Solipsism in the Streets

By Brett Warnke

In case you haven’t been following The New School’s recent hullaballoo in the New York Times, President Kerrey has been put against the wall for alleged authoritarianism and money-first decisions.  “Stop Kerrey Now!” fliers read.  “Join us for a protest during Kerrey’s sit down chat.  We’ll party all night! (1$ Beers, $3 vodka drinks).” The Converse-sporting, Starbucks-slurping “protestors in exile” came out on December 18, 2008 but were mostly ignored as they “occupied” a New School building.  The sad scene of mangy protestors harassing neutral pedestrians, shocked me, but discovering it heroically displayed in the New York Times as a kind of movement filled me with horror. These few “Generation Me”-s are representative of the dizzyingly low level of Leftist engagement in today’s burning issues. One must view with suspicion those who, barking loudly at the rain for being so wet, condemn capitalism at a private school and make a pouty list of selfish material demands to a president whom they demand resign!  Kerrey is quite creepy and viewed with suspicion by teachers I admire.  But regarding this rabble—all them hipsters, solipsists, Generation Mes, or liberal—but don’t call them radical or a movement.  Words already mean far too little these days.  One could ascertain this much by reading the semi-literate prose of any handout from these “Protestors In Exile” (or PIE as I shall henceforth address them.)

Marx says in the Theses on Feuerbach that philosophers have only interpreted the world, whereas the point is to change it.  How the student body of what the New York Times calls the “unabashedly leftist New School,” goes about changing society is important.  PIE’s current goal: Ousting Kerrey.  One could argue that the students are looking for something to protest about, but I find PIE more pernicious.  PIE seems to be outraged about issues concerning only them, their image.  One student lamenting his “unequal treatment” by Kerrey was quoted in the NYT:  “People just don’t give equality away, you have to take it.” Powerful words.  But with what deeds to support them?  Doctoral student Geeti Das similarly menaced:  “If [by April 1 Kerrey] has not resigned, we will shut down the functions of the university…we will bring it to a halt.”  At $900 a credit hour, one wonders whether or not Das has all of the students in mind when she thunders such drivel.  The real Kerrey debate has been mostly internal, regarding the “unfair treatment” of the New School’s faculty—who raise many serious complaints regarding governance and fiscal accountability.  Is this cause worth such intractability—or even more, is any cause worthy of such concerted aggression?

The PIE’s first decision at their little sit-in “occupation” was to give a New School tutorial in which they wrapped themselves in a radical past:  the legacy of ’68, the fight for the oppressed, opposition to an “imperial” war, etc.  The hirsute leader, I’ll call him Tutor, declared that in May 1970, “Thousands of students congregate to coordinate activities…it is the tame of Kent State, Cambodia, Iraq….uh (grin)…Vietnam war.  There was an occupation that lasted 21 days and at the end of that occupation, 21 students were arrested.” Smiles.  Oohs, aahs, all around—clearly impressed at the courage of self-sacrifice they seem unable to imitate.

Tutor could not even continue his history lecture after an aside jibe regarding university spending.  All the PIEs wanted to be the first to declare what he/she knew, and where he/she heard it.  You know the sound of this conversational vomit:  “Well, I heard…well I know….what I was told.”  But after this braggadocio cooled and everyone became equally bored with one another’s stories about themselves a protestor bellowed, “Since I have been involved and I have been involved in 2004….every single part of this school almost has been scaled back.  He [Kerrey} is taking the money and scaling everything back.  He spent $10 million dollars marketing last year.”  Gasps followed by the sterile ejaculation:  “Yeah, marketing in Iraq!”

The fun began when the howling PIE began clapping that Kerrey was “forced to agree” to a forum and then denounced him as a “war criminal” who (gasp) “believes in war.” Later, the tatterdemalions assailed Kerrey for condemning Professor Ward Churchill’s comments in 2005.  (This unemployed Boulder professor referred to those murdered in 9/11 as “little Eichmann’s” and took the loathsome “chickens coming home to roost” argument to its logical conclusion.”)  Tutor declared before the appalled crowd:  “Yeah, he condemned that…”  Notice, there is no argument or discussion, merely consensus and nihilistic outrage.

“Was anyone here for when the students turned their backs on McCain….” Tutor inquired.  “Yeah, I was here for that…Yeah, me, too…Man, I wish I was there.” A bedreaded speaker interrupts later as many began checking their cell phones or adjusting their rakish hats:  “I was part of this process, so I know about it.”

Looking at PIE’s unfrequented webpage, one could (if you must) read the plagiarized, boring, and poorly-written anti-capitalist screed.  “Reform is not an option,” the pamphlet reads.  “In our battle we must understand our plight and struggle against the general conditions of capitalist society and seek a total rupture with it.”

So what really are the humanistic, non-reformist, anti-capitalist, anti-war demands these “radicals” now demand?

1. Amnesty for themselves.
2. A Library.
3. Involvement in Provost pick.
4. Bureaucratic funding oversight.
5. Extended email capabilities.
6. Non-voting representation on Trustees.  Disclosure of university’s endowment. Kerrey/Murtha’s resignation.

You couldn’t make this stuff up.  In truth, the student opposition to President Kerrey stems partially from his politics.  It is never not mentioned by his critics that he supported regime change in Iraq and invited John McCain to speak at the New School.  In fact, the day 75 students “occupied” the 5th Avenues building, an Iraqi flag was ironically hoisted.

In no way is Kerrey the most important issue for students to rally about, especially at a school founded to provide a home for exiled thinkers.  While 5 million lives have been erased in the Congo, not a whisper of support or a penny of aid has arisen from united New School action.  Millions of refugees languish from Chad to Palestine to Somalia and only silence palls our “activist” campus.  The UN is two miles away but there is no student-organized solidarity or action for the Zimbabweans plagued by Mugabe’s misrule.  Instead, absurdity follows tragedy:  A bloody Maoist revolutionary and vote-rigger like Nepal’s Prachanda is offered a forum at Tishman Auditorium with a glowing introduction by Andre Arato after killing upwards of 13,000 people and refusing to lead investigations into the “disappeared.” To my knowledge, the democratically elected leader of Iraq, President Talabani, a minority Kurd has not been invited over.

Recently, students stirred regarding the movement of NSSR’s Fogelman Library from a small basement to a hive-like computer lab.  New Schoolers can use NYU’s towering Bobst and have the ability to use Manhattan’s consortium libraries.  Is this a practical or prestige complaint from PIE?  Perhaps the least a student movement could do to act radically would be donating all of our feaux library’s materials to Kurdish and Iraq universities in short supply of texts.  Sending some of the following touchstones of world thought just might do the trick:  Our secular and continually amended Constitution, Blackburn’s history of New World Slavery, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Victor Klemperer’s anti-fascist diaries, Bertrand Russell’s Theory and Practice of Bolshevism, Gourevitch’s We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed, Czeslow Milosz’s humanist poetry, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, as well as a note reading: “We at the New School are sorry for repeatedly denying our support and excusing fascist tyrants and religious zealots.”

Kerrey isn’t our radical issue.  Why we are no longer radical is the issue.  The sad descent from the 1960s fight for the oppressed to today’s banal intestine fight for materials and an “I, Me, Mine” worldview—radical deeds without radical action—are our issues.  Why we haven’t united loudly with our consortium in a fiery daily struggle for the oppressed is the issue.

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Brett Warnke graduated from Indiana University in 2005.  He then joined Teach for America in the Greater New Orleans Corps as a secondary English teacher.  He is currently in the NSSR.