Professors at war

Searching for dissent at the MLA

By Scott Jaschik
January 4, 2004

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SAN DIEGO -- "Why are you headed to San Diego?" asked the man next to me on the plane. "I'm going to a meeting of English professors to hear what they have to say about the war with Iraq," I replied.

"English professors? On the war?" The man smirked. "I can't imagine what they would have to say."

Plenty, it turns out. This past week, about 8,000 professors and graduate students gathered here for the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. Most came for job interviews, to catch up with old friends, and to attend some of the 763 panels of scholars. But among the panels on topics ranging from Hawthorne to Asian cinema to "The Aesthetics of Trash" were a surprising number of sessions dealing with the war in Iraq, terrorism, patriotism, and American foreign policy.

Not that there was much actual debate. In more than a dozen sessions on war-related topics, not a single speaker or audience member expressed support for the war in Iraq or in Afghanistan. The sneering air quotes were flying as speaker after speaker talked of "so-called terrorism," "the so-called homeland," "the so-called election of George Bush," and so forth.

The approach to the war was certainly wide-ranging -- from cultural studies to rhetoric to literature to pure political speechifying. In a session on "Shock and Awe," Graham Hammill of Notre Dame traced the ideas behind the initial bombing back to the Roman historian and orator Tacitus's idea of arcana imperii, which translates roughly as "mysteries of state." Like Roman emperors who used rhetoric to sway the populace, Hammill argued, the Shock and Awe campaign was a rhetorical gesture aimed at demonstrating US power as much as flattening Baghdad.

At a different panel, Cynthia Young of the University of Southern California spoke about how the White House uses Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell "to create a distorted multiracial mask on imperialism." "What does it mean," Young asked, "when imperialism comes wrapped in a black bow?"

Instead of Rice's August speech comparing the Iraqi "liberation" with the civil rights struggle, she recommended the writings of the African-American activist and writer Angela Davis, who once described her alienation from white Americans mourning the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963, but not the four young black girls who died in the Birmingham church bombing that same year.

Similar alienation is evident today, Young said, as the United States ignores the problems facing minority citizens while taking over countries where people do not look or worship like white Americans. "The new patriotism looks a lot like the old slash-and-burn imperialism," she declared.

Berkeley's Judith Butler, a superstar of gender and literary studies, drew a packed house with her analysis of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's bad grammar and slippery use of the term "sovereignty."

On a 2002 visit to Eritrea, in response to a question about the detention of dissidents there, Rumsfeld declared: "A country is a sovereign nation and they arrange themselves and deal with their problems in ways that they feel are appropriate to them." Beyond the noun-verb agreement problem with "country" and "they," Butler rapped Rummy's knuckles for redefining sovereignty -- in her analysis -- as "the suspension of legal rights."

When the United States is challenged over the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, American officials assert that US courts have no jurisdiction there because we are not sovereign there, Butler pointed out. "We are using sovereignty to declare war against the law," she said, to nods throughout her talk and loud applause after it.

The MLA's deliberative body, the Delegate Assembly, adopted by a landslide margin of 122-8 a resolution supporting "the right of its members to conduct critical analysis of war talk" despite government efforts to "shape language to legitimate aggression, misrepresent policies, conceal aims, stigmatize dissent, and block critical thought."

Sometimes that critical analysis was aimed at elements of the antiwar left. While denouncing the "particularly evil cabal" that runs the country, Barbara Foley of Rutgers urged leftist critics to look beyond the distraction of "Bush's cowboyism" to "the Leninist notion of intra-imperialist rivalry" to explain US-European competition for domination of the oil-rich Middle East.

Anthony Dawahare of California State University at Northridge said that "whoever wins the war in Iraq, the working class people in Iraq and in the US will be subject to a dictatorship of the rich." In an interview, he said that unless Howard Dean challenged capitalism itself, student activism on his behalf would be "a waste of time."

Not that everyone at the MLA was preoccupied with Marxist analysis. Ask many of the graduate students or younger scholars what's on their mind, and they talk about finding a job.

The closest public challenge to the prevailing geopolitical views at the MLA came when one professor asked a panel that had derided American responses to 9/11 and Iraq what a good response would have looked like. She didn't get much of an answer, left the session, and declined to elaborate on her question.

But a young professor of English who followed her out the door to congratulate her did offer some thoughts on politics at the MLA. Aaron Santesso of the University of Nevada at Reno described himself as being "on the left" and sympathetic with much of the criticism of the war in Iraq. But he said that the tenor of the discussion "drives me nuts." "A lot of people here don't want the rhetoric to just be a shrill echo of the right," he said.

Just a few years ago, he noted, the Taliban was regularly attacked at MLA meetings for their treatment of women and likened to the American religious right. Now, there is only talk of how the United States has taken away the rights of the Afghan people.

Santesso said he gains a good perspective from his students, most of whom he characterized as "libertarian conservatives." Most of the debate at the MLA, he said, "would completely alienate my students."

Plenty of English professors share his views, Santesso said. And some of his colleagues are even conservative. They just avoid coming to the MLA.

Scott Jaschik, former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, is a writer in Washington.