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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

MLA out of Iraq

Last week I ended a post with the thrilling question, does the Modern Language Association have the authority to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan? I know the suspense has been excruciating for many of you, so before too much more time passes, I thought I should let you know that for now, the short answer (as determined by the MLA Executive Council in February 2004) is no.

The longer answer is that one of my more odious tasks at this year’s convention (one for which I volunteered, actually) involved reporting to the Delegate Assembly that the antiwar resolution they’d passed in 2003 was rejected by the Executive Council.  The resolution called on the MLA to urge “the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq and reallocation of funds to reverse inattention to, and grave deficits in, funding of education and other human services.” One of the reasons the task was odious, of course, is that no one on the Executive Council (to my knowledge) would actually oppose taking some of the $150-billion-or-so we’ve spent on the occupation of Iraq, say, and diverting it to education and “other human services” (presuming, of course, that those “other human services” actually serviced other humans).  And, as I explained to the Delegate Assembly, the Council was not unanimous about this; we had a long and energetic discussion, the details of which I can’t divulge (your loss, I’m sure!) but the results of which are a matter of public record (you can consult PMLA 119.5 [October 2004], p. 1392, if you have it handy).

So I got up and said something like this:  there seem to be some misunderstandings floating around concerning the things that nonprofit organizations like the MLA can and can’t do.  Some people speak as if we have the power, as literature professors, to end the war; others speak as if we will be stripped of our nonprofit status the minute we open our mouths on a “political” issue.  Well, we don’t and we won’t.  The Executive Council has no qualms about taking action on political matters that fall within the mission of the Association; we approved the Assembly’s 2003 resolution to repeal the Patriot Act, and, acting on our own, drafted a three-page letter in February (the text of which can be found at PMLA 119.5 [October 2004], pp. 1388, 1390) urging the Senate to reject H.R. 3077, a bill which passed the House unanimously in October 2003 and which would create a politically-appointed “advisory board” for international-studies programs that would oversee and monitor the “activities” (undefined!  deliberately so!) of all grant recipients under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1958.  We sent that letter to all 100 members of the Senate, and when the MLA joined with the National Humanities Alliance to lobby the Senate directly, we focused on the members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, out of which the bill would come to the floor (though, thankfully, it never did-- at least not this time around).  Finally, late this summer we authorized then-president Robert Scholes to draft a letter to Colin Powell, protesting the State Department’s stupid-ass (my word, not Bob’s) denial of visas to sixty Cuban scholars who sought to attend the Latin American Studies Association conference in Las Vegas and the American Studies Association conference in Atlanta.

In other words, I concluded, when the issue at hand involves students and scholars of language and literature, we have a good deal of latitude, and the Council sees no problems with speaking out directly.  What we can’t do, according to our constitution ("the object of the association shall be to promote study, criticism, and research in the more and less commonly taught modern languages and their literatures and to further the common interests of teachers of these subjects"), is to call for the withdrawal of troops.  Or, for that matter, for their redeployment to North Korea, should the mood strike us.

Well, reactions were more or less mixed, but this little speech didn’t go down at all with some people, who counterargued that insofar as our students are being recruited by the armed forces and shipped off to Iraq, “our common interests” include the protection of their interests.  At the time, not wanting to get into a pointless argument about a decision that already been made, I didn’t get back up before the Assembly and point out that the resolution actually said nothing about such students (it quite plausibly could have, in which case it would have been another resolution altogether).  But nonetheless, I wondered:  would the same principle hold if my students were going into the construction business?  Would the MLA thereby be empowered to comment on building codes and zoning laws?

Beyond that, of course, there’s the question of why anyone would appeal to the MLA to oppose the war in the first place.  Many of us individually-- myself included-- have opposed the war in Iraq since its latest version was first hatched, either sometime on the late morning of September 11, 2001 or perhaps somewhere between November and December 2000.  But I tend to think that organizations like the MLA really aren’t very good vehicles for antiwar activism.  To put this another way, they’re not well set up for opposing wars (either in their constitutions or their forms of organization).  It’s not a question of whether an MLA resolution urging the withdrawal of troops would actually have any effect (it’s a fun game, which everyone can play at home, to mock the idea that Rumsfeld and Cheney are even paying attention to us, or perhaps, even worse, drafting counter-resolutions condemning the MLA); I see nothing wrong with scholarly organizations taking political positions on matters that concern them.  (The American Library Association’s call for repeal of Section 215 of the Patriot Act is a model example, and more power to ‘em.) And I understand, or think I understand, the symbolic politics of speaking through one’s disciplinary organization.  But I’m curious about what other people think about this-- both about the question of the scope of MLA resolutions (for those of you who care), and the question of withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan (might as well open the floor on the larger question as well!).  I’ll be gone for a week, but checking back in from a remote undisclosed location, so until then, over to you, folks.

In the meantime, let me just add that the final fifteen minutes of Finding Neverland are maudlin beyond human endurance, except perhaps in the case of Janet, who would happily watch a two-hour documentary involving Johnny Depp eating oatmeal.  See you next Tuesday with more capsule movie reviews!

Posted by Michael on 01/11 at 03:56 PM
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