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Academic Boycotts, the AAG, and the Trump Muslim Ban

In response to the now week-old (and partially suspended) US ban on migrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim nations, as well as President Trump’s announcement that subsequent easing of these restrictions would include a preference for non-Muslims, I have been following a growing number of conversations, online and sometimes literally around the office water cooler. It appears that I am far from alone in trying to figure out an appropriate response.

Inspired, in part, by the apparent success that the cancellation of major events has had in generating opposition to North Carolina’s transgender ‘bathroom bill’, and, going back to the 1990s, in forcing recognition of Martin Luther King Day in Arizona, there has been a growing movement to boycott US-based academic meetings. Given the timing of things, and the particular academic community that I belong to, most of my exposure has specifically been to debates surrounding the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers, to be held next month in Boston. I’m well aware, though, that similar debates have been transpiring among the membership of other international professional organizations with planned annual meetings in the US.

Before continuing, a bit of self-positioning is in order. As a US passport holder living abroad, I am arguably more affected by this order than US citizens in the US, but less affected than non-US citizens or, of course, citizens of (or past visitors to) any of the seven named states. I also am less affected than any of the countless individuals who, for reasons of skin tone, surname, travel history, birthplace, nationality, or religion, have long sought to avoid US border crossings. On the other hand, although it doesn’t usually weigh heavily on my identity, I myself am the child of a war refugee, and that may also  influence my perspective.

And finally, as editor of a journal called Political Geography, I don’t feel like it would be right for me to be silent on this topic which is most certainly one of political geography. That said, Political Geography has its own long history with boycotts, and what follows are purely my own beliefs and opinions and not those of the journal.

So, here goes….

When the ban was first announced – indeed before I had even seen any reactions by other geographers – my initial thought was, “I shouldn’t be going to the AAG now.” I can’t say for sure exactly what drove that reaction, but it was visceral. Incidentally, my (American) partner had that reaction already when Trump was elected (I think she said something like, “I hope everyone in your family stays healthy, because I’m not going back”). However, for me, the feeling that I had a duty to stay away only really hit with the travel ban and the prospect of it coinciding with the AAG.

Three arguments for boycotts

Reading through listservs and Twitter feeds, it seems to me that there are three main arguments for not going:

  1. There’s the hope that, as in North Carolina and Arizona, loss in revenues and prestige from cancelled (or poorly attended) conferences will lead to a change in  policy. Even if it doesn’t change US policy, it might at least challenge the US-centrism of the AAG and force it to be more sensitive to non-US residents when it schedules meetings, and it might also make the AAG more aggressive as a force lobbying for relaxed migration rules.
  2. Secondly, there’s the position that recognizes that, although a significant drop in attendance might not change the policy of either the US government or the AAG, it will signal solidarity to those affected by the ban and, more generally those affected by anti-Muslim/anti-foreigner prejudice and policy in the US. In this instance, a show of solidarity is understood to be a good in itself as it will offer comfort to those most impacted by the ban and the changing cultural atmosphere in the US.
  3. Thirdly, there are those who acknowledge that a boycott probably won’t change anything, but that people have a moral imperative not to reproduce an illusion of normalcy (i.e. by engaging in regulated border crossing to attend a moderately high-profile and relatively establishment-oriented meeting) in a situation that is, in fact, anything but normal. Indeed, acting ‘normal’ in such a situation can be seen only as an inappropriate exercise of the privilege that comes from the state that is printed on one’s passport or the color of one’s skin.

Considering each argument

My thoughts on each argument:

1. Policy change

I turn first to the idea that an AAG boycott can transform policy. At the government level, I don’t see a boycott – even if it culminated in the AAG cancelling the meeting – as having any effect. In general, there’s ample evidence that the Trump administration is strongly pro-business. However, it appears that on the red-meat issue of migration (which, in its various guises – protecting against terror, protecting jobs, protecting the US’ cultural integrity – was at the heart of the Trump presidential campaign), opposition from ‘captains of industry’ will fall on deaf ears. The past week has seen significant drops in the value of airline shares and protests from high-tech companies, but with little apparent effect. And if big business won’t be able to affect policy, then certainly the protests of urban mayors (who were never in Trump’s camp) won’t have an impact. In the long run, a failing economy could lead Republican legislators to desert Trump, but this would be a very long-term strategy and might not work given that legislators who turn against Trump might well meet pro-Trump primary challengers in heavily gerrymandered Republican districts.

