Wet Humor

 

 

 

Kyle Stevens

President Trump’s visit to London this summer was met with protest and more specifically with protest humor. Barbs like “Orange is the new twat” and “Trump wears poorly tailored suits”—pointed, but not particularly funny—were scrawled on poster board and stapled to sticks in an effort to telegraph disapproval, attract attention, and demonstrate national cultural identity. In the US such humorous signage has become commonplace since the day after Trump was sworn into office. The Women’s March on 21 January 2017—the largest protest in the nation’s history—inaugurated an idea of protest behavior that would quickly become dominant as it echoed the absurd new condition of being considered subversive for representing an opinion held by a national majority. This behavior tends to follow the lead of journalists and comics whose views gain traction on social media, chiefly Twitter, the medium made notorious by the current president. These commentators try to help us interpret our society, to make sense of insensible times. They are our intelligentsia, and they typically accomplish their work through quips and aphorisms. The burn has become a powerful public weapon. Indeed, as Maggie Hennefeld succinctly puts it, today “There is no fiercer political weapon than laughter.”[1] On the side of those agitating for change, laughter is offered up as the antigunshot, the anti-pussy grab, the antichokehold, the antideportation, the antichildren learning a lockdown rhyme. We ask a lot of humor. We expect it to take the place of physical retaliation, of sit-ins, of the guillotine. But in this space, I want to ask how cutting it is. I want to (somewhat provisionally) map out what I call wet humor, a humor that registers the fear, anger, and exasperation of inhabiting this precarious and nonsensical cosmology. Wet humor stages the sentiment of laughter through tears, unlike much of the urbane, dusty political comics and polemics of the past.

Look at some of the widely circulated protest signs from the Women’s March.

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Or signs from the March for Our Lives on 24 March 2018.

Clearly, humor is the chief strategy for communicating each event’s agenda and for inviting media attention. But before we consider the humor of these signs, compare them to those from various Black Lives Matter (BLM) marches.

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The tonal discrepancy of the images disseminated suggests that political humor—however fierce a weapon—is associated with whiteness; and there were indeed complaints from women of color and trans communities that the Women’s March focused on cishet white women. In a point I will return to, BLM signs are clearly addressed to the group’s political foes, and given the historical expectation in the US for black subjects to entertain white people, wittiness may threaten to reinforce the racist perspectives precisely at stake.[2] The directness of BLM signage is reminiscent of the 1980s and ’90s slogan for AIDS awareness group ACT UP, “Silence=Death,” which suggests that humor is unavailable to those of us who must argue not just for the merit of their lives but for the validity even of speaking about that worth. That said, marches against gun violence and the control of women’s bodies are deadly serious, too. Seen from a different angle, even if the availability of humor is a sign of white privilege, it may also be a form of self-deprecating hesitation, even doubt, about the validity of one’s voice, or about the fear that a voice will be refused unless it speaks in a pleasurable manner.

I want to say that while all of this may be true we might, at the same time, retain the old-fashioned notion that wit is a form of thinking and judging and that if we want to understand our current political moment, we must take wit seriously as a style of protest humor. But first, to carve out a space for wet humor, let me briefly say a few words about kinds of humor it is not. It is not, for instance, a derivative of Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of populist humor, the carnivalesque.[3] This comedy relies on the thrilling but necessarily brief undoing of established sociopolitical structures, whereas political protests seek permanent change, not transitory liberation. (Social media’s hierarchical algorithms are never overturned, either.) Wet humor also falls outside of Henri Bergson’s well-known theories locating humor and its resultant laughter in the mistaken attribution of automaticity to organisms, because our current context complicates the presumed ease of such perception. To see “the mechanical encrusted upon the living” entails an agreed category of “the living,” those whose lives are acknowledged as mattering.[4] One might also think of dark humor, or what André Breton dubbed “black humor.” But dark humor is ultimately nihilist, deliciously petty, the “mortal enemy of sentimentality”; it seeks to undermine meaning in the world altogether, whereas those marching do so earnestly.[5]

Rather, as I hope is obvious, wet humor is formulated in relation to dry. Dry humor is an established aesthetic concept, yet we cannot point to a definition. Humor theorists use the term to help elucidate the operations of other modes of humor—if not humor itself—but that dryness remains unexplained makes it a powerful ideological concept, one we may have learned without knowing when or how, one that appears natural. There is a relevant use of dry to mean impassive or emotionless that dates back to the beginning of English, but its use in connection with humor to denote a coherent or accepted kind or mode of humor appears to be largely a late nineteenth- and twentieth-century phenomenon. In his survey of humor theory, Simon Critchley depends on an intuitive understanding of dry to build an account of humor rooted in suddenness and revelation, but he leaves the term itself undisturbed, though we may infer that its meaning is akin to the old Germanic witz.[6] It is Kantian in the buildup and release of tension, but—and here I’m projecting a bit—it is also about a subject with both little and much at stake. When we use dry or similar words like droll, are we not rolling our eyes at something whose importance is misconstrued? It is the taking of the serious as unserious or vice versa.

I also suggest that dry humor is paradigmatically verbal. That is, although we might call nonverbal objects dry, such as a cinematic cut that twinkles in the eye of the canny observer, that nomination tends to rely on a metaphorical association with verbal rhythms. More importantly, dry humor presents as indistinguishable from earnest conversation. It threatens itself in its very creation. Even deadpan styles announces itself as humorous via suggestive insinuation, unlike truly arid wit. Dryness seeks to achieve maximal humor with minimal expression, demanding attentive labor from its listener, and this economy of detection is bound up with its economy of emotion, too. The bemused smile or chuckle erupts from one’s own thought, not from the spontaneous outburst proceeding from the perception of humor (as in slapstick, say). Hence, dry humor is often supercilious and lends itself to cruel or condescending swipes. It excludes the unobservant, the stupid, insisting the audience is on the right level by testing the listener’s ability to puzzle through lurking logics.

This tenuousness helps understand why dry humor is associated with a vein of campy writing for which Oscar Wilde is a touchstone. Consider this example from The Picture of Dorian Gray:

“Dry-goods! What are American Dry-goods?” asked the Duchess, raising her large hands in wonder, and accentuating the verb.

“American novels,” answered Lord Henry, helping himself to some quail.[7]

Now, Lord Henry obviously does not mean that American novels are witty. Wilde’s genius is in demonstrating dry wit by deploying the easy pun and then asserting his control beyond the characters’ statements (via the third sense of “dry” that he intends to operate here). Here, dry humor undercuts the possibility that to withhold expressivity is to be less expressive—much less to amount to the taciturn refusal of masculine privilege embodied in “the strong, silent type.” It is not a case of less is more, but a situation in which the recognition of humor and the dawning laugh comes with the realization that more was there all along, closeted in the speech act. Again, dry humor plays with the limits of what we imagine to be the other’s capacity to detect humor. And it would be wrong to say that it wears a disguise or masquerades as conversation—as though it was something else in the first place—or that it is somehow unmeant. Rather, it tests the limits of language, of how the performance of utterance affects meaning. (In this way, dry humor is a potent tool for highlighting and subverting an attachment to models of language use overly rooted in referentiality.)

One may thus see why dry humor would be an unappealing tool if one is concerned about the intelligence of one’s fellow citizens. Nevertheless, creating and ingesting comedy may be a justified recourse in the face of an administration that meets with Kim Kardashian to discuss prison reform or makes up fake terrorist attacks (“the Bowling Green massacre”). Equally, though, creating and ingesting comedy might be essential in the face of membership in a voting body that includes so many who voted against their own interests and believed—and continue to believe—patent lies about everything from the president’s history of sexual assault to his campaign financial dealings, who remain unmoved in the face of mass death following Hurricane Maria and the ongoing lack of clean water in Flint, Michigan. The manifestation of wet humor I want to focus on here has surfaced when neither purely intellectual nor predominantly emotional petitions succeed.

To think about wet humor—with all the registers of drenched, dank, damp, and so forth—we first have to agree that signs featuring slogans like “Power Bottoms Against the Patriarchy” are funny. They may not elicit a great deal of diaphragm exercise, but they at least provoke a good, amused exhale. Then we must agree that it’s not best labeled dry. There may be something dry about it, in that it relies on the reader’s experience and lexicon to get why it’s funny (the meeting of the slightly graphic term “power bottom” with rainbow stickers; fairly complex ideas regarding the history of relations between sex, gender, sexual positions, power, and so forth), but there is no built-in revelation. Similarly, users logging on to Twitter to see protest signs curated by those they follow pretty much know what messages will be conveyed. (Because we know that most social media typically functions as an echo chamber and in turn that we cannot rely on these streams to be accurate representations of reality—even as they are our dominant access to knowledge about reality—they generate a new anxiety that our representations of the world are illusory. Call it a new kind of political skepticism. But that is a topic for another time.)

