A Victory for Responsible Advocacy — June 4, 2014

The Modern Language Association’s members have wisely voted to defeat Resolution 2014-1—with only 6% of members voting for it—and return the organization to its core purposes: deepening our understanding of our long, compelling, international literary inheritance; improving our resources for teaching our students; and promoting the role and presence of the humanities here and abroad. This is a task that grows larger and more challenging with every year, and it would only be made more difficult if we turned the organization into a vehicle for the partisan politics of a minority of its members.

At least for now, that destructive agenda has been rejected. Indeed most MLA members were so opposed to the resolution and the attempt to politicize the organization that they refused to vote at all. But continued vigilance is essential. This resolution might have won approval had it not been for the hard work done by MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights. MLA rules require only that the evidence supplied by a resolution’s proposers be distributed to voting members. That meant that the MLA distributed a resolution criticizing a foreign country’s visa policies to 23,900 people with a packet of supporting “evidence” cobbled together from the web sites of partisan political organizations. No counter-evidence—only an online member debate offering a wide range of opinion—was sent out with the link to the ballot. With no support from the MLA, MLAMFSR sent out a fact sheet to the 20,000 member emails made available in the MLA directory, assuring that at least those members had access to a critical set of facts. Regrettably, the MLA then objected to our having done so.

In our opinion, the MLA needs to revise its procedures to make certain that controversial resolutions are accompanied by evidence recommending both for and against approval. We believe that, given the opportunity, MLA members would overwhelmingly endorse such a change.

There are times when the MLA has a reason to enter political debates—most notably when US government policy affects its members’ ability to teach and do research. But MLA does not need a foreign policy. In this case, a resolution’s proposers imagined themselves qualified to judge how another country’s security needs should impact that country’s visa policies. Anecdotal evidence, largely disproven by MMFSR, was offered in place of the careful investigative research needed to address such an issue.

Had MLA members endorsed the resolution, they would have been disowning the standards for research and informed advocacy that have guided the academy throughout modern history. Meanwhile, the organization has sadly suffered the public display of
religious and ethnic bias that a few of its members indulged in during the online debate over the resolution. The risk of that happening was high from the outset, from the moment the resolution’s proposers decided that one country’s visa policies should be singled out for criticism, despite similar and worse rules obtaining elsewhere. The resolution’s proposers and its supporters chose not to distance themselves from the racism and anti-Semitism that their initiative attracted.

Whether a sufficient lesson has been learned by this experience remains to be seen. While we hope so, we will remain attentive to future developments.

 

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