Regarding the ASA Boycott: An Open Letter to President Biddy Martin of Amherst College

Dear President Martin,

I am saddened but not surprised by the statement you have made (which I append below) condemning the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Amherst College has a long history of invoking “academic freedom” whenever peace and freedom movements threaten to disrupt the status quo.

When I attended Amherst back in the early 1970s, students responded to president Nixon’s intensification and expansion of the war against Vietnam and Cambodia by insisting that the College halt “business as usual” and consider the ways in which it was complicit in the war effort. Using words strikingly like yours, the institution’s first response to these students’ calls was to claim that they threatened “academic freedom.”

In those years too, African-American students demanded that the College halt “business as usual” and face the ways its curriculum and community were perverted by racism. Using language remarkably like yours, the institution’s first response was to claim that these students were irresponsibly jeopardizing the College’s “academic freedom.”

As soon became clear, however, these students and their social movements did not curtail “academic freedom.” They broadened it.

Thanks to these students’ efforts, we have now have a Five-College Program in Peace and World Security Studies that focuses on exactly the issues the College’s conventional curriculum in the early 1970s omitted and occluded.

Thanks to these students’ willingness to put “academic freedom” at risk, students at Amherst today routinely study hundreds of African-American artists, thinkers, writers, and activists whose work was missing from Amherst’s curriculum in the 1960s and early ‘70s.

Doubtless you know this history well. You graduated from college just one year after I did. This is the history of our lifetime.

Yet not a hint of this history finds expression in your boilerplate condemnation of the ASA’s resolution. It saddens me to see you seemingly suppressing your own historical perspective in obedience to the dictates of an institutional role you are compelled to perform.

As scholars of history, the ASA’s members are well aware of these dynamics. They know how difficult it is for individuals to resist absorption by the institutions that employ them. They also know that the primary mission of most academic institutions, including Amherst College, is self-perpetuation not defense of meaningful academic freedom. Indeed, it was to protect the real freedom of individuals that the ASA carefully chose to boycott institutions, not individuals, and refrained from insisting that its own individual members participate in the boycott. That the importance of this distinction is lost on you reflects how completely you, in this moment, have been absorbed by the institution you represent.

Moreover, it is just here, when we see a person disappearing into an institution, that we see the disappearance of meaningful academic freedom. For your statement makes no effort to explain why you think that “such boycotts threaten academic freedom and exchange.” (If you would like to see what a genuine discussion of this matter looks like, I refer you to this one in the on-line journal Crooked Timber: http://crookedtimber.org/2013/12/26/does-the-asa-boycott-violate-academic-freedom-how/). The presumption here is that your audience should be satisfied with your claims and not seek for the reasons behind them. Is it necessary to explain why such a presumption by an academic leader poses a grave threat to meaningful academic freedom?

“Progress,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “does not roll in on wheels of inevitability. “ To move forward, we must act. Yet with actions come risks – in this case, the risk that bringing pressure to bear on Israel’s policies will curtail more academic freedom than it promotes.

The real challenge we face, then, is to define and assess that risk, not merely invoke it.  It is to weigh that risk against the risk of continuing inaction on this issue, instead of pretending that continuing inaction has no costs to Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans.

Your bland statement makes no attempt to engage in such balanced risk assessment. Like the “moderates” whom King judged to be his most insidious foes, you present yourself as standing to one side, in a perfect world on which no urgent issues impinge, thinking and speaking in a vacuum. Is this what you want to train today’s Amherst students to do? Is this the kind of “thinking” you want to model for them? Is such “thinking” the core enterprise of what you call “academic freedom?”

Even as someone who did not vote in favor of the ASA resolution, I stand with those who ask: why are US academic institutions like Amherst College so quick to defend “academic freedom” in this case without ever having condemned the many restrictions the state of Israel has imposed on the academic freedom of Palestinians and of its own citizens? Your position painfully reminds me of the many college and university presidents of the 1960s, who were very quick to deplore student protests and very slow to admit that systemic research relationships with the Defense Department had their own stultifying effects on academic freedom. Instead of merely issuing terse declarative statements on the inviolability of academic freedom, why not use the ASA boycott as an opportunity for a campus-wide discussion of how to balance such freedom with the ethical demands of global citizenship?

