MLA Shrinks From Radicalism, Hell Freezes Over

Inside Higher Ed’s report on the proceedings of the delegate assembly at this year’s Modern Language Association conference is titled “A Moderate MLA” – the title seems to have been chosen mainly for its alliterativeness – moderation, by MLA standards, being a quality far from centrism or temperance in the larger world. The MLA, for one, still passed a resolution criticizing the University of Colorado for the manner in which its investigation of Ward Churchill was begun and conducted. One professor asked if the MLA could simply indicate an opposition to politicized investigations and omit direct references to Churchill – his suggestion was not incorporated. And this is moderate? Only for the MLA, whose recent resolutions have, among other things, rejected the scholarly relevance of the “philosophical defense’ of any one nation-state”, and labeled government language surrounding the Iraq war as an effort “to legitimate aggression, misrepresent policies, conceal aims, stigmatize dissent, and block critical thought.”

For once, the MLA radical caucus, accustomed to steamrolling opposition with markedly political resolutions, was halted, with two of their statements watered down substantially. A resolution condemning the firing of Ward Churchill was transmuted into the form above, and another calling for the defense of critics of Israel and Zionism was replaced by much less specific text. For a real sense of the zaniness of the MLA proceedings, take a look at a direct look at the story:

[Grover] Furr [who teaches at Montclair State University] was the author of the original resolution on the campus climate for critics of Israel. The resolution as he wrote it said that some who criticize Zionism and Israel have been “denied tenure, disinvited to speak… [or] fraudulently called ‘anti-Semitic.'”The resolution called this a “serious danger to academic study and discussion in the USA today” and then resolved that “the MLA defend the academic freedom and the freedom of speech of faculty and invited speakers to criticize Zionism and Israel.” The resolution made no mention of the right of others on campus to embrace Zionism or Israel or to hold middle-of-the-road views or any views other than being critical of Israel and Zionism.
Nelson offered a substitute – which was approved to replace the original by a vote of 63 to 30 – after heated debate. Nelson’s substitute noted that the “Middle East is a subject of intense debate,” said it was “essential that colleges and universities protect faculty rights to speak forthrightly on all sides of the issue,” and urged colleges to “resist” pressure from outside groups about tenure reviews and speakers and to instead uphold academic freedom. Nelson’s resolution did not identify one side or the other as victim or villain in the campus debates over the Middle East and said that academic freedom must apply to people “to address the issue of the Middle East in the manner they choose.”

In arguing for his version, Nelson – a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and also president of the American Association of University Professors – said that the original version would be “incredibly divisive and quite destructive” to the MLA.

The response? Those advocating the original language faulted the new resolution for being “even-handed.” They demanded a resolution targeted at Israeli and Zionist sympathizers. I don’t think many would have been surprised had the MLA passed the original resolution. Although it’s a wonder where they’ve been for the last twenty years – while even the New York Times happily mocks their leftist demeanor – it’s good to see that some within the organization seem to have finally realized the harm that their political declarations might do to their pretenses of scholarly authority. An obvious solution would be to simply stop issuing these resolutions – but the MLA seems leagues away from that. For the moment, it’s encouraging to find any academic moment at which the somewhat left prevailed over the radical left, but it’s clear that there are still countless professors for whom any deviation from naked activism is a bit too “even-handed” to stomach.

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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