The MLA meeting of the delegate assembly to debate the resolution criticizing Israeli policies has received ample publicity, including Cary Nelson’s vehement opposition in the Wall Street Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Nelson’s statement elicited a reply at the Chronicle by one of the sponsors of the resolution, Bruce Robbins of Columbia University, the title reading “Procedure, Politics, and the MLA Resolution.” It contains an assertion that is worth scrutinizing, for it goes to the heart of one of the fundamental dividing lines between left-wing thought and conservatism of the classical-liberal type.
One of Nelson’s central complaints was that the person presiding over the meeting, MLA vice president Margaret Ferguson, lacked standing to do so, as she had already declared her support for the “U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel.” Nelson judges it a clear conflict of interest and claims that it clouds the results of the meeting.
“She should have recused herself,” he writes. “She didn’t. If members of the staff or Executive Council had known about the conflict, they should have urged her to step down from running the meeting. The process and the vote were compromised. The vote should be voided.”
Robbins takes up this charge and nullifies it as follows:
“Nelson writes that Margaret Ferguson, chair of the Delegate Assembly, has signed a petition in favor of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. What difference does that possibly make? Human beings, if they are sentient and morally sensitive to the world around them, take positions. How could someone climb to a position of public eminence without having spoken forcefully and left a trail of opinions? Where would you go to find a presiding officer who had never done so? (Would you want one if you could find one?)”
This is a remarkable statement and a symptomatic one in that it doesn’t address the specific case at all. Robbins mentions Ferguson’s “proper disinterest and neutrality” later in the post, but here he raises the issue of Ferguson’s position to a generalized condition, the presence of political opinions in all intelligent and thoughtful individuals. It follows the standard leftist principle that we are all political in one way or another, even in our seemingly objective judgments. Of course, Ferguson has an opinion, how can she not? Robbins blurts, as if that settled the charges in Ferguson’s favor.
But the issue isn’t whether a person has political opinions or not, but rather whether that opinion interferes with a person’s ability to remain impartial when the occasion demands. If we avoid the general point and focus specifically on Ferguson’s conduct during the meeting, then we have a different question on the table: whether she did anything to bias the discussion. Robbins quickly says that she does not, and I haven’t seen any clear evidence that she did, and in my limited contact with Ferguson she strikes me overall as a fair person. But we should question the principle offered here: So what if she’s taken a stand? We all do it, and if that disqualified you, then nobody could ever take charge of anything.
This is an obtuse conception. It never touches the question of fairness and impartiality. As a practical matter, if a controversial issue comes up on which one has already declared a firm opinion, and one has to preside over the debate, not join one side or another, one should withdraw until the debate ends, then re-assume the podium and move on to other things. But Robbins apparently considers this practical step which is commonly taken all the time an imposition.
This is, in fact, consistent with the leftist outlook that he and others in the MLA share, which doesn’t raise issues of fairness because fairness itself is a myth. (Robbins was one of the editors of Social Text duped by Alan Sokal into publishing postmodernist gibberish as trenchant philosophy of science.) Leftists connect sensitivity and thoughtfulness with the possession of opinions about the world, and they go so far as to assert that the effort not to act upon those opinions only forces one’s biases underground where they operate in subtle and misdirecting ways. It’s the old argument against enlightenment objectivity, knowledge always conditioned by human interests.
Here we have a crucial division between leftists and conservatives. The latter don’t believe fairness is possible, and so they don’t worry much about procedures, proprieties, political conflicts, and personal investments. Once in a committee meeting at Emory when we denied a theater professor’s request that her course be cross-listed with English because only a few of the works on the syllabus were originally written in English, one of the profs worried about how the theater professor would take the rejection. I replied, “It’s not personal–we have a simple rule of 50 percent English.” She answered, “No, it’s VERY personal.”
A conservative doesn’t know how to answer this interpretation of rules and procedures. We think they are objective, that they are the basis for smooth and fair operations. Leftists believe they are political and, therefore, malleable. One tactic is to pose the question from the other side: “Would you be so blithe about a past opinion if the presider had declared openly against any boycotts or resolutions against Israel?” But that would not alter this procedural divide.