The American Historical Association Annual Meeting: To Boycott Or Not To Boycott?

November 11, 2009, 2:01 pm

As many of you are aware, in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8 in California, the decision to hold the the 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA) became controversial. This is because the meeting will be held at a hotel owned by someone who helped to finance the campaign to repeal reforms that had extended political marriage to same-sex couples (nothing required churches to perform those marriages.) Your favorite Radical is, as we speak, making final preparations to depart for South Africa, where such discrimination is viewed in the national constitution as the equivalent of racism and is banned. What I think is also important to note is that South Africa is reputedly still a very homophobic country where, if it were put to a vote, discrimination against GLBTI (the I stands for “intersex” and is always included by South African queer activists) would be perfectly legal, although the return of institutionalized racism would not be. One legacy of colonialism is the strong association among many black South Africans between homosexuality and the general deformation of indigenous societies by white European domination. And yet, according to the reading I have done to date, the political legacy of apartheid is such that human rights are not viewed as something one puts to a vote. The fact that the vast majority of South African citizens are deeply homophobic is not, according to the constitution, justification for enshrining it in law that would re-classify South Africans in invidious ways that their — and our — history has shown to be disastrous.

Ironically, although I am permitted to marry in my own state (unless and until the Catholic and Mormon Churches decide to mount one of their odious homophobic campaigns here), that doesn’t do me much good if I leave the state. If, for example, my partner and I are in a car accident in the state of New York on our way to JFK tomorrow, being married in Connecticut doesn’t help us at all.

My nightmare? Ending up in a Catholic hospital after a dreadful accident in someplace like Nebraska, unable to make my own decisions: the only person who knows exactly when and under what conditions I wish to die is having all of our retirement money siphoned off by a self-righteous hospital administrator who wants me to live against my express wishes. The only thing that does help is having the money to hire a really good attorney, which we did two years ago. She drew up fourteen documents (seven each) which give both partners in our not-marriage a variety of reciprocal rights in relation to the other, and we can call her at any time of the day or night and have her threaten to sue, sue, sue. So that could work — or some Bush-appointed judge might decide to wipe his behind with our paperwork while we wend our way to the Supreme Court.

But back to the AHA: the other thing to keep in mind this January is that Doug Manchester, the meddling capitalist douche bag who owns the Manchester Grand Hyatt (as opposed to the meddling Mormon and Catholic bishop douche bags who cannot confine their meddling to their own flocks), is also staunchly anti-union, an issue that I am happy to say that the Committee on LGBT History of the American Historical Association (currently led by Ian Lekus) has linked to the anti-GLBTI bias. You can read the excellent press release issued by the CLGBTH here.

For my mind, I would like to repeat something that I have said before: I’m not sure that it is the responsibility of the American Historical Association to respond to its members on the left any more than to its members on the right. But even though the AHA could not have anticipated Prop 8 or its outcome, the San Diego location has two problems that they could have anticipated. The first is that it’s expensive as all get out. Both the AHA and the OAH need to address the fact that conference expenses escalate dramatically when vacation destinations (that I understand are intended to attract us) are chosen. While this has always been difficult for some members, for several years to come, most of us will be financing all or part of our conference expenses out of our own pockets, and comparatively few of us have deep pockets. Going coast to coast for a major conference now costs in excess of $1500, even if you are traveling in a budget-conscious way. That represents about a tenth of a good graduate student stipend, after taxes, and a hefty chunk of an assistant professor’s salary.

So it will be hard to know who is boycotting and who is staying home because they simply can’t afford it this year. It’s time to start aiming for second cities, my friends on the Executive Committees of both organizations, for practical reasons if no other. Second, while Prop 8 was not even on the boards when this destination was chosen, Manchester’s anti-union activities were — or should have been — well-known, which might have caused the Executive Committee to anticipate the possibility of an ugly strike that would cause at least part of the membership to feel they could not cross picket lines to attend. As a matter of fact, it is hard to imagine going many places in southern California where this is not going to be an issue.

As to the various forms of boycott recommended in the CLBTH press release, do what you must, but I have grave reservations about the power of boycott to affect the massively wealthy, and I often feel it is almost unseemly to, in effect, equate not going to the bar of Doug Manchester’s hotel to, say, not riding the bus in Birmingham. Is it a good idea to deprive all of those workers of the tips that allow them to paste together their budgets? I’m just asking. We on the left have a somewhat over-inflated view of how much expressions of individual virtue mean to anyone except ourselves. (There are, for example, probably people who snarled at a certain point, “I am never visiting that %$&@* Radical’s blog again!” and you know what? I’ve never missed them.) So it is, of course, an honorable thing to act on your principles in the matter of the AHA Annual Meeting. But try not to quarrel with your friends about it. And just know, that if you happen to go to the bar at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, you are still welcome at Tenured Radical.

A slightly self-censored version of this post suitable for forwarding to parents, administrators and senior colleagues can be found at Cliopatria.

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