MESA: No Longer Non-Political?

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is North America’s leading venue for academic discussions related to the modern Middle East across a range of disciplines, from history to sociology, anthropology to literature.  Since the Middle East obviously matters to the world today, the forum where the experts discuss everything related to the Middle East is important, not just to academics, but to the broader public.  And since, as academics have increasingly pointed out, the rules of the forum shape what can or cannot be discussed in that forum, then a proposed change in the bylaws of MESA’s constitution are of public interest.  MESA members are debating and voting upon whether to strike the word “non-political” from the organization’s self-characterization, adding to the end of the academic society’s objectives the phrase “in accordance with its status as a 501(c)(3) scientific, educational, literary, and charitable organization.”  This post presents my understanding of the issues and evaluation of the options; of course, I welcome discussion or correction.

On the one hand, the resolution drew upon a generation of cultural critique in the academy which asserts that nothing is really non-political.  So of course MESA is also not really non-political.  And some of the activities of MESA, such as defending academic freedom, involve writing letters to politicians and intervening in political debates to support the field.  In that sense, then, this resolution’s proposed change to the MESA bylaws seems obvious: nothing is non-political, not even MESA.  In the academy, we know this.

But the MESA constitution has a broader audience than just academics.  The constitutive documents of this academic society are also intended to communicate MESA’s character to government administrators, journalists, politicians, and pundits, and this broader audience has not necessarily adopted academia’s broad definition of “political,” with its concomitant denial of the possibility of truly being non-political.  In the highly politicized and partisan climate of US politics today, “non-political” is often read as a synonym for “non-partisan.”  Consequently, abandoning the adjective would strike many people a decision to forsake not only the myth of objectivity, but even the pursuit of evenhandedness and fairness, however perpetually imperfect.  In short, striking “non-political” from the bylaws may easily sound like embracing partisanship and favoritism.

This impression may seem only confirmed by the increasing political onesidedness of the humanities and the progressive schism of modern Middle Eastern studies into Zionist and pro-Palestinian factions (of unequal size).  Thirty years ago, MESA sponsored a debate between (among others) Bernard Lewis and Edward Said, and though audience response clearly favored one side, both were present and fully articulated their views.  It is unclear whether MESA could be the venue for such a debate today.  Ten years ago, Bernard Lewis and others founded a revival learned society (ASMEA), evidently to be more congenial to Zionist views.  Two years ago MESA membership approved a resolution declaring the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement to be protected free speech.  A few pro-Israeli MESA members claimed that the resolution passing would mean they could no longer maintain their membership, but the dominant arguments offered against the resolution were that it was unnecessary, and that MESA is “non-political.”  Hence this resolution being considered may be taking place in a trajectory of related resolutions.  But the danger, if MESA and ASMEA provide parallel discussions (even if of unequal size), is for each to become its own sounding-box of like-minded people with shared politics, which Stanford’s former provost recently warned was a danger to academic discourse across the humanities.

Whether MESA members decided to support or reject the resolution to change the wording, neither wording seems to me ideal.  The current “non-political” wording seems to preclude necessary and legitimate activities in which MESA is already engaged.  Scholars should not be required to abstain from policy discussions which impinge upon their ability to continue doing their job.  On the other hand, striking “non-political” and adding a reference to the non-profit status could seem to weaken MESA’s commitment to one of the core values of scholarship, namely following reasoning even when it leads in politically inconvenient directions.  Anyone who follows political commitments in defiance of knowledge is not a scholar.  In order to avoid the Scylla of willful partiality and the Charybdis of the ivory tower, my own suggestion would be for MESA members to emend the bylaws in a different way, replacing “non-political” with “non-partisan.”  But of course, no one asked me; adopting that language would require a separate proposed resolution, which no one may be interested enough to pursue.

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