Wednesday, November 20, 2013


It sometimes happens that issues from different courses I'm teaching align - always fun - but I wasn't expecting that to happen this semester. "Theorizing Religion," "Who New: A History of The New School" and the "Teaching and Learning Seminar" for peer advisers, three entirely different courses in entirely different fields? And yet it's sort of happened this week, over a surprising thing: the oddity and ubiquity of the "neutral" liberal state.

In "Theorizing Religion" we've finished the run-through of the great texts in the field, and entered the end zone which complicates and updates them, confronting them with contemporary pluralism, secularism and post-secularism, post-colonial, queer and lived religion perspectives. Yesterday's readings were from Tisa Wenger's We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom, an engaging account of a debate in the newspapers over the status of dances among the Zuñi and others. The dances had earlier been described by the Protestant missionaries working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to assimilate and "civilize" the Native Americans as varieties of paganism, demonic or debauched, and called costumbres by the Zuñi themselves (they used the word religion for their Catholicism). Starting in the mid-1920s a group of modern artists, anthropologists and feminists ushered in a new understanding of the dances as themselves religion. This protected them under the US constitution's protection of religious freedom, but brought all the baggage of the "modernists" (who liked their religion "primitive" and timeless).

It's a fascinating story. It also left us right smack in the middle of recent arguments that the category of "religion" is a legal category, defined not by scholarship or practice but by the state... and perhaps serving nobody's interests so well as it does those of the state. Yes, religions are protected from each other's judgment, and individuals from abuse by their own traditions, but all decisions are made by legislators, officials and, ultimately, judges. I'm not sure there's a better way of managing the religious field (Winnifred Fallers Sullivan's The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, central among these arguments, doesn't see an end to the tunnel either) but it's a bit of a rude awakening after months of imagining that the only players are religious folk and scholars, however dogmatic!

In "Teaching and Learning," this week wraps up the "Sex and Safety" section, run for us by university health educators and student health advocates. The overarching approach is "harm reduction": it's not the school's business to tell you whether or not to be sexually active or to use intoxicants, but whatever choices you make, we want you to avoid harming yourself or others. Sex should be safe and consensual, and drug or alcohol use controlled. Each year there are a few students who think this curriculum endorses sexual activity and drug use when it should be discouraging them (aren't illegal drugs, well, illegal?) but the health educators explain that it's not for them to question people's life choices. It's the stance of public health. What's proven not to work is pathologizing behavior, even behavior that may be bad for people: an anti-drug policy wouldn't reduce drug use but would guarantee more overdoses, just as anti-sex policies would produce more STDs.

I'm not suggesting an analogy between the liberal state's view on religious freedom and our university's harm reduction policy on sex and drugs, not exactly... though it might be good to think with! The real reason the liberal state was on my mind was the epoch in New School history we entered this week, when we had decisively become a university with many divisions, graduate as well as a burgeoning undergraduate curriculum, and, for the first time in our history, a residential community. The president who led New School through this transition, Jonathan Fanton, made a point of insisting that a university was not a state - by which he meant that it couldn't be administered by
some kind of democratic referendum system - but in many other ways his understanding of our achieved universityhood was very statelike. You could call it the apparatus of the university as bureaucracy protecting freedom.

Fanton published many of his talks in a book called The University and Civil Society, and among the week's readings for our course were three chapters from this book. Convocation 1994 marked the 75th anniversary of The New School and the beginning of a new era as a residential university. Parsons 1992 Commencement called for an alumnae network of not just rights but responsibilities, including ensuring "visual progress" around the world. And a letter to the university community in 1989 discussed the Matsunaga Exhibit and freedom of expression.

What came to be known as the "Matsunaga Affair" was a huge event on campus. An exhibition of 350 corporate logos by the Japanese designer Shin Matsunaga, on display in the Parsons gallery, included one for the soft drink Calpis which included a crude stereotyped image of an African American. A few days before the exhibition was to close, Lang poet Sekou Sundiata, an African American, defaced it, drawing a big blue X through it and, in the passepartout above, wrote This is racist bullshit and signed his name. Several students subsequently signed, too. Big fracas followed: a work of art (actually a reproduction) had been defaced! Sundiata should be condemned! The image was to be condemned! The exhibition should be taken down because of it!

Fanton wrote of the conflict between "freedom of expression" and "freedom from intolerance and harassment," values he was sure everyone at The New School shared. Sekou (unnamed) had gone too far in trying to censor the objectionable image, but it was great that people had protested. Fanton personally found the image offensive, too. But the university could and should do nothing - not even add a sign indicating that it was aware the image was objectionable. Any reaction would imply that every other object or expression met with university approval, and, more fundamentally, would suggest that the university had the right and perhaps the duty to make such judgments. Fanton hoped the community would understand that the university guaranteed freedom of expression precisely by taking no stands on any question. The exhibition of course stayed up, and heated discussion continued. We contrasted Fanton's view with that of faculty members who insisted that the abstract account of values in conflict ignored the historical setting - a school which had an exemplary record on freedom of expression but nothing like that on anti-racism. What would you say?

I don't want to push the analogy too far, but in each of these classes we came up against the difficulties of the minimal, neutral, merely procedural liberal state. The state, or university, protects its citizens' right to maximum freedom of choice by apparently making no choices of its own. In doing so, however, it permits many behaviors which might be objectionable and in ways which render the public sphere that much more dependent on the absent arbitrage of the state...

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