U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Politics of Scholarship

The boycott announced by the American Studies Association had sparked vigorous and, it seems to me, instructive debates about the definition and limits of academic freedom, the exertion of political influence by academics and their organizations, and the obligations scholars have to issues of justice.  The ASA explains on its website that the resolution passed by a majority of voting members at its most recent conference was “to honor the call from Palestinian civil society to support the academic boycott of Israel.”  Doing so was “an ethical stance,” the representatives of the ASA argued, “a form of material and symbolic action. It represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.”

How and when will change come to the political crisis described by the ASA?  The ASA recognizes it has little institutional power to create sweeping political change.  It does not influence votes in Israel, just as it is relatively powerless to influence votes in the United States.  The ASA does not hold diplomatic status or speak for any political organization.  It has influence because of the power that scholarship possesses to build persuasive arguments and, significantly, to teach students.  As a voluntary organization in a community of diverse scholars, the ASA has the ability to make scholars think twice before embarking on any relationship with Israel.  And so as the ASA states plainly, it will not prevent scholars from pursuing research with Israeli institutions; after all that would mean employing the same tactics against American scholars that it claims Israeli institutions have used against Palestinian scholars.

The ASA has demanded that we see research and teaching as politicized acts.  A staunch and prominent supporter of the ASA boycott, John Carlos Rowe explained this position in a book published digitally last year that “knowledge is never free of political values, and it is wisest for us to encourage our students to debate the political connotations of whatever field they study.”  I wonder, though, where specifically we find the politics of the knowledge—in the subjects to be studied or the application of such subjects?  Are the politics the same when we choose to study empires or we choose to study the United States or Israel or the occupation of the West Bank?  Is the choice of subject the political act or is it what we hope to do with our research about a topic?

As I have written here before, there is a fascinating intellectual history of American Studies as a field.  At the center of this history is the relationship the field and its scholars have had to American exceptionalism, a relationship that manifested itself in a desire to change the name of the field and the society that represents it.  So it is not surprising that the ASA has lumped Israel into a complex often attributed to the United States. In a way similar to how the United States chooses to understand its role in world history, Israel also seems to fail to account in its national memory for the shocking ways it has chosen to be on the wrong side of justice.

By choosing an academic boycott against Israel, has the ASA then pushed the debate from the politics of knowledge to the politics of scholarship?  Over time, the ASA as both an organization as well as the leader of field of scholarship has de-legitimized subjects studied and assumptions accepted by scholars.  Look at the development of its flagship journal American Quarterly and the program of the annual conference.  I have argued that such changes have been wrought as much by the Culture Wars as by trends in scholarship. Thus, this boycott fits into the general movement of American Studies as understood within the ASA from being concerned with explaining the composition of America, both in myth and material conditions, to an organization of scholars determined to leverage the nationalist connotations of its name to decry the political operations of the United States.  The ASA made that connection apparent on its website:

We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.

It would be empirically wrong to argue that the United States and Israel do not at time act like imperialist behemoths.  But are they not also more than that? And if so, what then is our obligation to scholarship that exists outside the politics of a particular academic society?  Judging from the machinations over its boycott, the ASA has limited its mission yet again by reducing the size of the “tent” under which scholars and their subjects might congregate.  As an academic association, that action is among the very few profound moves it can make, and in light of its particular history, it is an action with the potential—real and intended—to force scholars to further politicize their scholarship.

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this post, Ray. I may add my substantive thoughts later in the conversation, but I did want to offer a minor factual correction: the governing counsel of the ASA at its recent conference called for a ten-day online vote of its membership, not a vote of the membership at the conference. It was that online ballot that confirmed the boycott.

  2. Note how this has divided the organization. Here’s the letter from 8 past presidents (from the late 1980s through 2005) rejecting the boycott. http://www.scribd.com/doc/190925302/ASA-President-s-Letter-Opposing-Boycott-Israel-Resolution

    These are some of the most distinguished figures in the field, most of them historians. I am most troubled by what appears to me to be a kind of posturing that costs the advocates of the boycott nothing (there are very few actual practicing exchanges going on, and I don’t think Israel is a hot bed of American Studies, although I’m willing to be proved wrong). If the people promoting this were willing to resign from their academic positions because of the complicity of American universities with federal funding that helps support current U.S.-Israeli policy, I might think they really had something on the line. I suspect the effect on Israeli policy will be nil.

    I suppose the extent to which one embraces the ASA boycott is dependent upon how one sees Israel in relationship to other wrongs in the world, past and present. What the boycott _does_ accomplish is send a message to those scholars of American Studies who don’t embrace it, for a variety of reasons, or have different views on Israel than those who have risen to prominence within the Association, that the organization does not speak for them and they are not welcome within it. That’s a bad direction to go in, but I’m afraid the ASA has been on this road for some time.