I’m even less convinced that a loss of prestige from cancelled conferences would have an impact. Indeed, if word of the boycott ever were to reach the Trump administration (which it probably wouldn’t), this would just feed into a narrative about an essential divide between ‘science’ and ‘American values’. This, in turn, likely would be used to further an anti-science agenda that would include defunding research councils and universities, decimating the research staff at federal agencies, denying climate change, increasing restrictions on visas, etc.

Of course, there’s also the potential for policy to change at the level of the AAG. The AAG recently changed its name to reflect its more international character and it issued a statement expressing its opposition to the migration ban. But the name change was not accompanied by a commitment to broaden the venues of its annual meetings (which could potentially make the meeting more accessible to scholars outside the US) and the statement was somewhat tepid compared to that issued by other organizations.

I do think that AAG policies need changing here, but I’m not convinced that a boycott is needed to precipitate them. For starters, I have signed both the petition to move the 2018 AAG from New Orleans to a neighboring country and the statement urging the AAG to take a more proactive stance regarding US immigration policy and its impacts. However, I have signed these more to give a message to the AAG than in the hope that will somehow translate into a message to the US Government.

Additionally, regarding the relocation of future AAG meetings, in particular, I suspect that in the end 2018 will be too soon for the AAG to move given the advance nature of hotel convention contracts as well as the relatively small number of cities around the world that can host a conference the size of the AAG. I suspect that we’re more likely looking at 2019 or 2020. In addition, new complications might well emerge were one to seek an alternative, ethically suitable venue. Not only might US-based non-citizens not be able to attend (see more on this, below), but it would hardly be an improvement if, for instance, the AAG moved from a union hotel in New Orleans to a Trump-owned hotel in Mexico City!

2. Signalling solidarity

The second argument, for a boycott as a show of solidarity, is complicated too. First, there is the question of who one shows solidarity with, and why, given that not every action can be taken out of solidarity. As an example, earlier this week I had a discussion with a legal scholar who was discussing the debate in his discipline about whether one should boycott a forthcoming US-based conference. He stopped himself mid-sentence and remarked that he was about to spend his research leave on a fellowship in Australia, a country whose policy toward refugees is probably even more draconian than the US’. In that context, he couldn’t really justify boycotting the US meeting out of solidarity.

Secondly, there’s a question often raised regarding progressive boycotts: Isn’t there also a need to show solidarity with the people ‘fighting the good fight’ on the inside who need to know that they have allies (and who appreciate it when those allies pay supportive visits)? Meetings like the AAG provide a means for constructive interchange and critique, which arguably empowers dissident insiders who, in the end, will be in the vanguard of any movement to change policy.

The third point on solidarity, which is specific to this case but flows directly from the second, is that foreign academics working in the US who are threatened by the migration ban are particularly dependent on US-based conferences. As events of the past week have made evident, if foreign academics leave the country they may not be able to return to families, homes, and jobs. This is a further reason to ensure that the AAG meeting is a site of vibrant, critical discussion – i.e. the exact opposite of what would happen if it were boycotted by critical scholars from overseas or, for that matter, from the US.

3. Being moral

The third argument turns away from practical effect or solidarity with others and turns, instead, to the traveler’s moral imperative to boycott. The morality argument was artfully stated in a recent piece in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper by novelist Linwood Barclay, who announced that he was cancelling a US tour. Barclay, who has dual US and Canadian citizenship but resides in Canada, realized, on reflection, that “the border I had to cross loomed before me like a picket line twice the height of the wall the new President wants to build.” Barclay went on:

I imagined a situation in which I was crossing into the U.S. at the same time as Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who has been nominated for an Oscar but is now blocked from coming to the Academy Awards ceremony in California. What would I say to him as I waltzed through?

At this moment, entering Trump’s America feels akin to patronizing a golf course that excludes blacks, a health club that refuses membership to Jews.

After a day or two of equivocation, punctuated by the mosque attack in Québec City, Barclay found his moral compass and cancelled the tour.

Barclay acknowledges that his cancellation is unlikely to have any policy impact. While he presumably feels that his action will provide some level of inspiration for some of his readers (one can assume that this is why he wrote his commentary piece), he notes that the decision was primarily driven by a desire to preserve his own sense of dignity…his own feeling of morality. Barclay’s piece is powerful, and indeed it spoke more directly to me than anything else that I’ve read to date in support of a boycott. And yet Barclay’s reasoning is profoundly personal; he argues for a boycott because one has a responsibility to oneself. This is an entirely legitimate reason to cancel. However, as Barclay himself acknowledges at the end of his piece, it must be balanced against one’s responsibility to others.

