On Freedom, Academic and Otherwise

Though he doesn’t call himself a linguist or etymologist, legal scholar Steven T. Newcomb, co-founder of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of Pagans in the Promised Land (2008), takes apart certain English language words, uncovering their roots and showing them to contain deeply seated logics. His main concern is the historical denial of a free existence of the Indian nations by the US government. In his book, public lectures, and articles, Newcomb “decodes the doctrine of Christian discovery,” in part by deconstructing the words that are deeply entrenched in law and in individual and collective minds. Key among them is the word “domination” with its roots in Sanskrit (“domanus—he who subdues”) and Latin (“dominus—one who has subdued” and “dominium—absolute ownership”), which for Newcomb refers to the Conqueror model that presumes moral authority over the subdued (the dominated). Newcomb discusses the relationship between domination and freedom, pointing out that “no one is completely free except the conqueror, and freedom in this context refers to the conqueror being absolutely free to conquer, subdue and establish and maintain a reign or state of domination” (2008: 31). He also poses a question about the “dom” in the word “freedom”: is it there to signal a lording over the free?

Last year, as tensions mounted at Standing Rock in the months leading up to the decision by the US Army Corps of Engineers to not grant the permit for the Dakota Access pipeline, I couldn’t get Newcomb’s reconstruction of history, property and nation out of my mind. As the 2016 national election campaign became increasingly bizarre and threatening and marked by hateful violence in its aftermath, revelations in Pagans stayed with me, especially those on the power of a nation’s dominating myths. As we anticipate growing threats to freedom in general and to academic freedom specifically, Newcomb’s ideas are especially notable.

Taking action

In terms of threats to academic freedom, the pattern of recent events in the US and around the world suggests we may be entering a period in which the lording over is intensified, putting scholars and scholarship in a vulnerable state. And in that state, it is imperative that we remain vigilant, identify historical context and power dynamics, be ready to oppose, and be prepared to defend.

In the US, the toughest issues are likely to relate to Donald Trump’s various statements and “promises,” not least those that attack the value of critical thinking and scientific knowledge, and those that constitute threats to human rights, human dignity as well as to academic freedom. There was a charged atmosphere during the Annual Meeting in November (2016) as members discussed the US national election and offered suggestions about next steps in the form of several advisory motions from the floor of the business meeting. Since the Annual Meeting, AAA staff and leadership have been very busy preparing for what may unfold.

Before the year was out and in keeping with the spirit of the motions, in late November 2016 AAA issued a resolution that rejects hostilities that threaten personal and intellectual diversity; and reiterates commitment to free inquiry and to advocating for policies that uphold the core values of mutual respect, equal rights, freedom of expression, and freedom from discrimination. In the new year, AAA announced several actions also in response to member motions, that are designed to strengthen the Association’s commitment to protecting academic freedom and to promoting greater public understanding of and support for this principle (available on the AAA website).

With these actions, we reaffirmed the Association’s endorsement of the AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure to make loud and clear that “researchers, teachers and students should be free to challenge prevailing wisdom and accepted ‘common sense’ in the pursuit of knowledge and as advocates in public policy debates.” We have also established the Rapid Response Network on Academic Freedom (RRNAF), charged with advising AAA leadership and members on threats to academic freedom as these may emerge. RRNAF members Marc Edelman (Chair), Jennifer Burrell, Kate Elissa Goldfarb, Ritu Khanduri, Shanti Parikh, Bernard Perley and Jonathan Rosa will help us monitor the threats. Finally, AAA will maintain active membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science and Human Rights Coalition and has become an affiliate of Scholars at Risk, an international non-profit organization dedicated to protecting threatened scholars and promoting academic freedom around the world.

By means of these actions, AAA will keep watch on, reveal the underlying forces in, and oppose and defend against threats to the academic freedom of anthropologists anywhere and everywhere.

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Want to comment? Please be aware that only comments from current AAA members will be approve. AN is supported by member dues, so discussions on anthropology-news.org are moderated to ensure that current members are commenting. As with all AN content, comments reflect the views of the person who submitted the comment only. The approval of a comment to go live does not signify endorsement by AN or the AAA.