant (so did a lot of other people, it wasn’t enough). However, that I also signed a petition to help bring up for a vote at the MLA an emergency resolution—in solidarity with a similar AAUP statement, wary of the new administration vis–à–vis the humanities and supportive of diversity in education—serves as another indication of what I, for one, see as at stake in this discussion.
Perhaps, too, it gives a sense of where the other side is coming from. For, when in Philadelphia I spoke to the urgency of opposing “discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion or national origin,” several of the leaders of BDS stood up to speak dismissively—with contempt, even—of the measure. Indeed, it is fair to say they addressed its principled stand with derision. One BDS supporter, sounding a bit like Trump in tone, even mocked it as “namby-pamby.” At least they didn’t say it was for pussies, in spite of their tough-guy rhetoric.
Just Say No to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality
Now that the President on the United States has instituted a policy of discrimination against refugees and other immigrants on the basis of nationality, the only consistent position is to oppose such discrimination in all its forms.
In this regard, the MLA membership as a whole has the opportunity to send a message, while finally closing the door on distracting debates aimed at singling out one small nation-state as the sole object of a scholarly organization’s ill-informed foreign policy. As Cary Nelson has shown, in an article aptly titled “The BDS Disinformation Campaign at the MLA,” a tendentious case for smashing the Zionist Entity was riddled with false claims from the start. The tissue of “alternative facts” presented in support of the pro-boycott proposal, submitted by Rebecca Comay and David Lloyd, thus also helped sink BDS in Philadelphia.
Over the summer, as fair-minded MLA members at large prepare to vote on the (antiboycott) measure that did pass the DA—Resolution 2017-1, proposed by Russell Berman and Martin Shichtman—some will want to go back and peruse Nelson’s detailed article for themselves, comparing it to the shoddy materials the BDSniks proffered. Others will simply conclude that in principle judging this sort of thing is not the business of the MLA—and so will vote a priori to endorse the antiboycott resolution, for that reason alone.