Against an Academic Boycott. For Now.

Many colleagues and friends whose ethical and scholarly judgment I greatly respect are calling for an academic boycott of the United States. Or, more specifically, a boycott of US-based academic conferences, which are probably the most frequent form of professional contact many of us have with US soil. A petition is doing the rounds.

I waver on this both as an academic and as a dual citizen of the US, where I spent the majority of my adolescence and early adult years, and Canada, where I was born and now, again, live. I can certainly see the appeal of cutting ties with this year’s edition of the United States: a country run by an openly racist and increasingly fascist regime, where the rule of law has already been imperilled by the actions of the executive, and where many colleagues and students who happen not to share my complexion, family background, or birthplace (but who may well hold, as I once did, legitimate visas for entering the US) are unwelcome and unsafe. Simply not going is, in a sense, easy to do; at the same time, it represents a definite change of behaviour — it signals, as proponents of a boycott tend to emphasize, that things are not normal, that business as usual cannot go on.

Further, despite the charge that boycotts are simply “virtue-signalling”, an academic boycott does come at a definite cost for those who undertake it, perhaps especially those located on this side of the Atlantic. Nearly every major academic organization to which I belong is headquartered and holds most if not all of its annual meetings in the United States. Going beyond conferences, the US is home to many of the more accessible archives and rare books collections I might expect to use in an ordinary year, and to almost all of the research fellowships to which I can usefully apply. Going still further — if we are thinking of this (but are we?) — it is also home to a large share of the academic journals and most of the publishers I might ordinarily see as the most important sources of current scholarship and the best venues for my own work. It is home, for the moment — though this does seem likely to change — to most of the academic programs I might ordinarily hope to place my best students in. A thorough boycott would leave quite a mark.

As that suggests, though, there are some problems with the idea that I have not seen discussed. (I may simply have missed the relevant conversations.) One is the matter of scope. Conferences are an obvious target but also a somewhat arbitrary place to draw the line; easy, but perhaps too easy to mean very much. The rationale the petition offers is that, in solidarity, we should not go where our excluded colleagues can’t. But surely that same logic of solidarity should extend to all professional travel, not just conferences. On the other hand, a “total” boycott of US events, universities, libraries, archives — and what about publications, fellowships, and funding sources? what about publications and publishers? — might be so far-reaching as to be self-destructive for many scholars to undertake, and at the same time so muddied by the transnational nature of scholarly work and projects as to be almost impossible to coherently delimit.

A more concrete and compelling objection is that an academic boycott would do the most harm to the least appropriate targets — some of the very people within the US most critical of the regime and whose work is most threatened by it. Isolating American academe really “disrupts” only those already keenly aware that the present situation is deeply abnormal. By contrast, it hardly seems likely to trouble the current regime or any of its adherents, high or low; it is even arguable that a boycott would be doing some of their work for them. Academics are not the sort of people they want around, anyway; we are not the sort of people who would be missed; if our counterparts in the US are ostracized from outside as well as from above, so much the better for Trump and company. Or, to turn that around, we might aid resistance more effectively by engaging with our colleagues in the US — including through existing structures and mechanisms such as professional organizations and conferences — than otherwise.

So, for now, I’m not embracing a boycott as I have seen it articulated. (I welcome correction if I have it wrong.) But I have a few caveats. The first is that while avoiding conferences altogether makes little practical sense to me, avoiding physical travel to the US is now a practical necessity for some of us. Moving meetings across the border merely shifts the risk of crossing to a different set of vulnerable people. Moving conferences online might level the field more effectively. But if positive resistance as opposed to the bare expression of solidarity is the goal — and for US citizens, shouldn’t it be? –, physical presence might count for something. People can’t march in virtual streets. In any case, insisting that conferences accommodate (electronically or otherwise) those affected by the Muslim travel ban and whatever other monstrous idiocies are in the making is the very least we could do. It certainly feels like too little.

The second is that while US-based researchers and teachers hardly need the perversity of their circumstances pointed out to them by those in happier climes, their university administrations — like our own — bear watching. In an academic context, the truly dangerous “normalization” seems to me less likely to come in the form of historians milling mindlessly from paper to paper or panel to panel, inured to the evils of Trump, than in the shape of exciting, “disruptive” partnerships between universities and the state or corporate world — or, at a different level, that of insidiously mundane forms of classroom, departmental, or professional policing and assessment, eating away at the fabric of the university as a place of teaching and a space for free enquiry. Of course, both of these things are already happening, and not just in the US. But if there is a properly academic target for coordinated resistance, this is surely it.

The third is that we are still left with the fact that US institutions are now closed to certain segments of the academic population. (That is not new; but it is getting worse.) Most concretely, I literally cannot now send some of my students to study in US programs — not simply because they might never be allowed in, but because as things stand they could have no assurance of their rights or their fate should they try. And this leaves me with the question of what to counsel the ones who, for now at least, could pursue study in the States. Perhaps this sort of problem, like much that falls under the rubric of advising, should really be addressed case by case. But, to be honest, the only default position that feels both responsible and equitable at the moment is: “don’t go.”

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