Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Open Letter to MAA

An Open Letter to MAA:

As the executive committee of MEARCSTAPA, an organization with more than fifty members, focused on the study of monstrosity in the Middle Ages, we wish to speak out both against the recent group of laws passed in Arizona (primarily the now-infamous SB SB1070, but also HB HB2281 banning the teaching of ethnic studies and also the AZ Department of Education's new move to bar teachers with "heavy accents" from teaching English). We also wish to voice our opposition to the Medieval Academy's refusal to relocate the conference from Tempe, despite these offensive laws. We draw the name for our organization from the Old English for "Border-Walker," a term used to confer monstrosity on Grendel and his mother. We are troubled by the intensification of the rhetoric that is applied to the peoples living on both sides of our own borders, and on the rampant use of terms to dehumanize these people ("illegals," "aliens," "anchor-babies," etc.).

We specialize, as a group, in the study of the construction of otherness, and our collective examination of history shows all too clearly the tangible, bodily effects that this process inevitably has. Once a group of people has been repeatedly depicted as not quite human, their mistreatment is to be expected. We cannot stand silently while these acts occur, as to do so would be, through our silence, to voice our implicit consent. The history of assaults on Jews, Muslims, Africans, Indians, women, and on, throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, begins in each case with dehumanizing language and laws.

Despite an understanding of the financial ramifications that a full boycott might have had on MAA, we feel that matters of conscience are of greater significance. We also feel that the numbers of the recent poll have been misinterpreted, and their presentation misleading. That 32.7% of poor academics were willing to to give money to NOT attend a conference, in order to voice their solidarity in opposition to the blatant racism of these laws, speaks to the depth of their conviction. This is quite a high number, and probably overlaps with the 42% who voted to cancel the meeting altogether. Three-quarters of those who voted to cancel are willing to put their money where their mouths are, and that certainly should count for something. We are in a very homogenous field, and this collective action taken by MAA reinforces this. MAA had an opportunity to send a message to students interested in the field that the medievalist community is inclusive and welcoming. Instead, it has sent the opposite message. For a strong letter on this, see "The General's" guest post on Quod She.

What is at issue both in these laws and in the responses to them is perception. Otherness -- monstrosity, even -- is, of course, entirely a matter of perception: The idea that anyone "looks like an immigrant," or than there is anyone who does not speak with "a heavy accent" is rooted in the idea that the perspective (or appearance or accent) of the dominant group is not a perspective, at all. But so, too, all of the good intentions of those who argue that attendance of the meeting in AZ is the more helpful, ethical choice does not impact the perception of those who see this as an expression of unconcern with the rights of minorities.

If the Medieval Academy of America persist in holding the conference in Arizona, we the executive committee will boycott the meeting, and those of us currently members will withdraw our membership in the Academy, though we shall do so with regret, as we find the Academy's meetings to be excellent venues for the discussion of scholarship. With this letter, we voice our solidarity with those members of medievalist community in Arizona who have spoken out so eloquently about the need for this boycott. We will encourage our membership to do the same.

Asa Simon Mittman, Chico State
Jeff Massey, Molloy College
Larissa Tracy, Longwood University
Derek Newman-Stille, Trent University
Renee Ward, Wilfrid Laurier University

The following MEARCSTAPA members also asked to be added as signatory:

Frances Auld, University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk Co.
Robyn Cadwallader, Flinders University
Jeffrey J Cohen, George Washington University
Jill Frederick, Minnesota State University, Moorhead
Spyridon Gkounis, Ionian University, Corfu
Ana Grinberg, University of California, San Diego
Diane Heath, University of Kent
Marcus Hensel, University of Oregon
Norman Hinton, University of Illinois-Springfield
Eileen A. Joy, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Lisa LeBlanc, Anna Maria College
Dana M. Oswald, University of Wisconsin-Parkside
Karl Steel, Brooklyn College, CUNY
Debra Higgs Strickland, University of Glasgow
Kevin Teo, University of Calgary
Rodger Wilkie, St. Thomas University
Mary Williams, San Jose State University
Diane Wolfthal, Rice University
Aimeric Vacher, International School of Geneva

Note: This letter was forwarded to the Councillors of the Medieval Academy of America. Elizabeth (Peggy) Brown, Fellow and Former President of MAA replied to us as follows:

Dear Asa, Jeff, Larissa, Derek, and Renee,
Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking message, which at your request I am sending to all members of the Council of the Academy, voting and non-voting. I know I speak for them all in expressing gratitude for the time and effort you invested in writing your statement, in posting it on your website, and in sending it to us. Likewise, I know I speak for them in expressing our hope that you will reconsider your decision to resign from the Academy.
The members of the Executive Committee knew that the decision which was reached was bound to be controversial, given the different opinions expressed through the poll. We made the decision for the reasons we expressed in our announcement. The decision did not encourage, discourage, or mandate attendance. To attend or not to attend is a matter for individuals to decide for themselves. For members, the decision will not involve a financial penalty, as it would have done for the Academy had the Executive Committee canceled the meeting. Subsequent to the announcement of the decision on 3 August, the Executive Committee has learned that by MA statute, a quorum of the Council can be present through telephone conference.
Again, thank you for setting forth the views of your members and for sending them to us.
With every good wish, Peggy


Eileen Joy said...

Excellent letter. And as regards numbers in the MAA's letter explaining why they chose to *stay* in Arizona, less than 1/3 of MAA members responded to their poll--in which case, I just wish they had realized that this could have never been a so-called "majority-rule" decision, but needed to be an ethical "judgment" call of a dedicated leadership contingent.

Anonymous said...

Right on!