There is of course variation within these generalizations about protest humor. The inflatable chicken Trump is not wet humor, because one sees it as funny. You needn’t think deeply about it to get it. Wet humor shares with dry a rejection of the immediacy that may be enjoyed by humor based on perception. Or to take an example from Saturday Night Live, another prominent source of wet humor, Alec Baldwin’s Trump was soggier than Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, because Baldwin’s depiction was somehow pre-saturated; Fey, on the other hand, revealed things about Palin to which the world had not yet attended. (All impressions are a form of wet humor, because they play to an already known standard, even if the distance from that standard can itself be a measure of revelation.) Wet humor is about predictability, the presumption of a shared opinion. If dry humor wants, via surprise, to subvert or redress values and assumptions, wet wants to confirm them. Lauren Berlant asserts that comedy is “about surprise, an unequal distribution of being knowing and a sucker.”[8] Wet humor is comedy without surprise—but with the form of surprise. Dry wit encourages a listener to come to a new view; wet wit encourages a listener to come to the same view again, reminding us that not all satire operates the same. In this sense, wet humor’s express purpose is not to encourage people to “forget their problems”—as Berlant quotes Jerry Lewis as saying and suggests Bergson intends with his phrase that laughter is “a momentary anesthesia of the heart” (quoted in “H,” p. 320). Berlant elaborates this therapeutic vision of laughter: “The good laugh is thus a generous genre of relief from the humorlessness with which one eats the effects of ordinary absurdity and injury” (“H,” p. 320). Wet humor positions itself in the face of extraordinary absurdity and injury.

To put it another way, if dry humor involves a coming to knowledge or measure of the energy invested into insight, wet humor involves a similar logic of recognition without the suddenness or revelation. It is not the opposite of dry; it exists on a continuum with it. Dry humor is dehydrated of emotional investment and agreement. Wet humor embraces the fort-da repetition necessary to the working through of trauma. It is thus proving to be a vital tool for building solidarity, for reiterating—and more importantly for ratifying—shared values and judgments. In this respect, wet humor need not be seen as a form of self-deprecation, because it’s not addressed to the other side. While dry humor can be patronizing, it is not necessarily exclusive of the other, and can indeed be jovial, even loving. In contrast, wet humor inspires a communal affect that depends upon the identification and exclusion of an antagonist, threatening to evacuate from politics ambivalence or the possibility of the transformative joke. Of course wet humor has not replaced all protest—BLM reminds us of that—but the question of who is laughing at whom often dominates media coverage of events. The problem here is not with laughing itself but with erasing the distinction between political rally and protest (or other actions of resistance). When seen as a method of protest, wet humor suggests that the 1960s dream of peaceful protest that creates change is lost in the course of the failure of the American experiment. It is also, I think, the reason that the government is free to ignore protests, counting not on the unreliability of conviction but on its ephemerality, on the sense that public outcry is merely part of the attention economy.

 

[1] Maggie Hennefeld, “Comedy is part of feminist history—and we need it more than ever,” Transformation, 6 May 2018, http://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/maggie-hennefeld/comedy-is-part-of-feminist-history-and-we-need-it-more-than-ever

[2] For a history of how black artists have used humor to address institutional racism and racial injustice, see Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (New York, 2008).

[3] See, for example, Mikhail Bakhtin, “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse,” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Holquist (Austin, Tex., 1981), p. 79.

[4] Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (Mineola, N.Y., 2005), p. 18.

[5] André Breton, “Lightning Rod,” in Anthology of Black Humor, trans. Mark Polizzotti (San Francisco, 1997), p. xix.

[6] See Simon Critchley, On Humor (New York, 2002), p. 6.

[7] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Philip Smith (Mineola, N.Y., 1993), p. 28.

[8] Lauren Berlant, “Humorlessness (Three Monologues and a Hairpiece),” Critical Inquiry 43 (Winter 2017): 319; hereafter abbreviated “H.”

 

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From the Authors of the “Theses on Theory and History”

We are the members of the Wild On Collective, authors of the “Theses on Theory and History,” who have in the past month opened a spirited conversation about the place of theory—any theory—in the discipline of history.[1]  The three of us are historians, though with different theoretical investments and different institutional locations.[2]  What drew us together was our impatience with the persistent refusal of disciplinary history to engage with long-standing critiques of its practice: critiques of its realist epistemology and empiricist methodology, its archival fetishism, its insistence on the primacy of chronological narrative, and its maintenance of reified boundaries between present and past. How had it happened, we wondered, that the critiques which had nourished our own thinking had somehow failed to transform disciplinary norms in siginificant ways? Why the recurrent need for critique generation after generation?[3]  We discussed the perverse mechanism whereby successive epistemological challenges to conventional history were superficially embraced only to be domesticated as new themes or topics to be explored in familiar ways. We talked about the way in which “theory” became a ghettoized domain of intellectual historians, many of whom simply produced documentary and synoptic accounts of critical thinking but did not employ the insights of that thinking in their own analyses.

We decided that it was time to raise yet again the questions of what counts as historical evidence, argument, and truth in order to counter the discipline’s narrowly circumscribed definitions.  Since the last round of epistemological critique (roughly between the 1960s and 1990s) history, along with many of the human sciences, has become even more resistant to theoretical analysis and self-reflection. Whether due to a backlash against earlier theoretical challenges (or their perceived gains), neoliberal attacks on noninstrumental knowledge, academic downsizing, a depressed job market, mistaken perceptions of theory as intrinsically elite or elitist, or any number of other factors that need to be explored, the US academy seems to be suffering a period of intellectual conservatism that is nourished by epistemological realism (and vice versa).  In this context, we felt it was time for renewed efforts at a critique that questionedthe institutional norms, rewards, and sanctions exercised by the historians’ guild.  Individuals are not our target—it is the institution of disciplinary history itself. Our aim is to provoke a debate among and beyond professional historians about the intellectual implications of the field’s (usually unstated, but regularly enforced) disciplinary common sense.

Of course, we recognize that there is already a good deal of analytic and methodological diversity among practicing historians, many of whom employ or generate important theoretical concepts in productive ways. But they are a minority, whose work is often diminished as not really history because it starts or points beyond acceptable boundaries. We are also aware of a burgeoning resistance to the backlash against theory in some new journals directed specifically at that problem: History of the Present and Critical Historical Studies.  They are a welcome addition to History and Theoryand Rethinking History, which have been the sole places for the kind of reflection we are seeking more broadly. This seemed an important moment to articulate the broader critique that was often only implicit in the creation of those new journals.

Our “Theses” are not meant to be a call for historians to abandon empirical work in order to produce transhistorical “theory.” Nor do we think that everyone in the field should become intellectual historians whose objects of study are thinkers, theorists, or texts. Neither is this a call for our colleagues to become metahistorians who only write about the theory or practice of producing historical knowledge. As should be clear, in the third set of “Theses” especially, we are as critical of decontextualized theory as we are of reified facts. Rather, we are challenging any artificial separation of empirical research and theoretical reflection. We are calling on historians to be more conceptually self-aware and critically self-reflexive about the kinds of arguments they are making, about the social worlds or processes they account for, as well as about their own practice as historians. We are inviting conventional historians to recognize, or even themselves experiment with, nonrealist and nonempiricist modes of analysis as legitimate and valuable ways to know the past or to think historically. We are reminding scholars in other fields that professional history does not possess a monopoly on modes of historical thinking or means of historical insight. Indeed, we note that in recent years, some of the most innovative attempts to think historically have been produced by scholars who were not primarily trained as historians.

The “Theses” are divided into three sections. The first set addresses the assumptions of disciplinary history, the second set addresses several of the logics and strategies through which the field resists theory as somehow foreign to its enterprise, and the third calls programmatically for a practice of critical history that is epistemologically self-reflexive and engaged with questions that concern us in the present.

Because history’s domesticating and disciplining processes are systemic, our theses address all aspects of professional history – training, research, writing, publishing, hiring – just as any attempt to redress the problems we identify must do. But this intervention is not in any way meant to be a comprehensive inventory of all that is wrong, even theoretically, with the field and the guild (the persistent Eurocentrism of its frameworks). We believe that any attempt to change a specific aspect of the field that brackets questions about what counts as evidence and how we produce knowledge is likely to be limited at best.

Even less is our intervention meant to be theoretically prescriptive; we make no claims about which theories historians should engage or how such theory should be employed, how they might go about theorizing their own work, or to what end. Indeed, we have been asked repeatedly to cite examples of the kind of work we are advocating, but we have decided not to do that. For one thing, it seems to repeat the empiricist logic we are refusing (what is your evidence? where are your footnotes?) And, too, there’s a real danger that any examples we offer will be read as prescriptions, limiting exactly what we want to open: new space for the practice of critical history. The problem of exemplarism is that it creates a hierarchical separation between those works that have been chosen as examples and those which have not. There are, in our estimation, many exemplary works of history. But the purpose of the “Theses” is not to provide a template to be followed. It is to create a space for critical reflection, assessment, and experimentation In that space, we need to explore the possible underlying relations between the field’s epistemological common sense and of any of its institutional limitations.

These “Theses on Theory and History” are themselves driven by just such a concern to link form and content, means and ends. Thus our considered decisions, against normal academic practice, to write collectively, to publish independently (encouraging free distribution through a Creative Commons license), and to cultivate a public debate digitally (through a website, theoryrevolt.com, on social media, and through short pieces in digital publications).

