A collation of guest posts.
Jeffrey J. Cohen
If tenure is to be meaningful, then scholars must also be activists. This activism can take many forms: speaking out about unjust policies at one's home institution as well as elsewhere; protecting those who likewise speak out and do not have the same employment security (adjuncts, the untenured, staff); demonstrating; writing; listening; communalizing; deploying social media to bring attention to what might otherwise remain hidden; making appointments with those in authority and attempting to persuade; cultivating the expressiveness of those younger in the field; creating spaces of engaged conversation not limned by fear of retribution; making openings where both desired change and unexpected possibility burgeon; bringing controversial topics into the classroom; forming alliances; being straightforward about what one believes. Activism is supposed to be a fraught topic, but for me activism is a kind of honesty, and honesty is the easiest thing in the world. Honesty's repercussions aren't always pretty, I know, but better to be honest than to hide one's ethics because of imagined repudiations. Activism isn't us against the world; activism is finding what is already good and intensifying it to the point at which its promise overwhelms darker things.
Well, that's my credo at least.
I was happy to see that the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship
had sponsored a panel on the topic at the most recent Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo
. Most of the themes I've researched in my career are inextricable from activism (race, gender, queerness, ecology, antisemitism), and the more I hear people agonize over the question of activism in the academy as if that issue had not been deeply meditated upon since at least the 1960s (ecological criticism is especially blind to its own inheritance this way), well the more I want to think deeply about the topic. I noted that Eileen Gardiner, one of the new co-directors of the Medieval Academy of America
, would present. I attended the session, and I was glad I did. We had one of the most engaging conversations I've participated in at Kalamazoo: excellent presentations mostly but not wholly on the MAA and Arizona (more below), but with a significant piece on feminism and environmental studies in the classroom, and then audience members speaking eloquently of their own experience (Cord Whitaker and Lara Farina were especially memorable).
When the MAA decided to hold its annual meeting in Arizona despite the protests of many of its members, I canceled my membership. How could I belong to a professional organization that diverged so greatly from my values? You may remember that we at ITM crowdsourced the composition of a letter urging that the meeting not be held in the state; go here
for the letter and its 170 signatures. On the one hand, the MAA decision was a complicated one, balancing potential activism, financial responsibilities, and the legal repercussions for the executive council (who had no indemnity insurance). On the other, racism is racism, intolerance is intolerance, and there you have it. I recently renewed my MAA membership, though. The MAA has two new co-directors
, and I believe that they are working diligently to change the structure of the institution to make its operations more transparent and democratic. I also believe that burning a bridge is a lazy mode: it's harder to work for institutional change, and walking away frees you from that labor. That isn't a good choice. So I am giving my support back on the condition that things really do change at the Academy. From what I saw at Kalamazoo, there are reasons to be hopeful.
Because the topic of activism is at the heart of In the Middle's mission, I invited the session participants to post their remarks here. Not all of them were able to. I also invited some audience members who had been part of the vigorous discussion as well as other scholars who have thoughts on the subject but could not attend. I thank them for sending me their posts, and I invite you to add your own comments below.
The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship sponsored a panel discussion on Activism and the Academy at this year’s Kalamazoo conference. The idea originally came out of the controversy surrounding the Medieval Academy of America’s decision to hold its 2011 meeting in Arizona. Although our membership was not in agreement, a strong majority felt that we, as an organization, should not sponsor sessions at the meeting. At the same time, we believed that the issues raised by Arizona needed a forum for further discussion.
The goal of the Activism and the Academy session was not to attack the MAA—far from it. We are heartened by the changes in the organization that are responding to the concerns of the membership. Rather, we wanted to engage in the question of activism productively, to learn from what was indeed a very difficult time, and find ways to move forward in the discussion. Our wish was to focus on the larger questions of the role of the intellectual in society, the appropriateness of an organization to be politically (re)active, and the idea that was so central to second-wave feminism, that the personal is political.
The conversation at Kalamazoo resulted in a lively discussion among panelists Eileen Gardiner, Dorothy Kim, Asa Mittman, and Sara Ritchey and the audience, which both clarified and broadened these issues and introduced new ones. It needs to continue beyond a single session at a single conference, and I hope this forum will suggest ways we might do so.
