Roger M.A. Allen, University of Pennsylvania
(appeared in the MESA Newsletter, February 2010, Vol. 32 No. 1)
As I write these words to you in early December 2009, I have just listened to President Obama’s speech at West Point Military Academy in which he laid out his rationale for sending more troops to Afghanistan. I do not propose to debate the many issues involved here, but merely to point out that one thing he clearly recognized in his remarks (and one that reflects my own experiences thus far as President-Elect of MESA) is that political debate in this country has become regrettably polarized. Debate, in and of itself, is of course part of the bread-and-butter of academic life, but the volume of noise being created by groups and individuals on the extremes of the American political spectrum, particularly in certain media outlets and via the internet, seems to have succeeded in diminishing the role of, or at least the public concern with, that central space in which reasoned debate may occur. And it is there, needless to say, and in discussions of the Middle East region specifically, that MESA’s valuable role should reside. As if to confirm this impression of mine, the same week brings me news of renewed attacks on our colleagues at Columbia University, to which has now been added Rutgers University in New Jersey, involving an investigation of the New York-based Alavi Foundation and its alleged links to the government of Iran.
This all sounds depressingly familiar (not least in the context of recent issues at UCLA), but the President’s speeches, the one in Cairo a few months ago and the other on Afghanistan of December 1st, 2009, both strongly suggest that the quest for common ground within which issues can be debated by reasonable people with different views is essential to the maintenance of the fabric of American society and, of more relevance to MESA, to the promulgation of a new set of policies towards the Middle Eastern region and its many and varied nation-states. When certain Americans can apparently see fit to propose a linkage between the words “Barak” and the Semitic word for “lightning” (barq) and thence to the concept of “Satan,” blissfully ignorant of the fact that two separate Semitic consonants are involved, and, more recently, can cite the text of one of the nastiest psalms in the Hebrew Bible, Psalm 109, and its v. 8 in particular (“Let his days be few; and let another take his office”) in “blessing” the President of the United States, we obviously have to keep plugging as best we can, however challenging the task of confronting such attitudes may be. Here I can do no better than quote from last year’s letter from my predecessor, MESA’s past-president, Virginia Aksan: she urged us all “to assume more public roles and use our expertise to inform; to defend vigorously the right to access of information and to freedom of speech as the basis of a democratic society….” She went on to praise the work of MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom. While many of that important committee’s investigations are focused on the Middle East region itself, the very existence of a sub-committee that deals with issues in the United States and Canada is surely a reflection of the ways in which those very rights and freedoms to which she draws our attention are sometimes being challenged, more often than not in the cause of a particular political agenda.
Rather than dwell yet further on these broader elements of difference, I much prefer to stay focused on MESA as an organization. At this particular point in the year (early December) I find it considerably easier to do that because I am still basking in the memories of yet another wonderful annual conference, held this year in Boston (and I can still recollect the sense of invigoration that I felt after attending my very first MESA conference in 1969!). This year’s conference, it seems to me, reflected the features of all the others that I have attended over previous decades. With its enormous wealth of panels, thematic discussions, and special sessions focusing on the different countries and languages of the Middle East region and adopting an equally large variety of themes and theoretical approaches, it is already a feast for the mind. If we add to that the opportunity to greet old friends and colleagues and to make new ones, as well as the occasion to survey the output of our field in book and media form, then it becomes a means whereby we may all feel renewed and energized. And that is not even to mention the aerobic effects of the new and obviously very popular dance-floor during the post-Presidential-speech reception (in which I myself participated for a full ten minutes before bequeathing the floor to a younger generation…!)
The variety of varieties that I have just alluded to includes within its purview another notion, that of diversity. Whereas the concept of polarization to which I referred above implies a deliberate and orchestrated push towards two poles—in other words, away from a central space, diversity acknowledges that there are, that there must be, differences, but that those points of difference are not only to be respected but also to be seriously debated within a central space that is implicit in any celebration of the notion of diversity. It is in such a context, it seems to me, that MESA as an organization is a priceless asset. As such, it needs to be cherished; and, if that sounds a bit mushy, then I will rephrase it by pointing out that it is thus the charge of the duly elected Governing Board and officers of the Association to do all they can to ensure that MESA not only continues but that it thrives.
