SEMA 2019

This past weekend I was a participant in the annual conference of the Southeastern Medieval Association (SEMA), held this year on the campus of UNC-Greensboro. Despite living in the southeast I had never attended before, and I was glad that I did – it was fun like Kalamazoo, albeit on a smaller scale. As ever it is with conferences, it was good to see old friends and to make new ones, and to learn new and interesting things in the sessions. The two plenary speakers, Sonja Drimmer and Holly Crocker, were especially good. 

I have reproduced, from the conference program, notice of my session, which was held at 8:30 on Saturday morning. To my surprise, this session turned out to be somewhat controversial. The main criticisms, which started Friday afternoon on Twitter (i.e., before the panel had even been held), focussed on the identities of the participants. In a general sense, it was asserted, any discussion of Charlottesville ought to have included non-white panelists, and in a specific sense, some of the people on the panel were deemed bad people. I don’t know if I was included in this august group, but Richard Utz certainly was (for his defense of the idea that medieval studies doesn’t have to be explicitly political), and presider Dan Franke even more so. I had known about Franke’s open letter to the Medieval Academy last year, but what really upset people, I discover, was his defense of Rachel Fulton Brown back in 2017 (a stance he has since modified). It’s not that this action was in any sort of bad faith, it’s just that, according to one Tweeter, Franke’s essay “went to RFB’s blog, and from there to the white supremacist web in entirely predictable ways…. [Even] if Franke didn’t INTEND to support white supremacy, the IMPACT of his writing doesn’t change… We must take care how we use our academic authority – which does matter and have impact – towards justice or towards hate.” Another person even claimed that he would not attend a conference featuring such a panel. 

What to say about all this?

First off, I think that it’s somewhat rude to criticize a panel before it has even taken place. Why not attend the panel, hear what people have to say, and respond to that? Critiques based on identity leave me cold. I am a systematizer, not an empathizer, and it might be self-serving, but I believe that this is how academia ought to be arranged. You’ve heard it before, and I agree, that “great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.” Among its many other problems, social media has encouraged a small-minded focus on people. We academics are supposed to be able to consider ideas independent of the identities of their sponsors, and I find these ad hominem attacks especially ironic given the regular denunciations of “prestige culture” one reads on Twitter. What is all this concern about who is cool and who is uncool, if not a form of prestige culture? 

As for people’s racial identities, all I can say is that every other speaker I heard at this conference was white, in a general reflection of the demographics of the field. Even white people have occasionally interesting things to say, and when it comes to denouncing white supremacy, it especially behooves white people to do so! And demanding creative control over a panel (especially from a distance!) is presumptuous. I would say that if anyone objects to Panel 45, they are always free to organize their own panels. 

Finally, I disagree with the notion that one must at all times watch what one says, lest the wrong people take solace from it. On the contrary, one should fearlessly speak the truth as one sees it! Preemptive self-censorship (“crimestop” in Newspeak) is not a habit that an academic should get into, I should think for obvious reasons. I’m old enough to remember Ari Fleisher’s admonition that “all Americans should watch what they say,” and how strenuously (and rightly) academics objected to this. As a colleague says, every historian’s motto should be “fiat historia ruat caelum.” 

(And anyway, unlike most of his critics, Dan Franke was actually at Charlottesville, as a counter-protester!)

I’m pleased to say that panel went well. To be clear: all the panelists, and the presider, took a firm stand against white nationalism. In turn:

• Richard Utz spoke about the value of deliberation in one’s activism. Since Charlottesville, some medievalists have slowed down, while others continue to demand instant change. Outrage has an essential place, but when the same energy is directed towards every little thing, it loses its legitimacy and its efficacy.

• Ilana Krug spoke about our role as teachers, because it is on campus that white nationalists are recruiting, and we need to equip our students with the means to resist their efforts. It is important to unmask such groups as Identity Evropa (now rebranded as the American Identity Movement) and Vanguard America, to challenge their claims head-on. Insofar as these groups idealize the Middle Ages in the service of their ideology, we medievalists must passionately defend the truth about them. 

• I spoke about the importance of getting things right. If it’s important to fight against white nationalism, and the misappropriation of the Middle Ages in the service of white nationalism, then it’s worth getting our facts straight. The truth will eventually come out, and if it is revealed that we have been in the habit of making things up, it will undo whatever good we have attempted to do. (I used the example of St. Maurice’s black eagle as an example of a widespread but false misconception that spread in the wake of Charlottesville.) 

• Laura Morreale praised the work of medievalists of color. She acknowledged that she can’t understand racism at first hand, but only as a thought experiment. Structural inequities in the field are pervasive, however: many practicing medievalists are stuck in the adjunct pool, with no hope of ever receiving tenure or even stable employment and benefits. They’re forgotten, unseen, and “less than,” and if we don’t deal with this pervasive problem, other activism is won’t amount to much.

