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New Orleans site argument makes academia look suspect

I was wondering if the Louisiana media were going to pick up on this, an intramural argument within the largest professional organization of political scientists in the world that illustrates so perfectly why the general public is likely to ignore, if not actually disdain, the knowledge of the political world and policy advice that we in academia have to offer.

The American Political Science Association, of which I’m a member, plans to hold its annual meeting, which is always Labor Day weekend, in New Orleans in 2012. This decision has to be made years in advance because of other negotiations and the sheer logistics involved – in fact, it was made in 2003, and next year the state’s people by an overwhelming margin amended the Constitution not to recognize same-sex “marriages.”

This has led some APSA members to call for a change in APSA procedures for site selection. One version would have the organization inform cities wishing to host the meeting that it might be a problem if their states did not recognize same-sex marriages (at present, only Massachusetts and California do; the seriously-flawed judicial fiat that permitted the latter only days ago must have brought a sigh of relief from some APSA members since San Francisco has been a popular meeting venue). The other would disregard such cities completely (and other options may be reviewed as well).

Some have suggested moving the 2012 meeting, or at least boycotting it. Leader of a petition to accomplish the former, ex-UNO professor Dan Pinello, argues that it’s somehow a safety issue, that a same-sex partner traveling with somebody could not, for example, make medical decisions about the other and vice-versa in New Orleans or anywhere else that did not sanction same-sex marriages. But this is an entirely specious argument, long ago recognized by the Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal Calogero who noted in the (predictable, as well as predictably futile) challenge of the constitutional change that other legal instruments existed that would allow two unmarried people to make these kinds of decisions for each other.

The governing board of the APSA, while not opposing either change, notes to back out of its New Orleans commitment could entail enormous expense not only in relocating, but in paying legal penalties for contract violations. Unfortunately, this has not stopped the APSA from such stupidity before, over 30 years ago leaving Chicago on short notice because the state wisely refused to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, and just a few years ago when it jilted San Francisco because of an impending strike that could have involved hotel workers. In the former case, the damages were long-term, while in the latter its pro-union language in the contract (couched in terms of inability to perform services because of a strike) allowed it to escape without financial harm.

But the mere fact this has become a matter of debate at all shows just how far off the rails the APSA has gone, joining all too many other academic organizations in bowing at the altar of political correctness. While the APSA’s Constitution prohibits it from making a political statement as this would appear to be, it also gives the organization latitude to decide whether a public policy prevents a member from attending a conference “safely, conveniently, and equally,” so then “the policy issue may become a legitimate Association concern.”

None of this is at issue in this case, of course, except either in the minds of fevered imaginations or those who wish to make this an issue to further a political agenda. The big irony is that New Orleans long has been considered one of the most accommodating places for practitioners of homosexuality so the policy change from the APSA’s perspective is to make site decisions in the future based not on city-specific characteristics, but more globally on statewide criteria. In other, whereas present policy has it that a site is acceptable as long as there isn’t some overt discrimination occurring, future policy may dictate the mere absence of certain privileges as part of statewide jurisprudence can make a site within that state unacceptable.

The APSA will make decisions on this matter in August. In the meantime, to the wider world the controversy makes the whole organization look divorced from reality, ready to follow fashion at the expense of common sense. There’s just no issue here: as long as roving mobs aren’t out lynching those who appear (whatever that means) to practice homosexuality, or public establishments are denying them services, or they’re not being forced to use separate water fountains, etc., to say that there is illegitimate (and these days, illegal) discrimination going on against targeted convention attendees in a particular location is difficult, and to argue that illegality of same-sex marriages somehow creates such a hostile vibe as to threaten the well-being of anybody is absurd.

Because of cost considerations I suspect the APSA will keep the meeting in New Orleans, and I also figure any action taking place will be along the lines of the “case-by-case” lines because, frankly, fewer than 10 cities in North America have the capability to put on such a large meeting and New Orleans also has been a popular venue (in fact, the smaller regional Southern Political Science Association has had its annual meeting, with a one-year Katrina hiatus, in New Orleans for the past several years). But the public relations damage by having to engage in a manufactured controversy regardless of the APSA decision will not help the profession.

Presently, a good portion of the American public disdains public policy contributions from academia precisely because of the hospitality its overwhelmingly politically liberal sentiments present to political correctness. People outside of the academy see episodes such as this, wonder where the common sense is, and use such evidence to question or dismiss whatever, no matter how well conceptualized, argued, and executed, comes out of academia. That will be the only substantive result from however the controversy plays out within the APSA.

(An aside: the APSA has invited comment on deliberations that will be kept confidential, and this posting will be my contribution. However, obviously a larger audience will have access to it on the Web and it will get around to certain people in the profession. Were I a junior scholar, writing this could be a serious career risk because some in the profession keep track of these things which may impact decisions on publishing things, or accepting papers to conferences, and which reviewers to send submissions to, etc. Most distressingly, it affects job hirings sometimes. Fortunately, I am at a point where speaking against orthodoxy cannot seriously jeopardize my future career prospects. It is unfortunate that not all can enjoy this freedom because of attitudes and actions of some in academia.)


Anonymous said...

However absurd the use of "practitioners of homosexuality" is, with most points on this you're not far off the mark. I think there could well be more going on than meets the eye here--say, a vendetta, promotion of a book, etc. At the same time, APSA was supposedly coming to NOLA out of support for the city post-Katrina, which makes (for any number of reasons) this whole debate obscene.

Jeff Sadow said...

The APSA signed the contract in 2003, well before Katrina. Trust me, this is just a situation where one group of people want to feel better about themselves by fighting some manufactured "injustice" and, in the end, the organization because of its political sympathies will partially submit by choosing the "case-by-case" option later this year. Which, practically speaking, means New Orleans will be allowed to host again. Actually, the APSA doesn't have a whole lot of choices -- maybe 10 cities have the infrastructure to hold the annual meeting, and the majority of sites I think are in states where there has been some kind of prohibition on same-sex marriage (although San Francisco and New York both now seem to be in play).