At this moment, Amherst College students past and present – perhaps especially those of my generation — can only wonder what you take “academic freedom” to be, exactly why you think the ASA’s boycott jeopardizes it, and what alternative steps you believe Amherst College can legitimately take to ensure the academic freedom of Palestinians and Israelis. Will you address such important questions today? Or will you wait until you’ve stepped down from the presidency of the College and reclaimed a more meaningful freedom than the one you now defend?

Sincerely,

Nick Bromell (Class of 1972)

Addendum: President Biddy Martin’s Letter

Dear Members of the Amherst Community,

I join my colleague presidents in the American Association of Universities (AAU) and many among liberal arts colleges who oppose the boycott of Israeli academic institutions that was recently passed by a majority of the American Studies Association (ASA) members, as well as by two other academic associations.

Amherst College is not an institutional member of the ASA nor is our Department of American Studies. Individual members of the association on our campus are obviously free to vote as they wish. On behalf of the College, I express opposition to this academic boycott for several related reasons. Such boycotts threaten academic freedom and exchange, which it is our solemn duty as academic institutions to protect. They prohibit potential collaborations among the very institutions whose purpose is to promote critical thought and the free exchange of ideas. In their public statement, the members of the executive committee of the AAU emphasize what I consider to be the most compelling reason to oppose the boycott: “[Academic freedom] is a principle that should not be abridged by political considerations.” Indeed, it is the very definition of academic freedom that freedom of inquiry should not be constrained by political pressures. In its explanation of the importance of academic freedom and tenure, the American Association of University Professors has emphasized, throughout its history,that its benefits go well beyond the protection of individual scholars and academic institutions. Perhaps its most important benefit is to the society that depends for its own well-being on freedom of thought and exchange and those institutions whose mission it is to promote them. I call on the community to consider for us all the far-reaching implications of political gestures that limit or have the potential to limit the pursuit and exchange of ideas.

Best to Forget King’s “Dream” Speech?

On this 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, it is time to recognize that the activists, artists, and common citizens who demanded fairness for black Americans were also creating democracy for all Americans. The meaning of their struggle lives not in the past, but in the present.

Of course, as we commemorate that hot summer afternoon of August 28, 1963, we can’t help seeing the March as an old faded photograph and hearing the speech as a crackly old recording. These moments are past.  We remember them and memorialize them. They happened then, and we live now.

But if this is all we do, we are failing the vision of democracy King and many other African American activists have shared. For them, the past must be remembered but also overcome. For Americans too often assume that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution settled our political problems long ago. All we have to do now is sit back and let these documents fulfill their promise.

But as King pointed out, “Progress does not roll in on wheels of inevitability.” Democracy demands continuous action in the present.

This is why Frederick Douglass spoke often of “the ever-present now” and even claimed that “we have to do with the past only as it is of use to the present.” This is why James Baldwin wrote that, “The time is always now,” and why King himself exhorted Americans to heed “the fierce urgency of now.”

The Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to overturn the crucial section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 perfectly exemplifies the harm a mistaken emphasis on the past can do. While the majority’s reasoning seemed to criticize the law for being outdated, it actually did the opposite. It complacently praised past accomplishments and overlooked deep threats to equality in the present.

The Court observed that in 1965, the white voter registration rate in southern states was around 69 percent, the black rate only 19 percent. By 2004, the gap had shrunk to about 74 percent for whites and 73 percent for blacks by 2004.

“There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act,” Chief Justice Roberts concluded. “The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.”

On this basis, he drew the further conclusion that the past has solved our present problems.  Section 4’s work is over and done with. We don’t need it anymore.

But this reasoning ignores the fact that after 1965 Congress had to invoke Section 4 repeatedly to ensure that minority voting rights continued to be honored. It ignores too that Republican-dominated state legislatures are at this moment passing new laws to widen the gap that the Act’s continuing enforcement had narrowed.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg carefully documented these points.

It’s no wonder, then, that Douglass and King were so wary of the past.

This is why the best way to honor King’s great speech is not to remember it but to act on it. Indeed, his familiar words pull us so powerfully into the past that we might do better to forget about it – to recall a different speech delivered that very afternoon. John Lewis’s.

Today a Congressman, then a young civil rights activist, Lewis declared: “I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation.  Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.  We must get in this revolution and complete the revolution.”

I think King would agree that the best way to honor August 28, 1963 is to understand democracy as he and Lewis did:  it is always uncompleted, and we must continue to act on its behalf. Now.