Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Why I Won't Sign

Fashionable medieval scholars have of late seized on an issue to use as a shibboleth, to distinguish us from them, culminating in the boycott of the Medieval Academy of America. The Medieval Academy is the oldest and most venerable organization of medieval scholars in North America. In 2011, the MAA is scheduled to hold its annual conference at Arizona State University.

A couple of months ago, scholars began to call for the MAA to reconsider meeting in Arizona, in order to protest Arizona Immigration Law SB1070, particularly provisions that allowed police to check the immigration status of people stopped during the enforcement of other laws (such as, for example, a traffic violation). The Obama Administration sued the State of Arizona, and a federal judged blocked the more controversial elements of the law. As of this writing, it seems likely that the case will eventually wind up in the Supreme Court.

Over the last month-and-a-half, about 170 people signed an open letter to the MAA condemning the law as “racist and inhumane” and calling for its repeal, and urging the MAA to consider meeting elsewhere or cancelling the meeting [Full disclosure: I consider myself a friend of many of the signatories]. Earlier this month, the MAA met and decided to go forth with the meeting, though promised to “ensure that the program of the meeting reflects and relates to similar issues at stake 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.”

The decision and letter provoked outrage, and calls to boycott not just Arizona or the 2011 conference, but the Medieval Academy altogether. Blogs and listservs have be inflamed with accusations that the MAA is complicit in transforming Arizona into a fascist police state, and (in a stunning about-face) that it’s to be expected anyway since the MAA is just a bunch of old white male fuddy-duddies who don’t like women and minorities.

At first, I ignored the controversy. These sorts of eruptions are an unfortunate part of scholarly life, and generally fade away on their own as one group postures for itself, easily assured of their own piety and the ethical degeneracy of others. Every so often, however, the great Academic Beast is aroused by these eruptions, swallowing the unwary into its maw. I fear the Beast is on a rampage now, and all that remains is to either capitulate or resist. I choose resistance.

I did not sign the letter calling for the boycott of Arizona, nor will I sign similar future letters. I will not boycott the Medieval Academy of America, though I have no plans to go to their 2011 conference (a decision based entirely on my limited travel budget).

Why won’t I sign? Why won’t I boycott?

One of the most important writings in my intellectual development as a young man was Václav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless. Published in 1985, it calls for citizens to live in truth – and Havel wrote it as man who had just gotten out of prison, living under an actual authoritarian government. When he published it, he wasn’t posturing or being hyperbolic; his very life was at stake.

Havel writes of a shopkeeper:
The manager of a fruit and vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the World, Unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? [….] If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached from not having the proper “decoration” in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say. (“The Power of the Powerless” in Without Force or Lies: Voices from the Revolution of Central Europe in 1989-90, San Francisco, Mercury House, 1990. 48-49)
Replace the shopkeeper with an academic, and you have the situation in which we find ourselves. It isn’t that the shopkeeper is necessarily against the workers uniting – that’s beside the point. No one imagines the workers of the world will suddenly see that sign among the vegetables and say to themselves, “You know what? Now that I’ve seen that sign, I think I’ll throw off the shackles of capitalism,” any more than anyone imagines that the citizens of Arizona will hear of the dozens of medievalists clamoring for a boycott of their state and say to themselves, “You know what? Now that I know these medieval scholars are unhappy, I think I’ll vote for completely open borders.”

Rather than being about altering the situation, these initiatives are about capitulation. As Havel translates the sign, “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” (Havel 49). Canny graduate students and untenured scholars know this message, and know that their future success relies in part on the zeal with which they proclaim it.

Not that anyone will ever tell them they must place such a sign (or sign such a letter). Indeed, such an explicit command would be counter-productive. In such a case,
The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides the behind the façade of something high. And that something is ideology.

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. (Havel 49-50)

And such we have here. I’m sure that in their hearts, some really do feel passionately, but medievalists happily go off to conferences in other states and countries that have objectionable laws. I myself narrowly missed being caught up in a police raid for illegal immigrants in a country where I was (legally) working, yet I have since attended conferences there several times. No, the point is not to change the Arizona law – no one is so pathetic to think that such an impotent boycott is going to cause any legal change – the point is to get others to acquiesce, to coerce others into acknowledging the scholars supposed ethical and moral superiority.