I was pleased to be asked to speak in this roundtable, since
I care greatly about the subject, but am often at a loss for methods. I hope that after the initial posts, here, we
can use the comments section to assemble practical suggestions on how to engage
our various communities and constituencies in progressive activism. I was asked to join the panel as a result of an
open letter I drafted on behalf of MEARCSTAPA
(an organization focused on
the study of monstrosity in the Middle Ages).
The letter was addressed to the Medieval Academy, in response to the
controversy over the annual meeting, then scheduled to meet in Tempe, at a time
when Arizona was passing and debating a slate of laws targeting Hispanic
populations (native and immigrant, documented and undocumented). With the backing of the MEARCSTAPA board and,
later, many of its members, I pressed for the cancellation or relocation of the
meeting. While this effort was
unsuccessful, I remain proud of the effort.
parameters against which the MASD was assessed belie both the perspectives of
the lawmakers, and their paranoia:
Arizona Revised Statue 15-112(A) prohibits a school district or charter
school from including in its program any courses or classes that includes any
of the following:
1. Promote the overthrow
the United States Government.
2. Promote resentment
a race or class of people.
3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group
4. Advocate ethnic solidarity
instead of treating pupils as individual
(This passage appears five times
: 4, 11, 18, 50 and 68, emphasis added
The program passed
its review, but the audit found “[e]vidence indicates MASD curriculum units
contain questionable commentary and inappropriate student text” (34). The objections largely focused on the
discouragement of involvement, of activism among students, with the audit finding
“an overabundance of controversial commentary inclusive of political tones of personal activism
” (34, emphasis added
nation is hardly plagued by an overly activist and engaged youth population! They should be out in the streets, based on a
torrent of information
about their future prospects. Below are just a few of many examples of the
“Questionable” Curriculum Unit: The Struggle for Ethnic Studies in Tucson:
Protection Under the 1st and 14th Amendments
“This unit centers on the investigation of HB 2281, specifically on its
implications for the first and fourteenth amendments constitutional rights of
our students and teachers… The commitment to combat the aggressive dehumanization
of our community culminates this unit… students will take action
and defend ethnic studies courses and curriculum” (35, emphasis added
“Questionable” Book: Social Reproduction Theory: Contemporary Manifestation in Education and
in Arizona State Laws/Bills
“Our State Superintendent is often maligning the Mexican American
Studies Department with many criticisms one of which is that we are creating ‘Revolutionaries’ intent on
the overthrown of our government by going out and protesting
… Our Mexican
American Studies students are indeed engaged
in this political process of problem solving
, public speaking, petitioning,
and yes protesting
in hope of creating
a more just, humane world for all” (35, emphasis
Gonzales, Rodolfo “Corky” (2001) Message
to Aztlan: Selected Writings
“[E]ncouraged Chicano youth to
by: encouraging them to lead marches, to organize
demonstrations, to plan conferences, and to get involved with politics” (40, emphasis added
Martinez, E.S. (1990) 500
Años Del Pueblo Chicano / 500 Years of Chicano
History in Pictures
“Because it is a political book, with an activist agenda, it does more
than tell a story. It emphasizes the
ability of people to fight against their oppression
. While this may be one
way of skewing the truth, it is also a way to mobilize and organize in a
community” (40, emphasis added
Academy has made serious changes to its leadership in the wake of the
controversy, and these are most welcome.
Moving beyond this individual instance, it is my hope that we can fine
ways to encourage students (and colleagues, and ourselves
) to get involved. I
have too often taken the easy route (“I’m a medieval art historian. I can’t work that material into my
courses.”), and am frustrated by others, who do not engage in activism out of
fear. To all my tenured colleagues out
there (and to myself, as well), I say, What
are you afraid of?
Eileen Gardiner, Co-Director, MAA
than re-present my Saturday remarks, there are a few points I’d like to make
again about learned societies. Then taking these into consideration, I’d like
to ask for your thoughts about future directions.
societies like the MAA are given tax exemption and the right to self-governance
in exchange for fulfilling a social role, as defined usually by the
MAA charter is very similar to those of other learned societies. It is based on
its Articles of Organization (23 December 1925) and states that the purpose of
the MAA is "to conduct, encourage, promote and support research,
publication and instruction in Mediaeval records, literature, languages, arts,
archaeology, history, philosophy, science, life, and all other aspects of
Mediaeval civilization, by publications, by research, and by such other means
as may be desirable, and to hold property for such purpose."
