swastika dorm graffiti

The New School just made national news… because someone drew swastikas on the doors of several dorm rooms. (Here is a report in the New York Daily News.)

The president of the New School, David Van Zandt, has already condemned the graffiti, and it seems likely that many in New School community would agree. But our purpose here is not to say how bad this is or opine about whether it is a sign of the times. Rather, we want to note how the present incident undermines one of the deepest values of the institution. Consider Rutkoff and Scott’s description of the environment encountered by European refugees in 1933:

At the New School these displaced European scholars found a building and an institution ready-made for their use. Free of anti-Semitism, modernist in outlook, and politically committed to democratic values, the New School offered them an extraordinarily congenial environment, perhaps unique in the United States. In Alvin Jonson, the refuges found a trustworthy and steadfast friend and protector; in the refugees Johnson found the fulfillment of his vision for the New School. For the next twelve years Johnson presided over one of the most extraordinary groups of intellectuals and artists in the western world. At 66 West Twelfth Street social scientists, philosophers, and artists from throughout Europe and the Americas grappled with what they considered the fundamental issues confronting modern society. Free from political as well as traditional disciplinary constraints, the New School salvaged from the tragedy of 1933 a great intellectual treasure. (Rutkoff and Scott, p.85)

If this is right, the New School was marked from early on by its commitment to American democratic values and its opposition to Nazi persecution. The anti-antisemitism endemic to the New School’s culture was part and parcel with its acceptance of refugees. Together these commitments gave rise to a “modernist outlook,” that emphasized intellectual engagement with contemporary problems rather than a focus on racial difference. Dispensing with hierarchies of race and discipline in other words was understood to be a precondition for the possibility of engaging in truly open inquiry.

Remarkably, this modern, democratic approach was undertaken at a time when resources were scarce in the United States, and when prejudices were widespread:

There were not enough jobs for Americans, let alone jobs for European refugees. This was as true in American colleges and universities as in the society at large. Moreover, a nativistic and anti-Jewish prejudice was widespread, even in American academies. Such resentments were fed by the predicable defensiveness of American intellectuals toward European intellectuals, who often acted condescendingly toward American scholarship. This was the case in the social sciences, where refugee European social scientists were given a decidedly reserved reception by their American colleagues. The New School was the exception. Not only did it accept a relatively large number of scholars and artists, it welcomed them warmly. (p.86)

That is, the New School maintained a modernist and democratic outlook long before World War II loomed, at a time when economic depression fanned the flames of defensiveness and prejudice on the part of native-born Americans.

Yet the New School did more than provide a voice of dissent during those difficult times. The commitment to free inquiry is not a value of cool toleration but a modern form of ancient philoxenia or medieval hospitium. This is the value of admitting strangers warmly, which is to say as friends who have something to add to an ongoing conversation. To admit a stranger warmly and as a friend depends on the one hand on recognizing her as different, that is, as a stranger. This requires that one allow for the maintenance of difference. By not demanding conformity, one allows for autonomy or self-determination on the part of the stranger. To admit the stranger as a friend on the other hand depends on treating her as a consciousness like oneself, that is of recognizing her subjectivity and selfhood even in the face of strangeness and difference. This warm welcoming in guest-friendship thus requires combining the recognition of difference and the recognition of subjectivity. Such hospitium is finally not an individual taste for the exotic or even a self-interested cosmopolitanism. Rather it a political and intellectual value constitutive of the intellectual community of the New School.

Obviously drawing swastikas on dorm room doors is an act of provocation that is bad for the image of the university. But it is not just a matter of reputation and hurt feelings on the part of those targeted. More fundamentally, it undermines the value of treating strangers as friends, a value constitutive of the New School’s world-historic purpose.

 

Work Cited:

Rutkoff, P.M. and Scott, W.B. New School: A History of the New School for Social Research. New York: The Free Press, 1986.