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Burned-out, Dissenting and Staying Home: On Not Attending the ASA Annual Meeting

November 19, 2013, 1:09 pm

boyoboyI had not planned to attend this year’s American Studies Association Meeting, which is just as well. After I learned this week that a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel would be presented for discussion, I realized I need a time out from American Studies. Part of this is that the organization — which I have always loved, and still love, for its activism — has taken itself in an intellectual direction that I sometimes no longer even understand. This year’s meeting, for example, bears the theme, “Beyond the Logic of Debt: Toward an Ethics of Collective Dissent.”

Does anyone but me look at this and say “Why does this one thing before the colon seem not to bear any relationship to the thing after the colon?” Speaking of colitis, some are getting it from next year’s CFP, which seems to deliberately mock the idea of scholarly meetings by arguing that conferences may be our highest and only social calling as intellectuals (a depressing thought.) Go read “The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain In the Post-American Century” which, you have to admit, tells a novel and entertaining story about the recent history of the United States: that capitalism and neoliberal policymakers haz stolen all the fun in life, and having a good time is an act of political resistance.

Back to this year’s fun (not): the proposal that the ASA join the academic and cultural boycott of Israel that has been undertaken by Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) and supported by prominent members of the Association, including the president-elect. The conversation is scheduled for Saturday, November 23, 2013, from 5:00 – 6:45 p.m., International Ballroom East (C), Washington Hilton.  The Academic and Community Activism Caucus, has submitted the resolution. Although there will be no member vote taken at this year’s meeting, the National Council will be meeting on Sunday morning to consider the resolution for adoption.

I am quite glad that I am not actually attending the meeting and faced with the decision of whether to attend this session or not.  My exchanges with supporters of the boycott have been 93% unpleasant and unrewarding: if you are in the 7%, you know who you are, because we are still speaking to each other.

If you wish to support the resolution, go here. Opposed to ASA adopting the proposed resolution but not going to ASA? Go here to sign Simon Bronner’s petition (you might want to click the first link and read the resolution first.) Both petitions are on change.org, which does not require you to belong to the ASA, or even know what it is, to “vote.” Just saying. So if you don’t really know what you think and your impulse is to just ignore this completely, don’t go to change.org and risk being pushed on to other petitions that ask you to weigh in on issues like whether the football team in Wahatchie, Nebraska should be forced by the school district to wear their unlucky home uniforms.

Instead you may want to write to the ASA’s  Executive Director, John Stephens (John.StephensATtheasa.net), and ask him to share your letter with the Council. I will. As readers know, I oppose the Occupation and believe strongly that this particular boycott is antithetical to principles of academic freedom. Joan Scott, who I love and respect, explains here how she was able to support the boycott after a career of fighting for academic freedom.

I regret to say that I find the distinction between boycotting institutions and boycotting individuals, one that is consistently emphasized by BDS activists, to be a legalism that is utterly meaningless in practice. Israel’s academic and cultural institutions are filled with people who would no longer be invited into our US-based community unless they spoke out publicly against a highly punitive state. Individual members of the ASA would theoretically be barred from speaking or teaching at universities in Israel, barred from inviting representatives of those universities to our campuses and academic meetings, and barred from collaboration in any research funded by those universities, regardless of the intellectual work being done and the views of the people with whom we might collaborate. If this is not the case, as BDS supporters claim, then the boycott is not meaningful.

That said, the 7% have affected my views.  It’s perfectly clear to me that many scholars who support BDS are putting themselves at some risk because of their political commitment to this cause. David Shorter persuaded me of this in his guest post following the nasty BDS brouhaha at Tenured Radical last February. Shorter’s voice is particularly important, since he was the object of a politically-motivated complaint and an official university inquiry after he used materials about the Occupation in his UCLA classroom, and has been seriously harassed since then (see his comment below.) I mention this to remind everyone that those who oppose the BDS boycott need to be equally vigorous in defending our colleagues’ right to free speech, as well as the speech of our international colleagues.

For those of you who have told me you are contemplating dropping your membership because of this proposed resolution: please stay and help the rest of us organize. Let the ASA know we care about academic freedom, and ask the organization attend to our views. Although members can go here to read the resolution and about a zillion links supporting BDS, there is nowhere on the ASA site where you can go to read a set of well-collated arguments against academic boycotts, or against this boycott. I was only alerted to the issue at all because of a friend opening up his Facebook page to debate about the resolution yesterday. I find this failure of the organization to notify the membership of something so important to be deeply unfortunate, to say the least.  But it has happened in part because those of us who have strong feelings against the BDS boycott tend to walk away rather than deal with the unpleasantness of engaging BDS itself.

That, I think, has to end. If the resolution is to be voted on by the membership next year, despite my ASA time out, I will attend the meeting to speak and vote against it. BDS has done so well for itself because it has done an admirable job of organizing, advocating for its position, populating committees of scholarly organizations and deploying the work of highly influential intellectuals in support of its position.  It’s time for those of us who are against academic boycotts, and also against human rights violations in Israel and around the world, to do the same.

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