Havel tells us, from personal experience, that if the greengrocer begins to live within the truth, “the bill is not long in coming” (Havel 62). I’m sure I’ll be paying the bill for this – but I should acknowledge that the risk to me as a tenured professor is small compared to what Havel experienced. Some will no doubt openly hurl hateful accusations at me, probably accusing me of being racist, classist, or sexist (the three favorite accusations of academics). Others will just mutter darkly. Articles that would have once passed peer review may be rejected on vague grounds. Invitations that might have been offered to contribute to a conference or book will be withheld. I’ll lose some Facebook friends, and will probably have my website delinked.

But for me, this is a tiny price to pay for opposing the Academic Beast. Graduate students and junior faculty could find themselves devoured. To these I would say, live and speak according to your conscience, but know what happens to the greengrocer in the story. Tread carefully, and avoid the trap of believing that this medieval scholars’ debate has anything to do with immigration. In the future, when you see other similar issues, understand what is really being demanded of you.


  1. Thank you for these thoughtful and well-articulated remarks. Though I know all about the new Arizona law and the legal challenges being mounted against it, I was unaware of this call for a boycott of the MAA. I'm an independent scholar, somewhat on the periphery of academe, and so, insulated from such pressures. I think your post here took a lot of guts, and I applaud you for that, Scott.

  2. Scott, obviously I don't agree with you here. It's not just the one law, but three, that I consider racist. ANd while you are right that we don't boycott everywhere, these are recently enacted laws, and for me, that's even more reprehensible.

  3. Scott, I don't agree with you here, either, but what really sticks in my craw is that you suggest that you truly know what motivates the bloggers, petitioners, and petition signers and you make sweeping claims about those motives.

    But worse, the way in which you characterize those intentions (with no evidence) is so grossly unfair and ungentlemanly:

    "the point is to get others to acquiesce, to coerce others into acknowledging the scholars supposed ethical and moral superiority."

    "all that remains is to either capitulate or resist"

    "avoid the trap of believing that this medieval scholars’ debate has anything to do with immigration"

    Oh really? Perhaps you should read the open letter to the MAA from my friend, The General, posted at my blog, where neither of us speak in the imperative to our readers, and where The General's outrage has *everything* to do with being a person of color who doesn't care to be under surveillance in Arizona because she may not look "American" enough.

    And by the way, the law is *much* broader than allowing the police to ask for proof of citizenship in circumstances such as being pulled over for a traffic violation (which is bad enough as it is). It allows *all* state, county, and city agents that power in "lawful contact" with anyone -- and that's one of the reasons it's been suspended as unconstitutional. It violates *everyone's* civil rights, because in the US, we're supposed to be able to travel freely between states and need not carry proof of identity or citizenship on us. But, of course, it's likely only to be enacted on people of color, particularly Latinos.

    And then there's the law against ethnic studies in K-12 and the dept of ed's policy against teachers with "strong accents" and "ungrammatical" English -- two issues which are directly relevant to academics in the humanities.

    And so you've misrepresented why people had hoped that the MAA executive committee would move the meeting, why we're disappointed in their deciding not to do so (and issuing a lame letter that doesn't even recognize the real issues at stake), and what people are actually saying, as well as misrepresenting the laws and policies that provoked this debate.

    And furthermore, you've done it in such an ugly tone. This whole post is dripping with dismissive condescension, from "Fashionable medieval scholars have of late seized on an issue to use as a shibboleth" to "These sorts of eruptions are an unfortunate part of scholarly life" to your closing advice to graduate students to "understand what is really being demanded of you."

    It's disappointing, Scott.

  4. Is it so difficult for you to believe that some academics might have political convictions? Not everything is about advancing your career through manipulations and dishonesty. Some people are genuinely disgusted by what is happening in Arizona and don't feel like boosting this state's economy and intellectual prestige by their presence.

    This protest might seem "impotent" for now, but if there is a multitude of such little protests, the pressure on Arizona might become strong enough to achieve some change. Every big fight starts with thousands of little struggles.

    Overall, your post sounds like a long and convoluted excuse for your personal lack of courage. Surely, you know that your refusal to boycott Arizona will earn you brownie points with the administration of your university.

  5. Wow. I'm usually a pretty middle-of-the-road kind of guy, but this issue doesn't seem that difficult and I'm taken aback at the tone of your comments Richard. But to stick to some facts: as the three Arizona State professors who have resigned from the program committee have pointed out (see new In the Middle post), "The most effective way to influence unjust legislation is to exert economic pressure. This was demonstrated in 1992, when after a number of years of a boycott that resulted in millions of dollars of lost revenue, voters in Arizona finally approved the designation of Martin Luther King Day as a public holiday." It'd just be right for the Medieval Academy to move its meeting, and it'd be joining with all sorts of other organizations, ranging from the Nineteenth Century Studies Association to Major League Baseball. Why must the MAA remain in Arizona? I just don't get it. There is power in a union! --Lawrence Warner

  6. Prof. Nokes, you write,

    "Some will no doubt openly hurl hateful accusations at me, probably accusing me of being racist, classist, or sexist (the three favorite accusations of academics). Others will just mutter darkly. Articles that would have once passed peer review may be rejected on vague grounds. Invitations that might have been offered to contribute to a conference or book will be withheld. I’ll lose some Facebook friends, and will probably have my website delinked."