This open access platform has led to a global reception that has exceeded our initial target but also reveals that these “Theses” have hit a nerve and provoked a response. At this moment, the “Theses” have been translated into Portuguese and are being translated into German, Spanish, and French. There have been substantive blog posts and discussions on social media in Europe, the UK, Australia, India, South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil.[4] Closer to home, the response at the Society for US Intellectual History website has been robust and sustained if less positive as a whole.[5] Inside Higher Education has reported that the Research Division of the American Historical Association “planned to discuss” the “Theses.” By contrast there are many other posts such as this Tweet: “This basically sums up all my pent-up grad school frustrations w/the teaching and writing of history. I cannot express how much these statements by historians I look up to . . . means to me as a student. Thank you.” The point here is that whether one agrees or disagrees with the “Theses,” they have started a debate about the norms of the historical discipline. As importantly, responses to the “Theses” extend beyond the discipline of history; we have received or viewed posts from philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, art historians and literary scholars who seek to apply to their field of study the criticisms and questions posed in the “Theses on Theory and History.” This suggests to us that the struggle against empiricism and for more critical approaches to scholarship is transdisciplinary.[6] It may also suggest that scholars in other fields who engage the past in unconventional ways may feel similarly constrained by the restrictive norms of disciplinary history.

Given the enthusiastic response we have received so far, we see the “Theses on Theory and History” as an initial intervention. It is the first step in opening a broader debate about these issues about the field of history. In this way we aim to create a community of like-minded scholars, within and beyond the field of history, to share concerns and strategies, and to enact change in the discipline of history. This will be the difficult work of the Wild On Collective and we encourage all interested parties to join the effort via our website. The time for #TheoryRevolt is nigh!

The Wild On Collective:  Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder.

 

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[1] The “Theses” are open access and available for web viewing or as a downloadable .pdf at www.theoryrevolt.com

[2] Our critical vantage comes in part from the fact that none of us are fully in a conventional history department. Kleinberg directs the Wesleyan Humanities Center and holds a joint appointment in the History Department and the College of Letters; Scott is in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study; and Wilder is a professor in an anthropology doctoral program and director of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the Graduate Center of the City University of NY.

[3] Among the successive rounds of critique which challenged realist history, we might recall that which accompanied the consolidation of professional history (Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Simmel, Benedetto Croce, and others), that which corresponded to a broader crisis of Western liberalism during the interwar period (for example, Martin Heidegger, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, W. E. B Du Bois, C. L. R. James), and that which followed decolonization, the anti-systemic movements of the 1960s, and the broader decentering of the (white male Euro-American) subject (for example, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Michel de Certeau, Edouard Glissant, Reinhardt Koselleck, Hayden White, Edward Said, Dominick La Capra, Joan Wallach Scott, Aníbal Quijano, the Subaltern Studies Collective, and Saidiya Hartman).

[4] For a sample selection see http://www.oulu.fi/blogs/theoryafterall; http://www.oulu.fi/blogs/revolts; https://inheritandrespond.com/2018/06/04/a-place-for-theory-in-history/; one can also search Facebook or Twitter using #TheoryRevolt.

[5] https://s-usih.org/2018/06/the-means-of-history-theoryrevolt-evidence-and-purported-anti-intellectualism/

[6] After our “Theses” were published a helpful reader alerted us to the recent “Manifesto of the V21 Collective,” a parallel intervention in literary studies.

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The Fate of Bedouin Schools in the Negev Desert: Margaret Olin and David Shulman Report on a Specific Case in Text and Photos

June 22, 2018 Al-Auja, Khan al-Ahmar – text by David Shulman

 

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Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu’s Rejoinder

We appreciate Michael Bérubé’s engagement with our resignation letter. But we would like to provide three key clarifications to his response.

First, Professor Bérubé’s representation of Resolution 2017-4 (the “Bérubé Resolution”) omits crucial information. He admits with some regret that the AAUP definition of academic freedom used in Resolution 2017-4 is “US-centric” and thus does not extend to Palestinian academics. But he fails to recount that there was actually an opportunity to expand that definition presented at the Delegate Assembly debate so that the proposed resolution would, in fact, include the right to academic freedom for Palestinian, and indeed all other non-US academics. Former MLA member and past President Margaret Ferguson proposed to include language from the United Nations’ definition of academic freedom. Using the UN’s definition was more appropriate for the MLA, she argued, than the AAUP definition because the MLA is, by its own definition, an international organization. That proposal was shot down, purely on the argument that we could and would not be beholden to the United Nations’ definition. Hence our comment that this resolution smacked of the US-centric and anti-international character of the Trump administration.

While Professor Bérubé protests that the AAUP has no jurisdiction outside of the US and that changing the definition to the UN definition would have weakened the resolution, this is a moot point since MLA resolutions are expressions of sentiment and not action; it is further mooted by the obvious fact that as supposed masters of language we could have easily crafted a statement on academic freedom that did not simply mimic preexisting ones but that rather reflected most accurately the sentiment of our own organization. To default to others’ definition of our sense of freedom is patently contradictory, no?

Instead of revising the language, Bérubé and others argued against it. The result was that the Delegate Assembly passed one resolution affirming the academic freedom of scholars in the US and the other affirming the academic freedom of Israeli scholars, even though the academic boycott is aimed against institutions, not individuals, and despite the fact that what was proposed by the proboycott resolution was simply a nonbinding expression of support.  But even that was sufficient to motivate Israeli organizations to leap to aid the antiboycott faction, tip the process by violating MLA procedure, and for antiboycott advocates to spread misinformation and stifle any expression of support for academic freedom that does not make US and Israel the arbiters of its “ideal.”

Let us not argue about intent, here, but only about effects. While it may not have been Bérubé’s intention to carve up the territory of academic rights between the US and Israel, the maintenance of the nation-specific limitations of the AAUP definition did, indeed, have that effect, and that was not an unavoidable consequence but, we assert, a calculated one.

Two other clarifications are in order. First, when we referred to the version of academic freedom offered in Professor Bérubé’s resolution as “ahistorical,” we did not mean that it violated the AAUP’s definition as it has existed since 1940. But the insistent reiteration of institutional precedent at all costs is itself a problem of historical interpretation we take up throughout our letter.  Circumstances change, and it is well within our duties as scholars to test out whether time-honored traditions continue to be useful, or if modification is necessitated by contemporary moral and ethical concerns.  Need we mention the voting and housing rights that did not exist for black citizens in 1940?  What notion of “freedom” should we employ today?

While the chance to modify our definition of academic freedom to suit the demands of the present was presented by Professor Ferguson and others, Professor Bérubé and others voted instead to preserve the AAUP definition as if nothing of historical importance—say the Nakba of 1948 that ethnically cleansed 750,000 Palestinians from their homes–had occurred.  Much less the military regime that replaced civil juridical institutions in the new, Zionist state of Israel. In contrast to this decidedly selective version of history, we tried to articulate another one in our resignation letter. We argued for the use of the past—that of prior definitions of academic freedom and free speech—for the exigent purposes of the present, but only insofar as they were open to critical reassessment–something again that is foundational to any intellectual or academic enterprise. Our description of Resolution 2017-4 as “ahistoricist” was not meant to suggest that it was inconsistent with the history of the AAUP’s definition but rather that it failed to adapt that definition for the demands of the present.

Second, Professor Bérubé disregards our use of the term “deracinated” as “one that is not doing” what it meant to do well. For clarification, we refer Professor Bérubé to the latter portion of our letter, in which we suggest that the political struggle within higher education must be based in solidarity with those populations that are most vulnerable within it. We write 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.” The fact that adjunct instructors in the US and Palestinian academics in the Occupied Territories are subject to the violence of racialization, as well as gendering, are facts that need to ground our definitions of academic freedom, not be erased by them so that the most general, and yet most partial, definition hold. In contrast, an “ideal” of academic freedom that cannot be extended to international scholars in an international organization is entirely consistent with the label “deracinated.” The form of Resolution 2017-4 that passed the Delegate Assembly and the membership resolutely fails to provide a vision of academic freedom that adequately responds to international instances of racialized violence that deny Palestinian academics their right to academic freedom.

We are not the first to call attention to the fact that systemic violence affects equal access to academic freedom. Nor are we the first scholars to suggest that the AAUP definition of academic freedom has had disempowering effects for dealing with structural problems in institutions of higher education.[1] To say this is not to say that we are ungrateful or forgetful of the history of academic freedom, for which Bérubé chides us. It is, however, to say that academic freedom is a concept subject to uses and abuses, one that, no matter the “safeguarding” by the AAUP, is subject to interpretation and must be open to critical scrutiny.  Again, need we mention that the world of 1940 thought little of homophobia, misogyny, racism, sexism, as things that needed to be accounted for and addressed?  Since these injustices were not mentioned by the AAUP in 1940, does that mean we should not mention them now? Of course not. But somehow, the moralistic indignation of those who feel as Professor Bérubé does, about such decidedly important issues as adjunct labor, does not extend to a group whose denial of academic, educational, and other freedoms the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Israeli human rights organizations such as B’Tselem and others have pointed out. Our fundamental question is—why do we rush to protect our academic freedom when the historical record shows the deprivation of educational rights to Palestinians and others has much more dire consequences?  Do we need academic freedom to improve the life chances of the members of the MLA as much as certain populations in Asia, Africa, Latin American, the Middle East, and elsewhere need the right to education?

