Sunday, August 8, 2010

Guest Post: On the Medieval Academy's meeting in Tempe, Arizona

Now that I'm back from my brief Midwestern vacation, it's time to get serious again. And for starters, I have a guest post from my friend The General on why she won't be going to the Medieval Academy of America's annual meeting in Tempe, Arizona, in April, and why she's not renewing her membership.

But first, let me give a little background for my non-medievalist/non-academic readers who might want or need it. In May, Jeffrey Cohen at In the Middle started the discussion of whether or not the MAA should move the meeting out of Arizona. That post garnered 74 comments and ultimately led to an open letter to the MAA urging them to cancel or move the meeting, signed by 170 people. That letter, plus discussions elsewhere, spurred the MAA to poll its members by e-mail and a web-based poll. On August 3, the MAA executive committee came to its final decision to keep the meeting in Tempe, and sent to the membership an e-mail letter announcing that decision. Karl Steel at In the Middle posted the letter here. And Inside Higher Ed followed up with a story.

That's the background. In response, The General wrote a letter to the Medieval Academy which she also posted as a note on Facebook and asked me to post here. It's still in the form of an address to the Medieval Academy, but it's been slightly edited since she sent it off to them. And although she's happy to have her name attached to it, I decided to keep in the spirit of this blog and use her pseudonym.

So, without further ado, below is what The General had to say to the Medieval Academy.


Dear Medieval Academy,

I just read your recent announcement about your decision to proceed with the 2011 meeting in Arizona. I am deeply disappointed and rather stunned at your decision. As one of the few medievalists of color in the profession and on your membership roster, your decision means that anyone of color (or any shade other than white) will be under surveillance, put in the category of second-class citizen, and generally thought of as a person of suspicion if they even attend the Arizona meeting. As someone who has served for several years on a board of directors that managed a revenue stream of 70 million dollars, I understand the directive of fiduciary responsibility quite well. But I also would like to point out that your choice means that you have chosen monetary gain over human value for your organization. You have decided that diversity and encouraging students and faculty of color to go into Medieval Studies is not a core value of the Academy. Rather, the fiduciary bottom line of the endowment is more important.

Your letter states that you feel that you were not in a position to make a “collective political statement” for the entire group, but yet you have. Your decision means that a minority of your membership will be excluded, treated as alien others, and asked to constantly carry “papers” during their trip. You are asking me and every other member with a skin shade not deemed “American” or an accent not considered “standard” to accept this treatment and see it as just another political issue. When were basic civil rights a partisan political issue rather than an ethical and moral one? It would be one thing if you wanted not to hold a meeting in a state or location because it had voted Democrat or Republican; that would be a partisan “collective political statement." But you are asking me and any person of color to walk into a state and pretend that being a second-class citizen is fine. When did basic civil rights become a partisan political statement? I was under the impression that all the members of the Medieval Academy believed in civil rights. Or had I and other members been wrong? Is the Medieval Academy still an ivory tower institution that excludes, women, people of color, and the disabled? Is the Academy not interested in supporting their members and equity? For me, these were the issues at stake in your decision. And your answer to these questions were shattering.

Your decision and letter tells me that I should find it acceptable to come to a professional academic meeting and wear a figurative star on my lapel and have my papers potentially checked at every turn. What you are saying to me and every scholar (domestic and international) of color is that discrimination is fine, that equitable treatment in our field is not a priority or an inalienable right. This is the very opposite of community building. You say in your letter that it is about the work that people have done, yet the meeting’s presence in Arizona is going to overshadow the work. I would be queasy discussing Lateran IV’s restrictions and injunctions against Jews and Saracens in a state that is enacting their own version of these laws. The conference will not be an exercise in political free speech; rather it will condone the behaviors that put members of the academy under scrutiny.

Several blog comments discussing this decision have said it would be OK to have the meeting and just organize for political action. I completely disagree because this is not "just" a political issue; you are asking people to be comfortable with other members of the Academy being stopped, asked for papers, possibly arrested, and held for questioning. You are asking that our personal rights be assaulted, abused, and trampled on all to attend a professional meeting.

You are asking too much and therefore I plan to boycott the Medieval Academy and encourage anyone else to do likewise. I do not want to be part of an organization that feels it is acceptable for me to be discriminated against.

The General


squadratomagico said...

That is a perfect, eloquent, even moving letter. I couldn't agree more and I applaud The General for composing such an amazing statement. Thanks for sharing it.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

This is beautiful. Kudos to the General for putting it so eloquently.

