Leaving the MLA: Letters of Protest

Critical Inquiry’s blog site has just posted a set of letters of resignation from the MLA in response to last year’s shameful passage of Resolution 2017-1, which sought to ban any further discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions at the MLA: https://critinq.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/letters-to-the-mla/, together with Lenora Hanson and David Palumbo-Liu’s eloquent letter of resignation from the Executive Committee: https://critinq.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/lenora-hanson-and-david-palumbo-liu-why-we-resigned-from-the-mla-executive-council/

Together these letters not only make a powerful collective statement but also offer an important analysis of the ethical and political failings of the MLA as an organization with a potential public intellectual role that has been disabled by its capture by conservative forces and white supremacist ideologies for whom “professional” values are a cover for reaction.  Such an analysis may help to clarify the terms for any possible reform of the association under future presidents like Judith Butler.

Those of us who have felt the need to resign from the MLA honor and respect the decision of those who have decided to stay in the association and fight to transform it.  At the same time, we are very aware that there are many former members who have quietly declined to renew their membership, whether over the issue of justice for Palestine or in consequence of the MLA’s ongoing failure to address forcefully the current racist political and cultural climate in the United States and in the academy in particular.

If you are someone who has lapsed from the MLA recently, or if you are contemplating resigning from the association, please consider co-signing the letter of “non-renewal” posted below if you would like to make your resignation public in a manner that may have some impact on the MLA’s future character and commitments.

Please circulate the letter below to anyone you think would be interested.

Professor Paula Krebs

Executive Director

Modern Language Association

Dear Dr. Krebs,

We regret to inform you that we do not intend to renew our memberships for the foreseeable future. Rather than merely allow our membership to lapse, we wish to state our reasons for withdrawing our support from the MLA.

We have long hoped that the MLA might eventually take a leading role, not only in advocating for the privileges that some humanities scholars have always enjoyed, but also in working for the rights and opportunities of those who have been denied such privileges, whether in North America or beyond.  A number of American scholarly associations have proven capable of combining professional advocacy with a commitment to social issues to which their members’ scholarship (and indeed the fundamental principles that should inform all scholarship) have directed them.  As the largest body of humanities scholars in the world, surely the MLA ought to take a leading role in this way?

The outcome of the membership vote last June on Resolutions 2017-1, which asks the MLA ‘to refrain from endorsing the boycott’ of Israeli academic institutions, as called for by Palestinian civil society, and 2017-4, which upholds the right of some scholars to travel across international border and opposes discrimination, as “core principles of democracy and academic freedom”, dispelled any illusions we might have had. The voting members of the MLA passed a resolution that sought to limit members’ exercise of free speech while denying to one highly vulnerable group of our colleagues the ability and means to redress the massive injustices that profoundly limit their academic freedoms, among many other rights we take for granted. They also overwhelmingly voted to endorse a feel-good resolution that seeks to protect for U.S. scholars the very rights that they simultaneously denied to their Palestinian colleagues.  It is not necessary to dwell on the manifest contradiction here.

Debate on Resolution 2017-1 and on Resolution 2017-2, which asked that the MLA commit to endorsing the Palestinian struggle for fundamental human rights, consistently revealed that supporters of 2017-1 condoned a conception of academic freedom that granted it to some while ignoring its ongoing denial to others. The resolution, practically speaking, installed a division among different categories of humanity that is all too familiar and all too insidious. Once it is accepted, there are no limits to the vulnerability of future out-of-favor groups.

Advocates of 2017-1 insisted that it is impossible to distinguish between institutions and individual scholars—whom the Palestinian call for academic boycott very scrupulously and, it must be said, very generously, exempts from any sanction as individuals. These proponents ignore the fact that the AAUP underwrites this very distinction by making clear that academic freedom as such is a right that applies to individuals alone. The supposed indivisibility of the individual and their institution was asserted over and over again in the interest of protecting Israeli academic institutions from their well-documented complicity in a system of state-organized injustice. Disgracefully, a majority of MLA voters endorsed this judgment.

Over time the MLA has developed an institutional structure that operates as a series of filters against debate and hedges against any possibility of disruption; it constitutes an ever-narrowing pyramid of hierarchical decision-making that deters participation and militates against any real transformation.  Its Delegate Assembly operates to disenfranchise those who seek to speak from the floor and to impose decorum when what is needed is the unruly vigor of real debate. As debate the Delegate Assembly’s discussion constantly revealed, that structure is invested in concern for pecuniary self-interest and reputation, and it is all too easily manipulated by those who—precisely because of their institutional identifications—are more accustomed to exerting control than contributing to a broad and representative participation.  Like any institution, the MLA fears the embarrassment that may come from taking a stand.  This is how institutions behave, and it says much about the membership of the MLA that it s voting members overwhelmingly chose to protect a body of other institutions–  Israeli universities– rather than add a meaningful voice to the now global effort to realize the 70-year-old struggle for justice to Palestinians.

An association that in the 1980s could not bring itself to express solidarity with the divestment campaign against South African apartheid, and thirty years later goes yet further in actively seeking to suppress even the discussion of endorsing the Palestinian campaign against Israel’s version of apartheid, is an association that has openly declared its complicity with injustice and discrimination.  That is not an association we wish any longer to endorse.

Timothy Brennan, University of Minnesota
Zahid Chaudary, Princeton University
Ebony Coletu, Penn State University
Nouri Gana, University of California, Los Angeles
Margaret Hanzimanolis, City College of San Francisco, De Anza College
Jamil Khader, Bethlehem University
Alex Lubin, University of New Mexico
Jodi Melamed, Marquette University
Beatrice Pita, University of California, San Diego
John Carlos Rowe, University of Southern California
Rosaura Sanchez, University of California, San Diego
Traise Yamamoto, University of California, Riverside