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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Canada, Trump and what we can do

If you’re Canadian and appalled by what’s happening in the US, there are at least two concrete things you can do:

1. Phone or email your local MP and demand that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau back up his Twitter claims of support for refugees with legislative changes to make it easier for refugees to come to Canada, and to revisit the Safe Third Country agreement with the US. This agreement states that if a refugee first applies for asylum in the US but is turned down, Canada won’t consider their claim. 

2. Our political parties set the tone of our national conversation. If you want to keep Trumpism out of Canada, it starts with making sure we have responsible leaders. The Conservative leadership election is the single most important Canadian political event of the next year. If you’re a Canadian who doesn’t hold membership in another party, please consider joining the party and voting for a candidate who will stand up for basic human decency. If you’re reluctant to join because you don’t feel that you’re part of the tribe, remember that a party is the sum of its members, which can include you.

We have the power. We have the vote. But we have to use it.

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Jonathan Kirshner: On the rise of Trump, and the irreversible damage done

Great article by Jonathan Kirshner in the LA Review of Books, as we begin the countdown to the end of the post-World War II world. On the question of, How Trump? Kirshner argues that economic inequality and a rigged system weren’t enough on their own to account for Trump’s victory. Not to put too fine a point on it, the United States has never, ever been through anything as bleak as faced by Germany in the 1920s and the 1930s, when they elected Hitler with a measly 33% of the vote: millions dead, starvation, a collapsed economy, a country stripped of its military and means of economic support by vengeful victors:

As a nation we’ve never faced a test of our national character as daunting as that, but we have faced plenty worse than what we’ve got today, and until now had never thrown in our lot with the first demagogue that came along.

Instead, you also have to look to racism (he ignores the rampant misogyny faced by Clinton, a huge oversight in an otherwise insightful article) and a changed media climate — the rise of the Internet:

The internet is exponentially more pernicious: entry is free, accountability is absent, and — here we are more stupid — the ability of people to distinguish between fact and fiction has virtually vanished.

That said,  I think people are exactly as smart (and dumb) as we’ve ever been. People have always been prone to believe anything that’s put in front of them; it’s just before news (and misinformation) came from a few sources. We didn’t have to distinguish between fact and fiction because there were only a few news sources. Now “news” comes from all over.

On the damage done: It’s irreversible, and won’t end well:

from now on, and for a very long time, countries around the world will have to calculate their interests, expectations, and behavior with the understanding that this is America, or, at the very least, that this is what the American political system can plausibly produce. And so the election of Trump will come to mark the end of the international order that was built to avoid repeating the catastrophes of the first half the twentieth century, and which did so successfully — horrors that we like to imagine we have outgrown. It will not serve us well.

With the battle, and the war, and the civilization lost, Kirshner is already looking forward to the next great (final?) American crisis:

But we will face a great moment of crisis, after the next major terrorist attack in the U.S. (something no American President could prevent), which will present something like a perfect storm: a thin-skinned, impulsive leader with authoritarian instincts, a frightened public, an environment of permissive racism, and a post-fact information environment. In such a moment basic civil liberties will be at risk: due process will be assailed as “protecting terrorists”; free speech will be challenged as “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” And that will be the moment when each of us must stand up and be counted, and never forget Tolstoy’s admonition: “There are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him.” Our portion is to make sure that never comes to pass.

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Canadians! Fear Trumpism? Then join the Conservative party to keep it off the ballot

[Edited to correct the deadline for joining and being able to vote in the leadership campaign. It’s actually March 28. Apologies; I have no idea how I got the date wrong.]

Yesterday, I paid my $15 and joined the Conservative Party of Canada. At this very moment, they’re deciding whether Trump-style hate will be on the ballot in the next election in the form of Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney. If one of them, or a similar candidate, wins – and Leitch is the current favourite – then there’s a 50/50 chance that our next Prime Minister will be a Trump acolyte (the NDP, in its wisdom, having decided to get out of the business of actually contesting elections). That’s the lesson from the US election.

Canadians are fortunate that we have a say in who the next potential prime minister will be. We have a vote in the future of our country. The Conservative leadership election is open to all Canadians who have been members of the party for at least six months [EDIT: the deadline is actually March 28]. The vote is on May 27, so if you sign up in the next two weeks by then, you can have a say in who becomes the next Conservative leader, and the next potential prime minister. And there are candidates, such as Michael Chong and Chris Alexander who have directly repudiated Leitch’s particular brand of hatemongering. (Full disclosure: I also gave $25 to Chong’s campaign.)

