A short while ago, the Modern Language Association panel on boycotting Israel concluded in Chicago, where scores of the academic organization’s members convened for its annual conference. “Panel” may be a bit of a misnomer: the five scholars sharing the dais were distinguished only by the degree of enthusiasm with which they support singling out the Jewish state for calumny. Outraged MLA members who don’t consider hating Israel the chief duty of a modern language scholar had proposed a panel representing their point of view; it was declined by the association’s executive director.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue of the boycott itself, this development is terrifying. What’s on display in Chicago today is the new model for intellectual discussion and debate in American academia: begin a debate about boycotting academics from another country by boycotting anyone who disagrees with the boycotters. While this Stalinist style of discourse may be familiar to academics in North Korea, it has nothing to do with the free exchange of ideas on which American universities pride themselves. This level of hostility to open discourse and critical inquiry has no place in institutions of higher learning in a free society, regardless of the subject being discussed.
Those of us who remain thoughtful, rational adults should reject the boycott bozos with the same contempt we reserve for religious zealots who believe their dogma comes at the expense of others’ freedoms. Let’s be absolutely clear: this discussion isn’t about Israel. It’s about the future of academia, an institution ravaged by the growing presence of zealots rejecting all opposing viewpoints and assailing critical inquiry itself. In its lunatic monomania, the MLA affair stands as a stark reminder that what’s at stake here is reason itself.