  3. O’Sullivan’s Law manifest yet again.

    an organization of scholars determined to leverage the nationalist connotations of its name to decry the political operations of the United States.

    And that goes for you guys, too, BTW. ;-}

    John Carlos Rowe explained this position in a book published digitally last year that “knowledge is never free of political values, and it is wisest for us to encourage our students to debate the political connotations of whatever field they study.” I wonder, though, where specifically we find the politics of the knowledge—in the subjects to be studied or the application of such subjects?

    It’s exactly about seizing the content and the vocabulary of the debate, of the great conversation, as it were. Control the wording of the debate topic and the definition of terms, and only the most incompetent of sophists could lose.

    [For instance, the “study” of American “empire.” To concede the premise of America as empire is already to have stipulated to an entire ideology.]

    Glad to see someone address this ASA thing, Ray. They’ve been at this for years in the UK, and now it’s our turn. The politicization of professional associations is the rule, not the exception, and as you note,

    Judging from the machinations over its boycott, the ASA has limited its mission yet again by reducing the size of the “tent” under which scholars and their subjects might congregate…with the potential—real and intended—to force scholars to further politicize their scholarship.

    Unfortunately, there’s no percentage in it for the principled scholar to fight this infestation. As it is with all such O’Sullivanian takeovers, it’s easier to let your membership lapse, to vacate the premises, and let the vermin overrun the place.

  4. Ray, thanks for this essay.

    Corey Robin has posted an illuminating exchange on whether or how the boycott threatens “academic freedom” that I encourage everyone to read. Spoiler alert: there are no “yes, it is a violation of academic freedom” slam dunks. There is some rational-choice game theorizing, and some huffing and puffing. Even serious antis reject the “threat to academic freedom argument.”

    (http://coreyrobin.com/2013/12/23/does-the-asa-boycott-violate-academic-freedom-a-roundtable/)

    An experiment, in the form of a statement: I support the boycott.

    That’s neither here nor there. Everyone follows and votes their conscience. As they should.

    To make even as ho-hum (and to critics, politically inefficacious) a gesture as affirming my support for the ASA move, however, is to open myself up to abuse and retaliation, as other advocates of the ASA action have experienced and reported.

    Some of the most passionate critics of the BDS move either teach in my department, or in the departments of universities in which I may soon seek employment.

    The notion that to be pro-BDS is “safe,” and anti-BDS is “risky”–at least in the historical sectors of the American Studies world–nearly approximates an upside-down version of reality.

    And to the degree that we are speaking of/as intellectual historians, I have been puzzling over what to make of this statement by the figure closest to the dean of USIH:

    “The ASA is a disgrace, a shell of its former self. It has been taken up by folks in ideological overdrive who use it as a vehicle for their favorite causes,” emailed David Hollinger, a history professor at UC Berkeley and a former president of the Organization of American Historians. (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115995/academic-boycott-israel-not-troubling-it-seems)

    This seems to me an extremely unkind (not to mention troublingly dog-whistling) statement. About whom is he talking? What does he mean by “ideological overdrive”? What would distinguish a “favorite cause” from a legitimate one, or is there no such thing?

    Who is making whom feel unwelcome?

    • Anyone who takes any position whatsoever on Israel/Palestine tends to get accused of awful things by certain people on the other side. I’m not sure what, if anything, will resolve disagreements about the ASA boycott (which, for whatever it’s worth, I opposed…though as a non-member of ASA I was just kibbitzing), in particular, or I/P, in general, but pointing out that some of one’s opponents have behaved terribly is unlikely to get us anywhere.

      • This is no doubt true.

        But to my mind, the ASA action precedes the division of the world into “allies” and “opponents,” or provides an opportunity for a new alignment. We don’t know where we stand, or who is for what, until some sort of event forces a decision. In this sense, the ASA move bears a certain family resemblance to graduate union organizing campaigns. To be “for” labor in one’s lectures is different than refusing to cross a picket line. Isn’t that the case?

        I agree, thought, that to say, for example, that some new (or new to me) antagonist behaved terribly 27 years ago would be unproductive.

        To point out misbehavior from 5 minutes ago–in relation to a political process that is still underway–seems to me to be a different story.

      • But to my mind, the ASA action precedes the division of the world into “allies” and “opponents,” or provides an opportunity for a new alignment.

        Really? With the single (and in many ways admirable, despite my disagreeing with where she ended up) exception of Claire Potter, who has used this as an occasion to reconsider anything? The battle lines on Israel / Palestine are very well drawn and largely being rehearsed again over this particular controversy.

        And, incidentally, when she was publicly opposing the boycott, Claire got accused of absolutely awful things by boycott supporters, as she reported at the time (though, to be fair, she has since said that she’s received even worse attacks from the other side since changing her mind).

        In this sense, the ASA move bears a certain family resemblance to graduate union organizing campaigns. To be “for” labor in one’s lectures is different than refusing to cross a picket line. Isn’t that the case?