Our use of the term deracinated to describe Resolution 2017-4 was meant to describe the ways in which a version of academic freedom that is at once nationalist and idealist fails to consider racialization, in this case, that of Palestinian scholars by the state of Israel, as a limit to the right of academic freedom. The passage of Resolution 2017-1 only further compounded this limit by affirming a non-internationalist and quietist version of academic freedom on the heels of Resolution 2017-1 passing. In our view, any version of academic freedom that cannot attend to the structural conditions of racism, here and abroad, that make that right available or not available to faculty is, indeed, deracinated. Lastly, we close simply by emphasizing, as we did in our resignation letter, that the simultaneous defeat of a BDS resolution and passage of the Resolution 2017-4 highlights the contradictions of academic freedom that are elsewhere now being fought over the meaning of free speech on campuses across the US.

The questions Fred Moten asked in his statement of support for BDS are appropriate as critical points by which to move the discussion about academic freedom forward: should “Israeli academic freedom—or, for that matter, any state-sanctioned, state-protected academic freedom but also the very idea of academic freedom insofar as it must be state-sanctioned and state-protected if it is to exist—should be subject to constraint. What if academic freedom is defined precisely by the fact that it is a thing that can be enjoyed by peoples such as the Israelis and not by peoples such as the Palestinians? What is academic freedom that it can be exercised by Israelis and not by Palestinians and why would Palestinians, and those in solidarity with them, want it? . . . What does academic freedom cost those who are said to enjoy it?”

Ultimately, the question is not one of Palestinian rights being excluded but of a humanistic organization that acquiesces to such a narrow set of concerns masquerading as “global.”  To do so simply sharpens the hypocrisy that is a malignancy on the academy. Why should we deserve academic freedom if we use it so poorly, or not at all?

[1] See Christopher Newfield, Ivy and Industry: Business and the Making of the American University, 1880–1980 (Durham, N.C., 2004), where he cites the AAUP definition of academic freedom in his discussion of the uses of that protection to develop anti-democratic modes of faculty governance.

 

Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu

 

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Michael Bérubé Responds to Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu

I agree with much of Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu’s critique of the anti-BDS resolution passed by the Modern Language Association (MLA) last year. Although I cannot speak to what happened in Executive Council debates on the issue (since I am not a member of the EC), and though I do not support BDS (or the Occupation, for that matter, or Israel’s increasingly unhinged and draconian responses to BDS), I believe Hanson and Palumbo-Liu make three incontrovertible arguments.

One, resolution 2017-1 should have been a motion from the outset because it directed the MLA to take an action—or, in the words of the resolution, to “refrain” from taking an action. This is a minor procedural point, but it opens out onto a larger issue of some consequence: once the Delegate Assembly had voted down the pro-BDS resolution, the anti-BDS resolution should have been withdrawn because it makes no sense to direct the MLA to refrain from taking an action it is not taking. Had I been a member of the council when the resolution came forward from the Delegate Assembly, I would have argued not only that it should have been a motion but that it was, under the circumstances, out of order.

Two, Hanson and Palumbo-Liu are right to say that the proponents of the anti-BDS resolution engaged in questionable conduct, going well beyond compiling the email addresses of MLA members; their mailings did indeed suggest some level of official MLA/EC endorsement of their position. This further inflamed what was already an acrimonious debate, and, since the Delegate Assembly had voted down the pro-BDS resolution, it did so gratuitously.

Three, and most important, I agree with Hanson and Palumbo-Liu that the resolution was “both censorious and disrespectful of the intellectual and ethical capacities of the MLA membership into the future.” I would add only that it is also disrespectful of the intellectual and ethical capacities of current MLA members. Current and future members of the association should be able to revisit this question as a matter of principle: no scholarly organization should attempt to shut down debate permanently on any contentious subject, let alone a contentious subject whose contours change from year to year, as conditions in the Occupied Territories worsen and Israel adopts the posture of a garrison state. That is why I signed the petition opposing the resolution.

All that said, I want to direct attention to the letter’s reference to “the Bérubé resolution,” which Hanson and Palumbo-Liu describe as “protecting our [MLA] members’ academic freedom from attack from the Trump regime.” They characterize its passage as an action that “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.” This part of Hanson’s and Palumbo-Liu’s letter is regrettable and woefully mistaken.

It is unfortunate that Hanson and Palumbo-Liu do not explain, or even provide a link to, the resolution I proposed. So let me explain what it was, and what it was trying to do. (It is available here.)

On 9 November 2016, the leadership of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a statement, “Higher Education after the 2016 Election.” The MLA resolution was an expression of support for the AAUP statement. Nothing more, nothing less. Which means, among other things, that Hanson and Palumbo-Liu’s dismissal of what they call the “ahistorical, US-centric, anti-international and deracinated version of academic freedom” in that resolution is a dismissal of the principle of academic freedom as the AAUP has defined and defended it over the past hundred years. This is why this aspect of their letter is so misguided. It may also be why Hanson and Palumbo-Liu never make clear that the object of their critique is the AAUP itself, leaving instead the impression that some awful thing called “the Bérubé resolution” contains an anemic sense of academic freedom that offends every notion of the “humanities” they hold dear.

The charge that the AAUP’s definition of academic freedom is “ahistorical” is itself ahistorical because that definition has been revisited time and again (as all principles, including BDS, should be) since its inception. The AAUP’s definition of academic freedom is decidedly not anti-international, since it covers every person teaching in a university in the United States, regardless of citizenship status or national origin. It is, however, “US-centric,” as my previous sentence acknowledges, because despite our fondest wishes, there is no supranational entity that safeguards academic freedom worldwide and enforces a unitary and universal standard of academic freedom in China, Cameroon, Chile, and California. And I am not sure what work the word “deracinated” is trying to do in this context, but I am sure it is not doing it well.

It should be painfully clear, then, that the allegedly inadequate idea of academic freedom derided by Hanson and Palumbo-Liu is in fact identical to the academic freedom they enjoy. Hanson and Palumbo-Liu castigate “the selfish protection of the convenient, familiar, and particular that the Bérubé resolution embodies.” Very well. Let me elaborate on what convenient, familiar, and particular principles they are ostensibly rejecting. If you teach in a reasonably respectable institution of higher education in the United States—that is, a college or university that is not run as a private fiefdom—the policies in your faculty handbook were either written by the AAUP or are based on the AAUP’s Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure. And if you have tenure at an American institution of higher education, your intellectual freedom and your due process guarantees, underwriting your right to continuous employment with termination only for cause (with a standard of clear and convincing evidence), were won by the AAUP. AAUP policies, practices, and intellectual traditions simply are what academic freedom means in the United States.

I am sorry that so few people working in US higher education care (or know?) about any of this. I am sorry, too, that of the 1.5 million people teaching in US institutions of higher education, only 45,000 are AAUP members. (And unlike the MLA, we try to serve the entire profession, including the 1.455 million people who are not AAUP members. That is why we investigated and censured the University of Illinois over the “de-hiring” of Steven Salaita, regardless of the fact that Salaita was not a member of the Association.) In my twenty-five years of AAUP membership, I have heard many dismissals of the organization, though none quite so vehement and uninformed as Hanson and Palumbo-Liu’s claim that the AAUP definition of academic freedom “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.” Fortunately, this claim is utterly groundless, which is why they do not bother trying to make a plausible case for it.

There is another issue at stake here, as well. Over the past fifty years, AAUP membership has dropped markedly among faculty at elite private universities, no doubt because they believe themselves to be secure from contingencies like the depredations of the Trump administration. In recent years, some of those faculty have awakened from their states of complacency, as when Yale formed an AAUP chapter partly in response to the challenges to academic freedom faced by their colleagues on their Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) campus. But for the most part, faculty at elite private universities have forgotten, or are completely unaware, that the principles of academic freedom in the US stem in part from Arthur Lovejoy’s outrage that one Mrs. Leland Stanford could have Stanford economist Edward Ross summarily fired because she didn’t like his advocacy of labor rights.

Some proponents of BDS have argued that it is hypocritical to defend the academic freedom of faculty working in US universities but not the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars. But this argument makes sense only if one presumes that BDS (and only BDS) somehow promotes or safeguards the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars, such that a vote against it is a vote against those scholars’ academic freedom. As yet, no supporter of BDS has explained precisely how a boycott of Israel helps to sustain academic freedom for Palestinians.

Most of all, I am sorry that Hanson and Palumbo-Liu think so little of the traditions, and the organization, that created the conditions of possibility for their own work. Nonetheless, the AAUP will always be ready to defend the academic freedom of faculty—including faculty who do not value or understand what the organization stands for.

Michael Bérubé
Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature
Pennsylvania State University

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Margaret Ferguson’s MLA Letter of Resignation

9 January 2018

To Paula Krebs, Executive Director of the MLA, and to the Officers and other members of the MLA Executive Council

 

Dear Colleagues,

I write with great regret to tell you that I have decided to resign from the MLA. My decision was long and hard in the making. No other past president has taken such a step, to the best of my knowledge, and I am not at all sure it is a step that will bear fruit. Please let me explain why I am leaving.

