American Studies Association leaders to members: Dear Mindless Sheep

A guest post by Jon from DivestThis! (See his previous post about the ASA boycott motion here)

I may have left the impression that the American Studies Association’s academic boycott was a done deal, but so far the only thing that has passed (albeit unanimously) is a vote of the organization’s leadership to jettison academic integrity for the sake of narrow, partisan interest. Whoops!  I mean to preserve academic integrity by opposing it for just one group, Israelis (but just the Jewish ones) in solidarity with “Palestinian Civil Society.”

Finalizing the deal will involve a ratification of this decision by the membership of the organization, and just as the BDSers took no chances when they stacked the deck of the committees responsible for the original decision and ensured a lopsided number of voices heard during that debate supported the leadership’s preferred outcome, they then went on to minimize chances that the hoi polloi of the American Studies Association (i.e., the scholars they were elected to represent) get in the way of their political crusade.

Exhibit A: While the ASA leadership gave themselves months to manage discussion of the boycott to ensure their desired results, they have given members just fifteen days to ratify the decision (fifteen days that – by a strange coincidence – coincides with finals period, the busiest time of the year for academics).

Exhibit B: While most normal votes about highly contentious issues would be accompanied by Pro and Anti arguments to give members a sense of the stakes involved and different points of view regarding a charged matter, the leadership decided all the members needed to hear was their own full-throated encouragement of a Yes vote.

In other words, as far as the ASA leadership is concerned, the membership of the group is supposed to play the role of mindless sheep and simply rubber stamp the thermonuclear weapon of academic boycott without any thought to what this means to the association, the field and the academy itself.

Now I’m no naïf with regard to how political decisions get made.  For instance, legislators fighting over how to divide political spoils (including money and power) will often truncate debate and engage in all kinds of maneuvering in order to narrow people’s choices to a preferred few (ideally one).  But remember that ASA is claiming to be taking a moral stand, a stand so moral and so important that it is worth jettisoning the raison d’être of the academy (freedom of inquiry and discourse) to achieve that goal.  Given these stakes, what are we to make of an organization that has chosen to maximize their own chances for success using the kind of grubby back-door deal-making we’d have expected from Tammany Hall?

There is also a remarkable disingenuousness to a debate that refuses to acknowledge the consequences of what will happen if an academic boycott is enacted.  Simply put, if this vote goes through then a permanent precedent will have been set that says academic freedom takes a back seat to politics.  And regardless of the song and dance ASA leaders break into to explain why this particular punishment will be visited upon one nation and one nation only, the other precedent that will be set is that the organization’s moral voice is available to those who shout loudest and show the least concern for anyone’s needs but their own.

The membership should know that, as night follows day, if this vote goes through then those that pushed it will fan out across the planet declaring “The ASA Agrees with us that Israel is an Apartheid State – so you Should Boycott Them Too!!!!!!!!,” leaving an organization behind that will have to deal with the wreckage, including resignations, denunciations, and well-deserved scorn that will stick to not just the association but the entire field.

Members who assume ASA was created to support the needs of the discipline probably can’t conceive of a BDS “movement” that assumes the organization exists for the sole purpose of passing their boycott resolutions.  But, like members of many civic organizations that have come before, this is the situation ASA members have been forced into.  And even scholars indifferent to the particulars of Middle East conflict should stop and consider whether they want to outsource their conscience to partisans outside the profession they have never met who are slavering over the chance to speak in their name.


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