David Palumbo-Liu, the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, recently posted the open letter below on the MLA Commons. Palumbo-Liu is currently on the Executive Committee of the MLA. He is the founding editor of the e-journal, Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities and a Contributing Editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books. He writes for Truthout‘s Public Intellectual Project, and he has published in Salon, The Nation, AlterNet, The Guardian, and other venues. He founded and directs the Teaching Human Rights Collaboratory.
Open Letter to MLA Members
I write not as a member of the Executive Council but as an individual member of the MLA. As you know, at our January meeting the Delegate Assembly will be voting on resolutions regarding Israel-Palestine. We have had some time now to hear the arguments from both sides. I will not rehearse those arguments but rather ask you to look carefully at the statements each group has made and their supporting documents. I wish to use this space to address a related issue—it is the question of whether or not the MLA, at this particularly dangerous moment in our nation’s history (and that of the world), should even address the issue of injustice in Israel-Palestine, especially as it regards academic freedom, the right to education, and larger issues of human rights.
While some may feel that we should refocus our attention to the most immediate concerns of the humanities, I argue that the two efforts are not as distinct as they might appear and that in fact there many reasons why we should reach out rather than close ranks.
One reason to reach out is that to fight against the forces that will whittle away at education (from various angles) we need to understand that they are not singular but rather part of a consortium of organizations and individuals who are themselves working together on a set of issues, as documented in this recent article in The Guardian.
To be effective we too need to explore how our interests and principles might be connected to others.
A second reason to reach out is the fact that, as always, divided we fall. Those who mount arguments against so called “intersectionality” precisely want us to fall back into atomized groups that are looking out for themselves without recognizing that as much as there is weakness in division there is strength in solidarity. Workers’ rights, womens’ rights, the rights of minorities, and indeed what are now called the Rights of the Earth (as set forth by both human rights activists and environmental activists), all and in different ways connect to basic educational rights. The current Campus Sanctuary struggle is a good example of how educational values and the ethos of learning communities are connected to broad issues, not just those of undocumented students. And the forces that are trying to deport masses of people, “register” others, penalize some for their beliefs and behaviors, and remove protections from the most vulnerable, are doing so as part of a much larger agenda that seeks to marginalize and devalue other groups, interests, and principles.
The Trump regime is bent on turning back a wide range of gains we have made as a society, and one of the very basic and most essential spaces for resisting and offering a reasoned opposition is the university. We must both exercise our rights so as to preserve them and also use our rights to extend them to others.
The foundational belief that undergirds all calls to freedom and justice is that freedom and justice are indivisible—one cannot stand by when one group enjoys such things and others do not. And when one group reaches out for solidarity and recognition we need to have a more thoughtful response than “it is not our business.” Once that happens, we have, to put it simply, gone over to the other side.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote of his disappointment at the person who “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Struggles for justice are anything but convenient, for they work against the complacency and callousness that allow injustice to flourish and become calcified, accepted precisely as “convenient” because they are “normal.”
The debate over Palestinian rights might well be pre-empted by the belief that it is not “our” business. But for those who are willing to at least entertain the idea that Palestinian rights are, like all people’s rights, the business of any organization that prides itself on its humanistic values and its attention to the world, I urge you to take the time and make the effort to learn about this issue, from both sides, and to form your own opinion, rather than to turn your back on the discussion.
It is my firm belief that the MLA’s future relevance is going to be increasingly tied to its ability to recognize how the challenge to the humanities and to the academy is now part of a larger challenge to tolerance, rational debate, and political life in general. The more we isolate ourselves, the weaker we will be. Our sense of security in isolation may well be the first step toward stagnation or worse.