“We Write from Paris”: a letter of solidarity from Nancy Fraser and Eli Zaretsky

April 15, 2009

Dear friends and colleagues,

We write from Paris, a city where protests, demonstrations, and yes, even building occupations are frequent occurrences; a city whose traditions of creative, robust forms of political expression we admire and one whose
inhabitants regularly manifest what seems to us a healthy dose of self-respect in objecting publicly and forcefully to demeaning and unjust conditions. Having breathed this atmosphere for many months now, we view recent events at the New School in a different light from that reflected in communications we have so far received.

Granted we are far away. And undoubtedly we miss many nuances. Nevertheless, having carefully read all the documents sent to us (student manifestoes, presidential memos, and communiqués from deans, provosts, trustees and individual professors), we can see no justification for the Administration”s resort to police force against the occupiers of 65 Fifth Avenue. Furthermore, we are against proposals to condemn both sides. On the contrary, we urge the faculty to condemn the administration”s action forthwith and to support the right of the demonstrators to their protest, regardless of our agreement or disagreement with their views and goals.

Let us explain:

We have the impression that Bob Kerrey acted unilaterally in calling in the police. As far as we know, he did not consult the Faculty Senate, the Deans, Student Government, or other stakeholders. Nor did he initiate a broad public discussion as to what constituted an appropriate response. Rather, it appears that he acted impulsively, in the manner of an executive who feels himself unchecked by, and unaccountable to, the other powers that constitute our pluralistic community. If that is right, than his action gives the lie to the year-long process of democratization and reform of university governance that we have been following, and admiring, from afar.

We also have Bob’s explanations of his motives before us. In our view, his statements evince no understanding of longstanding traditions of university autonomy vis-à-vis state power and protection from apparatuses of repression. Originating in the Middle Ages, these traditions are grounded in an understanding of the university as a special place, dedicated to freedom of thought. That understanding was widespread in the 1960s, as we recall. In those years of many and long occupations, the police were almost never called in. When Columbia University called the police in 1969 after extensive faculty and student discussion‹a number of well-known Professors resigned in protest.

More recently, and closer to home, when 65 Fifth Avenue was occupied for several months in 1997, then-president Jonathan Fanton (a member of Human Rights Watch) worked with faculty, deans, and students to defuse the situation without recourse to the police. These other presidents appeared to act with some awareness of the university”s traditional and well-grounded autonomy. Nothing in Bob Kerrey”s statements indicates that he understands this history. Rather, his action appears to have been taken in ignorance of the specificity of academic life, its values, traditions and historic rights.

We reject, too, Bob’s resort to all-too-familiar tropes of the war on terror and the outside agitator to demonize the occupiers. That people carried crowbars as they attempted to break into a building in no way establishes their intention to perpetrate violence. That some of the protesters were students from other universities or non-students is also a red herring. In our view, it is natural and proper for students to support each others’ struggles, as they discover shared threats to academic values in the bottom-line orientations that are increasingly coming to prevail in many universities. Equally important, the near-emptying of 65 Fifth Avenue is a neighborhood issue as well as a university issue. That non-students should be concerned by, and moved to protest against, the degradation of
neighborhood life is not only understandable but also laudable. Let us not forget, moreover, that it was not the occupiers but Bob Kerrey who turned the surroundings of 65 Fifth Avenue into a forlorn wasteland.

We find implausible, too, the claim that the occupation disrupted academic life for 10,000 students. How, we wonder, could the occupation during vacation of a boarded up, under-utilized building do that?

We understand the occupation itself in the context of the long history of such events. Ever since the Levelers and Diggers, there is a strand of reputable radical thought that condones taking and putting to use fallow land, unused buildings, idle factories and other resources. A recent incarnation of such protest can be found today in cities throughout the United States in squattings by evicted and homeless people of foreclosed homes that stand as empty, useless monuments to the sanctity of contract.

For our part, we sympathize with a bold expression of outrage at the thoughtlessness by which the Administration emptied 65 Fifth Avenue, moved faculty, students, and staff into an anodyne corporate space, in which a vibrant intellectual life is being suffocated, only to leave the building that formerly housed our activities boarded up and largely unused. To us, an occupation that protests the waste of resources and thoughtless destruction of intellectual life makes a kind of political sense.

Certainly, one can object that we read our own thoughts into the occupiers’ motives. Yet our reading seems to have at least as much merit as those who bemoan the violent, anti-democratic nature of the occupiers’ manifestoes. Where they see straightforward literal expression, we see irony, wit, situationist rhetoric, and in one case an April Fools Day joke.

In any case, we categorically reject the idea that the demonstrators alleged contempt for democracy or critical theory is in any way relevant. What is important is not their conception of democracy but ours. In our conception, a vibrant democracy requires tolerating difficult, extremist, unfriendly, confrontational minorities, not putting them in jail. Many of us teach courses that probe such matters, as well as civil disobedience and other extraordinary forms of democratic speech. We urge the faculty to adopt an approach that honors that this understanding of democracy.

As we see matters, therefore, it would muddy the situation to issue an evenhanded statement that condemns both sides. Rather, we urge an intervention that directs its criticism at the action of a President that appears to have violated the academic traditions and practices we hold dear. Forgive us, dear colleagues, if we misunderstand matters from afar. We risk seeming to wade in intemperately in order to insure inclusion in your deliberations of a perspective that has not yet surfaced in the circulated documents.

Best wishes to all,
Nancy Fraser and Eli Zaretsky

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