If you’re shocked by the low voter turnout in the US election, here’s your chance to put your money ($15) where your mouth is. If you support the Conservatives, there’s no reason for you not to become a paid member and stand up for Canadian values. If you haven’t previously supported the Conservatives, when you join and check out the profiles of the candidates, you might find that some of their policies aren’t quite as evil as our tribal approach to politics would lead you to think. And you can always influence these policies, because we’re all Canadians here and we have a say in what happens next.

One of the only silver linings in this entire election season was seeing some Republicans repudiate their party — a fundamental part of their identity — to focus on what united them with others Americans, rather than on the seemingly intractable partisan divide. Over the past few decades — in Canada as in the United States — we’ve lost touch with the fact that there are some fundamental Canadian ideals that transcend party affiliation. Respect and support for the weak and the marginalized is one of them. Punching down is never cool. We have to make sure that everyone is able to do the best they can in this country.

Now, how we make that happen is fair game for political disagreement. But before we get to that fun debate, we have to decide what type of Canada we want. That’s what’s on the ballot in May. If you fear what happened in the United States on Tuesday, here’s your chance to finally make a difference.

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Canada: The functional country (and not just by default)

At a time in which it seems the world has gone completely mad, the Canada Day holiday stands as a chance to take the day off and catch our breath amid the insanity.

Our two main international cultural reference points (apologies to France) seem completely unmoored. To the south, an orange-skinned, short-fingered grifter is the Republican candidate for president, a spectre who doesn’t so much fan the embers of hate, fear and resentment of non-whites, Muslims and women, as douse them with kerosene and break out the flamethrower.

Across the ocean, David Cameron has single-handedly brought the United Kingdom and the European Union to the brink of destruction. Future barroom fights won’t start over who the greatest British Prime Minister was (experts are divided between Lord Palmerston and Pitt the Elder), but over whether Cameron is the worst British PM or the worst democratic leader in world history.

Given this chaos, it’s weird to realize that Canada – the country without an identity, home of the perpetual constitutional crisis – is currently one of the most functional, well-run and cohesive countries in the world. And it’s not just because everyone else is busy scoring own goals. We have much to be thankful for.

It feels unCanadian to say, but our leaders have, from time to time, shown a bit of wisdom. It’s hard to overstate how lucky Canadians, Mexicans and Americans are that back in the heady, post-Cold War days of the 1990s, our governments explicitly rejected EU-style institutions in favour of the more limited North American Free Trade Agreement. They intuitively understood that nationalism and a desire for democratic politics would make such an arrangement untenable in North America. Now, tragically, it looks like Europe is facing this same reality.

Our democracy is also in pretty good shape. Prudent banking regulation helped us avoid the worst of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, and thanks in part to opposition pressure on a minority Conservative government to open the fiscal taps, we avoided the crippling austerity that has plagued Europe.

As xenophobia engulfs Europe and much of the United States, we’re also fortunate that we set up our political system to skew pro-immigration. It’s not by chance that the Conservative party had to reject the Reform wing’s more xenophobic elements to gain power; that voters smacked down the Conservatives’ blatantly racist anti-Muslim “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line in the last election; and that this anti-Muslim attitude was attacked so passionately at the Conservatives’ own recent convention. Though our relative isolation makes it very hard for Canada to be swamped by huge numbers of refugees, this shouldn’t detract from multiculturalism’s policy success.

Confederation itself, with its equalization and transfer payments, ensures that Canadians roughly share the fruits and burdens of our labours. Even Quebec separatism is off the front burner, thanks partly to successive governments’ conscious attention Quebecers’ demands.

Not to get too rose-colored, but all this is democracy in action. These things don’t just happen; we built this system. And it’s working.

Finally, there’s the much-maligned Canadian identity. For all of the talk that we’re merely hockey-mad non-Americans, Canadian identity is both deep and durable. Waking up to the Brexit results brought me back to the failed 1995 Quebec referendum. Like the Remain campaign, the Canadian No forces emphasized the scary economic consequences of Quebec separation. As with the Remain campaign, this campaign of fear wasn’t enough.

However, unlike the Remain campaign, the No forces were able – at the very end – to shift into another gear and appeal to Quebecers’ sense of Canadian nationalism. In Britain, there is relatively little European nationalism to which Remain could appeal.

Experts disagree on why No triumphed in 1995, but the fact that the No side could appeal to Canadian nationalism revealed a base level of Canadianness in all provinces and territories that glues us together. Debates about what it means to be Canadian are healthy and normal, but we shouldn’t doubt for an instant that Canadianness is real and mighty.

Of course, Canada is far from being a paradise. Our treatment of Canada’s indigenous population is a disgrace and ongoing humanitarian disaster. We’re not doing enough on climate change. Economic prosperity isn’t shared as widely as it should be. There remains much to do to build a better, more just Canada. But we’ve been doing it for 149 years, and we’ll continue to do so. As they used to say south of the border, the state of the union is strong.

