Wednesday, August 11, 2010

More thoughts about the MAA in AZ, or why I'm not quitting

by J J Cohen

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.

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.
Yesterday the MAA emailed an updated call for papers for the Tempe conference. The letter opens with these lines:
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.

19 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for this. Very well said. I'm not sure yet, however, of the causal link between working against racism etc and remaining an MAA member.

I also have to raise a question about this:
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.
Is this evident to you bc of public discussions (here on the blog, for example, where Bruce Holsinger joined us in the initial ITM deliberations) or bc of conversations offline (which, since they were offline, can't be described here in any detail or at all)?

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I didn't mean to imply a causal link between working versus racism and staying within the MAA; I am arguing much more broadly for a link between staying within the MAA and a responsibility for altering what the institution thinks itself capable of and accountable for.

Re: disagreement within the governance structure, I was thinking mainly of Constance Berman, who as far as I can tell has been leading the internal charge against holding the meeting in AZ. Some public evidence here. From private email though I know that she is not alone.

Most councillors have, as is evident, been publicly quiet on the issue, though.

Myra Seaman said...

Like Karl, Jeffrey, I thank you for this. You articulated some of my own responses that I'd not yet been able to think through to my own satisfaction. So you did for me. I'm happy to see what you say here.

I share Karl's questions, too, seeking evidence that I don't have, even as I've sensed the split you describe here (but have worried that my sensing it was largely a product of my wanting it to be true).

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

One more piece of evidence, from the MAA response to "the General's" letter as published at Quod She (link in main post):

"The decision to hold the meeting in Tempe does not mean that the Executive Committee has mandated (or could or would wish to mandate) attendance, even for officers. We have established that according to Massachusetts statute Councilors can participate in the meetings of Council by conference call. We have no idea how many members -- or officers -- will decide to attend the meeting in person."

I think this is a roundabout way of stating that there are some EC members who have no intention of setting foot in the state.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks, Jeffrey.

Love,

The Beast

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well said. I'm glad you brought up the point that it seems some of the council did object in a way that I didn't and, as I said, the not knowing is something that makes me feel a little ill. I'm also glad you looked more carefully at the CFP than I did, because I am still so angry that I missed the reference to "some people finding it a moral issue". I shall update my response with this, and a reference to the post on MEDFEM-L, in which three of the local programme committee have resigned. It's a mess.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Thanks, Jeffrey, for posting this (for all the reasons Myra suggests above). Having a sense of the internal division within the Committee does provide some additional context for the surprisingly disengaged tone of the initial announcement. I did notice the difference between the initial announcement's phrase "in medieval society" and the CFP revision "issues at stake *in Arizona and* in medieval society" - the change is subtle, but it does signal that the MAA is not tone-deaf to to what its membership is thinking (and feeling). I'm still ambivalent about MAA - but you are making a good case for staying within the organization.

Bruce Venarde said...

There is at least one EC member who won't be going to Tempe. There may be more.

Bruce Venarde said...

Jeff's thoughtful and generous commentary does not convince me. I think in retrospect there might have been ways to go to Tempe that would have disappointed me but made me reluctant to quit the MAA. But the two communications we've gotten -- one stating the decision and the second a new CFP -- are disengaged, mendacious, and hypocritical.

The first announcement that there would be no change of venue did not even, as Jeff points out, have the nerve to say why some members wanted out of Arizona. It fell back on democratic voting, although the leadership turned an advisory survey into a referendum. The result, if you do the math, was that 12% of the membership voted to go to Arizona. There is reason to be suspicious of democratic referenda, of course: think of California's Proposition 8. In any case, I would have had far less difficulty swallowing an announcement that said "We're a scholarly organization and like most such these days on the edge of bankruptcy, meaning that we can't really afford to pull out now. We have great respect for the preparation for the Tempe meeting cherished colleagues have done so far. We also recognize that many colleagues are deeply troubled by the idea of meeting in Tempe. With mixed feeling, we will push forward."

Instead we got a mealy-mouthed statement about not wanting to engage in "politics." This is, of course, exactly what the new CFP does. It contains a list of sanctioned topics that are what many a critic would sneer are politically correct: "race [sic], ethnicity, immigration, tolerance, treatment of minority groups, protest against governmental policies judged unjust, and standards of judicial and legislative morality." Is the message here to say that we, the MAA, have actually heard of these things (even though it may still be the case that the brown people who make our hotel beds will be subjected to "Papers, please" on the way home from work)? Or is it that as privileged elites, we can talk about ethnic studies, now banned in Arizona schools (even though we had no plans to do so before)? And for heaven's sake: "legislative morality" is one thing in an unconstitutional pre-modern monarchy, quite another in a twenty-first century constitutional republic. There are, of course, connections, but if we didn't know that already, we haven't been paying attention since, at least, the publication of R.I. Moore's foundational The Formation of a Persecuting Society (1987).

