The jury is still out in the great contest for the most discredited academic organization in America. The contenders are many. The competition is fierce. Almost every discipline in the humanities and social sciences has fielded an impressive team. Anyone who has attended an annual meeting of the College Art Association knows how adept many academic art historians have become at substituting hermetic sermons about race, class, gender, and other items on the agenda of cultural politics for any concern with the substance of art. The American Historical Association has done yeoman’s work as well, often transforming the study of history into an ideological battleground. Ditto professional organizations for anthropology and sociology. And of course “Women’s Studies” and kindred pseudo-disciplines have been producing stunning performers for decades now.
No one questions the obvious commitment to grievance-mongering and obfuscation displayed by these organizations. Nor can anyone seriously gainsay their remarkable talent for political hectoring, on the one hand, and intellectually nugatory faux-scholarship, on the other. We freely acknowledge all that. Nevertheless, when it comes to awarding the palm for betraying an intellectual legacy, consistency and stamina—the ability to compete true to form year in and year out—count as much as momentary awfulness or isolated star players. And considered from this long-term perspective, no organization has performed so badly for so long as the Modern Language Association, the largest and most risible organization of academics in the country.
The end of December is not only Kwanzaa-time but also the time when most academic fraternities gather to confabulate, filling one or more large hotels or convention centers with their vaporings, job offers, and sundry bits of professional business. It has been nearly ten years since we forswore the annual meetings of the MLA: “Enough,” we said after that last experience, “is enough.”
Since then, we have given the MLA a wide berth. Every now and then, however, we get news of its doings. Just recently, a conscientious reader sent us parts of the most recent MLA Newsletter. Of particular interest were the “Proposals for the 2003 Delegate Assembly Meeting.” Four of the five proposals were submitted “on behalf of the Radical Caucus in English and Modern Languages.” None had anything to do with the study of literature. The one proposal not submitted on behalf of the Radical Caucus concerned itself with the unionization of graduate teaching assistants at Yale. The other proposals were pretty much all of piece. One asked that the MLA urge “the repeal of the U.S.A. Patriot Act.” Another wanted the MLA to deplore “government war-making projects” and urge “the withdrawal of troops and reallocation of funds to reverse inattention to, and grave deficits in, funding of education and other human services.” A third had to do with pay for graduate students, teaching assistants, and adjunct faculty. The remaining proposal is worth quoting in full.
Whereas in wartime, governments commonly shape language to legitimate aggression, misrepresent policies, conceal aims, stigmatize dissent, and block critical thought; and Whereas distortions of this sort proliferate now, as in the use of the phrase “war on terrorism,” to underwrite military action anywhere in the world, against whomever our government sees as opponents; and Whereas we are professionals committed to scrupulous inquiry into language and culture; Be it resolved that the Modern Language Association supports its members in conducting critical analysis of war talk, in public forums and, as appropriate, in classrooms.
A great deal could be said about this passage—especially by someone really (as distinct from merely verbally) “committed to scrupulous inquiry into language and culture.” Consider, for example, the deflationary scare-quotes around the phrase “war on terrorism”: exactly what degree of skepticism are we to infer from these instruments of equivocation? Do the authors of this proposal doubt that terrorism is a worldwide problem or that the United States is committed to combatting it by every means possible, including military means? Again: what evidence is brought forward for the sweeping indictments handed down in these few sentences? Who says that the enumerated “distortions … proliferate now”? In what sense, if any, has dissent been “stigmatized”? Isn’t the Radical Caucus freely engaged in high-profile dissent within a prominent academic professional body? How has our government “misrepresented” its policies? On the contrary, has not the Bush administration been clear as daylight about its intentions? What evidence is there that the habit of critical thought has been “blocked”—besides, we mean, the evidence of such Pavlovian responses on the part of institutions like the MLA?
A useful essay might be written about the political misuse of language, taking this proposal as an illustration. But odious though the rhetoric and assumptions of the proposal are, perhaps the most disturbing thing about it is the resolution: that the MLA should support members who undertake “critical analysis”—read: ideological indoctrination—in “public forums and, as appropriate, in classrooms.” In other words, the writers of this proposal are asking for an official imprimatur to employ the classroom as a left-wing, anti-American propaganda machine. Will the MLA hierarchy oblige? By the time you read this, the answer will be known. In practical terms, it hardly matters, since many classrooms supposedly devoted to the study of literature are already given over at least partly to political sermonizing. But in a larger sense, the MLA’s capitulation on this issue would be one more evidence of its subordination of literary issues to politics—one more evidence, that is, of its intellectual and moral bankruptcy.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 5, on page 1
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