Owing to a voluntary teaching overload, I have been too preoccupied to write for the Orthosphere of late. My son yesterday observed that this might be causing some of you to worry that I had been gagged by masked ambassadors of the Black Block, and perhaps reduced to tapping out a cry for deliverance on a water pipe in a cell in the basement of Margaret Sanger Hall. Fear not. As a meager offering, I here post a letter I’ve just sent to the President of my professional association, in which I object to the unseemly hysteria that seems to have gripped the organization since the November election. I don’t expect you to be interested in the arcane squabbles of geographers, but believe it touches on some points that may be of general interest. If not, just treat it as a ping on the water pipe assuring you that I am still here.
Dear Professor McDonald,
In your recent Presidential Column, you encouraged geographers to speak out, either as a collective or individually. I was moved to take your advice, and so am writing as an individual geographer who dissents from what might be called the Geography Collective. To this very obscure geographer, it appears that the Association has been in a state of agitation and alarm since the presidential election in November; and because I dissent from this agitation and alarmed, it also appears to me that the Association may be losing sight of its purpose and mission.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, the Association sent its members a letter that I read as a note of condolence or commiseration. I do not recall the Association reaching out “in a spirit of shared concern” after any previous presidential election. I do not for a moment doubt that a large majority of academic geographers are Democrats who were disappointed—perhaps even devastated—by the election results, but this letter struck me as more than a little unwelcoming to the minority of academic geographers who were, on November 7th, quietly pleased. I do not doubt that we who were quietly pleased are a very small minority, and yet this is precisely the problem. You certainly know that, in recent years, the geographic literature has been rich in reprimands against assuming majority perspectives, and of exhortations to respect the subjectivities (and dignity) of the minorities in our midst. Is the Association actually inclusive? Or is it, in fact, the American Association of Democrat Geographers?
Early in the New Year, the Association protested against the Trump administration’s temporary travel ban. I must tell you that I wracked my brain trying to recall what the science of Geography might have to say on this question. What I came up with is that the science of Geography defines borders as imaginary lines, the crossing of which is controlled by the political powers that enforce those lines. When asked about Trump’s (attempted) ban on travel from a handful of countries for ninety days, this means that the science of geography can only answer with the explaination that this is, in fact, how borders operate.
I am, of course, aware that geographers have written a great many things about the ethical use of borders by the powers that enforce them, and I am reasonably familiar with the argument that border controls should be relaxed, modified, or suspended altogether. Whether cast in libertarian or leftist form, these arguments have yet to tip the balance of constituted political power in the United States (or anywhere else, for that matter). The people making these arguments should, of course, be free to continue making these arguments until they succeed or admit failure, but I’d suggest that this freedom entails some degree of respect for majority opinion and constituted political power.
More recently, the Association raised the alarm over an alleged threat to Science, announcing that it will participate in an upcoming “March for Science” in Washington, D.C. This promises to be a lively event in which advocates of “evidence-based policies” will stand shoulder to shoulder with those who support “all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities.” I trust it has occurred to you that this list of identities takes in a great many groups who are exceedingly hostile to Science, not to mention “evidence-based policies.” Am I to take it that the Association is equally ardent in its support of science and Scientology? Or of “evidence based policies” and the “political perspectives” of fascism, or anarcho-syndicalism, or the divine right of kings?
I didn’t think so.
I’d also like to remind you that the journals of the Association have, since the mid 1970s, printed a great many articles that are really, truly “anti-science.” (And with some of which I am in profound sympathy [especially those I wrote].) They often use words like “anti-positivism,” or “post-structuralism,” or “postmodernism,” or “critical geography,” but they all in their various ways call “science” and “evidence” into question. I fully expect to hear ringing denunciations of “objectivity” and the “privileged perspective” of Science at the upcoming meeting in Boston. Does the Association plan to protect Science from them?
The purpose of the Association, as I understand it, is to operate the various forums in which geographers publish their opinions and attempt to bring others to their points of view. The geographers in those forums all have political and moral opinions and agendas, and as an anti-positivist I am not in the least bit shocked or offended when they act to promulgate these opinions. When they pound their chests and claim to speak for Reason, Morality, or Justice, I just smile to myself, since the forums (and the arguments) exist because we do not agree as to the meaning of these words. When one particular faction grows into a supermajority—as imperialists did at the end of the nineteenth century, and as anti-imperialists did at the end of the twentieth—I suppose we must expect that faction to “throw its weight around.” But in my opinion the Association does not exist to make arguments. It exists so that arguments can be made.
So, I would like to ask that the Association consider a somewhat more temperate tone in its pronouncements. As an individual, or as part of some collective of geographers, you and others on the Council should, of course, speak out in whatever manner you deem fit. But please consider doing your best to avoid giving the appearance that Geography itself has a collective voice. It doesn’t, and it shouldn’t.
P.S. I have posted a copy of this letter in the comments to your Presidential Column, and intend to share copies with some other readers.