MAA’s actions do need to be guided by two considerations:
Federal Law, the exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3) are charitable,
religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety,
fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing
cruelty to children or animals. The term charitable is used in its generally
accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the
underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science;
erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the
burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice
and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and
combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.
On the other
hand: In general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a
substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation
(commonly known as lobbying). A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some
lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.
Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local
council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions,
or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive office), or by
the public in referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment, or
similar procedure. It does not include actions by executive, judicial, or
administrative bodies. An organization will be regarded as attempting to
influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members
or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or
opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or
rejection of legislation.
So while the current
leadership has a legal and fiduciary responsibility to protect the status and
survival of the institution entrusted to it, it can and should also speak out
on issues when it can bring its particular expertise to bear. To do this
effectively and consistently, other learned societies have adopted advocacy
policies — endorsed by their memberships — which guide the leadership in
responding to different situations and requests.
The American Historical
Association (AHA) states that it is an advocate for historians in the nation’s
capital and beyond. The association’s current advocacy initiatives include:
open access to historical records
academic freedom and the free movement of scholars
profile of history and the humanities in public culture
federal funding for libraries, archives, historical sites, and K-12
Ph.D. candidates and their doctoral institutions in thinking widely about the
career possibilities open to them
The Modern Language Association
(MLA) advocates on the following issues:
The Future of
Education and the Job Search
Teaching, and Scholarship
Salaries, and Other Professional Issues
The American Anthropological
Association (AAA), because its discipline specifically engages in questions of
diversity, has a broader range of advocacy (http://www.aaanet.org/about/policies/index.cfm),
on Laws and Policies Discriminating against Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Persons
The policies of other
societies, if they have one, can usually be found easily on their websites.
Considering the MAA’s mission and expertise, what are the issues that it
can and should be engaged in? To support the study and teaching of the
humanities is surely one. Does the MAA (and do other learned societies) have a broader mission in contemporary society? And if so,
how do we define that?
Or do we already have a major
task, demanding all our skill and creativity, with our struggle to support the
humanities in contemporary society. And, if so, how can we better do that?
“Diversity and the Medieval Academy of America”
On August 8, 2010, my colleague posted a letter I wrote to the Medieval Academy of America about their decision to go forward with the annual conference in Tempe, Arizona on her blog: Quod She. I am “the general” who penned that letter to the MAA. All of this protest, discussion, and anguish was over SB 1070. Today, things have not gotten better in Arizona; they have gotten much worse.
There has been
an insidious attack on ethnic studies and on the state’s education curriculum. And though many originally felt that this controversy did not really impinge on the research and pedagogical areas of medievalists, I believe it is impossible to utter that sentiment today. When a state has decided that it’s political mandate allows it to rewrite the history of Christopher Columbus, our research and curricular voice as medievalists (and
the MAA as the country’s oldest medieval organization) must be heard.
But beyond the political discussions occurring over the various laws, banned books, banned curriculums, exiled programs happening in Arizona, the most wrenching effect of the Medieval Academy of America’s decision was that it made the annual Medieval Academy of America meetings into an uncomfortable and inaccessible space for medievalists today who have a non-standard American accent and/or skin that is brown, black, yellow, or something in-between. Though our field is international and has scholars from around the world, medieval studies is not an ethnically-diverse field. But that profile is changing with the prominence of multiple senior scholars in the field (Sharon Kinoshita, Bill Jordan, Geraldine Heng to name a few); newer scholars who have joined the tenure-track ranks; and up-and-coming graduate students in programs across the country.
