Next week I am off to the New School’s Democracy and Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, Poland. The Institute opens today, but I will be arriving a few days late. As I review the events of this week at Deliberately Considered, I am anticipating my work at the Institute, which will be reflected in upcoming posts. The last two posts, on Iran and on American identity, in fact, were informed by Democracy and Diversity experience.
In the most mundane way, the Institute is like many other international summer schools. Students from many different countries, this year Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Italy, Poland, and the USA, among others, come together to study a set of problems from a number of different academic perspectives. As usual, in my judgment, the topics are particularly interesting, this year, each addressing the theme of the year The World in Crisis: “Gender in Crisis? Strengths and Weaknesses in the Strategy of Emergency” (Prof. Ann Snitow), “Media and News in a Time of Crisis” (Prof. Jeffrey Goldfarb and Prof. Daniel Dayan), “Romancing Violence: Theories and Practices of Political Violence” (Prof. Elzbieta Matynia), and “‘We the People’: Nationalism, Ethnicity and Belonging” (Prof. Sharika Thiranagama). Still there are many summer schools that offer interesting programs with talented students such as we have. Yet, there is something special about this Institute that makes it different than most summer programs, linked to its history.
In terms of my student’s observations and reflection on Iran this week, our institute is in a sense, paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, a not so lost treasure of the revolutionary tradition. He observed how freedom was experienced in the days before and after the 2009 elections in his country, and noted how even in the face of extreme repression, the ability of independent people to speak and act in each other’s presence is still consequential, apparently preventing the execution of Habibollah Latifi. But the real significance of the free politics, before the elections of 2009 and through the Facebook mediated protest against Latifi’s execution, is not so much determined by the results, as important as those are, the failure of the elections, the small victory of the prevented execution. The very act of people with common principles meeting each other, speaking freely to each other and developing a capacity to act in concert, i.e. Arendt’s definition of free public action, is where the real significance is, and it has lasting results. The Democracy and Diversity Institute is a case in point.
The Institute has a heroic past, based in the resistance to Polish Totalitarianism and linked with the New School’s University in Exile, two instances of free creative public action. The University in Exile was established by Alvin Johnson, President of the New School and one of the co editors of the first Encyclopedia of Social Science. In 1933, he worked to establish a special institution of higher education, helping to rescue social science scholars at risk in Nazi Europe, leading to a distinctive academic program that joined European and American social science and philosophy in a creative dialogue.
In 1984, during a special ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the University in Exile (formally founded in 1934), the New School granted Adam Michnik, the Polish dissident and historian, an honorary doctorate, along with other human rights activists from around the world. He was in jail at the time of the ceremony. Czeslaw Milosz, the Nobel Prize winning poet, accepted the degree for Michnik, reading an excerpt from his famous letter to General Kiszczak, in which Michnik in no uncertain terms denounces the oppressive ruling order and the logic of its Minister of the Interior. A few months later Michnik was released from prison and I went with the President of the New School, Jonathan Fanton, to present Michnik his degree. I spent time with Michnik the week following the official ceremony. We discussed working together to establish a semi-clandestine international seminar on totalitarianism and democracy. Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism was the first work that was discussed together in Budapest, Warsaw and New York. Maintaining such an activity before the World Wide Web was extremely difficult, particularly given the nature of the regimes of the former Soviet bloc. There were plans to work also with colleagues in Czechoslovakia, but this couldn’t be fully developed. The history of the seminar has not been fully told. I have written some about it, as has Elzbieta Matynia. But what is truly significant is that the history informs our present activities.
Matynia moved the New School from the commitment to this unofficial underground activity to the full development of what is now our Transregional Center for Democratic Studies and our Democracy and Diversity Institute. What brought the German scholars to the New School and what led to the development of the Democracy Seminar animates the Democracy and Diversity Institute.
I am not being sentimental about this. It is a result of ongoing practices, ongoing meetings of people speaking and acting together freely, taking part in a conversation through time, as people do so on Facebook in Iran and in other repressive contexts. Thus, this year’s program includes Ann Snitow’s course on gender. She has been teaching in the Institute for most of its history, underscoring the important connection between gender justice and democratic constitution. Now this not something very controversial, but in the early years of the program it was not easily accepted by many of students from the region. She organized the important Network of East West Women, and in the Institute, she taught problems of gender, and she continues doing this in the transformed global context. As problems of nationalism emerged in the region, we discussed it and we continue to do so, broadening our comparative focus. As violence, and not just dialogue, determines political fate, we critically examine it. And as public life is more and more defined through new media forms, we critically examine them. The Democracy Seminar and the University in Exile live in our not narrowly academic activities.
The problematic future of the nation state, its link with exclusionary practices, violence, patriarchy and the like, is one of the topics that we have been discussing at the Democracy and Diversity Institute for years. Last year, Tim Rosenkrantz took part in those discussions in Wroclaw. I am pretty sure that those discussions informed his telling reflections on the recent public action of Jose Antonio Vargas in his post this week. Rosenkrantz is sympathetic with Vargas’s claim to citizenship, but points out the uncomfortable radical implications. I look forward to discussing this in my class in Wroclaw and analyzing the media form Vargas has used to make his public intervention. It’s a long way from the Democracy Seminar, but the media is not the message, the free public action is.