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The American Studies Association Needs to Hit Rewind/Erase

Image via Wiki Commons.

The heretofore un-newsworthy American Studies Association (ASA)--the umbrella organization for academics devoted to the study of all things American, a cohort I have been a member of, on and off, for some thirty years, through graduate student penury, assistant professor hustling, and finally, praise God, tenured professor complacency -- has recently gone off its rocker. On December 18, the group announced that it was boycotting Israeli institutions. Why Israel? “One has to start somewhere,” shrugged ASA president Curtis Marez.

The decision that no Israelis need apply to the ASA has generated a fierce backlash-- mainly, and encouragingly, from within the ranks of the American university system. Six American Studies programs have terminated their institutional affiliation with the ASA; eleven colleges listed as institutional affiliates on the back page of the American Quarterly, the ASA’s quarterly journal, say they have not paid for the privilege and demand to be de-listed. University presidents, including the presidents of all the Ivy League schools, have inveighed against the ASA’s embargo on an open exchange of scholarship. Not a few of the critics have mentioned the highly selective outrage directed at Israel, when the world presents so many other likely candidates for academic ostracism.

The decision to blackball Israel and thrust the ASA into the crossfire of Mideast politics was initiated by the ASA’s Caucus on Academic and Community Activism, which put forward the boycott resolution at the ASA’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. on November 21-24, 2013. The resolution was then unanimously approved by a 15-member executive council and passed on to the membership for a vote. The voting window opened on December 5 and closed on December 15; no arguments opposing the boycott were allowed to be posted on the ASA webpage. Of some 5,000 members, 1252 cast ballots. Of that subgroup, 66% voted in favor, 30% voted against, and 3.4% abstained. I assume the other 3,748 eligible voters were grading final exams or Christmas shopping. Had a majority of the non-voters cast their ballots against the boycott, they might have saved the ASA from an epochal meltdown that seems poised to deep-six the entire association. It has already damaged the group’s credibility as an impartial umpire of scholarly inquiry.

In the American Studies Program at Brandeis University, my colleagues and I had been monitoring the developments leading up to the boycott vote. Brandeis is a Jewish- sponsored, though non- sectarian, institution, and it is fair to say we were especially alert to the machinations. When the pro-boycott vote was announced, the faculty convened via email and quickly agreed to sever formal institutional ties. It being the twenty-first century, the news went out via Twitter and a statement was posted on our webpage. “We view the recent vote by the membership to affirm an academic boycott of Israel as a politicization of the discipline and a rebuke to the kind of open inquiry that a scholarly association should foster,” the statement read. “We remain committed to the discipline of American Studies but we can no longer support an organization that has rejected two of the core principles of American culture -- freedom of association and expression.” Not incidentally, and despite what some pro-boycott websites have claimed, the decision was made by the faculty alone with absolutely no input or pressure from The Powers That Be in the university administration, still less from outside Israeli lobby groups.

The boycott resolution marks a sad decline in the stature of the ASA-- or perhaps rather the logical culmination of the ideological activism that has, for some time now, supplanted the scholarly inquiry that was once the central purpose of the ASA. Years ago, reflecting on the sensibility change in the association, a gray-bearded founder told me that his generation of pioneering American Studies scholars, who came into the profession in the 1950s and 1960s, basically had good feelings about America. That for all its faults, they believed America was a force for good in the world, that when she needed to be upbraided – for Jim Crow, for Vietnam, for any failure to live up to her avowed ideals -- the criticism was delivered more in sorrow than anger. Moreover, whether working on Puritan sermons or slave narratives, Hollywood movies or the Delta blues, most practitioners of the discipline tried to keep their politics from coloring their scholarship.

Today, the membership of the ASA is dominated by activist-scholars who emphasize the first half of the hyphen and who look upon America as its own axis of evil. The papers and panels at any recent ASA conference drip bile at the nation that names the discipline, a land congenitally and irredeemably imperialist, genocidal, racist, sexist, classist, and heteronormative. For years the joke among the lingering old guard was that the organization should be renamed the anti-American Studies Association. It wasn’t very funny then and it is even less funny now.

Like any academic guild, however, the ASA can exert a powerful influence as an arbiter of professional standards. The imprimatur of the organization matters, or it did before December 16. Especially for up-and-coming PhD students and assistant professors, being selected to deliver a paper at the annual conference or having an article published in the journal was a coveted validation of one’s scholarly chops. Now, in the popular mind and throughout the academy, the ASA stands for one thing: lockstep adherence to a controversial position over Israeli occupation and Palestinian autonomy. Ironically, the issue that has hobbled the ASA was not even born in the USA.

The implosion of the ASA could not have come at a worse time. For all the talk of globalization and wired worlds, the study of American culture remains as urgent as ever – as is the need for an even-tempered, rigorous scholarly guild devoted to it. Basic common sense argues that such an association welcomes – besides the random Israeli professor – traditional scholars, with no particular political ax to grind, as well as those who want to rage against the American machine.

So, how do we get out of this mess? My suggestion: rewind/erase. Rescind the boneheaded boycott. We can borrow a page from that classic American text, the television show Dallas, when a misguided narrative lurch in the ninth season was simply wiped clean from the slate with a wake-up call. Afterwards, we can look back and say, “It was all a dream . . . a horrible, horrible dream.”