    Nothing you say here is going to adversely affect your career and it takes no courage whatsoever to be so dismissive of those who, as public intellectuals, are simply exercising their right of free speech, protected by the Constitution, I might add. Furthermore, you assume a group-think on the part of those who opposed going to Arizona that in no way actually exists. Anyone reading all of the comment threads appended to many of the blog posts on this issue that have appeared this past week can clearly discern all sorts of polite and measured and thoughtful disagreements between medieval scholars who nevertheless are all distressed by the MAA remaining mum on the situation in Arizona in their letter. Not everyone believes in boycotts, and they made this 100% clear in their comments. As people who make a living studying history, I think we have some civic responsibility as regards speaking out against injustice. None of us have made any remarks [at least, of those I know, not me, not Jeffrey Cohen, not ADM, not Julie Hoffman, not Tina Fitzgerald, not Meg Worley, etc.] that posture in a group-think, coercive manner that would deny there are many layers of considerations related to the MAA's deliberations, final decision, and the rhetoric accompanying that final decision. But there are times when it is important to speak out about what you believe and this is something we've learned from history, again and again and again. My father worked for Robert F. Kennedy and I was raised to believe that individuals can make a difference and that injustices against those who have no voice or no power must be addressed by those with privilege. This isn't about whether or not the powers-that-be in Arizona will respond in the manner we hope because a bunch of medievalists don't go to Tempe. When you are trying to do good in this world, you can't try to predict the outcomes in advance. Otherwise, nothing would ever happen that we might call progress. If you want to disagree on the law itself, the MAA's decision, the call for boycotts, etc., please by all means do so, but do not accuse those who disagree with you of exercising bad faith or of having craven assumptions about the membership and leader ship of the MAA. No one ever said at any time that the MAA, in its decision, must be complicit in turning Arizona into a fascist state. That is about as bald-faced a misrepresentation as I have seen, ever, in the medievalist blogosphere. Let's try to have a little more decency, please.

    And no, your written work will be reviewed as it always has been: with fairness. Neither your career, nor anyone else's is in jeopardy because of their opinion on this issue. It's called academic freedom and most of the time, it works, and when it doesn't, we'll speak out about that, too.

  7. Anonymous11:55 PM

    I did not sign the petition, feeling that a mere undergraduate at a distant colonial university would dilute the impact. Yet I must strongly agree with the other comments here, particularly those of Dr. Virago and Lawrence Warner.

  8. james marsh7:51 AM


    You may want to consider what "academic freedom" means to you, and has meant to others, before you implicitly equate a matter of conscience with one that references authoritarianism and the politics of a state-directed witch hunt. Your misdirected use of Havel borders on the hysterical, and in other contexts could be misconstrued as quite insulting.

    With respect, I would contend that writing the post you have written does not require "a lot of guts", as another commenter has written, but instead a deficient understanding of the importance of academic freedom.


  9. I don't see why some of you have written that Scott's being cowardly rather than brave here. I mean, look at the responses you've given him. He anticipated this smack-down but shared his feelings anyway. That's not brave? I think cowardice would be to feel as strongly as he does, but remain silent.

    And while I applaud every one of you for taking a personal stand on a difficult issue, I don't see why any of you expect a non-profit organization to issue political or legal opinions. Moreover (and let me hasten to admit I don't know very much about all of this), it looks like the majority of respondents to their survey, albeit a slim majority, proposed keeping it in Arizona. By all means, decline to take your dollars to Arizona, but boycotting the entire organization? Isn't that just a petulant overreaction to not having swayed their decision?

    And speaking of dollars, no one here has mentioned what it would cost the MAA to move or cancel the meeting. Speaking as someone who just chaired a conference (a much smaller one), this is the kind of thing that can send a non-profit's balance sheet deep into the red. Naturally, you don't have to care about the financial impact to the organization, but you shouldn't be surprised to find that they do care. Furthermore, it seems to me that they would have been willing to incur the losses anyway, had the survey of their members but gone the other way. No?

