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The Scarlet & Black

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

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  • W

    Whose progress?Dec 3, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    Neoliberal ideology is not synonymous with the field of economics (although it’s understandable with Grinnells department that many would conflate the two). I believe the author grasps economic principles and is taking into account those who, as professor Federici point out, have substantial cultural (emphasizing feminist) concerns about the global market based distribution of resources (specifically agricultural), an argument we should all be prepared to, at the very least, consider intellectually. Kelley is arguing that Montgomery failed to do give intellectual respect to Professor Federico, and instead attempted to disregard the speaker’s account of the peasant struggle by appealing to math scores — an intellectually asymmetrical argument. He didn’t give the speakers considerations the respect they deserved and so was anti intellectual and paternalistic in one swoop.

  • A

    An AlumnaApr 29, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    Here, here, Grin Alum.

    There are so many things wrong with this diatribe, but one that sticks out is that Vincent decries Montgomery’s alleged paternalism while writing a letter that is paternalistic in its very essence. Vincent seems to believe that Federici should be protected from rigorous debate – or “patriarchal chiding,” as he calls it – because she is a woman. A real feminist would assume that Federici, an accomplished academic, is perfectly capable of defending her own work against critics – even male ones (with, let’s be honest, volume-regulation issues). I find it doubtful that Vincent would have written this rant had the lecturer been a man.

  • G

    Grin alumApr 18, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    Wasn’t there, but this letter reads like satire. Still I am assuming that Mr. Kelly is serious. Spirited and aggressive debate in an academic setting. Ban it! You’re hypersensitivity to listening to anything that might give offense is puritanical prudishness. Intellectual discourse will at times be rough and impolite. Toughen up, dude.

  • L

    Lil B "The BasedGod"Apr 4, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    I would also like to add that I’ve seen Montgomery behave this way at similar events and I wholeheartedly agree with your bashing of his paternalistic behavior. The above comment pertains to your discussion of the substance of the lecture – not Montgomery’s behavior specifically. (These are two separate issues that are somewhat conflated in your article.) I am very much so in agreement that male academics have an obligation to suppress a reliance on their “masculinity” while engaging in discourse. Aggressive and paternalistic behavior has no place in the academic sphere.

  • C

    Colin LudlowApr 4, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    I was not at this event, so I cannot comment on the content of the discussion or the veracity of the description. I can confidently say, however, that this writer is trying to address “disrespectful anti-intellectualism” with a piece that, itself, is both disrespectful and anti-intellectual.

    Like this author, I do not enjoy irreverent debates (although I am guilty of participating in a few). However, we’ve seen students and professors from every department participate in them, at times with visiting speakers. Demonizing a specific person (his name was written 12 times), and, implicitly, a specific academic discipline, is not how this author should have addressed this issue.

    This piece was supposed to read: “we have a problem with our culture.” Instead, it read: “I don’t like this Econ professor.”

  • G

    grinnell studentApr 4, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    vincent kelley for president!

  • L

    Lil B "The BasedGod"Apr 4, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    I wasn’t at the lecture and therefore cannot speak to what was said by either prof but I can certainly say this: I don’t know you, Vincent Kelley, but it appears that you have little to no understanding of economics. Also, you are using meaningless rhetoric to make your point. If you’re going to refute an argument (such as Montgomery’s), you need to provide evidence to the contrary. In this article you make ZERO arguments based on evidence, instead opting to throw around anecdotal references and accusations using highly politicized rhetoric. I commend your writing skills, but… A second year seeking to write off the entire discipline of Economics is laughable. No offense. Montgomery does indeed fall to the right of most other Econ profs at this college, and since I wasn’t there I won’t argue on behalf of what was said (I have absolutely zero trust in your summary of his argument), but I would encourage you to adopt a greater understanding of nuance when thinking about these issues. The “intellectualism” you’re defending will thank you for it.