Beyond Arizona, my question to the MAA is what will it do now to encourage faculty and student diversity within its membership? How will it make minority members feel welcomed, safe, and equal in its organization? These questions not only speak to the MAA’s current situation, but also to its history and legacy. I would like to speak about the MAA’s legacy specifically in the example of the first Pierpont Morgan Library director, Belle da Costa Greene. Belle Greene was the child of Richard Greener and Genevieve Ida Fleet Greener. Both her parents were mixed-race; her birth certificate identifies her as colored. Her father was the first African-American man to graduate from Harvard. When her father left for a diplomatic post in Vladivostok, she and her mother changed their name to Greene and began to pass as white. She created a Portuguese grandparent to explain her complexion and exotic facial features. Her history speaks to the presence of American minorities in medieval studies, but also to the difficulties of being let into these lofty circles. While working at the Princeton University library, she met and became J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian in 1905. She helped him amass one of the most important medieval manuscript and rare books collections in the country. She is quoted as having said that her goal was to make his library “pre-eminent, especially in incunabula, manuscripts, bindings, and the classics.” She laid the groundwork for the research library that it is today. She became director of the Pierpont Morgan Library in 1924 and she retired in 1948. Under her 24-year directorship, she made numerous forays to Europe to buy and consult with some of the most prominent manuscript librarians in the period: including Sydney Cockerell at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and Eric Millar at the British Museum. In Francis Wormald’s review of the volume dedicated to her retirement—Studies in Art and Literature for Belle da Costa Greene, ed. Dorothy Miner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954)—he writes:
When Miss Belle Greene was retired from the Directorship of the Pierpont Morgan library an old friend wrote to her: ‘Your long rule has been one of unexampled brilliance’; and indeed she may be compared with the two greatest librarians of the last 100 years: Leopold Delisle and the Cardinal Ehrle. For she created the Morgan Library and by her wisdom and enthusiasm made it the great institution it now is.
She was also one of the first female fellows of the Medieval Academy of America; a fellow in perpetuity to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a consultant to the Walters Art Gallery Board of Trustees;
and a trustee of the Art Foundation; a board member of the College Art Association; a member of the Library Advisory Council for the Library of Congress; a member of the Index Society; and on the editorial board of the Gazette de Beaux Arts and Art News. She had to pass as white for most of her life in order to become one of the most important medieval manuscript librarians in the last century.
The problem with Arizona was that it made medievalists of color feel as if they too needed to hide their ethnic identity to be part of this academic meeting. My question to the Medieval Academy of America today is what will they do to change this dynamic?
I should be honest and express first and plainly that I found the “Activism in the Academy” panel, sponsored by the Society for Medieval Feminist Studies, to be a rather frustrating experience. So I will: I did.
We all agreed, didn’t we
? Everyone reading this blog and attending this panel agreed, with our most wrenched hearts and aching guts, that Arizona’s SB 1070 and the bill to ban ethnic studies are racist policies that must end. These sentiments are obvious, shared, clear.
What was not clear, and remains unclear, is how, as a medievalist collective, to respond to such social injustice everywhere among us.
The K’zoo discussion was stifled by the mistaken premise that boycotting Arizona was the only
satisfactory response that the Medieval Academy of America could have adopted. And by fixating so intently on the MAA’s failure to boycott, we never managed to address practices or principles for medievalists seeking to engage the world as activists, activists seeking to bring our academic credentials and specializations into conversation (and action) with the present.
When the MAA voted not to opt for a boycott, many medievalists turned to the Academy and launched a boycott against it
by withdrawing memberships. The collective medievalist activism that took place in the Summer of 2010 and the months to follow and that, according to the conversation that took place in Valley II, is still happening today, is directed against the Academy, not against Arizona’s heinous laws. It is an activism that petitioned the councilors to agree not to attend, that published these pleas on blogs and circulated petitions, and that, after members of the Academy voted to proceed with the meeting, withdrew memberships. These were not acts and voices that rallied against Arizona’s repugnant legislation. Instead, they rallied against a geriatric organization that boasts the perfectly saccharine mission of promoting education and scholarship on matters medieval. I find this approach to activism misplaced and misguided.
So I represented a lone position on the K’zoo panel: the one that said go to Arizona. Go carrying banners and flaming torches, go naked through the streets, go with an arsenal of cellphones programmed on speed dial to KNXV-TV, the Arizona Republic
, and the State Press
, go with prepaid bail bonds, but go.