    I certainly don't meant to start a flame war, especially on a subject where I'm ill-armed. But my gosh, where does it end? Why don't we just kick Arizona out of the Union and be done with it? Never mind the legal challenges to the law; that'll take too long. Let's just give the state back to Mexico. Or maybe even that isn't good enough; why not give it back to the Native Americans? Hell, why not dissolve the United States altogether and give it all back to the Abenaki, Iroquois, Choctaw, Cherokee, Apache, Navajo, Seminole, and anyone else we've ever disenfranchised.

  10. That is, if you can find an Abenaki, Iroquois, Choctaw, Cherokee, Apache, Navajo, or Seminole ...

  11. @Jason: consult all of the weblog posts that have been written on this in the past several weeks, which involve long and involved and highly nuanced discussion on this issue and that take everything you say here into account. "We" do not have just one opinion on this issus, as Dr. Nokes assumes we do here. I found it unfortunate, too, that Dr. Nokes did not link to any of these discussions nor did he pinpoint specific statements made, and by whom, that really dismayed him, so that we can have more of a fair, balanced, point-by-point discussion. That isn't 100% fair play, and we can't re-hash everything now here in his comments thread, I don't think. Your comments here indicate also that we all somehow think alike, that we don't appreciate all the legal, political, moral nuances of this issue, and that somehow we're bashing Dr. Nokes. We're not. He bashed us. We spoke back. It's called a conversation, a critical exchange, whatever you want to call it, and hopefully Dr. Nokes could maybe acknowledge that he hasn't 100% accurately represented the discourse on this issue in the medievalist blogosphere of the past few weeks. That is unfortunate, and disappointing. You yourself can do the research if you like, at places like In The Middle, Quod She, Blogenspiel, xoom, IHE, and the like. But many of us are too exhausted to have to keep repeating ourselves here on Prof. Nokes's blog, where, for reasons I'll never entirely understand, he decided to go Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck/Sean Hannity on us. And by that, I am not talking about Prof. Nokes's political opinions, ideology, beliefs, etc, which I would never EVER impugn. I am talking about his rhetorical tactics, which have distorted the discourse of those he disagrees with and also fomented fear and loathing. In short . . . for shame.

  12. False dichotomy, Scott: the alternative to the Arizona law need not be "completely open borders". Just a rhetorical flourish?

    I also have a question about Havel's shopkeeper: you write that workers will ignore his sign and not "throw off the shackles of capitalism". That would indicate either that the shopkeeper lives in a capitalist society, and is opposed to the prevailing ideology --in your academic analogy, the shopkeeper's sign would be your blog post-- or that he lives in a communist society, where his sign is ignored because the shackles of capitalism have already been thrown off: in your analogy, a world where the Arizona law had been repealed.

    I am sympathetic to the MAA's financial concerns, as I work for a a non-profit company that is a member of a national organization, which was scheduled to meet in Arizona this past May. This gave the members only three weeks after the law passed to decide how to respond. Canceling the meeting on such short notice would have meant a huge financial hit for the member company based in Arizona, who was hosting the event. The meeting was held, but the membership sent a letter to the governor indicating that those dollars would not be coming back to the state while the law stood. In the original "In the Middle" post in May, it was reported that $30,000 stood to be lost; while I find it surprising that there was no way to cancel at a smaller loss with ten months' notice, I certainly don't see that as a negligible amount: my company would cut an employee to offset a loss of that size.

  13. hmmm left a comment earlier, but blogger must have et it. Jason, what Eileen said. Read the posts and comments before weighing in. It would at least let you know that many of this consider racism a moral and ethical issue, not a legal and political one (except in the sense that this is institutional racism and the laws can be repealed). And that many of us actually understand the decision to hold the conference in AZ, but were angry that our concerns went unrecognized for what they were and were dismissed, as you have dismissed them, as 'politics'. So many of us cannot in good conscience attend the conference and spend money in AZ. And we are letting people know that.

    No one is going to penalize others who choose to go -- perhaps they have to get their CVs up to snuff, or feel they can't cancel a panel because it's letting other down, or because they don't want the conference to be an utter waste. It's not going to change their careers to go, and I hope it doesn't hurt ours to boycott. Now, if I know people who outright think this is just politics and deny that the series of laws are racist? I might not want to party with them. But that's going to be true absent any professional relationship.