Please let her know on my behalf that I'll be forwarding the link to this post to a friend of mine who is one of the few Latinas active in the American Society for Environmental History, and who has been personally wounded by the fact that the majority opinion among the membership discussing moving or cancelling their upcoming meeting in AZ, even in this "liberal" organization, basically told her and the other Latinas who objected that their concerns were a boutique issue, and they really should not be making such a fuss.

(Damn, that was a long sentence. Sorry.)

Vellum said...

Please don't misunderstand me when I say this, because it comes from a genuine questioning attitude, and not one of condescension or disbelief: I was under the impression that the elements of the law that had been problematic, the whole "show me your papers" bit (which, as a non-american living in america had distressed me also) had been suspended. Am I incorrect in believing this? I had assumed that their (the MAA's) decision had been timed after the court decision specifically for this reason. Do I misunderstand the ruling? Should I suspend any plans to go to Arizona?

Dr. Virago said...

Vellum, you're right that "the hand me your papers" part of the law has been *suspended*, but it's still in the law. A suspension is a temporary hold. Meanwhile, that decision is being appealed. We're still in the early, early stages of this law's outcome and nothing final has been decided. And I have to say, given the ugly context in which this law was passed and the rhetoric its proponents used, I wouldn't feel welcome in Arizona if I didn't seem "American" enough.

And I would add to The General's concern about the "papers please" law an equal concern about the law banning ethnic studies in schools and requiring teachers to have the "correct" accent. These are issues directly relevant to our expertise in our wider disciplines (and even to the Medieval studies part of them -- I teach about dialect in Middle English, for example) and we should be speaking out loudly about their ignorance.

That said, I have to say, as measly and infuriating as the MAA's letter was, and as heartsick and angry as the Arizona laws make me, I'm not sure boycotting the conference and the organization is the response for me (I should note that I never intended to go to this conference anyway, though). I think it ends up hurting medievalists and medieval studies and the ACMRS, and will have no effect on Arizona and Arizonans. Then again, I read eloquent statments like The General's and get mad all over again that the MAA forgot about the experience of its non-white and international members. Argh.

So whether or not you should suspend plans to go to Arizona is hard for me to answer.

Vellum said...

I didn't realize there was so much more to the law, especially the parts about ethnic studies. What is wrong with these people? Are they just terrified of change?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Vellum, I think the Ethnic Studies thing may be a different law, but one that arises from the same political context of unreasonable fear. I know that many Arizonans (Latina/o and Anglo/a alike) don't agree with their state's new laws, so I'd hate to see them all tarred with the same brush. But we appear to be entering a dark period with regard to white/anglo retrenchment.

As for your earlier question, the application of the law was changed, but I believe (and someone correct me if I'm wrong here) that the MAA took their decision a couple of weeks before that happened.

Peterk said...

"your decision means that anyone of color (or any shade other than white) will be under surveillance, put in the category of second-class citizen, and generally thought of as a person of suspicion if they even attend the Arizona meeting."
It is apparent that the letter writer has not read the law at all. If they had they would know that their assertion is absurd to say the least.

Peterk said...

""show me your papers" bit (which, as a non-american living in america had distressed me also) had been suspended. "

if you have read the law you would know that if you are stopped for a valid legal reason, such as running a red light, speeding or whatever and you present the law enforcement officer with a valid state issued id such as a drivers license, state id or some other form of identification showing that you are a legally in the US then you have no problem. Those opposed to the law (including our President) have put forth all sorts of ignorant hypotheticals such as the police stopping you and "asking you for your papers". no such thing can take place.

"the Ethnic Studies thing may be a different law, but one that arises from the same political context of unreasonable fear"

the law concerning Ethnic studies is aimed at groups such as La Raza which push for the over throw of US.

i'm really saddened to see that individuals who have achieved the level that they have education wise (PhD level) have failed to thoroughly research the issue and instead rely upon falsehoods and hyperbole

Dr. Virago said...


Here's the "show us your papers" language. It's item B of section 8 of the law:


"Lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, or town or other political subdivision..." is *extremely* broad (one reason why it has been suspended by the court at this point). It's *much* broader than being stopped for going through a red light. But even if it weren't, even if the law were written to say that such request could only be made in case of an arrest or citation, there is no federal requirement that Americans have to carry *any* ID on them at all times, whether proof or identity or citizenship. I do not need my driver's license on me if I'm walking down the street -- something I once pointed out to a police officer who asked to see my ID when I jaywalked in LA.