By passing Resolution 2017-1, which closed the door in a constitutionally unprecedented way on future debate about the Palestinian call for boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the Association has sent a message to the world that it wants protests about the conditions of teaching and learning in Palestinian universities off the table. Because the resolution misrepresents the MLA’s purpose in its opening clause, leaving out the Association’s long-standing efforts to advocate for humanities educators’ rights; and because the resolution prohibits future discussion of an issue of public concern, eleven past presidents with different views on boycott asked the Council not to treat the resolution as business as usual at its meeting last February. The decision to do just that means that the Association has gone on record as wishing to prevent further discussion of  infringements of educators’ rights in the Occupied Territories; instead, the Association agrees that its proper business is with more pressing matters closer to home—home evidently defined as the United States that gives massive financial aid to Israel.  But the MLA’s multilingual members, both teachers and students, come from at least 104 nations; and MLA members of Palestinian descent have testified repeatedly to losing their freedom of expression and movement when they seek to enter the Occupied Territories in order to teach and do research.

As a member of a small, unofficial group of MLA members who visited West Bank universities in the summer of 2016, at the invitation of a member who works at the University of Bethlehem, I saw firsthand how teachers and students are prevented daily from doing their work of teaching and learning.  My experience in Israel-Palestine, detailed in this report, is one of the many reasons I am giving up my membership in an organization I have participated in and learned from for over 40 years—long enough to acquire the privileges of “life membership.” Those privileges are now a burden to me. I relinquish them to give myself a chance to speak out through a symbolic gesture of separation after having exhausted the means of protest available to me as a member.

My decision to resign is painful for many reasons. One is that my mother, Mary Anne Ferguson, served on the MLA’s Commission on the Status of Women in the late 60s and early 70s. She saw the Association, as I did then too, as a site in and from which humanities educators could work to effect social change, including improvements in what the current mission statement calls “workplace equity.” The question is whether “equity” will be interpreted narrowly or broadly. With the passing of Resolution 2017-1, the Association has opted for an interpretation eerily consonant with President Trump’s doctrine of “America First.”

In the years when I first joined the MLA and my mother was working on the Commission, the Association did vote after “divisive” debate to intervene in a public arena that was both national and international by making a statement against the U.S. Government’s conduct of  its war in Vietnam (for a discussion of this historical statement, see my  Presidential Address of 2014). Those were the years when the Delegate Assembly itself was created as a “voice for members” and as a structure that would enable the Association to become more representative (although that remains a difficult concept in the MLA’s documents and election practices). Since the Assembly was formed, the MLA has certainly become more open than it had previously been to the scholarly, pedagogical, political, geographical, and economic concerns of its members, most of whom do not work at the elite, East Coast American institutions from which the Association’s founders hailed in 1883. But the Association has evidently not become more open to discussing what I, and many others, consider to be one of the major assaults on access to education and academic freedom in our time. If the Association could amend its bylaws to affirm its commitment to allowing debate on all issues of public concern to members, I would eagerly rejoin.

For the time being, the MLA has taken an extreme and ethically untenable position by endorsing the idea, promoted by a group of members who were openly “assisted” by outside groups, that it is illegitimate for professional groups to protest Israel’s policies towards its Palestinian subjects. This despite the fact that the Executive Council clearly does not accept the narrow definition of the Association’s mission given in Resolution 2017-1 when it comes to speaking out about other communities of educators whose academic freedom and freedom of movement are threatened, whether in Trump’s America (see Resolution 2017-2) or in Erdogan’s Turkey.  Having spent part of the last year in a university in South Africa, I am acutely aware that the organization I was honored to serve was dishonorably silent about the South African regime’s apartheid policies.  At a watershed moment when even the mainstream press in the U.S. describes the creation of apartheid “bantustans” in Jerusalem neighborhoods just outside the “separation” wall, I find that I must leave an Association that has chosen again to remain silent, this time by actively proscribing debate.

Torn as I have been about what to do in the wake of Resolution 2017-1, I have found myself thinking hard about how another former MLA President, Edward Said, might have viewed these matters as he pursued his long effort to balance pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will. Because he is dead, I cannot ask him for counsel. But I can ask you to consider some words from his book After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives: “Memory adds to the unrelieved intensity of Palestinian exile. Palestine is central to the cultures of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism . . . . There is no forgetting it, no way of overlooking it.” The Palestinian call for justice will keep coming, and the MLA resolution enjoining deafness to it will be questioned from within and from outside in the coming years.

As the MLA’s elected leaders resume work after the 2018 Convention, where members in many sessions engaged with President Diana Taylor’s theme (#States of Insecurity) by exploring its premise that “the academy cannot be separate from the political, economic, and ideological turmoil of our time,” I hope that there will be robust discussion in your meetings about how, why, and to whose benefit the Palestinian call for boycott was deemed officially unspeakable by the world’s largest association of teachers of the humanities.

Yours sincerely,

Margaret Ferguson

Distinguished Professor of English Emerita, University of California at Davis

 

Read more letters to the MLA here and here

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Letters to the MLA

Dr. Paula Krebs, Executive Director

10 October, 2017

 

Dear Dr. Krebs,

I write to tell you that I will not be renewing my membership for the foreseeable future. The MLA has recently failed to take a stand on an issue of immense global concern, and one that demonstrates the inextricable connection between human freedom and academic freedom.  I was part of a small (and unofficial) party of MLA members that visited Israel-Palestine in the summer of 2016. It became clear to me that Palestinian students and faculty are working under intolerable conditions both in the occupied territories and in ‘1948’ Israel itself. As our report reflects, they suffer not only passive prejudice but active discrimination, routine brutality and sometimes fatal violence. Many do not even enjoy human freedoms, let alone academic ones.  Routinely, faculty and students face vetoes on their mobility within and beyond Palestine, and impeded access to books, technology and other standard resources. Many are or have been in prison. The MLA, unlike a number of scholarly organizations, has recently voted not to endorse a call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions (not individuals) as a response to these increasingly well-known conditions. It has also voted to foreclose further discussion of this issue, while passing an unctuously self-congratulatory vote in favour of academic freedom for our members in the USA.

It may be that the vote accurately reflects the views of the membership. Or it may be that the membership has been poorly informed owing to the difficulties put in our way regarding the dissemination of information, the managing (or manipulation) of procedures, and the lack of safeguards against those with more financial support getting their own message across.  Any one of these explanations leads me to conclude that I do not wish to support the MLA with any more  membership fees. I would be happy, indeed delighted, to rejoin when the association changes its position on what is in my view one of the most important and consequential ‘academic’ issues our generation is currently facing.

Yours Sincerely,

 

David Simpson

Distinguished Professor of English

U.C. Davis

 

 

August 10, 2017

To:
Diana Taylor, President, MLA diana.taylor@nyu.edu
Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President argere@umich.edu
Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President sgikandi@princeton.edu
Paula Krebs, Executive Director pkrebs@mla.org
Carolyn Zuses, Staff Liaison governance@mla.org

Dear MLA Leadership,

In the wake of the sad votes on Propositions 2017-1 and 2017-4, I write to ask you to remove my name from the membership rolls of the MLA. Though a member for more than fifty years, I take this decision sadly but easily. I had thought that those of us who strongly backed the Resolution to join a growing global moral majority in support of BDS, defeated in the much-abused voting process of the Delegate Assembly, might be able to gain sufficient numbers at least to prevent victory of 2017-1, a Proposition calling on MLA members to annul their own freedom to speak formally on this subject with respect to future MLA policy. That its proponents were able not only to pass such an anti-democratic Proposition but to affirm our capacity for limitless hypocrisy by simultaneously passing 2017-4, asserting our own right to various freedoms, makes the MLA an organization to which I can no longer in good conscience belong. That 90% (or something such) of the membership could choose not to vote at all on so important a matter only makes our position the more disgraceful.

I shall not repeat again the specific political, military, academic and colonial conditions that should make BDS our ineluctable choice. That has been admirably done by at least three predecessors, Bill Mullen, Julie Rak and Cynthia Franklin, and I have written enough about them in the run-up to the membership vote. But I must say something about the MLA itself, and why I have to resign from a professional organization that has abrogated its moral, and professional, duties; even, I may say, its reason for being. This, too, is why, unlike some of my more sanguine colleagues, I have concluded that it is hopeless to work from within to counter this abuse of our procedures and, in due course, overturn these shameful decisions. Bernard Williams, a few pages into his essay “Politics and Moral Character,” examining the (un)acceptable practical traits of the politician, remarks on the “classical ‘working from within’ argument” that it cannot be “straightforwardly either instrumental or expressive,” cannot, for example, only aim at such consequences as correcting our recent aberration or be a (symbolic?) expression of my overall belief in the general worth of the MLA or, contrariwise, by refusing to work from within, at such a result as moving others to achieve the correction or express the view that these votes destroy the MLA’s purpose. Williams adds right away that this working from within argument “has kept many queasy people tied to many appalling ventures for remarkably long periods.” That is surely the point. What we have done is appalling. Not only have we come down on the wrong side of what many recognize as the great moral issue of our time, voting to condone the Israeli academy’s oppression—deprivation—of Palestinian freedoms, academic and all others (Israel’s educational institutions’ participation in their state’s colonial practices is amply documented), not to mention Israel’s broader oppressions (since many of our members prefer to think such “political” practices are not within our “professional” purview), but we have chosen at the same time to deprive our members of their own full freedoms even as we assert our rights to them. Quite aside from this immediate shame, Williams’ “remarkably long periods” is a phrase that will describe all too exactly all and any efforts to change these terrible decisions.