And here’s why: by boycotting the state of Arizona we boycott all of its people. All of them
. Including the millions of people of color who live there, raise families there, and cannot just ‘leave’ or ‘boycott’—the people who work in the hotels where these conferences take place, or attend the schools where ethnic studies programs have been targeted or, miserably, eliminated. Boycotting is one tactic, but is it the most useful, the most appropriate, the most powerful weapon in our arsenal? When we boycott the people most directly affected by such legislation, we fail to learn from them, to deepen our histories and our understanding, our ability to be responsible
What do I mean by responsible activism? If there is anything that I’ve learned from teaching history at a public, regional university in Louisiana it is the importance of witnessing. For me, that means confronting the realities of certain laws, polemics, policies and cultural persuasions firsthand. It means asking of the people directly affected: what can I do? How can I show my solidarity? How can I help?
It means denying myself the academic privilege of voice and authority for a moment simply to be present, to hear stories, and to bear witness to the ways that legislation affects individuals and families. Taking a stand from the remote comfort offered by air-conditioned campus office space and expressed through our multiform word processing gadgets and web-based connectivity might make us feel good, and affirm our ideals to each other. But it assumes too much. It assumes that our ideals are not in need of revision. It assumes that our ideals accurately reflect a very distant lived reality. It assumes that we already know, that we’ve already witnessed, that we’ve already heeded the call, the cry. I’m not willing to assume these things, and I don’t think that our collectivist organization should be willing to either. Instead, I believe we should allow ourselves to be remade by those voices, those cries; to rethink our role, our place, and our practice in light of those needs.
In terms of my own academic writing and teaching, this principle of present witness has resulted in long, extraordinarily un-academic conversations and involvements. I am a member of the board of directors of Faith House of Acadiana, a shelter and resource center for survivors of abuse, where students enrolled in my “Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages” course volunteer their time and labor as part of a service learning requirement. In that course I seek to demonstrate for students how the medieval emergence of romantic love and sacramental marriage continues, and powerfully so, to shape dastardly feminine ideals, cultural prescriptions of heterosexual desire, and sexual policing particularly of the female body. It is one of two service learning courses that I teach. The other, “Histories of Nature,” involves students in a project to adopt locavore vegetarianism while working in a low-income community garden. It offers medieval models of the natural, material world as sustainable alternatives to contemporary discourses on nature as an abstract Other existing in opposition to humanity and its culture. My rationale in so aggressively linking the present to the premodern is that we can’t understand the quiet undercurrents of past injustice and oppression, or even beauty, without recognizing political and social failures in the faces of the present. In addition to teaching, I have written opinion pieces and letters to newspaper editors from the perspective of historical religious studies in order to lament certain Vatican decrees and, moreover, to outline how the misogyny and fear-mongering institutionalized in the medieval Church continues to exert influence over contemporary American policy in schools, healthcare, and marital laws. I have been criticized privately and publicly for drawing too direct a line from the silencing of voices and erasing of persons in the medieval past to similar though more subtle silence and erasures today. But I stand by my methods: we cannot be responsible activists without witnessing and listening, and we cannot be responsible medievalists without making present meaning.
The Medieval Academy is now, laudably though late, refining its mission and updating its by-laws in light of these concerns. That is: the MAA is reinventing itself as a result of its own act of witnessing. I am tremendously grateful to Eileen Gardiner for her attendance at the K’zoo session as part of this act of aggiornamento. Eileen listened patiently to our grievances, she asked what she could do, what we needed, and by her willing presence showed her solidarity with those who felt elided, unrepresented and hurt by the Academy’s decisions. In doing so, she has renewed my hope that there is indeed a place for activism in the medieval academy, and that we carve out a place for our voices and actions by coming together in frustration, in concern, in celebration, but most important, in open conversation.
Activism and the (Medieval) Academy
During the panel on Activism and the Academy, I was struck
by the mention of “safe spaces.” Those who brought up the phrase were referring
to just how unsafe the space created by Arizona’s current political climate is
for persons of color. While Tempe, Arizona could have been a perfectly safe
space for some members of the Medieval Academy, it could not have been safe or
comfortable for others. It occurred to me that while many of us may think of an
academic organization as a safe space for its members, it is not a foregone
conclusion that this is or should be the case.