And a driver's license doesn't prove legal residence or citizenship. It proves you passed a driver's test, and in many states, that's all you have to do to get it. A passport proves residence or citizenship, but you aren't supposed to need a passport to travel within the US, and not all people have one. And frankly, I have no idea where my birth certificate is. So if I were lawfully engaged by a state, county, or city agent in AZ, at best I might have my driver's license on me, and under the law *as written* (though not, *at the moment* as enforced, since that part is suspended), I could be detained until I proved my legal right to be in the US.

But see, that's not likely to happen to me, because I'm white and speak with a MidWestern accent. I am fearful for my friends who don't have that privileged invisibility.

Dr. Virago said...

To everyone, for your information:

Here's the text of SB1070 (the "papers, please," law) -- it opens as a PDF in your web browser:

Here's the text of HB2281 (the ethnic studies law), another PDF:

The policy about teachers with accents is a AZ Dept. of Education policy. Here's the story from the Wall Street Journal in April:

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Dr. V., Peter left similar comments on my own post on the subject a while back -- precisely the same assumptions about what we have and haven't read, and precisely the same dismissal of the real concerns involved.

Why he is trolling these posts (he's not an MAA member, so he doesn't really have a dog in this fight), I don't know.

Anonymous said...

They sent me a reply... [the general]
Dear ______,
> Thank you for taking the time to write us about your feelings concerning the decision of the Executive Committee. As we said in our message, we struggled long and hard as we pondered our duties and responsibilities, both personal and official, and as we tried to balance the range of issues we enumerated in our message. As we said, we took special note of the poll of the membership, the division in sentiments there expressed, and the fact that not many members were willing to contribute to the cost of canceling the meeting -- as well as our fiduciary obligation as officers to protect the Academy's endowment.
> The decision to hold the meeting in Tempe does not mean that the Executive Committee has mandated (or could or would wish to mandate) attendance, even for officers. We have established that according to Massachusetts statute Councilors can participate in the meetings of Council by conference call. We have no idea how many members -- or officers -- will decide to attend the meeting in person.
> On the other hand, we will be working with the Program Committee to ensure that, insofar as possible, the program reflects the full range of members' concerns about issues comparable to those raised by the Arizona legislation.
> The decision reached by the Executive Committee could not please everyone, obviously. But it is the result of conscientious reflection and discussion, and was motivated by the desire to act as responsibly as we could.

thefrogprincess said...

I was directed over here from Notorious's blog and, as a woman of color in a field where there are few of us (not medieval history but one in which there are similar small numbers), I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of General's letter, even if I do have a tad more sympathy for the plight of the conference organizers. But I think Dr. Virago makes a critical point that I've encountered all too rarely: not only is this legislation a problem b/c of the racial profiling implicit within the legislation--and for those who insist racial profiling is still illegal in this legislation, I'm still waiting to hear from them a list of the circumstances that might lead a police officer to have "reasonable suspicion" that doesn't involve skin color and/or levels of command of English--this legislation is a problem b/c it demands that people produce proof that they're American citizens in a country where there is no one document that every American has that proves citizenship. (In fact, if I recall correctly, the number of Americans with passports is incredibly low.) This is one of the key reasons people of color are concerned.

What keeps an American citizen of Hispanic descent who may have been born in another country and then naturalized or who may have grown up in a Spanish-only household in the United States from being deported if they don't happen to have a passport or birth certificate on hand? (Two documents, incidentally, that we're all told NOT to carry with us at all times.) And what if said person doesn't have a passport and doesn't have a birth certificate for whatever reason? In this hostile climate, I for one do not have faith that investigating authorities will take the time to ascertain someone's status before unceremoniously dumping them in countries where they may have no ties, no family, etc.

So yes, PeterK, people of color regardless of immigration or citizenship status have good reason to be concerned. The irony is that undocumented/documented aliens are more likely to have some version of "papers" on them than are American citizens.

Moreover, the rationale for this kind of legislation, as elaborated on NPR's Radio Times by a Pennsylvania legislator drawing up similar education, generally rests on casting illegal immigrants (and really we're just speaking about people of Hispanic descent) as a criminal element: illegal immigrants, so the story goes, commit crime; terrorize, kill, and rape American citizens; and spread disease. Apparently the fact that white American citizens do all of those things in higher number (by default) means nothing. But what such a narrative does is paint people who "look" and "sound" Hispanic as a danger to our society and that association will remain. It doesn't magically go away once someone's "status" is cleared up.