        Again, I just disagree. To begin with, graduate student organizing drives did something. The ASA resolution does nothing. It’s purely symbolic (indeed, its very lack of practical effect is the main defense of those who insist that it has nothing to do with academic freedom).

        Do you know of anyone who’s pro-BDS but anti-boycott? That might be the closest one could come to the nominally pro-labor professor who opposes graduate student organizing or crosses grad student picket lines.

        But what I’ve generally seen is that those of us who oppose the boycott also don’t support BDS. (There’s certainly no question in my mind that leaders of the BDS movement support the boycott and worked hard to get the ASA to pass it.)

        (FWIW, I’m all in favor of open discussion of BDS and am disgusted by attempts to censor pro-BDS speakers on campuses.)

      • Well, we should probably agree to disagree about some of this. I respect your point of view. (I don’t think this is the forum in which minds are changed, typically).

        But, a few quibbles:

        As far as the “did anyone change their mind?” question–I think that the way it is framed it presumes that everyone who *matters* is an established intellectual (e.g., a Claire Potter) with a public profile, about whom we know.

        For many grad students or young profs, or older profs moved to act instead of sit the thing out, this is an important first test of certain political commitments. Testimony regarding that experience may well await the processing of this experience over the next weeks or months.

        Among my gang of nobodies, I have seen soul-searching and debate. Not lying about that: I’m sure some will assume that I’m just making it up. Perhaps such reflection and openness to change is less common up the ladder. But maybe not?

        Furthermore, since anyone last thought about it, the situation in Israel *has* changed, if only by persisting in crisis or emergency form over another length of time. This is a mundane description that Left and Right can agree on, I think, even if they disagree on the identities of the victims and the perpetrators.

        The situation in the US has also changed, in many ways, perhaps even over the course of the last few months. I don’t agree with Peter Beinart about much, but his diagnoses of changing domestic conditions seem right, at least insofar as they insist that things are changing.

        Yet, while Israel changes, and the US changes–bracketing any normative analysis of what those changes might be– there is a tendency to freeze the conflict as a museum diorama, situated outside of historical time. In this view, the array of stakeholders never changes; opinions remain static and immutable.

        That conventional vision of things–which I think is where the foreign policy establishment and mainstream press tends to live, and from which most criticism of the ASA also springs–is itself a barrier to serious (to say nothing of historical) thought.

    • For what it’s worth:

      In the last month or so, four academics I know have voiced concerned to me about speaking up publicly re the ASA boycott and Israel/Palestine more generally. Three have been pro-BDS and ASA boycott; one has been anti. The three pro-BDS have said they were worried about career repercussions (two of them are non-tenured, one is tenured); the anti-BDS person is more worried about friends shunning, etc.

      Anecdotal, and obviously conditioned by the fact that these are people I know, but I suspect it’s fairly representative. There are only a few disciplines in academia where anything like pro-BDS sentiment is in the majority — perhaps American Studies, ethnic studies, cultural studies, and maybe some parts of various literature programs. But I’d say that is definitely not the case in the natural sciences, in most if not all of the social sciences (with the exception perhaps of anthropology), history, philosophy, or most lit programs. Not to mention business schools, medical schools, and law schools.

  5. To me this has been all along a debate about the nature of the ASA much more than about the politics of Israel/Palestine. Certainly many opposed to the policies of the current Israeli government also oppose the boycott.

    American Studies for two decades has been grappling for an identity, especially since its version of interdisciplinary study has become common in many English and History departments. In that sense it has been a victim of its own success, potentially proselytizing itself into obsolescence. So the question becomes: what role is there for American Studies now?

    And I think slowly, over two decades, a new identity has emerged, one that the boycott marks clearly. This, as much as opposing politics re: Israel, is the reason the boycott matter has been so wrenching for so many American Studies scholars. The new, emergent identity is this: the ASA has shifted away from a model of American Studies represented by the phrase “interdisciplinary study of American culture” toward a more ideologically driven interrogation of US power. The focus has moved away from culture and towards political economy. It has become a political alternative to conventional history and literature, rather than an intellectual alternative.

    I think American Studies at its best is marked by creativity, intellectual openness, and radical inclusiveness. The academy still needs this, especially at the undergraduate level. Whatever becomes of the ASA as a result of this current controversy, I hope the field of American Studies is not so damaged in the minds of too many colleagues or students that it can’t continue to fulfill this basic mission. There are other outlets for political action, but there aren’t enough defending the best the liberals arts has to offer.

    • Is there even one example of a major recent work of American Studies that is not a study of cultural texts and practices?

  6. I was trying to make a distinction in the last comment between the ASA and the broader world of American Studies — but I see now not very clearly. Lots of great cultural work in American Studies at large, but not nearly enough on recent ASA programs.

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