That's the real problem. I am worried that the majority (not all) of the members of the Academy's leadership aren't paying attention to scholarly trends or their interaction with the world we live in. In this case, I find their insouciance has required all sorts of pretzel-twisted logic to make going to Tempe not just inevitable but a fine teachable moment. Poppycock.

Holly Crocker said...

Thanks for this, Jeffrey. Your leadership on this matter remains vital. I’m not quitting either, for many of the reasons you capture so eloquently in your current post. The other day I wrote a response to Eileen’s powerful reflection on her growing dissatisfaction (which I guess blogger ate while I was off doing something else); there I hoped that medievalists who care about issues of tolerance, equality, and antidiscrimination would ultimately remain within the MAA, even if they boycott the meeting, and even if they cancel their membership this year to protest this racist law. If everyone who cares about these issues leaves the organization, the MAA will not—in order to reflect its membership—care about racism, minority groups, or group political action. I can’t fathom or abide the idea of going to Arizona (notwithstanding the fact that I live in a state that has been under a NAACP boycott since 1999—and I’m happy to say more about that, too), mainly because this issue is still being debated and decided. There does seem to be space for impact, and though I agree with anonymous that boycotts hurt the most dispossessed groups in a region, and that direct political action is far more critical than a boycott, I also think that everyday actions can be very powerful. I say “no” to this meeting, and I want the MAA to continue to hear that from their members.

best, h

p.s., I just read Bruce V's excellent post while I was trying to sort out posting my own thoughts; though I come to a different conclusion, I would also like to agree with the frustration he expresses. I found the extension of the cfp a bit silly, and potentially even more troubling: while I *hope* it is making room for more political engagement, it also could be that they've lost a bunch of papers, so the meeting needs new participation to remain sizable.

Bruce Venarde said...

If they have lost a lot of papers, do they think they will get the numbers back up via presentations on these subjects? I'd imagine there is major overlap between folks who work on such topics and those who don't want to go to a meeting in AZ.

They HAVE lost a lot of the program committee, which isn't very promising.

Anonymous said...

While maybe the tone of the statement was less offensive than the group-speak of the earlier announcement,the new call for papers was sent out without the authority of the Executive Committee. If asked, would we have agreed to send it out at all? I surely don't know, but I do not like having this happen.

Connie Berman, UI

Anonymous said...

It sounds like the Executive Committee of the MAA should fire the person who sent out a letter without their authority.

Aunt Pansy

Another Damned Medievalist said...

@Connie Berman and Aunt Pansy -- I was going to say that such things can be easily tracked down by the LISTSERV owners, but it's probably easier than that, given that the call is posted twice on the MAA site, once on the new blog and once on the main site. As a member, I think it's probably something the EC should look into.

But apart from that, my personal hat would like to give the person who wrote and posted it the benefit of the doubt and think that they felt they had to do whatever they could to make the meeting successful, and were also listening to the comments many of us were making about tone. From the MAA end, this has got to feel like a fiasco, especially to those who want to continue the meeting. Perhaps it's a purely cynical move -- you all would know better than I, since you know the inner workings of the EC and Council. But I would like to think it's just a desperate attempt to patch things.

The sad thing is, if this is motivated out of feelings of 'my legacy', I think a lot of us are going to remember more that the meeting was held at all, rather than whether it was successful or not.

BTW -- let's not plan for Florida in 2012 -- They've just proposed laws that are harsher than AZ's!

Holly Crocker said...

Wow, I’m going to have to rethink my decision to stay with the MAA: while I’d like to believe ADM’s generous reading of the cfp extension is correct (and I’m sure it holds a great deal of truth), I’m pretty stunned at what now appears to be a concerted effort to ignore those voices of conscientious dissent within the organizing body. One of the many terrific points made by Green, Newhauser, and Voaden is the potential for financial damage that would arise if conference participants withdraw from the AZ meeting in protest: “ [the MAA] may in fact experience a loss of revenue if the conference is held in Arizona anyway because of those members who will not want to attend a conference here.” Two weeks later, this backstop effort to make the conference a “success” through a cfp extension is yet another sign of someone’s decision to go forward with this meeting, no matter the (long-term) costs to the MAA. Talk about fiduciary irresponsibility. [And let me just say this: if you have a membership vote that is as close as this one, and you know those who oppose a measure are motivated in their opposition—i.e., they won’t participate if you go ahead with said action—it is often more prudent, if less democratic, to heed the strong show of opposition over those who express no opinion, or who prefer the status quo based on reasons they declare to be apolitical (they think it will be a hassle, they don’t want to offend the organizers, they are afraid of financial loss, they worry about the precedent it might set, or they don’t want to be involved in any kind of political statement). A democratic organization is a little different than a democratic polity in this respect: it cannot operate by strict majority rule, since a voluntary (and dues paying) minority can always withdraw its support from the organization. When political morality is involved on the one side—and especially when it is explicitly disavowed on the other—a governing body might best govern were it to consider the different dimensions of objection involved in a close vote]. And Bruce V. is undoubtedly right: the new cfp is unlikely to reclaim anyone who objects to SB 1070. Sigh.

