Letter to the Editor: Disrespectful Anti-Intellectualism at Grinnell

It is with indignation but also sadness that I write this letter to the editor. I avoid publicly rebuking individuals’ behavior out of a sense of respect, decency and an honor for ‘civil’ methods of discourse. But sometimes an individual’s behavior utterly flouts these very values, thereby precluding the possibility of constructive dialogue and demanding definitive public criticism. Such behavior occurred during the Q&A at Hofstra Professor Silvia Federici’s April first Center for Prairie Studies lecture entitled, “Reclaiming the Land, Reclaiming Our Bodies: Women and the Production of Commons.”

Immediately following Professor Federici’s illuminating talk on the connections between capitalist development, the colonization of women’s bodies and the destruction of the land, Grinnell economics professor Mark Montgomery was the first to participate in the Q&A. But instead of respectfully asking a question, Montgomery delivered a condescending, paternalistic lecture to Federici.He contended that the low literacy rates of women in Nigeria, where they stand as pillars of the subsistence and small-holder agricultural systems, compared with the high math scores of young women in Singapore, a country that imports its food supply, is evidence against Federici’s empirically-rich argument that the expropriation of communal lands leads to the devaluation and exploitation of women’s labor.

Montgomery’s patriarchal chiding of Federici is enough reason to denounce his behavior. Indeed, it provided a case in point as to the necessity of feminist struggles in any movement for social justice. Equally discreditable was the content of Montgomery’s argument: in a frenzied effort to protect his sacred neoliberal economic ideology, Montgomery used high math scores as an argument for the dispensability of communal food production. One would presume that a Grinnell economics professor would be aware of the difference between correlation and causation, but clearly basic social scientific methodology is the sacrificial victim at the altar of the Market.

And the Market isn’t just an altar; it’s the altar. Trapped in the prison of Market fundamentalism, Montgomery cannot even consider the idea, let alone the empirical evidence, that there may be cultures, or dissident sectors within this culture, that value non-monetary relationships, the land and the satisfaction of material needs through mutual aid above the calculative logic of the economists who prostrate at the feet of the Market.

Also erased from Montgomery’s sanitized account of ‘free market’ capitalism was Federici’s extensive discussion of women’s resistance to the privatization and contamination of the food supply. Instead of engaging with Federici’s account of international opposition to the consolidation and industrialization of agriculture, Montgomery, in true Orwellian fashion (after interrupting her answer to another question), argued that the U.S. agricultural subsidy structure actually protects small producers and is not responsible for artificially lowered food prices.

Indeed, for Montgomery, prices—a word he repeated over five times—are what matter, not the pauperized victims of ‘free trade’ agreements in Latin America; not the day laborers exploited by U.S. multinationals; not the thrashed land whimpering after its latest lashing from mechanized agricultural practices; and not our very bodies that are slowly being killed by the pesticides in our ‘cheap’ food.

For Montgomery, the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil—two examples that Federici gave of resistance to the neoliberal assault on land-based cultures in Latin America—are nothing more than an ignorant drone behind the triumphant chorus of economic growth and low prices. Specifically, the struggles of women to defend the land and traditional farming practices—struggles that Federici discussed in depth—are expunged from the historical record.

In the end, this isn’t really about Mark Montgomery. It’s about a culture and institution that considers behavior like his to be a form of academic dialogue. Informed debate in good faith is at the heart of the liberal arts. Patriarchal sermons on the theological tradition of neoliberalism are not. Mark Montgomery’s behavior is the epitome of the latter and should be condemned by those of us at Grinnell who still value the College’s commitment to social justice.

Vincent Kelley ’16