The topic of the Medieval Academy of America holding its annual meeting in Tempe, Arizona, has been well covered here at ITM. You'll also find eloquent pieces about the controversy at Blogenspiel and Quod She. When the decision was announced, I composed as measured a reaction as I could for IHE (but was unable to email it in time for their deadline). It ran simply:
While I am pleased that the MAA deliberated over the possibility of canceling the meeting, I am personally disappointed at both the decision to hold the conference in Arizona and the email that was distributed to announce that decision. Although the email mentioned fiduciary responsibility, membership opinions, and so forth, at no point did it state why a large percentage of the MAA membership is distressed at holding the meeting in Arizona: that the law passed by the legislature is racist and wrong. The MAA email was careful, it was factual, and it lacked moral courage.Yesterday the MAA emailed an updated call for papers for the Tempe conference. The letter opens with these lines:
Not everyone will agree with me that a professional organization should take a political stand, but for me this is a straightforward question of ethics. I won't cancel my membership in the MAA, because I'd like to see the organization change. But I am embarrassed that the leadership of this association that is supposed to represent me apparently does not feel the outrage that the Arizona situation demands.
As you probably know, the fate of the annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America for 2011, scheduled to be held in Arizona, was in question because of Arizona's recently passed immigration law, SB1070, which many across the country found to be morally and legally deeply flawed. On August 3, the Executive Committee of the Academy voted to hold the meeting as planned for reasons that the Committee explained in the statement posted on the Academy's website. Because of this decision, we are extending the deadline for submissions of papers to October 15. The Executive Committee and the local Program Committee are working to ensure that the program of the meeting reflects and relates to similar issues at stake in Arizona and in medieval society, including such topics as race, ethnicity, immigration, tolerance, treatment of minority groups, protest against governmental policies judged unjust, and standards of judicial and legislative morality.I suspect this email did not change any minds among those who are angry with the tone and content of the initial MAA announcement -- an email that, as I pointed out, made no reference to the reason why so many of us do not want the conference held in the state. The CFP does acknowledge those reasons ("immigration law, SB1070, which many across the country found to be morally and legally deeply flawed") while itself remaining noncommittal about the moral and legal status of that law. The email doesn't give wide enough context (many of us also object to the legislature's animus towards ethnic studies, an intolerable intrusion into academic freedom), the CFP doesn't render a judgment, it just states that many people take issue with the legislation.
Would I prefer that the MAA label and condemn racism for what it is? Yes. But I do appreciate that we have in this second email something about the moral flaws of SB1070. I am grateful for the next sentence, stating straightforwardly that "the local Program Committee are working to ensure that the program of the meeting reflects and relates to similar issues at stake in Arizona and in medieval society" and listing the very issues that many of us have been speaking about in relation to the AZ meeting ("race, ethnicity, immigration, tolerance, treatment of minority groups, protest against governmental policies judged unjust, and standards of judicial and legislative morality"). Those last two phrases strike me as apt and well formulated, even if -- again -- they are ultimately noncommittal about what is actually unfolding in the state. There is something here that needs to be acknowledged, evidence that the MAA leadership is in fact listening to the discussion that has unfolded and reacting in a way that makes such audition evident.
No, the CFP email still isn't what I want. Not nearly so. It is tempting to condemn the MAA reaction to the controversy and declare, OK, that is it for the MAA and me. We're through. Yet what has been evident to me throughout this controversy's unfolding is that the Executive Committee is riven, that there has been a decision but not unanimity, that clearly some committee members have no intention of setting foot at the conference itself. In other words, I'm not yet ready to give up on the MAA even if I am profoundly disappointed with some of the choices and statements that have been made.
Don't get me wrong: I am not stating that all is well and that having the MAA in AZ is fine. I believe as strongly as ever that the meeting ought to have been moved to another state in order to protest Arizona's unjust and racist legislative acts. I believe that no person is illegal; that ethnic studies are of great value; that a disgusting amount of xenophobia is patent in the immigration and "who gets to belong" debate.
I'll provide something personal, but I want to emphasize that this issue isn't merely a personal one for me. The demonizing of Hispanic peoples reminds me in a chilling way of how my own Jewish and Irish ancestors were spoken of, and why they fled to this country in the last century, and what they experienced once they arrived. Racist contempt must never be made licit. I do not want what is happening in Arizona to be revealed in hindsight to have been our American Kristallnacht (you will say that is over the top, we're not there yet, the challenges are too deep and passionate; I want it to always seem that way). I want my kids, my students, anyone younger than me to live in a better world than the one we now inhabit. Immigration is not the problem, and dreaming a purified police state is not the solution. The problem is global poverty, and its patent if extraordinarily difficult solution is through alliances and cooperation that reach beyond the pettiness of our own self interests, beyond the mere borders of nations.
So, yes, to me in this case the MAA failed. But they did not fail by wholly closing down and refusing to listen to their membership: I do believe that the open letter was taken seriously, even if the decision to hold the meeting was not in accord with its spirit. To be honest, the letter has been honored quite literally: we who signed it did not demand that Arizona be boycotted, but that moving the conference be seriously considered outside of financial concerns, and that panels focused upon the issues at stake be added to the program no matter where the meeting was held. We got some of what we were looking for. It isn't enough, for me. But I'm not resigning from the MAA.
There's too much work to be done.