And this, I feel, is a calculation that must be made on a case-by-case basis. There are plenty of meetings that I attend where, truth be told, if I didn’t attend no one would really notice. A few people would miss hearing a paper that (maybe) would inspire them to add a new element to their existing research project and a few people might learn to think a new way about something. However, at many conferences, I present a paper, I hear others present papers, we’re all vaguely inspired, we may commit to working toward edited volumes, or grant proposals, or special issues….and then we all go home.

The AAG, for me, is different because my involvement is rarely restricted to ‘just’ presenting a paper. In fact, at this year’s meeting I won’t be presenting a research paper at all. Rather, both officially – in particular through chairing the Political Geography editorial board meeting and through convening what I hope will be a landmark session joining non-geographer ocean scholars with their geographer counterparts – and unofficially (e.g. through casual conversations) I’ll be performing functions that I’m uniquely positioned to perform and that hopefully will have lasting impacts on a number of people and maybe even disciplinary institutions. In other words, because of the specific nature of my participation in the AAG, my preliminary assessment is that in this case my responsibilities to others outweigh my responsibilities to myself, especially since the actual impacts of not going, in terms of either policy change or showing solidarity, are likely to be minimal.

However, I recognize that others may have different calculations. And it’s also possible that I’m exaggerating the contribution that I would be making and that actually no one would notice if I were not there (this is the “Phil, Don’t be so full of yourself” retort that I expect that the aforementioned partner will make when she reads this). It’s also possible that many of those people whom I thought would benefit from my attendance (i.e. the participants in the ocean session and members of the Political Geography editorial board) have themselves cancelled their attendance, in which case the argument that I should attend because of my responsibility to these others loses its strength.

Reaching a Decision (?)

As is probably clear, although my mind isn’t fully made up, I’m leaning toward attending, but I would like to hear others’ constructive arguments on the topic. And of course, if people from the sessions and meetings in which I’m involved now won’t be attending it would be very useful to know this.

I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts in what I think can only be a constructive dialogue.

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5 comments on “Academic Boycotts, the AAG, and the Trump Muslim Ban

  1. Hi Phil, really appreciate you tracing your line of thinking on this complex issue!

  2. I am not a geographer and I never attended an AAG meeting, but as a matter of principle we should not be driven by the whims and fancies of politicians. The best way out: attend meetings and voice the protest there.

  3. I have heard arguments that “only” seven countries are named in this ban, which does not include many Muslim countries. If Mr. Trump’s travel ban does not ban all Muslims, are Mr. Barclay’s parallels to the exclusive golf or health clubs on the mark? Let’s then ask a purely geography question: Is this ban truly “anti-Muslim” if it does not include many countries with very large Muslim populations such as Indonesia?
    (We will have to ignore for the time, the seeming capriciousness of this “anti-terrorist” ban, since it excludes some countries with apparent ties to terrorism…)

    • It is anti-Muslim in the way it is being carried out by Customs and Border Patrol. Muslims of all nationalities have been turned away arbitrarily with no explanation. 5 Canadian citizens were turned away in the past few days. One teenager born in Canada (of Moroccan descent) was turned away yesterday. The CBC has several articles about this.

  4. I appreciate this thoughtful article. While I organized a session and had planned to bring my grad students, I have decided not to attend the AAG this year. We had planned to carpool from Montreal to Boston but we genuinely fear what will happen when we try to cross the border. One of my students is a Yemeni-Indonesian and is very likely to be interrogated for hours or denied entry, which would mean we would have to either abandon her at the border or all drive back to Montreal. At least 5 Muslims who are Canadian passport holders have been denied entry into the U.S. in the past few days. NONE of them are from the 7 listed countries. Some were born in Morocco, others were born in Canada.

    I feel the border is an unacceptable risk for us. I am paying for the conference through my Canadian federal grant money. Either we cancel now or we risk losing everything if my student is denied entry into the U.S.

    I have emailed the AAG about getting a full refund without penalty and have heard nothing back. It has been over a week now. I have tweeted them and received no response. I feel ignored and dismissed by the professional association to which I have a lifetime membership. The AAG has said they will only issue full refunds to citizens of the 7 listed countries. I am not sure what I am expected to do but I will not split my team up because of any xenophobic policies that normalize racism.

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