The reason is simple. The MLA is no less political than any other professional organization. Too often we hear colleagues declare that the professional MLA must not take “political” positions. Ngugi long ago observed that all writers are in politics. He is in broad and ancient company. So are we. Certainly those who manipulated the DA voting had no doubts as to its political meaning and consequences. As the largest professional humanities association in the United States—and doubtless, therefore, the world—and one of the publicly most visible, the impact, symbolic and practical, of our vote on BDS was obvious to all. Symbolically, an affirmative vote would have said that the tens of thousands who teach and research the values and practices of the fictive imagination in what has been the most powerful democratic society in the world (“has been” may now be the appropriate tense), and Israel’s principal booster, support the rights of Palestinians to the same freedoms we and Israel claim for ourselves. Practically, an affirmative vote of so great and influential a number of teachers and students would most certainly have drawn others in our wake. That is why Israel and its US and MLA supporters went all out to prevent such a vote now and in the future. Perhaps those members who chose not to vote thought they were protesting some sort of “politicization” of the MLA? Even such an excuse does not, of course, change the fact that their non-vote is a vote, a political act whether they like it or not. You do not avoid politics by burying your head in the sand. The symbolic and practical consequences of our votes are why they will not be permitted to change for a very long time—probably not until the pressure of a global BDS forces us to overcome our cowardice. But by then it will be too late and as indifferent to outcomes as was our similar pusillanimity on the anti-Apartheid boycott.

Further, however, we claim to teach the critical values of literature and other products and activities of the fictive imagination. These are “critical” in the sense that they enable us to get at the varieties and meanings of human actions in the world, to analyze and understand aspects of those varieties, meanings and actions, to see through them the nature and importance of human capacities to act freely—not to do whatever we wish but at least perhaps to act freely in doing, to echo the familiar saw, as we would be done by (a freedom whose infraction, Israel claims, justified their seizure of Palestinian lands and continuing oppression of its people, both inversions of their claim that make them now its infractors). We say we teach the aesthetic, ethical, philosophical and, yes, even political values of the artifacts and practices of that fictive imagination. Most of us tend to ascribe particular content to those values, especially, in the ideology dominant in this country, such values as those also inscribed (not coincidentally) in the US constitution. We have just voted to support one people’s deprivation of these values and their benefits—while screaming out our own right to them. Like it or not, political values are inextricable from all those others that glove the fictive imagination.

So the MLA, by these votes, has turned its back on its professional claims and obligations. I have deep respect for all who elect to fight from within to get the Association back on track. I hope it can be done. I fear it will take years, at best. Above all it will require concerted political will, majority accord on what having and doing a profession are, besides great practical changes in voting procedures, in decisions on such as what constitutes a quorum (and why), and so on. I doubt that so large, unwieldy and broadly conservative an association as the MLA can achieve the first two of these (in which the overwhelming number of abstentions suggests that few are interested). I cannot but resign. I am a Life Member, so cannot simply withhold my dues. Please cancel my membership right away.

Respectfully,

Timothy J. Reiss,
Emeritus Professor,
New York University

 

 

 

 

 

 

What kind of freedom do we promise when we talk about ‘academic freedom’? To speak out against the obvious and open abuse and destruction of Palestinians is to be tarred with the brush of hatred, or worse. In Israel and in the United States, where threats both professional and private to those who dare to raise questions or debate about Palestinian human and political rights remain very much a reality, our political engagement and action within the halls of the MLA should have sent a message that Israeli leaders would have been the first to understand.

 

Instead the MLA acquiesced in a silence that fortifies and sustains not only the Israeli occupation but also the brute racism and continued violence against people of color in the United States. The most well-intentioned and reasonable folks thus end up abetting the state of fear and atrocity, terrifying because commonplace. What terrorizes is this casual but calculated disregard.

 

By resigning from the MLA, I hoped to add my voice to that of colleagues who shared with me a belief in the political — not only scholarly — possibilities of this organization, and who refuse now to acquiesce in such genial disregard, especially dangerous in the time of Trump.

 

Colin Dayan

Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities
Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University

 

 

 

Dear MLA Leadership,

I will not be renewing my membership in the MLA. I have been a member since 1993 and because of the passage of MLA Resolution 2017-1, I no longer wish to be one. Here is why:

  1. Resolution 2017-1 puts the MLA on record as the only professional academic organization to condone Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians.And it does so in a way that undermines the most important, non-violent, Palestinian-led international movement against these violations.

Israel’s ongoing practices of colonization, occupation, and apartheid make Palestine one of the great moral issues of our time. It is not the only one (no issue ever is) but it is one that has grown ever more visible in the public sphere for a variety of reasons that is not the purpose of this letter to detail. And unlike other offenders of human rights, Israel continues to enjoy enormous and largely unqualified support from the United States, the country in which the MLA is based.

Now, the MLA has thrown its weight behind those who seek to repress the struggle for justice in Palestine. Rather than supporting Palestinians as they struggle not only for their academic freedom and right to education, but indeed for their very survival, the MLA has elected to be on the side of oppression.

What reasons do I have for these assertions? You will find the evidence carefully and thoroughly documented on the MLA Members for Justice in Palestine  (MLAM4JP) website, which painstaking details Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ academic freedom and their right to education. These materials articulate why these violations should matter to the MLA. It is one thing for the MLA not to endorse the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel on the grounds laid out in these documents; it is entirely another to actively oppose and undermine the boycott movement.

  1. MLA processes have proven to be undemocratic. The processes by which all the 2017 resolutions were discussed and voted upon were profoundly inequitable. The anti-boycott group campaigning for this resolution and against the academic boycott resolution engaged in tactics at the Town Hall, at the Delegate Assembly, and during the membership vote that reasonably deserved censure by the MLA. At the very least, these questionable tactics required the MLA leadership to level the playing field by giving each side equal access to the membership to explain just what we were voting on and why.

There is no need for me to say more here because in her letter to you, my friend and colleague Julie Rak details the questionable ethics of the anti-boycott group and the problems with the MLA structures that gave them undue influence in promoting this resolution; in opposing the academic boycott resolution; and in formulating their cynical and dishonest resolution asking MLA members to condemn Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for the plight of Palestinians while leaving Israel unmentioned.

  1. However inadvertently, and also hypocritically, given the passage of Resolution 2017-4, Resolution 2017-1 erodes the academic freedom of anti-Zionist scholars and, more broadly, supports the repression of anti-racist and other social justice movements on college campuses. Palestinians and anyone else who expresses anti-Zionist positions or support for Palestinian rights can expect to be harassed and then to have academic institutions either look away, or punish those under attack.

My own experiences provide but one small (in degree and kind) example of such attack. As one of the hundreds of students and faculty listed on the anonymous blacklisting website Canary Mission, I intermittently receive virulent hate mail—including death wishes, and pictures of guns pointing towards me. As with many of my colleagues, my scholarship has been subject to accusations of anti-Semitism and terroristic sympathizing, and to FOIA requests accompanied by trumped up charges that are time-consuming and that can lead to disciplinary actions. A few days after a December 22, 2016 article about the MLA’s boycott resolution appeared in The Legal Insurrection that included my name and photograph, my phone was hacked and another member of MLAM4JP received a text from my mobile phone number linking to a porn video. Over the past several years, I have been insulted on grounds of my scholarship and charged with anti-Semitism for giving scholarly papers on Palestine, including at the MLA. Almost everyone I know who does scholarship on and organizing for Palestine has similar experiences, and almost without exception, not only is our academic freedom not protected, but such harassment can lead to more serious infringements and even, as in the case of my friend, colleague, and fellow MLA member Steven Salaita, violations of tenure and unemployment.

I provide these examples to suggest how Resolution 2017-1 reinforces repression in the North American academy. Palestine is not just an “over there” issue, even as what is happening in Palestine itself should be of foremost concern.
For an organization like the MLA to find itself unable to support an ongoing non-violent, anti-colonial struggle is deeply hypocritical, and also racist and nationalist. The simultaneous passage of Resolution 2017-4 which, in response to the election of Donald Trump, supports the AAUP’s definition of academic freedom makes this painfully clear.

As I write this letter, Gaza has three or fewer hours of electricity a day—a condition that not only violates the rights to education of those living there, but that also imperils their very existence. That MLA will offer no support to the struggle for justice in Palestine is disappointing. But that, enabled by its undemocratic processes, the MLA actively condones Israel’s actions, and contributes to the repression of those engaged in non-violent resistance to a violent occupation, makes it an organization that I do not wish to be a part of.

 

I have great respect for those who will remain within the MLA and fight to change its practices and positions. And although I choose not to work within an organization structured to foreclose democratic debate and participation in social justice work, should these conditions change, I look forward to rejoining these colleagues and friends. Both within the MLA and beyond it, as with other progressive movements, the fight for justice in Palestine will continue.