The discussion afterwards was stimulating and fruitful. The room was packed, and everyone was on their best behavior (no insults, shouting, crying, throwing things, etc.). I thought that Dan Franke was especially graceful. I was glad for this reaction on Twitter:

I just left that panel, which was productive and interesting (though the composition of the panel was an obvious problem). It concluded with pleas from many that we, as medievalists, all work together to combat the actions of white supremacists…

Alas, not everyone agreed:

Only Krug discussed racism and hers was the only paper about trying to prevent fascists from radicalizing students at predominantly white institutions. Utz & Good focused on countering “extremism” from scholars of color. Morreale talked about being an independent scholar.

No, as noted above, Utz countered unfocused, promiscuous outrage from everyone, and Good countered false narratives, as being counterproductive to real antiracist work. The correct response is: thanks, that’s absolutely right! But “countering extremism” has now become the party line, apparently:

I’m sorry… countering extremism from scholars of color? And people have the audacity to say that some of these people were being genuine. Having said that, Krug sounded like she had some good points.

The original Tweeter criticized me in particular:

It is disorientating to try to stay calm (so you aren’t labeled as hysterical or angry) and respond to what feels like an alternate reality where the objectionable part of Charlottesville is Medieval POC tweeting about St Maurice.

Well, I thank you for your self-control. I appreciate it! All I can say is that I write what I know, and I never claimed that the @MedievalPOC tweet about St. Maurice was the only objectionable part of the Unite the Right rally at Charlottesville. 

I thought that was the end of it, but on Wednesday a strange comment on the SEMA Facebook page appeared:

after the panel… while I was updating some work in the hallway, I was distressed to overhear conversations among the panelists which were in no way civil; medievalists of color were repeatedly attacked, personally, and dismissed academically, and the nastiness of these hallway conversations was severe enough that I asked one group to please move along and eventually left the area altogether. I regret that I did not confront anyone directly. Obviously, I have no right to critique anyone’s personal conversations, but these were very public and such nastiness does not improve conditions for anyone in medieval studies, and they render calls for “civility” sadly ironic.

All I can say is that this did not happen. I assume the author is referring to me, Krug, and Franke, who were discussing the panel and the state of the field in general. But we were not loud, we were not “repeatedly and personally” attacking anyone, and no one ever asked us to “move along.” This is practically libelous! And it represents a novel development for me: if there is nothing objectionable about the panel as such, you can move to criticizing private conversations in the hall afterwards. (I suppose that in the near future, at conferences, we’ll all have to wear body cameras that record all interactions, so that we can prove that we’ve stayed on the right side of the conference code of conduct.)

Anyway, I was pleased to read a recent opinion piece in Time by Matt Gabriele and Mary Rambaran-Olm, two of the wokest medievalists in the game. They warn that we must be “on guard against false narratives about the medieval period,” since:

Fascism thrives on false narratives, particularly those that involve misleading origin myths and manipulation of terminology and symbols to reinforce hate. That makes it essential that we get the past right, especially when false narratives are used to justify so much anti-democratic politics in today’s world.

Of course, it’s not just fascism that thrives on false narratives. Furthermore, one must always be on guard against tendentiously identifying opinions that one disagrees with as “false” and opinions that one agrees with as “true.” But I am actually glad to see the appearance of these words. It wasn’t too long ago that academics avoided them, on the principle that there is no such thing as truth, only competing narratives of power, which in practice often meant that you could just make things up, as long as your heart was in the right place. But no, you can’t just make things up! We need to get them right! Selah. 

UPDATE: Dan Franke comments at his blog. He also writes, regarding his alleged abetting of white supremacy: “I don’t have any records of my AHA post being shared beyond Rachel’s blog and a few shares on Facebook. Unless I missed something, it was never shared on 4chan or 8chan. It was shared on Reddit where it got no traction. I can’t remember whether Milo shared it on his blog or not, but I have this sense that if so it didn’t gain much traction because Milo’s followers were generally not interested in the kind of conversation that Carol Symes and I were having. So I’ve never understood this line of attack, on evidentiary grounds.”

UPDATE: Another friend writes: “I would say that what was perceived as offensive (principally by those who did not attend and who did not do any work to put the panel or conference together) was the loss of control over the terms of the discussion. If one were to really answer the question, “Medieval Studies 2 years after Charlottesville: Where are we now?” the answer would be that the parameters of the discussion have been firmly delineated; that is, who is allowed talk about it, and how we are allowed to talk about it.”

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