In Philadelphia last Saturday (January 7, 2017), Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement activists failed by a wide margin in their attempt to hijack the Modern Language Association (MLA) for an extreme fringe anti-Israel agenda. Only 79 delegate assembly members voted for a resolution to support academic boycotts of the Jewish state, while a solid majority of 113 voted against. It was a big blow to BDS at MLA, if not a mortal wound. The coup-de-grace comes in June with ratification by the full MLA membership of another proposal – which passed in the delegate assembly, 101 to 93 – to reject academic and cultural boycotts altogether for the foreseeable future as a tactic at odds with the fundamental purposes of the organization.
And what do we learn from this? First, it was a victory for scholarship over political correctness.
And third, it signaled the end of “identity liberalism” in American life more broadly, as a new and exciting trend toward affirming Western civilization’s universal values takes hold both in the academy and at large, among citizens equally appalled by alt-right and alt-left cultural relativism.
Political correctness in academia puts knee-jerk support for certain preferred “victim groups” over everything else. The self-righteous politics of selective outrage associated with “p.c.” makes vacuous expressions of indignation over abstractions like White Privilege, Western Colonialism, Neoliberalism or Global Capitalism more important than concrete scholarship rooted in reasons and evidence. Where p.c. prevails in the humanities, careful attention to complex works of literary merit worth reading is jettisoned in favor of simplistic moralizing, always harping on the same monotonous litany of concerns.
Moreover, instead of learning to tolerate diversity of opinion and embrace ambiguity, ambivalence and uncertainty as inherent to the human condition, students are hectored by “activist” teachers into holding a handful of far-left approved positions on “race, class and gender.” That there is more to life, no student thus inoculated against independent thought is meant to dream.
So it is important to recognize that BDS as a “movement” on American college campuses feeds off this anti-intellectual environment.
It aims to make the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict into another one of those “simple” issues with only one “right” (far Left) side to take. Opponents of the MLA anti-Israel resolution who emphasized in debate the narrowness, imprecision and injustice of this Manichean myth, therefore, took a stand against boycotts of Israel by standing, more broadly – in effect if not in intent – against scapegoating of the West in general as the source of all the world’s problems.
Perceived as an “outpost of the West,” Israel came in for criticism by BDS at MLA. By the same token, putting a stop to BDS meant putting the brakes on postcolonial theory’s radical-chic opposition to universal Western values basic to liberal democracy.
The anti-BDS vote effectively vindicated both academic freedom and academic responsibility, over the pseudo-academic license to indoctrinate at will. Where p.c. everywhere mau-maus its enemies (those who insist on thinking for themselves), at this year’s MLA a majority of those debating the issue refused to be shouted down into submission by those who wanted to put the organization’s imprimatur on a dishonest slander campaign dedicated to smearing Israel.
It wasn’t President-elect Donald Trump or his voters who invented the idea of the “post-truth” universe in which anything goes and wishing makes it so. That fictional world in which everybody’s preferred “narrative,” all by itself (cut loose from grounding in actual states of affairs), competes to convince the credulous was imagined at places like Yale, Duke and UC Santa Cruz in the 1980s. Postmodernist academics anticipated that move – from truth to “post-truth” – decades ago, with at-the-time au courant doctrines of “simulation,” “deconstruction,” “discourse” and “social construction of reality.”
Now that these theories are passé in the academy, they’re reappearing in practice on Fox News, BuzzFeed and Twitter.
Interestingly, at a time when both American presidential candidates and BDS activists, such as Steven Salaita, have made names for themselves primarily as twitterers – illustrating the postmodern idea of a mass-media induced “schizophrenia” at work in a trivialized political process – scholars seem to be over this junk. Fortunately – both for Israel and the MLA itself – now that these modish poses have migrated from the classroom to the public sphere, a return to common sense, reason and evidence was all the rage at the scholars’ convention. Perhaps one might even call it a recoil.
For there at the illustrious confab, a group of anti-BDS faculty calling themselves, significantly, MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, showed up to debate the BDSniks.
They came armed with little more than truthful statements about the Jewish state, the real nature of the anti-Israel activists’ agenda, and a healthy appreciation for the authentic purposes of research and teaching in the humanities.
And it worked! The majority vote affirmed both that there is no basis in fact for singling out Israel for boycotts and no ethical basis for cultural and academic boycotts period. Thus, the hardcore BDS fanatics were revealed as a marginal group, unrepresentative of the organization much less the profession as a whole.
So, is this the end of business as usual for the past 25 years in the humanities, during which time politically correct dogma has crowded out free inquiry, while the task of inculcating settled far-left beliefs about the nature of “liberation” from “oppression” displaced all other issues? Writing in shock and awe after Trump’s dumbfounding upset victory at the polls in November, Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla mused in an op-ed that perhaps one good thing could come of it, if real liberals – in the broad sense of those who support universal values, like freedom of speech and equality under the law – took stock and reevaluated what went wrong. If such people faced up to the fact that “identity liberalism” (as he called it, referring to p.c.identity politics) had failed them, then maybe they (we) could find a way forward to a better future.
One in which an outdated radicalism that appeals only to a minority of people no longer drives our American politics into a ditch.
I would say the same about our colleges and universities, in relation to this highly symbolic victory at the MLA. MLA is the largest professional organization of its kind, so it is a bellwether. And just as many voters in the presidential election didn’t seem to find outdated identity politics very inspiring (the real “identity” energy had shifted to the far Right, proper home of illiberal cultural relativism anyway), so too at MLA the majority appear tired of beating up on “the West” as the sole item on their list of “Fun Things I Gotta Do Today.”
As a “Western” democracy, Israel comes in for criticism. The standard bearer of a flawed liberal humanism in a region not known for it isn’t perfect – this is true.
But as the defender of civilization against barbarism on the front lines of a war with Islamic State, al-Qaida and the totalitarian ideology they represent, it should come in for praise. While MLA members might not all be quite ready for that, there is hope. As this win over antisemitic boycotts demonstrates, there is light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
Gabriel Noah Brahm is a Senior Research Fellow at Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and an Associate Professor of English at Northern Michigan University. Follow him on Twitter @Brahmski.