Respectfully,

Cynthia Franklin

Professor of English

University of Hawai’i

 

 

 

Dear MLA Membership Office,

I’ve been a member since the early 1980s, but I will not be renewing my membership of the MLA. Here is why. The delegate assembly at the 2017 conference in Philadelphia exhibited appalling racism in its refusal to permit the proposed resolution for the academic boycott of Israel to be brought forward for a vote by the membership.  The delegate assembly’s support for Israel’s racist and discriminatory policies toward the Palestinians living within its borders and for violations of Palestinian rights in Gaza and the West Bank, dressed up as concern for the academic freedom of Israeli academics, was, frankly, so disingenuous as to be shocking.

That we are scholars of literature and languages makes us skilled wielders of argument and rationalizations. So perhaps I should not be surprised that many members of the association believed that involving the association in questions of human rights and unimpeded access to education for Palestinians was outside the purview of literary scholars. Maybe I was naïve in my disappointment that many scholars and educators of the MLA wondered whether the association should concern itself with political questions when, after all, the fundamental reason, they averred, that one is part of the association is to study such things as translation theory and the nuances of poetic aesthetics. Really, as humanists, we should not put our toes in the messy waters of global politics, because that would detract from our pursuits in the rarefied intellectual spheres of literary aesthetics.  How wonderfully immersed we are in our privilege as literary scholars in the United States that we can “check out” from our – as individuals and as voters in the United States’ —  responsibility to examine our support of the state of Israel that routinely and everyday renders Palestinian rights meaningless and erases the reality of the dispossession of the Palestinian peoples from the global public consciousness.

In refusing to allow the Israeli academic boycott resolution to be debated and discussed by the membership, the MLA delegate assembly engaged in an unforgiveable act of silencing. Worse, it then paraded this egregious act as sophisticated procedural wizardry.  The lack of ironic perspective within the delegate assembly was astonishing. And, as many others have pointed out, the delegate assembly’s support of a resolution that would protect academics in the United States from the censorship and intimidations of a Trump administration, coming on the heels of its refusal to provide these same protections to Palestinian scholars, students, and educators living within Israel and under Israel occupation, was surreal.

Witnessing the dance of anti-Palestinian racism dressed up as deep concern for the academic freedom of Israeli academics was truly nauseating. Yes, I know that we are trained to use words effectively, and yes I know that literary texts and literary study have often served fascist ends. Nonetheless, to hear scholars and educators who purport to train their students to think critically and analytically and with deep self-reflection simply brush aside the deprivations and injuries that Palestinians endure every day left me feeling depleted and disgusted.  I can no longer comport with such colleagues.

Therefore, I will not be renewing my membership. Good riddance to this association. May it drown in its own obfuscations and arrogance.

Sincerely,

Rajini Srikanth, Professor, English, University of Massachusetts Boston

 

June 26, 2017

To:
Diana Taylor, President, MLA diana.taylor@nyu.edu
Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President argere@umich.edu
Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President sgikandi@princeton.edu
Rosemary Feal, Executive Director rfeal@mla.org
Carol  Zuses, Staff Liaison governance@mla.org

 

Dear MLA Leadership:

I am writing to say that I will not renew my MLA membership for 2018 to protest the recent vote for Resolution 2017-1.

I have been an MLA member for more than two decades and I have done much work for the organization as a Division Chair and for the Delegate Assembly. I believe that my work as DAOC Chair in 2015 was valued as I brokered an agreement with both sides regarding the academic boycott issue. That is why it is particularly painful for me to see the success of resolution 2017-1, a resolution which directs the MLA to not use academic boycott against Israel for the forseeable future. The resolution denies the request of Palestinian MLA members and allies to make use of academic boycott as a strategy, much as it had been used against South Africa in the 1980s.

The level of cynical electioneering that the anti-boycott group engaged in during the resolution campaign process was outrageous and deserved censure by the MLA. I was horrified to see how pro-Israel speakers hogged both mikes at the DAOC, somehow used lists of MLA members to send a pro 2017-1 message which looked as if it came from the MLA, a message I received. This group, as has been independently reported, received funding from the Government of Israel to pay for memberships in order to ensure that the vote was ratified. At the same time, I co-authored an eyewitness report for the MLA that came from a trip MLA members took to Palestine to assess the situation, so that MLA members could evaluate what we saw. Somehow, it wasn’t possible to circulate that report. And why wasn’t it? That is the worst use of bureaucracy, a structure that exists not to educate its own members.

I note too that the DAOC of 2017 allowed a third resolution to go forward that contained serious errors of fact, erroneously blaming HAMAS and the Palestinian Authority (and not the state of Israel) for what Palestinians endure. If I had been on the DAOC, I would not have allowed that resolution to even be presented in that form. Even seeing such a resolution make the floor is evidence for many international news organizations that the MLA is entertaining xenophobia and racism within its governance structures, despite the fact that the resolution was withdrawn. And I agree with that assessment.

I cannot believe that it is so easy for such racism and xenophobia to be tolerated by the MLA’s governance structures, or that both sides of the resolution debate could not be given ways to contact the whole membership of the MLA. The MLA, I must conclude after years of working in it, is profoundly anti-democratic.

I also am outraged by the Emergency Resolution that became 2017-2 and the refusal of the DA itself to abide by UN guidelines for academic freedom, deliberately choosing to use American guidelines from the AAUP instead. I am not a citizen of the United States, and so this decision clearly underscores a message that I constantly encounter–the Modern Language Association of America is also by America and for America. It’s not for other scholars. It’s not for Palestinian colleagues, and it’s not about Palestinian American colleagues either. It’s most certainly not for me. And it’s for an America that wants to give millions of dollars per day to prop up a regime that shoots students, denies them water and electricity, and stops professors from doing their jobs. Your American President has served notice through his ambassadorial appointment to Israel that he wants to fight any BDS effort on US campuses, and will step up a campaign of intimidation against those of us who support BDS.  The resolution adopted will make it impossible to fight the Canary Mission and its assault on the academic freedom of professors and students. I want no part of an organization that has nothing to say about this.

The ugliness of what transpired at the Delegate Assembly will stay with me for a long time. I heard hateful and racist things said and saw resolutions proposed that had hate in them–I heard lies told that could not be corrected because of the format for discussion. I saw people who were supposed to be my colleagues vote to turn their association inward, away from caring about Palestinian colleagues and students, or even caring about those of us who thought the MLA could be international and perhaps participate in the work of decolonization. I do not undertake this decision lightly, and many of you on this list know how much work I have done, and what my belief in fairness and justice for all is about. If the MLA worked to rescind 2017-1 and made a less opaque governance process with more transparency and fairness, I would come back to the MLA. I will not be a member until I see positive steps taken in that direction.

I can no longer belong to an organization that condones such things, and then turns around and affirms the power and beauty of the work we do when we teach language and literature.  There is no power, there is no beauty, where support for oppression undergirds what we do.

Thank you for your time.

Regards,

Julie Rak
Professor of English
University of Alberta
Canada

 

June 26, 2017

 

To:

 

Diana Taylor, President, MLA diana.taylor@nyu.edu

Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President argere@umich.edu

Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President sgikandi@princeton.edu

Rosemary Feal, Executive Director rfeal@mla.org

Carolyn Zuses, Staff Liaison governance@mla.org

 

Dear MLA Leaders,

 

I write to say that I will not renew my MLA membership in protest of the recent vote in favor of Resolution 2017-1 stating that the MLA will not boycott Israeli universities.

 

My decision is based on a long-time commitment to support for Palestinian self-determination and the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement.

 

Since 2009, I have been a public supporter of BDS.  I am a member of the Organizing Collective of USACBI (United States Campaigns for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel).  In January, 2012, I traveled with a USACBI delegation to the West Bank where I saw firsthand the daily violence of Israeli’s occupation.  I met with University students and faculty whose academic lives were constantly disrupted and restricted by Israel’s apartheid state.  In 2013, I was one of many members of the American Studies Association who campaigned for a resolution to support the academic boycott of Israeli Universities. We won the membership vote by a 2-1 margin.

 

The MLA vote to oppose a boycott of Israeli universities is to my mind tantamount to support for Israel’s illegal, racist Occupation.  It has been well documented in the public sphere, and was further documented during discussion of the resolution, that Israeli universities are complicit with the Occupation: some, like Hebrew University, are partially built on confiscated Palestinian land; others, like the Technion, build weaponry that is used to murder Palestinians and raze their homes.  Israeli Universities also discriminate against Palestinians, who constitute nearly 20 percent of the population of Israel, but less than 10 percent of students enrolled in its Universities.  As has also been well-documented, Palestinian universities, like Birzeit University and Al-Quds University, are routinely closed or invaded by Israeli Defense Forces.  Many Palestinian political prisoners in jail for opposing the occupation are students. Palestinian scholars and students enjoy no real academic freedom, concordant with their lack of political freedom.  They cannot move freely to academic conferences or to conduct research, and are subject to funding restrictions as controlled by the Israeli state.  Most cannot openly advocate for their own liberation through support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement because such support is vulnerable to civil lawsuit. Most recently, the state of Israel announced that it would not provide visas to visitors to the country who support BDS. And yet: the MLA membership has decided not to boycott Israeli universities because such a boycott might “block possible dialogue” with Israeli scholars.

