Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu: Why We Resigned from the MLA Executive Council

Statement  of Resignation

Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu

That things are “status quo” is the catastrophe.

—Walter Benjamin

Within the past two years, we were both elected to the MLA Executive Council on platforms that  highlighted structural and ethical concerns such as labor and wages, race and state violence, and boycotts in the service of universal human rights and academic freedom. Our statements as candidates for the EC declared such issues to be inseparable from the history and materiality of institutions of higher education. The fact that we were elected on the basis of our platforms was a sign that a significant number of MLA members supported our commitments and convictions. We both entered the Council believing that the MLA constituency was, like us, convinced that such issues matter to the MLA, and that they cannot be addressed in isolation from one another, or in a way where it is possible to address one set of structural crises facing teachers and scholars today at the cost of excluding others.

Despite our continued belief in the value of much of the work the MLA has done and could still do, particularly around contingent labor and academic freedom, we feel that the recent vote on the boycott resolution by the MLA membership unfortunately demonstrates that a majority of MLA members believe such issues can, in fact, be separated from their international and material contexts.

Most importantly, we find that the manner in which the Executive Council handled the anti-boycott resolution indicates a troubling fetishization of process with little sensitivity or critical attention to the historical moment  in which we are operating. When resolution 2017-1 came to the Executive Council for review, our charge was to review it as fiduciaries of the association, and to ensure that it posed no legal or reputational threat to it. Broadly speaking, this meant that we were charged with the care and stewardship of the association. From our perspective, the Council’s acceptance of the resolution indicated a  foregrounding of procedure over meaningful civic engagement, and persuades us that the MLA is more concerned about its own internal protocols than in being an active advocate for  academic rights and freedoms, especially when such advocacy may appear risky because it breaks with precedent.  We believe precisely the opposite: we assert this political moment calls upon scholars to engage with the specific challenges of our current historical situation rather than withdraw into safe norms and procedures.

For these reasons, we are both resigning from the Executive Council.

In regards to the process by which this resolution was passed, we have to note the parallels between it and concurrent political events. The Israeli press documented that a number of organizations in Israel had aided and abetted the anti-boycott effort. Scholars routinely  seem to be troubled by Russia influencing our national elections and many MLA members are rightly appalled by Citizens United and the Koch brothers influencing state elections from without. And yet, when it came to the process by which the anti-boycott resolution came and passed through the Council, we acquiesced to external organizations placing pressure on our association to make sure it did  not in any consequential way take on Israeli injustices towards our Palestinian colleagues. Indeed, the Council was  largely nonchalant about Israeli institutions helping to unbalance the scales of our own vote, even after there was a clear attempt to sow misinformation about the Executive Council’s position on the resolution by the anti-boycott side. To this day, we do not know how many members voted for Resolution 2017-1 after receiving an email from the anti-boycott side that was made to look as if the Council endorsed it. To try to remedy this misleading messaging and imbalance of access, we asked simply that we place on the ballot one paragraph from each side so that MLA members would understand the arguments from both sides, to redress an imbalance of information in which powerful organizations had the chance to publicize their positions in a manner impossible for the opposing side.  In response, we were told that was procedurally improper.

When the Executive Council took up the question as to whether or not we would be acting as responsible and careful fiduciaries by passing resolution 2017-1 onto the membership for a vote, we both argued that action was an  abrogation of those duties. The Council’s standard practice of readily passing on resolutions presented by the DA was, as we argued then, not justifiable given the ethical and political context of February 2017. Indeed, doing so presented a real risk to our reputation as an organization, given that we would be passing this resolution onto our membership in the context of Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, and increased pressure by the Israeli government to clamp down on dissent and protest–intent on continuing its illegal settlement building unimpeded, and with the Trump administration’s approval. This context presented a serious question as to whether or not our decision required an unusual amount of critical thought and care–in the deeper sense of the fiduciary–on our part. It was not a matter of “bending the rules,” it was a matter of interpreting our fiduciary duties in accordance with the critical historical moment we live in. Sadly, the Council ultimately decided to privilege precedent at all costs, making it impossible for us as a body to incorporate the contingencies of our context into our decision-making processes.

