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Playing Heedless Politics at MLA

The Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly, which met in Chicago on January 11, was a circus with a surfeit of clowns, incompetently run by people who had mastered neither Robert’s Rules of Order nor the association’s own procedures. After hours of debate and by a slim margin, the assembly voted to endorse a resolution urging the U.S. State Department to protest Israeli travel restrictions to Palestinian universities on the West Bank.

Over and over again, the MLA vice president running the discussion, Margaret W. Ferguson, of the University of California at Davis, huddled with others on the platform trying to decide what to do. Supporters and opponents alike were frustrated, and some walked out.

A majority of those leaving may well have been opponents  of the resolution, while the 60 members who voted for it were not about to leave short of a fire alarm. If the meeting hadn’t been such a debacle, I believe, the vote might have gone the other way.

Yet, I found out the morning after, the reality was worse than I realized. Ferguson has publicly endorsed the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. What I can see as only a fundamental conflict of interest was not acknowledged either before or during the debate.

A conflict of interest gives reason to believe that a person’s judgment in exercising a primary responsibility (running a meeting in a neutral and disinterested fashion) may have been affected by a secondary interest (stigmatizing Israel). It is not proof that someone’s judgment is affected—that is a matter of interpretation. But it raises the possibility and calls the assembly’s results into question.

It doesn’t matter that Israeli travel policies were what was under discussion, rather than a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, like the one recently endorsed by the American Studies Association. It doesn’t matter that Ferguson had established her antagonism toward Israel before becoming an MLA officer, as an association official has said. There was a conflict. She should have recused herself. She didn’t. If members of the staff or Executive Council had known about the conflict, they should have urged her to step down from running the meeting. The process and the vote were compromised. The vote should be voided.

Supporters of a resolution condemning Israel for its restrictions on travel to the West Bank had arrived prepared. Boycott-Israel motions had failed at earlier MLA meetings, so a less divisive strategy was chosen this time, avoiding the language of boycott. But the resolution had fundamental problems. An early version excoriated Israel for “arbitrary” visa denials but cited no statistical evidence about faculty travel, only anecdotes.

At the meeting, as pressure against the resolution increased, its advocates caucused outside for nearly an hour while noncontroversial business was conducted. They argued about whether to make modifications and finally decided to drop the modifier “arbitrary” to characterize Israel’s actions. The resolution’s backers were now in the absurd position of condemning Israel for denying entry to people who might pose valid security risks. Nonetheless, that change shored up support.

In the end, what proponents of the resolution had was only their moral certainty that Israel was in the wrong, an oppressor state that should be condemned. Two days before the Delegate Assembly, at a widely publicized session organized by the global movement Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, speakers spent much of their time protesting Israel’s policies and conduct throughout its history. To me the debate about boycotting Israel was really only a stalking horse for a more radical agenda: delegitimizing and dissolving the nation. But the session helped build the moral outrage necessary to win the assembly vote.

Despite not being on the program, being located at a nonconvention hotel, and having but a few hours to build attendance by leafleting, the group MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights drew 70 people, including a past president, to an alternative session. The competing meetings highlighted what is clearly a deeply division in MLA leadership. Whether the same can be said of the association as a whole remains to be seen. The resolution has gone to the MLA’s Executive Council to be reviewed, and that group must decide whether to send it to the entire membership for a vote.

MLA’s members now face a watershed decision, not so much for Israel as for the organization itself. If the members of the largest humanities discipline in America vote to approve the resolution, they will undermine all humanities disciplines within and without academe.

Perhaps the MLA has reaped the fruits of its own gradual and increasingly clumsy politicization and of similar changes in the humanities as a whole. But perhaps its leadership has simply been taken over by a dedicated political cadre, and the membership will return the organization to its roots in historical scholarship and literary analysis.

It was more than a generation ago that the Delegate Assembly approved a resolution condemning the Vietnam War. At the time, I argued that it had reason to do so. Our students were being drafted against their will and killed abroad. I lost a member of of my high-school and my graduate-school classes. The costs of the war resulted in reduced funds for many social-welfare programs, including higher education. The effects would outlast the war itself. The MLA had a stake in the issue and thus, I felt, was justified in taking action to build public opposition to the war.

Some of the same concerns were at play in the war in Iraq. A colleague at another college was an adviser to an Army Reservist who was called up and killed. Today the Iraq-war debt still shapes debates about federal financing for social programs.

But even at the time of the Vietnam vote, I knew it was a slippery slope. We thoroughly debated the appropriateness of such a resolution, but I worried that such a level of care might not be taken by future activists.

I certainly do not regret my antiwar activism. But in the wake of the MLA assembly’s vote this month, I find myself troubled both by MLA history and by my own role in it. Politics is never simple, and the consequences of political action play out in ways we cannot anticipate. The MLA’s leaders have rejected reflection on consequences not only in the short term but also in the long term. They are no longer serving their colleagues, the profession, or the country well.  The resolution needs to be defeated, and its advocates removed from office in the next election.

Cary Nelson is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a former president of the American Association of University Professors.

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