[Unlocked Wordhoard] Why I Won't Sign

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Dr. Richard Scott Nokes

Aug 11, 2010, 12:33:50 AM8/11/10
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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.

Posted By Dr. Richard Scott Nokes to Unlocked Wordhoard at 8/10/2010 11:27:00 PM
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