Sorry for the rant, Dr. Virago, but I find this latest development in our nation incredibly distressing.

Dr. Virago said...

By all means, Frog Princess, rant away! And welcome!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Did I misread the MAA's (?form-) letter to the General, or did it inform her of things she pointed out in her letter that she was already aware of (fiduciary responsibilities), then proceed to ignore the real matter for her expressed concern (MAA is telling their members that equality and justice matter less than money)?


Dr. Virago said...

Nope, you didn't misread it. It also very helpfully (<- note sarcasm) suggested she could just skip the meeting. You know, let the white people get on with business.

And it seems that it is *not* a form letter. The General asked someone else who wrote a letter of resignation if s/he got the same letter and s/he did not.

Yeah, so they compounded their original wussiness by adding insult to injury.

Dr. Virago said...

OK, weirdly, a comment I made with links to the laws and to an article about the school board's policy on teacher with accents has disappeared (even though it got e-mailed to me). Since it's handy to have, I'm reposting.

To everyone, for your information:

Here's the text of SB1070 (the "papers, please," law) -- it opens as a PDF in your web browser:

Here's the text of HB2281 (the ethnic studies law), another PDF:

The policy about teachers with accents is a AZ Dept. of Education policy. Here's the story from the Wall Street Journal in April:

medievalkarl said...

'the law concerning Ethnic studies is aimed at groups such as La Raza which push for the over throw of US'

Ha! This is hilarious. Or it would be if the paranoid xenophobic Right didn't actually believe it. You want to tamp down on insurrectionism? Start by destroying Southern monuments to Confederates. Unless you're committed to combating neoconfederates, I can't take your defense of the US seriously. 

On MEDTEXTL I've seen arguments in favor of the 'papers please' law that cited the increase in crime (by people here illegally) & dangers of terrorism from immigrants. The first is simply false, a symptom of confirmation bias; the second is howlingly false, since so far as I know, acts of terrorism in America since 2001 have been committed by people here legally, and, especially since 2008, by US citizens. 

One wonders what motivates the Right?

There are also those who say, 'what part if illegal don't you understand?' I expect they'll show up soon. I invite them to consider possible counterarguments before they ask this silly question. 

Ms. Grinberg said...

Dr. Virago, I am thankful for your blog entry. My skin might be white, but once I open my big Latina mouth I am banned from Arizona!

I will introduce this blog to the Medieval Grads list, in case someone is not aware of the issue already.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Dr V, thank you for the post, and for bringing more attention to an issue you know that I have passionate feelings about.

Dr. Virago said...

Ana and Jeffrey - Thanks go more properly to "The General." I just gave her a public platform.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I just got the message on the 3 ASU profs who resigned from the program committee.

Interestinger and interestinger.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I just saw that, too. Holy Crap.

OMGfunny! My verification word is Dumbo!

medievalkarl said...

I just got the message on the 3 ASU profs who resigned from the program committee.

Wild! But I haven't seen that. Where? If there's a link, please provide, so I can put up a notice on In the Middle.

Dr. Virago said...

Notorious -- Wait, what? What message?

Dr. Virago said...

Ah, I see the letter is now posted at In the Middle:

Unknown said...

As an indication of the larger ramifications of SB1070, over the last year I have been asked for my green card every time I pass through the border control road block east of Yuma AZ. I'm a blue eyed blonde, but as soon as I open my mouth I'm identified as "other" (Brit) and required to supply proof that I'm legally in the country. this law has the potential to infringe the civil rights of all Americans.

Unknown said...

Thank you, General, for writing this letter. The letter you received back just blows my mind for all the ways in which is doesn't really address your concerns at all. Man, the MAA is trying SO hard not to address the issues of race, racial profiling, the ethico-historical dimensions of all of this, etc., that I just can't . . . believe it. It's so sad.

Dr. Virago said...

Rosalynn -- Wait, they ask specifically for your green card (even though driving =/= working!)? And what if you were a mere tourist?? And is this an actual border crossing, or just a road block like a sobriety road block? Argh!

Eileen -- indeed.

sangremort said...

As a foreign medievalist, I decided not to renew my member at the MAA. My accent is too heavy.