“An Outrage and a Betrayal”: Tim Brennan Statement against MLA Resolution 2017-1

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Timothy Brennan is a professor of Comparative Literature, English and American Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is also affiliated with the Institute for Global Studies and the Institute for Advanced Studies. He is the author of Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz (Verso, 2008), and edited, introduced, and co-translated the first English edition of Alejo Carpentier’s classic study, Music in Cuba (U of Minnesota P, 2001). Other books include Borrowed Light, Vol. I: Vico, Hegel and the Colonies (Stanford UP, 2014), Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right (Columbia UP, 2006), Empire in Different Colors (Revolver, 2007), At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (Harvard UP, 1997), and Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation (Macmillan, 1989). He was named Russell Chair in the Humanities in 2014. He has chaired the Sociological Approaches to Literature Division of the Modern Language Association (MLA). His essay (co-written with Doug Rossinow) on the Israel/Palestine conflict was the featured article on Yahoo.com in 2003.

Resolution 2017-1, which suppresses debate over Israel within the MLA and, indeed, is intended to prevent any public statement by the organization critical of the Israeli state is itself an outrage and a betrayal, of course, of everything the MLA nominally stands for.  I recall seeing signs of this kind of cynicism and political intolerance in the MLA earlier as a member of the Delegate Assembly during the debate over Ward Churchill.  It is a mood very much in the spirit of the United States’ more general rightward turn, but now taken up enthusiastically, it appears, by a frustrated sector sick-and-tired of critical thought, angry at its own professional disenfranchisement, and eager to get revenge on the humanities’ earlier progressive commitments.

Added to this, of course, is the very faux-patriotically American desire to support Israel whatever it does, insulated from any of the criticisms that even supporters of this proposal would normally mount against other states. This effort to censor — and even to render permanently invalid – the richly deserved condemnation of Israel’s violations of international law and its unspeakable treatment of Palestinians, is disgraceful, and would embarrass the organization in the eyes of many here and abroad.

Many of us – I know I am not alone – have been long disenchanted with the MLA’s overpaid administrative staff (who apparently are in their positions for life), the unconscionable cost for students and faculty to attend its annual convention, the relative lack of intellectual substance or discussion at this convention, and the cliquishness of its publishing organs and official hierarchy.   The MLA has an opportunity to redeem itself by defeating this proposal.   Why should we remain in the organization if it does not?