I recently received an e-mail from Dr. Jonathan Marks, who wrote an article in Commentary Magazine about the Association of Asian American Studies and its boycott of Israeli academic institutions. I became aware of this boycott through FB since I’m FB friends with lots of Asian Americans in academia. Dr. Marks mentioned in his e-mail that he was surprised that there seemed to be a complete lack of discussion regarding the resolution by the AAAS. If you read his Commentary article, he is also (rightfully) surprised by that they would even have a resolution on the Israel/Palestine conflict:
So evidently no one in Asian American Studies thinks it odd that an organization ostensibly devoted to the study of Asian-American communities has an official line on the Israeli-Arab conflict. The resolution’s drafters propose that the organization has jurisdiction over the conflict, which is, after all, taking place in West Asia. Some professors may be enchanted by this imperialistic suggestion. But all of them?
Nor does anyone in Asian American Studies see fit to deny that, in the resolution’s words, “the Association for Asian American Studies seeks to advance a critique of U.S. empire, opposing US military occupation in the Arab world and U.S. support for occupation and racist practices by the Israeli state.” While that view is certainly not unheard of in the academy, I believe that Asian American Studies is the first discipline to hold it unanimously.
Dr. Marks asked me to post about it, so here it is.
I am not surprised by the boycott. Supporting Palestine these days is a liberal position, and the AAAS is a liberal organization. Was I surprised that they may have been overreaching by addressing something that has little to do with Asian Americans? It’s complicated. I agree with Dr. Marks, but I also think that the AAAS is in an extremely tough position as they fight to stay relevant.
To understand the situation, one needs to look at the history of Asian American Studies and academia. Even though there are lots of intelligent Asian American Studies professors, there has always been a HUGE disconnect between what Asian American people need and what Asian American Studies institutions actually do. It’s not like other departments where the population and the institutions are generally aligned. I blogged about this when I first started blogging on the 44s, and I blogged about it four years later. There are some great teachers in Asian American Studies these days, but there are also some not-so-great teachers and some not-so-great politicians who mess things up for those great teachers. Because the whole notion of “Asian American” was created by hippies (unlike the concept of African American which probably extended back past the Civil War), its primary foundation is deconstruction and doubt, which means that it’s extra hard to get anything done without some wiseguy or wisegal nitpicking or thinking of some excuse for inaction. There’s a huge gender divide that still exists among Asian American academics, and people of various Asian ethnicities often fight because of historical injustices that extend far back in history. AAS organizations are often deadlocked since internally people disagree on so much. So when an “easy win” like the Palestine-Israel conflict comes along, people jump on it rather quickly.
Why hasn’t there been any discussion or anger after the fact? It’s because few people care. It’s not as if this decision is going to change things in the Middle East. It won’t affect funding for AAS, and I can’t imagine Israeli groups care that much about what an organization that represents a niche ethnic field thinks. Asian Americans outside of academia don’t care what the AAAS does, since most of us are hardly affected by them at all (since they’re often deadlocked on issues that matter). Plus, Asian Americans often distrust Asian American professors–fair or not, many of them feel that these are the people who forced Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and David Henry Hwang on us. And academics who are involved with the AAAS, both the good and the bad…they’re just ecstatic that the AAAS finally can agree on something!
Think about it. The strongest statement that the AAAS could make is one that supports equality in college admissions for the people who most support Asian American Studies–Asian American college students. It would seem obvious that they would be positioned to fight affirmative racism. But we’ve seen time and time again that they fail to challenge racial policies in affirmative action. They fail to take a position that would help themselves. So when they’re silent on issues that affect us (and them) as Asian Americans, why would people care when they speak on issues that (for most intents and purposes) don’t?
Keep in mind that I’m writing only about political issues. In terms of making classes available, the AAAS serves a critical function for students. The fact that they’re there makes it easier for Asian American writers and artists to stay employed, and that’s something that I support 100%. But in terms of the political issues, they have a hard problem to deal with. People have mostly seen them as irrelevant, which is a horrible place to be if you’re fighting for funding and recognition. To summarize:
a) Asian American Studies organizations need to have political opinions to stay relevant.
b) They usually deadlock when they try to find agreement on issues that are relevant to their mission.
c) When they succeed on coming to some kind of consensus, people are just happy that they succeeded, even if their political position has nothing to do with Asian Americans.
So that’s why there’s no outcry. That’s why hardly any of us are speaking against the resolution or for the resolution. Asian American Studies has been broken for a long, long time. There’s just not a lot that people can do to fix the problem of how Asian American Studies continues to hurt itself. They’ve got some serious entrenched problems that will take a long time (if ever) to fix.