Why I won’t be attending ISA 2017

Like many others, I’ve been horrified by the Trump administration’s implementation of a de facto Muslim travel ban, as well as its caviler disregard for the rule of law, the US Constitution, and its attack on the liberal-democratic norms that underlie US society and the post-World War II order.

I’ve been doing what little I can to help – primarily through educational outreach in my own community, some writing, and teaching to these issues in the courses I teach (Political Economy of North America – the RIP is silent – and Introduction to International Relations). However, that my main conference, the International Studies Association, is holding its annual meeting in Baltimore in a few weeks raises a serious question: Is it ethical or moral to travel to the United States when others are being banned from travel (and, effectively, from leaving the country) because of their religion (we’re grown-ups here: the travel ban is an attack on Muslims, so let’s call it what it is)?

In order to work through my dilemma, I consulted with colleagues and friends, including Americans, both academics and non-academics. In surveying a cross-section of people, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t acting in a culturally imperial or self-interested manner.

Before getting to the meat of the issue, my response was not swayed by either the ISA’s first wholly inadequate and somewhat embarrassing first response, or by its much better second response. I think the second ISA response said much of what needed to be said. Still, I have to make my own choice.

This is how I laid it out on Facebook (edited slightly so it makes sense in this context):

As far as I can figure, the reasons I should attend:

1. It is a good opportunity to network and share knowledge with American scholars and those foreigners Trump lets into the country.

2. One argument on Twitter says that it’s a way to show solidarity with our American colleagues so that they don’t feel isolated. I’m not sure I buy this argument in the age of the Internets.

3. Maryland is a blue state. But then again, there are a lot of Trump supporters even in blue states…

[3.5. Something else that some have mentioned: not attending could be considered a form of academic self-censorship. As I note below, given the existence of the Internet, this argument is somewhat less compelling than it would’ve been three decades ago.]

As for the reasons I shouldn’t attend:

1. To show solidarity with our Muslim sisters and brothers affected by this ban. I can probably get into the country because I’m white and middle-aged and Canadian (i.e., mostly harmless). But so long as there is a blanket travel ban against this group of people, it’s unethical to take advantage of my whiteness to enter the United States.

2. Because Donald Fucking Trump does not have the right to determine who can and cannot attend our academic conferences, which is the case as long as this ban is in place. Attending a Muslim-ban conference is a form of acquiescence.

3. Because travelling to the United States at a time when its entire constitutional order is under attack normalizes the situation. Once we cross the border, we are statistics that could show that travel between the US and Canada hasn’t changed with Trump’s election. Nothing to worry about.

4. Because I don’t want to play Sun City.

The personal cost to me of not going would likely amount to several hundred dollars if I can’t claim my already-paid-for airfare and conference fees against my research accounts, and the loss of an opportunity to meet and network with others in my field (ISA being my main opportunity to do so every year). So, not nonexistent, but not life-changing either.

Right now, speaking only for myself, I’m leaning toward not going. …

That said, in March I am scheduled to attend the National Model United Nations in New York as the faculty advisor for the Brock Model UN team (It’s a student club and I can’t tell them to stay or go). I was planning on attending that, for the students. Would it be hypocritical to attend one and not the other?

A lively discussion ensued. In the end, as the title of this post notes, I’ve decided not to attend ISA. My reasoning, as shared on Facebook (again, edited slightly):

The notion that we should attend because meeting with our fellow academics in the US is a show of solidarity that can be used to plan further resistance was unconvincing to me. This same argument could be (and was) used in relation to the musicians’ boycott of Apartheid South Africa. Plus, it’s 2017. We have the interwebs. American academics aren’t isolated, and we can discuss means of resistance online.

For me, what clinched it was an article that a friend shared, by the Canadian author Linwood Barclay. He writes: “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.” Precisely. I wouldn’t patronize such establishments, either. And that’s what the US is, for now.