Happy Canada Day.

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Stephen Clarkson, 1937-2016

Terribly sad news. Stephen Clarkson was the external reviewer on my dissertation and a real inspiration. His signing off on my dissertation was a career and life highlight; his work the starting point for everything I’ve written and taught about North American regionalism. The brilliance of his work in this and other areas doesn’t come across at all in the Globe and Mail’s perfunctory obituary; much, much better is Louis Pauly’s on the University of Toronto’s website.

It was Prof. Clarkson (it still doesn’t feel right to call him Stephen) who suggested to me, an MA student who approached him out of the blue at a conference in Ottawa in the early 2000s, that if I was going to study Canada-US politics, I should include Mexico in my research. Only my friend Keith Serry’s suggestion that I also study copyright has been more important for my academic career.

One quick story. In 2007, I was at an Association for Canadian Studies in the United States conference in Toronto(!) as a third-year PhD student. I had not had a good conference. My (undercooked) paper elicited exactly zero interest, and I didn’t do well in the networking department. Last panel of the conference, late Saturday afternoon (aka, the dead zone), I was listening to a presentation promoting a North American student model parliament whose underlying assumption was that if you just got rid of all the power politics that come from the United States being the world’s biggest superpower, and Canada and Mexico’s reluctance to surrender their sovereignty (i.e., if you just pretended the world was other than what it was), then everything would be fine. Stephen Clarkson was in attendance (not on the panel).

During the Q&A, I asked the panelists: if a model parliament’s underlying assumptions are fantastical, then isn’t the whole exercise pretty much useless? That went over about as well as you’d expect. Great way to end a dismal conference.

Except Prof. Clarkson — who I’m pretty sure had no idea who I was — came up to me after the panel was over and said, “Now, that’s the question, isn’t it?” This brief remark not only redeemed what had been a miserable conference, but confirmed to me that I might have something worth saying.

You don’t have to get everyone’s approval, just the right people. Prof. Clarkson was definitely the right people. RIP.

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It’s list time! Best music of 2015

In my off hours I host a one-hour general music show on CFBU, Brock University Radio (streaming here; m3u file). It’s on Tuesday nights from 9-10 pm Eastern Time, if you’re so inclined. The genre, such as it is, is “left-field pop,” so chosen for its vagueness.

Every December, as a condition of our CRTC licence, general music hosts must, by law, provide the listening public with our top songs or albums of the year. I split mine up over the past two weeks; I’ll post the actual shows to Mixcloud and link to them here, if I get around to it. In the meantime, here’s my list of the top 30 songs of 2015.

Quick note on #2: In any other year, Grimes’ Art Angels would’ve been easily my top choice. As a musical and artistic statement, it’s at least on a par with Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s exhilarating.

But if you know anything about Australian history and the Stolen Generations, Briggs’ The Children Came Back is like a punch to the gut. One of the most moving and hopeful songs I’ve ever heard. (Seriously, watch the video.) Best tune of the year.

30. Sleaford Mods, Key Markets, No Ones Bothered

29. Danko Jones, Fire Music, Piranha

28. No Zu, Ui Yia Uia

27. Downtown Boys, Full Communism, Wave of History

26. TV Freaks, Bad Luck Charms, Thirteen

25. The Beverleys, Brutal, Bad Company

24. Scary Bear Soundtrack, Ovayok Road, Ovayok Road

23. Simcoe, Simcoe EP, Afterglow

22. Day Ravies, Liminal Zones, Fake Beach

21. East End Radicals, Zero Hour, Ylpd

20. Rebel Tears, I Hate the Beach

19. OK Badlands, Good Logic

18. ttwwrrss, ttwwrrss_2, Rooftop

17. Hello Seahorse!, Nada Extraordinario

16. Lazertits, Gender Studies

15. JuliaWhy?, Wheel, Turntable

14. Windfall Found, Pulling for the Heavens, Soaring (Pulling for the Heavens Pt 1)

13. Podiums, New Club Banger

12. Raised on DJs, Steady Diet, Already Forgot

11. Angie, Free Agent, Down for the Count

10. The Drones, Taman Shud

9. Victories at Sea, Everything Forever, Up

8. Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Aqua Profunda!

7. Speedy Ortiz, Foil Deer, Mister Difficult

6. Old Kid, This Echo, OK, Okay

5. FFS, FFS, Police Encounters

4. Sahara Beck, Bloom EP, Brother Sister

3. US Girls, Half Free, Damn that Valley

2. Grimes, Art Angels, Kill v Maim

1. Briggs, The Children Came Back (feat. Gurrumul, Dewayne Everettsmith)

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