Archive for the ‘Letters’ Category

Letter 1

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Dear Prof. Szarmach, Prof. Bjork, and members of the Program Committee for the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America,

We, the undersigned, would simply like to express our disappointment with The Medieval Academy’s insistence on holding its next meeting in Arizona. While we are aware the recent politics leading to questionable new laws requiring people of “suspicious appearance” in that state be prepared to show immigration documents happened long after the Academy made its decision to hold its meeting in Scottsdale, it is nevertheless dismaying to think that the Academy has not considered moving its conference elsewhere. It is alarming to verify that it has yet to express any concern with how its Hispanists in particular, but in general anyone working on minorities, ethnicity, or just with an “accent” or a sense of social justice might feel about attending a conference held there under the present circumstances. Hispanism not only as a discipline considered in your conferences and publications, but as representing past and present membership in your institution, would have welcomed at least an acknowledgment of the situation and its speaking to the Academy’s concerns. If bishops, basketball players and owners (the Phoenix Suns, now, the “Soles”), the mayor of Los Angeles, and the thousands that have protested these laws can speak to these matters, we believe our institutions should do so as well, if in different ways.

We are not explicitly calling for a boycott of the conference, for the appropriateness of that decision (or its potential risks) will be something each scholar must gauge by him or herself. We think that the Academy, instead of ignoring the matter altogether, could consider sponsoring sessions on Hispanism, on identities, borders, racism, notions of ethnicity and citizenship, migration, etc. directly addressing the matter at hand that could have the added benefit of linking our research to our lived present. We feel the open discussion of these issues might prove more relevant, inclusive, and engaged at this time.

Sincerely,

Simone Pinet
Associate Professor of Spanish and Medieval Studies
Cornell University

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Letter 2

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Dear President Brown,

I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the Medieval Academy’s decision to meet, as planned, in Arizona. Naturally, I’d expect members to hold a range of opinions about immigration policy and its relevance (or not) to their professional work. There is much, however, in the Arizona law and the political process surrounding it that compels the attention of educators in an academic society of international scope. The Arizona law has been promoted with and accompanied by tortured logic and extreme distortion, suppression, and misrepresentation of facts (what used to be called “lies”). Racism and xenophobia — explicit and coded — have repeatedly surfaced in the advocacy of the law, and the law has encouraged and legitimized such views, well beyond the borders of Arizona. Specific actions in Arizona that are bound up with the ideological wave of fear and hate that fueled the law are directly relevant to the academic profession and our work as educators: from direct and consequential measures like the curtailment of ethnic studies programs in schools or the actions taken against instructors with accented English, to the more absurd anecdotes, like the controversy surrounding the skin tone of children in a painted mural on a school in Prescott.

As a response to the Arizona law and the tide of prejudice accompanying it, a boycott of the state by individuals, professional organizations, local governments, artists, and other groups has been widely promoted, bringing adverse publicity and economic losses to Arizona. Significantly, advocates of the law have called for individuals and organizations to support the Arizona law with a “buycott”, and they have contributed considerable money to the legal defense of the statute. In these circumstances, the choice is not between taking or not taking a political action, nor is it a question of the Medieval Academy being asked to comment or take a stand on every political issue of importance: the existing boycott makes a professional meeting in Arizona a political act.

In fact, the Medieval Academy has now embraced a set of contradictory political positions. Ignoring – and therefore weakening – a boycott aimed at overturning the law, it will meet in Arizona. At the same time, it will invite a vocal and distinguished opponent of the law, Episcopal Bishop Kirk Smith, to address the meeting – an unusual move whose overtly political content is barely disguised by Bishop Smith’s Ph.D. in medieval church history earned over three decades ago. Similarly, the program committee will make an effort – though its scale and shape remain vague – to address a set of issues in medieval society that are generally relevant to today’s debates over immigration and the Arizona legislation. Both decisions certainly suggest a degree of opposition to the legislation and its ideological underpinnings. Welcome though these steps are, there remains the question: why do them in Arizona in the face of this boycott? Is this meant to be a compromise that, through contradiction, achieves political neutrality? We’ll spend our money in a way that pleases supporters of the law, and hold our meeting in a way that appeases opponents?