The question is, with whom do I want to stand? I believe I have to stand with the most vulnerable. In this case, this is the Muslims targeted by this obscene travel ban, and those people who will doubtlessly be targeted by Trump for harassment and worse in the days to come. An attack on them is an attack on us all. If we believe in equality, we should endeavour to be treated equally. In this case, it means self-subjecting myself to the Trump ban. A picket line’s been set up around the United States, and you don’t cross a picket line. As Australian Army Chief Lieutenant General David Morrison says, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept” (a line he attributes to another Australian general, David Hurley). I do not accept the immigration standards of the United States, nor the moral legitimacy of the current administration.

In terms of personal and professional cost to me, meh. You gotta do what you gotta do. I’m not going to starve; I’m going to continue to write and teach. I’ve never had the ambition of being the biggest name in the field – I’m happy just writing and trying to understand the world to my own satisfaction. So that wasn’t a consideration.

Several people raised the point that whatever we decide, we should make it count. I agree that it’s imperative to use what (very, very, veeeeeeery) little platform I can have (tiny, tiny, tiny) to make a noise. [Note: This post is part of that action.] I’ve also written for the Globe and Mail on these issues … . I’m running local talks and panels to educate people in the community, and of course I’m teaching directly to these issues in my classes.

But I fundamentally disagree with the notion that the degree of publicity and its potential effect should determine one’s actions. An action is moral or not regardless of whether anyone sees it. We have to act according to the dictates of our conscience, and I would hope that I would try to do the right thing whether or not I knew anyone was watching, or whether or not it would move the scales.

As for the model UN question, I’ve raised the question with my students, and they have decided they still want to attend. While this might negate my above strident moralism, I have decided to attend with them (assuming I’m not turned back at the border for refusing to hand over my social media profile). Partly out of obligation to my students (a different relationship than that between colleagues), and partly because they’re going to get a real education in the world just being in New York, and taking part in a simulation that is going to reflect exactly how fucked up everything has become. I have, however, informed them that I will not be attending any future simulations in the US so long as Trump is in power.

So there you have it. No more US conferences, Wegmans runs, Buffalo Sabres hockey or New York plays (after March), likely for a very long time. It’s a small gesture. On its own, it probably won’t have any effect. But I believe it’s the right thing to do.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I want to be clear that while I believe not entering the United States (with the exception of my March Model UN trip) is the morally and ethically correct thing to do, I fully understand and respect the reasoning that have led my fellow colleagues to decide that there is more to be gained by travelling to ISA than staying away. Heck, they could even be right. In 20 years’ time it might be crystal clear what the correct position is, but in the meantime, I have to follow the dictates of my conscience.

My decision not to travel to the United States is not a condemnation of the International Studies Association. It has been placed in an untenable situation, forced to react to an insane presidential edict mere weeks before a massive conference, doubtlessly with enormous financial implications should many people choose not to attend. And after a bad first step, they have recovered well.

One last point. We are less than two weeks into the Trump presidency. Things are going to get much, much, much worse for everyone over the next four years. I believe we are going to reach a point where outright opposition to the entire Trump presidency – and not just one Executive Order – is going to become a moral imperative, if we haven’t reached that point already. Given where the Trump administration is leading the world, the International Studies Association should consider moving its annual conference outside the United States until Trump is no longer in power, as a protest against the creeping authoritarianism and globally destructive aims of his administration.

There are different ways to oppose Trump, but inaction is not an option. Whether you boycott the United States or travel to ISA, all of our actions must be targeted toward resisting, in our small way, the corrosive effects of the Trump administration.

I wish my ISA colleagues a productive and enjoyable conference. I hope to see you next year. I hear Mexico City’s quite lovely in March.

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1 Response to Why I won’t be attending ISA 2017

  1. Pilgrim says:

    “I’ve been doing what little I can to help…” Oh, yes, you are helping, I’ve seen a few of the ways.

    The dialogue with yourself about entering the U.S. is beautifully reasoned out, beautifully stated.

    I’m happy to have discovered this blog page of yours.

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