The Executive Council refused to recognize within the scope of our fiduciary responsibilities–those responsibilities of care for the organization–the anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, context in which we were making a decision to represent the organization to a broader public sphere.  In addition, it refused to acknowledge the radically uneven playing field that made it possible for this resolution to come to the EC in the first place.  One of the more egregious reminders of that uneven field occurred only one week before the EC met, in  a membership-wide email outreach that misrepresented the EC’s position on the resolution, and which was made possible through an improperly fabricated membership email list that violates the MLA privacy policy. With this final violation, proponents of Resolution 2017-1 significantly weighted the odds in favor of its passing. Wanting to preserve the by-laws of the general resolution process to the most bureaucratic letter, the Executive Council set aside the contingencies of both the international context of this resolution and numerous infringements of the MLA’s own democratic processes  and forwarded a resolution to membership that, quite literally, mandated a constraint on our members’ thought and action.

The EC forwarded the resolution with more concern for the metaphysics of policy than for our role as critical readers of our social and political world. And in so doing, what amounted to a Kafkaesque self-imposed gag order, enacted through the language of non-action and refraining, will have and has had real-world effects in aligning the MLA with the state of Israel and its illegal Occupation, the criminalization of boycotts, and with the far-right agenda of Donald Trump.

How could we at once rush to acknowledge Trump’s potential threat to US academics and protect ourselves, while ignoring the fact that his administration has created a world

Where an attorney who supports BDs is not allowed to defend inmates;

Where children’s book—(P is for Palestine)—is being censored for daring to present a positive vision of Palestinian children under Occupation;

Where Trump has removed the US from participating in UNESCO, all because of its supposed “anti-Israel bias”;

Where a 16-year old Palestinian girl is under the strictest Israeli military detention and her parents not allowed to visit her because she has been deemed a “security risk” for slapping an Israeli soldier, after her cousin had been shot in the face and killed by the IDF; and a noted Israeli journalist has suggested the proper punishment should be that the girl be raped, at night, “away from cameras,” for offending the honor of Israeli soldiers.

Finally, add to this growing list the fact that after the nations of world voted overwhelmingly to criticize the Trump administration for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, an act that goes against two fundamental UN resolutions with regard to the international status of Jerusalem, Trump has just announced a $286 million cut to our contribution to the UN—in retaliation for countries adhering to international human rights conventions.

It is in this climate of censorship, punishment, and international bullying that the EC passed on to the membership a resolution demanding that the MLA “refrain” from a symbolic show of support for a people whose oppression has gained worldwide recognition.

That the EC strove to maintain a blind eye to these sorts of real-world events showed once again its prioritization of the minutiae of procedure against a willingness to engage, as the largest organization of humanists in North America, with an ongoing repression of intellectual work and physical mobility.

Most disappointingly, especially if we were intent on adhering to strict process in other matters, the form of the resolution itself was improper–it directed the MLA to take an action (to refrain).  Based on the MLA’s distinction between a resolution as a statement of sentiment and a motion as “recommend[ing] actions to the Executive Council regarding the…association’s direction, goals, and structure,” Resolution 2017-1 should have been presented as a motion. As it is, those who pushed this forward as a resolution were able to have it both ways. This unprecedented resolution seeks to silence, once and for all, any acts of solidarity with Palestinians’ call for academic boycott. It even aims to suppress support that simply takes the form of an expression of sentiment for this non-violent, international campaign demanding only compliance with international law in order that Palestinians’ most basic human rights be recognized.

As many have pointed out, there was no need whatsoever for this draconian resolution. The boycott resolution failed, and those of us promoting it accepted that outcome. The anti-boycott resolution intends never to let such an effort even be considered, debated, or proposed again. In that sense it is an admission on the part of its advocates that they do not have the courage or strength to ever openly address this issue again.  What other academic organization in the United States has such a repressive measure constraining its members and locking them into a status quo of silence? It is both censorious and disrespectful of the intellectual and ethical capacities of the MLA membership into the future; its passage discloses a deeply troubling hypocrisy when it comes to the avowal of universal humanistic values.

