Doing the right thing

March 31, 2000

Would you attend a conference in a country run partly by neo-fascists? That, as George McKay explains, is the issue facing 400 academics due to go to Austria

Should I stay or should I go? That is the question that will be perplexing an awful lot of academics over the next two weeks. On April 14, the European Association for American Studies biennial conference is scheduled to take place. This is the grand international event for the American studies community in Europe, attracting speakers from around the globe. Up to 400 academics should be attending, to hear almost 200 papers being given during 30 different workshops.

There is a problem though, a big problem. The conference is to be held in Austria, and the shadow of neo-fascism hanging over that country has made the American studies community feel pretty uncomfortable. Over the past few weeks, a flurry of emails between academics has raised questions about political discourse and practice, solidarity and activism.

On February 4, a new government was sworn in in Austria. It included for the first time as a coalition member the Freedom Party, led by Jorg Haider (with per cent of the vote). The Freedom Party's nationalistic and xenophobic policies are extreme enough, but they are mild compared with Haider's rhetoric, which has included Nazi and Holocaust revisionism.

Several European Union governments responded to this extreme right-wing party's new national role by threatening immediate diplomatic sanctions. Israel recalled its ambassador from Austria, while the United States ambassador returned to Washington for "consultations". As a result, Haider has (apparently) withdrawn from his prominent position in his party. But the affair is still having an impact on the EAAS conference as academics respond to the crisis.

Walter Hoelbling of Karl Franzens University in Graz, the location for the conference, has been frantically responding to the many contributions posted to the association's email list. Anyone who has organised a conference, let alone a major international one, will sympathise with Hoelbling's situation - the feeling that, just when it ought finally all to be coming together, it is actually in danger of falling apart.

Hoelbling says: "I am unforgiving towards the new Austrian government: everybody here has to do extra work because of this government's failure to diplomatically prepare EU members for its politically daring coalition. I had to cancel a one-week trip to Malta and instead spend three weeks in intensive conference crisis management - definitely the worst semester break ever."

According to Hoelbling, so far ten academics have withdrawn from their commitments to organise and speak at the conference. They include Chris Mulvey of King Alfred's College, Winchester, who was helping to organise a panel on early African-American fiction. Mulvey withdrew with a flourish (see box right). The initial response from the European Association for American Studies was to send "letters of concern" to Thomas Klestil, the Austrian president, and to the new head of government, Wolfgang Schussel. Then a forum discussion on "EAAS and Austrian politics" was hastily convened for the first day of the conference.

Since then, an extraordinary general meeting in Paris of the French Association for American Studies has produced a statement recommending that French delegates attend, with the proviso that the conference's "external" social events - official receptions hosted by the city of Graz and the state of Styria, for instance - explicitly "add to the credibility of the opposition rather than to that of the coalition in power".

The conference workshop I have organised is on contemporary eco-protest within and against America, and contributors are coming from Western Europe, Canada and Turkey. Or at least they were: one postgraduate student who was coming from British Columbia to talk about last year's World Trade Organisation "Battle in Seattle" may now not be able to make it. One of the groups sponsoring her trip has withdrawn the offer of funding because, as she explained to me, "they just feared their sponsorship would be misrepresented in the media". Such sensitivity is presumably a response to Haider's recent visit to Canada (where he was refused entry to a Holocaust museum).

But not all academics have reacted in the same way. Yonka Krasteva of Veliko Turnovo University in Bulgaria says she will definitely be running her workshop at Graz. "A boycott would mean depriving East European scholars of maybe their only international forum. Most of them are not as lucky as their colleagues in the West. Their universities do not pay for professional travel," Krasteva says. They would have to wait up to two years to be able to attend another such conference.

In fact, during his extensive correspondence with delegates and organisers, Hoelbling has found an interesting divide between scholars in the East and the West of Europe. "With their memories of what politics can be, East European academics consider Haider and company a relatively minor nuisance and are baffled at what they regard as the complacent over-reaction of some of their western colleagues, who can allow themselves the privilege of self-righteously withdrawing into their armchairs of moral superiority," he explains.

In the past few days and since Haider's withdrawal, it has seemed increasingly likely that most American studies scholars will now go to Austria in a fortnight. But even as the consensus hardens, the debate is shifting to the implications for the discipline of American studies itself - there is an overwhelming predominance of literary panels at the conference and hardly any political ones. Yet the subject in European universities has always had political overtones - after all, American studies started as a propagandist discourse during the cold war, funded by the United States government to soften up European intellectuals for the American way. Perhaps, among other things, this EAAS conference in what is seen as Haider's Austria will rekindle a self-critical political impulse within the subject, for attenders and refuseniks alike.

George McKay is reader in contemporary cultural studies at the University of Central Lancashire. He will be attending the EAAS conference.

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