Is a safe space the ideal space for productive scholarship? For
that matter, is any space in a ubiquitously political world uniformly safe, or
does safety in one area require the sacrifice of safety in another? Is it
possible that creating a safe space for members within the organization
sometimes requires that the organization itself assume an unsafe position
within the wider world?
These questions, it seems to me, can be consolidated into
the question of whether activism is, or should be, within the purview of the
Medieval Academy of America. If the organization’s mission is indeed “to
conduct, encourage, promote and support research, publication and instruction”
in medieval studies, then the organization’s membership must ask how
their collective can best achieve these goals. In order to act in the best
interests of medieval studies and its scholars, then the organization should
act in accordance with the modes that produce the best intellectual work in
medieval studies. Indeed, the mission is to be carried out “by publications,
by research, and by such other means as may be desirable.” To what extent might
those “other means” be political action that may expose the organization to
economic, legal, or other undesirable repercussions? In my opinion, being open
to and prepared for such exposure is required in order to operate within the
modes that also produce the best medievalist scholarship. Earnestly
studying the middle ages is never really safe. It always has the potential to
disrupt the fictions of progress that make the “modern” possible, medieval
studies always threatens to uncover disturbing origins of current social and
political processes, and at that it is often maligned by scholars in other fields
no matter how progressive medievalists’ scholarly approaches actually are. In
short, the medievalist organization’s ethical imperative may be to seek not
to work in safe spaces. Forming a
risk-taking organization may, after all, be the best way of birthing an entity
that ultimately represents its members’ interests by challenging head-on the
threats (to the organization as a whole as well as to individual members and
groups of members) that lurk in the world outside. When a group’s members are
willing and prepared to face fear and anxiety collectively in order to defend
one another from the threat of injustice—that
group will have created a space in which I want to be, even if it is only safe
in that its members are ready, willing, and able to be unsafe together.
One of the topics David Hollinger mentioned in his opening remarks on activism at the OAH/NCPH meeting was the importance of assessing the chances for any chosen form of activism to achieve a significant effect. Clearly, this issue must be addressed before anyone recommends that an institution be involved in political activism. For the discussion surrounding the MAA meeting in Arizona, this concern came down to the question of whether boycotts can ever apply enough pressure to make them successful. Those of us who urged the MAA to move last year’s meeting from Scottsdale in order to honor the call for a boycott of Arizona businesses until the offensive parts of SB 1070 were revoked heard constantly that boycotts are not an effective form of activism. As it turns out, however, boycotts of Arizona businesses have a history of being effective, and the boycott begun in 2010 is no exception. It might be worthwhile, then, to review some of the results of the boycott to be able to document that at least in this case (and perhaps for similar situations should they arise elsewhere) the MAA could have helped apply pressure to end a racist policy in Arizona.
Just prior to the MAA meeting in March of last year, and as a direct response to business losses due to the boycott, the Arizona legislature voted down five bills meant to make life more impossible for anyone appearing to be an Hispanic immigrant. The business community in Arizona estimated that SB 1070 had cost the state anywhere from $50 million to $150 million in lost revenue in the tourism sector alone since 2010. Business leaders urged representatives in the Arizona State Senate to vote against the bills so as not to encourage more organizations and tourists to join the boycott. More information can be found here:
There is, in fact, something of a history of effective boycotts of Arizona. In 1990, the citizens of the state rejected the recognition of Martin Luther King Day as an official holiday. A boycott of Arizona was called and even the National Football League decided to move the Super Bowl that had been planned for Tempe in 1993 to Pasadena. It is estimated that for the two years of the boycott the state lost around $350 – $500 million in tourism revenue and projected revenue from hosting the Super Bowl. This pressure helped motivate the business community to support the recognition of Martin Luther King Day in 1992. More information is here:
Finally, there is the recent story of Russell Pearce, the mastermind of SB 1070. In November of last year, he became the first sitting state senate president in American history to be recalled from office by the voters of his district. He was defeated by another Republican who rejected the harsh methods called for in SB 1070. No one can argue that the boycott led to the removal from office of Mr. Pearce, but the effectiveness of the boycott certainly brought notoriety to Mr. Pearce and loss of revenue to the business community he represented, and these factors encouraged his opponents to seek his recall.