The irony of passing the Bérubé resolution, protecting our members’ academic freedom from attack from the Trump regime, at the same time as passing a resolution telling our members that one and one issue alone was off the table and thereby violating their right to free speech, is manifest. To have done so in a document now enshrined in our institutional records offends every notion of the “humanities” we hold dear–including but not limited to free speech , open debate, and a critical understanding of these terms. The ahistorical, US-centric, anti-international and deracinated version of academic freedom that passed the Delegate Assembly could similarly have provided the basis for a MLA resolution that instructed its  members to refrain from expressing solidarity with the South African anti-apartheid boycott, or Cesar Chavez’s grape strike, or the Montgomery bus strike.  As we know from the MLA’s silence in the case of South African apartheid, refraining from struggles for justice has regrettably been the tradition of the MLA. Such silence reflects a tacit endorsement of the  position held by some in the organization,  that the MLA should forget about things like educational rights and academic freedom in Palestine. They say we should turn our attention to our “real” business, and not be “single issue” obstructionists.

But younger members of the profession have made clear that our real business is critically attending to the ways in which certain concerns have been marginalized in the academy so that others can appear universal or self-evident. Through the regular production of syllabi around racism and state violence, through critical and sustained reflections about the intersection of police violence in the U.S. and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and through attention to the material and embodied conditions upon which access to academic freedom depends, they are demonstrating that silence and proceduralism are not the future of the profession. While appeals to the association’s tradition of what appears to be disinterested scholarship drove much of the argument against the movement for justice in Palestine, young scholars are recognizing and applying the real intersections between injustices on a global scale in their professional practices.

Let us not forget that, not so long ago, such disinterest also cautioned against “political” interventions by the MLA into the labor conditions of adjuncts. Today we must recognize, against the anti-boycott side’s use of contingent and graduate labor as a “divide and conquer” tactic against the boycott, that we can no more treat the crisis of adjunct labor in the absence of the knowledge that particular bodies and populations are more likely to end up in those insecure forms of employment than we can treat the crisis in academic freedom as one in which certain bodies and populations are systematically denied access to it.

MLA past president Edward Said once wrote:

The Palestinian struggle for justice is especially something with which one expresses solidarity, rather than endless criticism and exasperated, frustrating discouragement, and crippling divisiveness.  Remember the solidarity here and everywhere in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia and remember also that there is a cause to which many people have committed themselves, difficulties and terrible obstacles notwithstanding.  Why?  Because it is a just cause, a noble ideal, a moral quest for equality and human rights.

We wholeheartedly embrace this truly capacious and ethical vision of responsibility toward the world, not the selfish protection of the convenient, familiar, and particular that the Bérubé resolution embodies. Although our resignations will most likely be read as acts of protest, they are  intended as acts of solidarity with those members of the profession, both inside and outside Palestine, who understand that the production of meaningful and intersectional networks of support for the most vulnerable in our profession–and which must concern all of us– will be organized elsewhere than in this association.

While we are heartened by the fact that Judith Butler has won election to the Presidency, applaud her candidate’s statement, and wish her well in her endeavors, we personally feel that we can do more for her and other progressive causes in the MLA if we resign from the Executive Council and thereby are free to express in this document the kinds of challenges any progressive work faces. We insist that if the MLA is to become an organization able to truly serve the interests of teachers and scholars of language and literature, without exception, and form the kinds of lines of solidarity with those who are denied academic freedom and the material means with which to enjoy that freedom, then it must address the kinds of issues we disclose in this statement of resignation.


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16 responses to “Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu: Why We Resigned from the MLA Executive Council

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  8. Will

    I’m puzzled. How does refraining from boycotting universities and fellow academics also act as a prohibition on all expressions of solidarity with Palestine?

  9. Pingback: Israel bans BDS activists. BDS efforts backfire when antisemitism is revealed. Ireland postpones vote on criminalizing import of ‘settlement goods.’ - Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS), SPME BDS Monitor - SPME Scholars for Peace in the Middle

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