Within such a frame of reference I would now like to address two issues that were very much the concern of your MESA Governing Board at the recent meetings in Boston. While they can be separated, there is a real sense in which they are interlinked, and it will surprise no one, I suspect, to learn that they both concern finances in one way or another—although each raises other important issues for the future. As we all know and indeed enjoy, MESA is now a very large aggregation of Middle East specialists, although we still cannot rival in conference numbers the figures boasted by our colleagues in history, modern languages, religion, anthropology, and the like. One feature of such conferences now, and presumably one that will only increase as time goes by, is the use of technology in making presentations. We are now living in what seems to be a transitional period in which the purely textual (if one may refer to older methods of research-paper delivery that way!) is being enhanced or even supplanted by reference to the visual. Such modes of presentation are no longer the preserve of disciplines such as art-history which have long recognized such adjuncts as essential to any lecture. The availability and frequent use of such computer-based programs as Power-Point implies that the widespread availability of technology will move (is already moving?) to a point at which it will be unusual for it not to be used (and I attended more than one session in Boston recently, as most of you probably did as well, where such was the case). And therein lies the financial rub, as it were, in that it turns out that the costs of renting technological facilities joins the sale of alcohol as a major money-maker for hotels. Recent MESA conferences have seen us paying up to $40,000 for technology alone, although, by following fairly “Draconian” procedures regarding technology-usage in 2009, we have reduced the amount to about $15,000. Even so, that remains an amount that cannot be sustained unless the entire financial basis upon which the annual conference of MESA is founded is to be reconsidered. So here indeed is an issue where modernity and advances in technology confront financial realities. In a nutshell, is the future of technology to be reflected in an increase to be imposed upon the membership as a whole (either through membership fees or through registration costs for the annual conference) or is it rather to be imposed upon the increasingly large number of individual members of MESA who choose to make use of such (currently expensive) technology in their presentations to the conference?
The other financial issue is one that has confronted the Governing Board as a consequence of the choice of hotel for the 2010 conference in San Diego. The membership has already been polled for its opinions on that topic. Since the results of that process have already been published, I do not wish to explore the issues further here, but merely to consider some of the broader corollaries of the situation. I wish to begin by pointing out that our incredibly hard-working and loyal executive staff spends a good deal of time endeavoring to make sure that the costs of our annual conferences remain with the reach of the budgets of its members, whether claimed from universities or based on personal funds. In order to obtain favorable hotel rates, that implies that reservations for future meeting-sites have to be made many years in advance. Furthermore, because of the increasing size of MESA as an organization and thus of attendance at its annual conferences, MESA is forced to commit increasingly large guarantees in order to reserve such space and facilities. In such a context, it is obviously possible that, at any moment right up until the week of any particular MESA conference, some decision may be made locally or nationally, some action may be taken—a strike of workers, a call for a boycott, and so on—that may impact upon the location for the MESA conference selected many years earlier. When the issue of California’s Proposition 8 and responses to it came up with regard to the 2010 meeting of MESA in San Diego, the Board took the unusual step of conducting a poll of the membership. Fully 71% of those members of MESA who responded said that we should meet in San Diego and in the hotel where we had a contractual obligation of $98,000 (which, now that we are within the year in question, has risen to $300,000). However, many respondents went beyond that to note that MESA should adhere to its primary mission and not adopt specific positions on controversial issues. In a previous paragraph of this letter, I spoke in positive terms about the values of diversity, but it is surely that very diversity, in this case involving opinions about a wide variety of issues—gay rights, abortion, the environment…the list could go on, that makes it virtually impossible for the views of MESA’s entire membership to be encapsulated in any single decision of such a kind. That said, I will express my own personal sense, one that is, I am sure, shared by all of us, that it is the absolute right of every individual member of our Association to make their own judgment in the light of any circumstances that may arise in connection with a particular site or hotel and to come to whatever conclusions they see fit.
In closing I would like—on December 6th, 2009—to wish you all the very best for the year 2010 and to express the hope that I will see you in San Diego next November.