Holly Crocker said...

And let me just say this: if you have a membership vote that is as close as this one, and you know those who oppose a measure are motivated in their opposition—i.e., they won’t participate if you go ahead with said action—it is often more prudent, if less democratic, to heed the strong show of opposition over those who express no opinion, or who prefer the status quo based on reasons they declare to be apolitical (they think it will be a hassle, they don’t want to offend the organizers, they are afraid of financial loss, they worry about the precedent it might set, or they don’t want to be involved in any kind of political statement). A democratic organization is a little different than a democratic polity in this respect: it cannot operate by strict majority rule, since a voluntary (and dues paying) minority can always withdraw its support from the organization. When political morality is involved on the one side—and especially when it is explicitly disavowed on the other—a governing body might best govern were it to consider the different dimensions of objection involved in a close vote.

Holly Crocker said...

Me & blogger, we are not friends. This post was meant to precede my last comment:

Wow, I’m going to have to rethink my decision to stay with the MAA: while I’d like to believe ADM’s generous reading of the cfp extension is correct (and I’m sure it holds a great deal of truth), I’m pretty stunned at what now appears to be a concerted effort to ignore those voices of conscientious dissent within the organizing body. One of the many terrific points made by Green, Newhauser, and Voaden is the potential for financial damage that would arise if conference participants withdraw from the AZ meeting in protest: “ [the MAA] may in fact experience a loss of revenue if the conference is held in Arizona anyway because of those members who will not want to attend a conference here.” Two weeks later, this backstop effort to make the conference a “success” through a cfp extension is yet another sign of someone’s decision to go forward with this meeting, no matter the (long-term) costs to the MAA. Talk about fiduciary irresponsibility. And Bruce V. is undoubtedly right: the new cfp is unlikely to reclaim anyone who objects to SB 1070. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Thank heavens school is starting soon. It'll be a delight to only have to deal with students who don't come to class on Thursday because they already started drinking on Wednesday. And to chair this committee, that committee, and the other committee, and to perhaps get some of those things done that didn't get done all summer because instead we worried endlessly about whether or not we wanted anything more to do with the MAA. On the other hand, there will be exciting things upcoming. A new Executive Director in a little less than a year, a new set of by-laws, perhaps some insurance for directors and councilors and officers to prevent them being threatened with the individual financial costs of law-suits for failing to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities? more supportive attitudes towards grad students? better turn-around for submissions to Speculum? some new and (even more) exciting topics for ITM -- like where is the middle of the middle ages -- and did women's position get better or worse after the twelfth century? We will live through this year; we may even live through academic processions in 95degree heat in black gowns in the next weeks. I wonder if those blue ones are cooler?

Aunt Pansy

Sarah Rees Jones said...

Dear Aunt Pansy

What a great topic!

My own gut view is that yes the lot of women improved after the 12th century in the short term because in my neck of the woods everybody’s lot improved for a short while – the 12th century was such a bloody, awful time. (For men and women you could substitute Jews and Christians too). I know that is a parochial answer not addressing the bigger issues which lie behind your question, but still …. It also seems to me that the local processes which emerge into writing not long after the twelfth century on the whole and with many caveats gave women a better deal than those that came later (I am thinking about court records of various kinds), but I don’t want to invent the 13th century as a new golden age of women – more I think it is to do with changes in the register and organisation of records which gradually refine and bring writing more and more in tune with certain kinds of patriarchal expectations – and to do with an expansion and refinement of the elite public sphere which increasingly impinges on local custom and popular public spheres.

On the whole I think the continuing and progressive diminution of the public status of women across the middle ages and into the modern era has to do with public processes and not the intimate or economic choices of individual or even groups of women (whether to have kids/sex/work etc)- as so much of the secondary medieval literature would have it. Sure there is a continuum between public and private – but it is generally hard for the poor to fight their impoverishment on their own – I don’t really believe those heroic tales of individualism which argue otherwise. I am a systems person, I guess. That is where the connection between then and now comes in.

Anyway – thanks for raising the topic here. (have I guessed your identity correctly, I wonder?)