We can hope the need for a boycott never arises again, though these days that seems a distant hope. But we can at least put to rest the claim that boycotts are not effective. Intolerance may play well to extreme elements in American society, but profit trumps bigotry here, and this is one reason why boycotts are effective.
Potestas Ibi Refragatio
Some are born activists; some become
activists; and others have activism thrust upon them. Like it or not, I think the third predicament
is the one in which medievalists will increasingly find themselves for the
forseeable future. They will find
themselves there partly because they are medievalists, but mainly because they
are academics at a time when higher education in the United States finds itself
facing intense, untenable and unprecedented financial pressures. In addition to the usual challenges
non-profit enterprises confront during sluggish economic periods, higher
education currently is also being expected to absorb a precipitous decline in
public subsidies while making itself more accessible to students of limited
means. If this expectation seems like
magical thinking, that is because magical thinking is precisely what it is. And this expectation comes from what now
counts as the political center in our increasing polarized and rightward
shifting polity, large segments of the Democratic party (including, lamentably,
the Obama administration), opinion leaders, corporate philanthropists, and the
more responsible corporate leaders themselves.
In addition to this broadly shared but impossible desire for a magical
transformation, higher education also faces the unremitting hostility of the
country's other national political party, which, in its current quest for
ideological purity, has honed itself down to a mysterious, but highly effective
alliance between ultra-wealthy, free-market dogmatists and religious
will forgive my apocalyptic tone—I am a medievalist, after all, in case any of
you had forgotten! But however one wants
to quibble with the details of the sketch I have just presented, or question
its severity, the fact is that higher education in the United States (and elsewhere,
mutatis mutandis) is under pressure
to make major structural changes.
Whatever strategy we decide offers the best way of resisting this
pressure, ignoring it does not seem like a very viable option. It is in this sense that I am arguing that
Medieval Studies has had activism thrust upon them. A few facts seem to me beyond dispute. There are very powerful political forces in
our society who firmly believe that all acamedic research which cannot be
immediately fed into profit-making is a complete waste of money, as is any
academic degree that does not confer a specific, immediately employable
qualification. One may object that this group does not constitute a majority,
and that is probably true. But it is
also true that they are setting the agenda.
They are very determined, and no amount of rational discourse is going
to dissuade them from their goals. Those
who do not find a way to resist are likely simply to be rolled over. As for the possible modes of resistance, most
of them are too obvious to need rehearsal here.
They begin with exercising all of one's relevant constitutional rights
as vigorously as possible. As Occupy
Wall Street has just illustrated, the right to free assembly is often more
important even than the right to vote.
(In this context, it is also worth noting that one of the immediate
forerunners to OWS was the "occupaton" of the Wisconsin State Capitol
in reaction to Scott Walker's draconian union-busting legislation. According to some reports I have seen, those
demonstrations were catalyzed by the UW-Madison TAA, the teaching assistants'
The current situation also brings with it a big
conceptual change. Academic activism has
traditionally had a certain penitential cast.
Activist academics generally conceived of themselves as acting from a
certain position of privilege. To be sure, that privilege has not yet
disappeared. But acting from a position
that is itself under assault is much different than acting from a position that
is secure. Academic activism of the more
traditional kind no doubt will and should continue. But now activists will need to act on their
own behalf as well. As is true in many
other ways, progressive thinking about academic activism has been shaped by
Marxist tradition. It is worth recalling
a chacrateristically severe comment by Louis Althusser, made in passing in his
most famous essay, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses": "Like
every ‘intellectual,’ a philosophy teacher is a petty bourgeois. When he opens his mouth, it is
petty-bourgeois ideology that speaks: its resources and ruses are infinite." (The irony that it was teachers rather
than—God help us—the communist party who made this essay famous is one I do not
have time to pursue here.) In the 1980's
Barbara Ehrenreich and others tried to update or supplement the classic notion
of the petty bourgeoisie with the notion of the professional/managerial classes
(PMC), classing teachers and academics with lawyers, doctors, and corporate
managers, rather than just shopkeepers.
But either way, it is striking to note the fate of teachers in contemporary
political parlance. At the same time
that the pseudo-hagiographical figure of the long-suffering taxpayer has replaced the citizen as the
sole subject of civic concern, the figure of the small business owner and the entrepreneur
have become the sole agents of civic virtue.