 

This profoundly racist, ethnocentric vote and rationale run counter not only to the MLA’s own professed commitments to academic freedom, but to an emerging global consensus.  In recent years a myriad of professional academic organizations and teachers’ unions have voted to support academic boycott of Israeli universities precisely to protest conditions I have outlined above. I refer not only to the American Studies Association but to the Association of Asian American Studies; the National Women’s Studies Association; The Critical Ethnic Studies Association; the National Association of Chicana/o Studies and The African Literature Association.

 

These scholars, our peers, have taken the simple and admirable step of solidarity with their oppressed counterparts living under Israeli occupation.  In going against their principled example, the MLA membership has doubled down on its own history of resistance to democratic progress: where the association refused to openly support the academic boycott of South African Universities under apartheid, it now takes the more egregious step of declaring itself opposed to protest of Israeli apartheid.

 

I cannot in good political conscience pay membership to, or actively participate in, such an organization.  Doing so would betray my commitment to Palestinian freedom, and my wider commitments to social justice.

 

I encourage you to do everything in your power to reverse this resolution in the name of oppressed Palestinians and the many good people fighting alongside them, including members of your organization.

 

Respectfully,

 

 

Bill V. Mullen

Professor of American Studies

Purdue University

 

 

October 3, 2017

Paula Krebs, Executive Director

Modern Language Association

85 Broad Street, suite 500

New York, NY 10004-2434

 

Dear Ms. Krebs,

Thank you for your recent invitation to renew my membership in the Modern Language Association.  I regret to inform you that I will not be doing so and do not intend to renew my membership for the foreseeable future unless improbable but significant changes take place in the Association’s governance, procedures and modes of public engagement, and in particular with regard to its sense of responsibility towards the “humanity” that is invoked in any claim to advocate for the value and values of humanities scholarship.

This is not a decision I have taken lightly, having been an active member of the MLA almost continuously since 1982.  During that time, I had always hoped that the Association would prove capable of realizing the promise embedded in the ideals of the humanities and liberal scholarship and represent more than the interests of a body of academics bound only by common professional status.  Like many, I had hoped that the MLA might eventually take a leading role, not only in advocating for the privileges that some humanities scholars have always enjoyed, whether those of tenure and academic freedom or of generous state and federal funding for our disciplines, but also in fighting in more principled ways for the rights and welfare of those who have been denied such privileges, whether in North America or beyond.  Such a concern is surely within the mission of a body that is hopefully devoted to the humanities as more than a mere disciplinary portmanteau and committed to realizing its claim to an international reach and relevance.  A number of American scholarly associations have proven capable of bridging professional advocacy and a more generous engagement with social issues to which their members’ scholarship or the fundamental principles that should inform scholarship and thought as vocations have directed them.  As the largest body of humanities scholars in the world, surely the MLA ought to take a leading role in this way?

The outcome of the membership vote last June on Resolutions 2017-1 and 2017-4 succeeded in dispelling any illusions I and others may have had about the possibilities of the Association. The voting members of the MLA did not only pass a resolution that sought to limit members’ exercise of free speech while denying to one highly vulnerable segment of our colleagues the ability and means to redress massive injustices that profoundly limit their academic freedoms, among many other rights we take for granted. They also overwhelmingly voted to endorse a feel-good resolution that seeks to protect for themselves the very rights that they simultaneously denied to their Palestinian colleagues.  It is not necessary to dwell on the manifest contradiction here, which has been eloquently analyzed since the Delegate Assembly meeting of January 2017 that endorsed these resolutions.  What it signals about the Association, however, has led me to determine that the MLA is not an organization to which I can in future commit in any way, moral or material.

There might be some consolation in considering the contradiction between these two votes as a symptom of common or garden and unthinking hypocrisy.  But the tenor of discussion of Resolution 2017-1 over the past three or four years indicates that it is, rather, an outcome consequent on how MLA members and the association itself define and imagine the humanities and their purview, an imagination inseparable from how the conception of humanity and its boundaries are understood.  Debate on Resolution 2017-1 and on Resolution 2017-2, which asked that the MLA commit to endorsing the Palestinian struggle for fundamental human rights, consistently revealed that supporters of 2017-1 condoned a conception of academic freedom that granted it to some while dismissing as beneath our concern its daily denial to others. In their view, as it turns out the view of the majority of voting members, the rights that we enjoy and defend as scholars do not necessarily extend to all of our colleagues, if those colleagues should happen to live beyond the pale of that full humanity with which these MLA members so clearly identified themselves.  The resolution, practically speaking, installed a division within the notion of the human that is all too familiar and all too insidious.

The division is familiar because, as we know all too well, it is one that has defined the humanities and the idea of the human on which they are based at least since the Enlightenment.  It is the negative counterpart of the hopeful vision of the humanities as a project of emancipation. It is a division that has historically regulated access to education as it has the right to rights and privileges.  It is a toxic template that continues to inform even the most well-meaning discourse about inclusivity or diversity and, at times like the recent debates around Palestine, manifests in its full virulence. By endorsing Resolution 2017-1, the MLA sent the message that not only our Palestinian colleagues and their students but also by implication our own colleagues and students of color could enjoy at best probationary humanity, at worst be denied more than their rights to academic freedom, their right to be acknowledged as fully human, political and cultural subjects.  In doing so, it confirmed what many have suspected for all too long, the white normativity that structures this association and the literary disciplines and that informed even its best intentioned desire for “inclusivity”.

Inclusion is not what is at issue.  More inclusion merely means, as this contradictory pair of resolutions demonstrates, more forms of conditional incorporation that effectively reassert the boundary lines between human subjects and the provisionally, potentially human beings who for now have not gained the right to rights.  Inclusion is not the solution when we desperately need the dismantling of what Toni Cade Bambara called “disconnectedness”, that is, “the separation between the world of academia and the world of knowledge that exists beyond the campus gates, the seeming dichotomy between politics and ethics, the division between politics and art.” Such disconnectedness, on the other hand, is precisely what advocates of 2017-1 most fervently endorsed in their insistence that it was impossible to distinguish between the institutions and individual academics—whom the Palestinian call for academic boycott very scrupulously and, it must be said, very generously, exempt from any sanction as individuals.  No matter that the language of the AAUP underwrites that distinction by making clear that academic freedom as such is a right that applies to individuals alone.  This supposed indivisibility of the individual and their institution was asserted over and over again in the interest of protecting Israeli academic institutions from their well-documented complicity in a system of state-organized injustice.  And such is the self-interest of professional academics that a majority of MLA voters endorsed this judgment.

This is really a very sad statement of the values of the MLA and of its members.  For generations, the vital dynamic of intellectual life and work has been determined not by the identification between individual and institution but by the radical disidentification of scholar and intellectual from the institution with its privileges and ossifications, its servitude to power and its perpetuation of injustices.  The only respectable way to be an academic, one might think, is to be in opposition to one’s institution, to recognize the lures of corporate power and appointment, and to further those movements that seek to break down its disconnectedness.  Conformity of the scholar to the institution is just what makes the scholar, in the common sense of the term, “academic.”

But over the past few years, the MLA has proven itself to be less an intellectual association, if an association means a kind of horizontal collective of equals, than a typical institution.  It has developed an institutional structure that operates as a series of filters against debate, hedges against any possibility of disruption by democracy, and constitutes an ever-narrowing pyramid of hierarchical decision-making that deters participation and militates against any real transformation.  Its Delegate Assembly operates to disenfranchise those who seek to speak from the floor and to impose decorum when what is needed is the unruly vigor of real debate. As debate constantly revealed, that structure is invested in concern for pecuniary self-interest and reputation, and it is all too easily manipulated by those who—precisely because of their institutional identifications—are more accustomed to exerting control than concerned with a broad and representative participation.  Like any institution, it fears the embarrassment that ensues upon taking any stand that opposes convention or the powers that be.  That is how institutions behave and it says much about the membership of the MLA that it would vote to protect a body of institutions, Israeli academic institutions, rather than add a small but meaningful voice to the now global effort to realize the 70-year-old struggle for justice to Palestinians.  It is fair to say that what they voted for was to protect institutions in which their idea of the MLA finds its own reflection.

It has taken me several months since June’s announcement to come to the decision not to renew my membership, not because the MLA as it exists is an association that has proven so tempting to commit to, but because I had thought I might convince myself it was worth staying and working to change it.  After much reflection on what transpired over the past few years, let alone over the association’s longer history, I have had to conclude that the institutional structure of the MLA is too deeply embedded in the history of racism and of academic privilege and power to transform itself.  An association that in the 1980s could not bring itself to express solidarity with the divestment campaign against South African apartheid, and thirty years later goes yet further in actively seeking to suppress even the discussion of endorsing the Palestinian campaign against Israel’s version of apartheid, is an association that has openly declared its complicity with injustice and discrimination.  That is not an association I wish any longer to endorse.

 

Sincerely,

David Lloyd

Distinguished Professor of English

University of California, Riverside

 

Cc: Diana Taylor, President

Anne Ruggles Gere, First Vice President

Simon Gikandi, Second Vice President

Carol Zuses, MLA Governance

 

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