A Few Takeaways from the Controversy Surrounding the ASA Resolution

The ASA resolution denouncing Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians has provoked a great deal of discussion. I think that it may be beneficial to delineate some of the conclusions that might be drawn from that discussion.

Some of the discussion has been very beneficial because it is focusing attention in a much-needed way on the complexities of academic freedom.

On the other hand, much of the discussion is disadvantageous to advocates of academic freedom because the impetus for the discussion is one of the most longstanding and highly charged political issues of the last century. Although it is true that only such a high-profile issue might have provoked such extensive discussion, positions on that issue are coloring much of the discussion and distorting much of the understanding of what the assertion and the protection of academic freedom involves.

Likewise, the discussion is beneficial because it is focusing attention on how attempts to do the “right thing,” academically and politically, can turn out to be very counterproductive. But that benefit is coming at a considerable cost.

Ironically, for all of the firestorm that it has created, the ASA’s resolution is at least as ambiguous in its intent and reach as it might be said to be clear. At the very least, it is clear that although the resolution seems to call for a boycott, there is little consensus on what exactly is being boycotted. That ambiguity is, paradoxically, probably being compounded by the very nuanced but very academic discussion of the issues involved.

Thus, it is more likely that the much less nuanced, bullet-point assertions of those viewing the issue through the prisms of strong political ideologies are going to shape any broader public discussion of those issues—or of whatever pieces of those issues make it into the broader public discussion.

In any case, it is very clear that whatever the ASA is actually advocating in its resolution and almost everything that those outraged by the resolution are proposing in reaction to it are likely to have equally little impact on anything directly related to the resolution: Israeli-Palestinian relations or U.S. and Israeli universities and scholars.

But all of this is going to have a major impact, at least in the short-term, on the ASA.

And since the discussion of the issues involved has already much distorted the key “facts” involved, it is very likely that this issue is going to be endlessly recycled and subjected to endless further distortions in discussions of academic freedom and the politics of academic associations.

In short, the political stance taken by the ASA will be mischaracterized until it has been reduced to caricature.

A survey during the last presidential election revealed that more than a third of Republican voters were firm in their conviction that ACORN should be prevented from distorting the outcome of that election–even though ACORN had been defunded and disbanded during the previous presidential election cycle. So, anything that is an acronym is potentially useful as a political bogeyman that, like the ever-popular zombies, can never be declared definitively dead.

The ASA resolution seems to me to be as much a product of academic insularity as of academic engagement. Because it has no teeth, it has provoked a great deal of blowback without any apparent benefit—to anyone.

Although I have no idea what ASA can do at this point to extricate itself from this self-created mess, I think that all academic associations should become much more careful about the resolutions that they vote to endorse, especially since almost everything now has some sort of direct or indirect political dimensions. And if they do decide to issue a resolution, they should be prepared to consider and to do the following:

1: If an association is going to take a formal stance on an issue, that issue should be directly related to its primary focus, its mission. And any resolution that is issued should make that connection very clear.

2: If an association does issue a resolution on an issue, the resolution should have some practical impact—some teeth to it.

3: If the issue warrants a resolution, such a resolution must be part of a broader strategy to influence opinions, if not actions, on the issue.

4: Prior to issuing the resolution, the association should make discreet contacts with its likely allies, political and otherwise, and engage them in the broader strategy.

5: The association must anticipate the likely reactions to the resolution, have some sort of detailed media strategy in place to deal with those reactions, and must engage as many of its members as possible in that strategy. A resolution cannot be simply left out there to be transformed into what anyone and everyone else wishes to make of it.

Although my intention is not to be pointedly critical of the ASA, since I do not know enough about the workings of the organization to know what they have or have not done in advance of issuing this resolution, I do not think that most academic associations are prepared to commit the resources necessary to sustain a resolution that is likely to provoke such an intense level controversy.

Which brings me finally to AAUP. Some of what has been articulated by John K. Wilson, Hank Reichman, and others in posts to this blog and elsewhere needs to be delineated in a nuanced position paper on this issue. Then someone needs to distill the key points into a much more straightforward statement that can be disseminated to our members and to the media. The risk of some inevitable oversimplification will have to be weighed against the risk of being largely unheard—drowned out–in the broader discussion. Whatever lack of clarity there is in what the ASA has done, there should be, finally, no lack of clarity in our position.

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