    Scott, I'm not going to defriend you or de-link you, but I do mind the implication that this is frivolous notion, or that any of us are trying to coerce others or enforce some sort of groupthink. Hell, you only have to look at what EIleen and I have each written elsewhere to see that we have differing opinions on the issue of immigration -- I'm still for some control, but think we have a bad system that needs fixing, and that doesn't provide for the legal cross-border migration of the hundreds of thousands of people who do a lot of the scut work in this country. She's for open borders, IIRC. And no one who disagrees has to read our blogs -- after all, we're not the Executive Committee of the Medieval Academy. It seems to me that its much more likely that any of us could be blacklisted from Speculum or from giving papers than that a supporter of the decision would be somehow punished.

  14. Jason - *you're* raising valid issues about non-profits, money, the effects of boycotting the organization, etc., which we have been debating elsewhere (especially at In the Middle) at some length.

    The problem we all have with Scott's post is that he doesn't at all engage with these or any other issues of the debate in a substantive way. Instead, he wrote a deeply dismissive and mean-spirited post that was almost entirely ad hominem and misrepresented what others have been saying and arguing. And given that the attack is aimed at people who considered him a friend and part of the same online community, and whom he acknowledges he considers friends, it's especially harsh. That's what we're taking him to task for.

    And I have to say, to your point about courage, I hardly think it's brave to be a tenured professor taking sides with a majority group (or rather, plurality) on his own blog! (A slightly larger number of people voted to keep the MAA in Arizona than those who voted to move or cancel it.) Come on -- since when is siding with the status quo brave? It might be the right or rational thing to do (or it might not), but it hardly takes guts.

  15. Dr. Virago,

    Points taken. Thank you (and others) for your responses to my own comments. Regarding this:

    And I have to say, to your point about courage, I hardly think it's brave to be a tenured professor taking sides with a majority group (or rather, plurality) on his own blog! [...] Come on -- since when is siding with the status quo brave?

    Let me just ask how many of the comments above are in agreement with Scott? Basically only mine, right? He is otherwise outnumbered something like ten to one. There's certainly no sign of the plurality here. :)

    Facing vociferous disagreement is what I found brave. I myself have been de-friended on Facebook and conspicuously ignored following what I thought were civil discussions of controversial topics, so I recognize one takes some risk.

  16. Jason (and Scott),
    It's not WHAT Scott wrote that gets him pounced on; it's his tone and the insinuations. If you look around the discussions on this topic in the blogosphere you'll find that John Sebastian voiced his reasons for supporting the keeping of the meeting in Arizona, in a civil in intelligent way that many commenting here appreciated (even if they didn't agree with him). The whole seeking of martyrdom thing here, though, just ... well, it reeks of seeking martyrdom.

    I still don't get what great virtues are to be had by keeping it in Arizona. I mean, the reasons for moving are clear: but why keep? John mentioned some (which I find really weak); Scott just sticks to his desire to be a maverick. If it were a case of, "The Medieval Academy has been coming here since time immemorial and has bonded with this community and is now CRUELLY SEVERING ALL TIES," then OK. But it's not. So what is it? Why should the Academy feel bound to hold it there? Just the $30k? Just cos it was already planned? Anything else? I'd be interested to know.

  17. This petition seems quite silly to an outsider. It probably wouldn't seem so silly if you were a member of the Medieval Academy of America and you happened to agree with the 55% of Americans who support the Arizona law. I think Prof. Nokes is right on this one.


  18. Oh, right -- because public opinion is the best judge of morality. Not.

  19. That's the problem. The Arizona immigration law wasn't a morality issue. It was a political solution to how to ameliorate Arizona's illegal alien problem.

    The petition isn't about that. I don't see anyone (to my knowledge) in the Medieval community proposing a better way to remove the illegals. They are arguing instead that the whole idea is racist and immoral. They might as well be calling the law heretical or bourgeois.

  20. That's because the law *is* racist and immoral. Lawmakers and supporters can say whatever they want, but in order to work it creates a de facto situation where Latinos-- or people who look like Latinos - are singled out for questioning of their legal status simply because of their appearance. And since no US citizen is required to carry proof of citizenship, Latino citizens are also placed under an extra burden. It's also, by the by, unconstitutional because it denies one group of citizens equal protection.

    The medieval community, as you call it, is diverse in its views on immigration, legal or otherwise. My point of view is that Arizona can do whatever it likes, as long as its legal remedies are not racist and immoral. It could, for example, crack down on people who employ illegals and raise the fines, and maybe even jail people who don't check carefully enough. Of course, prices in many service industries would go up, and employers might have to start paying their cleaners, stableboys, kitchen workers, gardeners, etc., more. But that's a perfectly legitimate solution that is not at all racist AND specifically targets illegal immigration. Which immigration, by the way, has gone down over the last 10 or so years, despite fears to the contrary.