Meanwhile, teachers are routinely vilified; their greed and their
incompetence taken as so self-evident that it needs no particular
demonstration. The symbolic drive to
separate teachers from the PMC has accompanied concerted and so far largely
successful attempts to reduce their compensation and restrict their
professional autonomy. If, as many have
argued, we are witnessing a fundamental restructuring of our economy, will one
of the results be a deprofessionalization of teaching, including college
At the risk
of breaking my own apocalyptic mood, let me add that I do not think the answer
to that question is yes. In spite of
the fond fanstasies of the neo-Randians and their fellow-travellers, advanced
economies, however they are restructured, cannot do without well-functioning
educational systems, and such systems, like any valuable commodity, cannot be
priced at the whim of the buyer. Most of
the current, completely misnamed "market solutions" to social costs
of higher education are only slightly more rationalized versions of the same impossible
basic fantasy. Thus, for example, the
idea that universities could be pared down to STEM fields will work only if
scientists can learn to communicate both among themselves and with
non-scientists using mathematical symbols exclusively. (By the same token, I reject the view,
expounded recently by Carey Nelson in Academe,
that the brunt of the current assault will be taken by humanities disciplines
alone. In fact, the effect is likely to
be much more fractured and mediated.
Thus, physics is in more danger than either English or History, and only
slightly better off than foreign languages and classics—which really are in a
very perilous state.) At the same time I
think the academy is in for a rough time for quite a while. Quite how rough will depend on how hard we
are willing to fight back, and how robustly we are willing to draw on the power
and privilege we actually possess, however limited in scope they may be.
For make no
mistake about it: we do have power. As a
great man (and medievalist manqué)
once said, "Where there is power, there is resistance." Everyone has power, and if the power of the
academic is generally more symbolic than material, it does not therefore follow
either that academics have no material power at all, nor that their symbolic
power cannot be put to material effect. Case
in point: the 2010 Medieval Academy imbroglio.
As I understood it, one of the reasons offered by those in favor of
ignoring the boycott, and going ahead to hold the annual meeting in Arizona as
planned, was the claim that boycotts don't work and that no one was going to
care what a group of medievalists did in any case. I found, and still find, this view frustrating;
partly because it was demonstrably inaccurate, but mainly because its
pretension to world-weary pragmatism amounts to very little more than
gratuitous self-marginalization. As we
all quickly discovered, in these days of all internet all the time, no one
flies under the radar. Articles in the Chronicle and Inside Higher Education brought the conflict to the attention of
the rest of academia; but they also caught the attention of conservative trolls
who wouldn't know the Investiture crisis from second base. As result, the MAA managed to get bad PR from
both sides. To the rest of academia, we
fulfilled the stereotype of the clueless medievalist, so wrapped up in his own
arcane little world that he is unable to recognize the political urgencies of
the present. To conservative bystanders,
with their usual lack of interest in the facts, that the MAA was actually breaching
the boycott made no difference. These
conservatives were only too happy to dismiss the MAA as yet another left-wing
outfit up to the usual PC hi-jinks.
anyone needed it, this spring has brought startling new evidence of the power
of the boycott: Komen, Limbaugh,
ALEC. In each case, some very determined
activists—all of them, I would warrant, possessing less personal prestige or
resources than the average tenured academic—managed, through the skillful use
of social media, to stop a powerful right-wing initiative dead in its tracks in
a matter of days. (Additional
retrospective sidelight on the MAA mess: the corporate advertisers and sponsors
who were the targets of these boycotts knew bad PR when they saw it. They did not bother to debate first amendment
rights, fiduciary responsibilities, or budgetary commitments. They just hightailed it.) I am not suggesting boycotts are the
political be-all and end-all, still less that scholarly societies all need to
develop standing boycott policies. I am
only suggesting we need to start doing a better job of standing up for
ourselves. Like any human social
activity, scholarship has always had a political dimension. For the immediate future we can expect this
dimension to be front and center, and that has very little to do with the
internal influence of politically inflected scholarly approaches. The Republican party and its conservative
allies is in the midst of staging its own demotic, right-wing version of the
Cultural Revolution. It is trying to
politicize everything. Those seeking the
insulation of some neutral scholarly cloister are bound to be disappointed.