We betray our own sense of what is _really_ important by the executive committee’s concerns about issues of cost: “the fiduciary responsibility for the Academy’s endowment” topped the list of reasons for holding the meeting, and the limited number of respondents (over three hundred, to be sure) who were willing to “contribute towards offsetting the cost of canceling the meeting” was underscored (“Only 32.7%….”). Money evidently matters to the Medieval Academy, and it surely matters to the officials of the state of Arizona. By contrast, I sincerely doubt whether the scholarly papers delivered by medievalists at the conference will reach any larger public in the rhetorical context in which this debate is taking place. Moreover, they could be presented elsewhere or disseminated in other formats, including, for example, an online conference or series of mini-conferences which could have turned this inconvenience into an opportunity for innovation and experimentation.

I appreciate the issues that an academic organization with a large and diverse membership faces when it wades into a current political debate. In the past, I have found myself on different sides of such discussions about the role of such organizations and their public responsibilities. For me, however, this issue has seemed clearcut. The boycott was not of our making: either we respect it, or we do not. There is no middle course. Living in Arizona has made clear to me the stridency, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism that pervades this debate, and it is a lethal cocktail whose hostility to other cultures and languages threatens the very intellectual and educational enterprise in which we are all engaged. Living here has also highlighted the human cost of this legislation and the ideologies it legitimizes: the fear and suspicion it has disseminated, the desperation of families finding themselves migrating – yet again – and fearing separation from loved ones. There are personal dimensions to this: like many medievalists, I have had to live, study, and travel abroad. Even in relatively privileged circumstances, I have experienced the range of ways in which foreigners can be treated, and I have worked in rural areas among many people who have themselves lived as immigrants in much more difficult and conflictive settings. I doubt, too, that I am alone among the Academy members in being the grandchild of four immigrants whose aspirations and experiences had a lot in common with many of those being condemned and persecuted today as “illegals”.

I’m sorry. The inconveniences the Executive Committee cites – the scholarly effects, the work of the program committee, the difficulty of finding an alternative venue – simply seem insignificant in the face of the human, moral, and ethical imperatives posed by this law. I’m not at all convinced that the Academy could not – if it had the will – turn this into an opportunity for experiment and find an alternative to the Tempe meeting which might actually open new paths for the Academy’s work in future years.

For me, this controversy has been an opportunity for reflection, and I have decided to end my membership in the Medieval Academy after twenty years. I hope that others will do the same. I belong to several other professional organizations, some discipline-based, others more specialized and oriented towards medieval or Iberian studies. I often attend and actively participate in the much larger annual medieval congress in Kalamazoo. Candidly, when I compare the range of public and professional issues which the AHA addresses, the extent of public outreach of the AIA (Archaeological Institute of America), or the diverse and welcoming environment at the Kalamazoo congress — to cite just some examples, I wonder whether the Medieval Academy — for all of its valuable professional contributions — doesn’t, on balance, reinforce some of the most pernicious prejudices inside and outside academia about medieval studies: perceived, with some justice, as an elitist, arcane, somewhat irrelevant field of study, with a professional society that seems almost, well, medieval. At a time when we face a multitude of threats to public education, the role of the humanities, and cross-cultural understanding, the Academy’s decision to meet in Arizona highlights, for me, its failure to grasp how the survival of our field – however it is practiced – depends on forging and strengthening a broader public consensus about these values, in the face of the dangerous celebration of ignorance, prejudice, and fear.

Sincerely,

James D’Emilio
Associate Professor of Humanities
University of South Florida
(currently residing in Flagstaff, AZ)

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