Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sexton and 9/11

On the first of September, John Sexton sent an email message via NYU's mass mailing system to all members of the NYU community. This message was a welcome message of sorts, a message celebrating some of the incredible research conducted at NYU and some of the expensive initiatives the university has pursued of late. It did not, however, mention a single thing about graduate students or graduate employees. The list of research projects Sexton celebrated are all credited to the efforts of faculty and faculty only, including projects that have clearly involved the work of many graduate employees, advisees, or co-authors, such as those on foreign aid from the economics department or climate change modeling from the Courant Institute. The message also celebrates the new spaces that have recently been created or soon will be for anti-strike departments like economics and philosophy while leaving out new spaces for more involved departments like sociology. And finally, as an institution deeply committed to undermining the rights of working people across the board, Sexton closes the message by wishing the NYU community a happy Labor Day weekend.

But those are just normal acts of mystification on the part of the NYU administration. They are not the things that make this message so troubling. What is troubling is Sexton's decision to insulate himself from criticism by focusing his thoughts on 9/11 instead of on something authentically about NYU. He claims that NYU's response to the 9/11 attacks has been "a commitment to free speech and exchange, through a willingness to be open-minded, and through intellectual rigor." Now, we all know NYU not to be so open-minded. But the message goes further. It claims for NYU a place in the pantheon of 9/11 heroes, a place NYU does not deserve.

In fact, this message does not go far in explaining why Sexton claims this place for NYU. But another message sent on September 5th does. The ostensible purpose of this second message is to invite members of the NYU community to 9/11 memorial ceremony and exhibition, an event I am glad NYU is holding and which I am glad it has seen fit to notify community members about. But the details of the event are buried deep in the message, following Sexton's attempts to claim greatness for NYU in the wake of 9/11. He does point out that students volunteered time, faculty volunteered intellectual responses, and many community members opened their homes to other community members displaced from NYU dorms. But he says more.

Sexton writes, in his 9/11 message, that "the surging sense of community so evident at NYU at that time was one of the proudest moments in my 25 years at the University."

I'm glad Sexton appreciates that which NYU community members did do in those terrible days. But it pained me deeply to see this statement. It pained me for so many reasons, which is perhaps why it is a week later as I write this response. But I will stick with only 2, as this post is long enough already.

First, while the response of some members of the NYU community to the tragedy may have been compassion, action, and maybe in a very few cases even heroism, the response of NYU as an institution was not. Leaving aside some of the work of NYU's medical facilities, social workers, and other professional degree programs, the main response of NYU was to be sure its own were secure, and then to hold a lot of forums to discuss the implications of the attacks. Perhaps exactly what one would expect a university to do. But not anything particularly worth remarking on now, 5 years later, when (depending on your political position) somewhere between 3,000 and 125,000 people are dead who might have been alive but for that moment.

Second, and most galling, is the fact that Sexton apparently views 9/11 as a moment to celebrate with pride, rather than as a tragedy to mourn. Even for those who did heroic things in response to 9/11, what we should feel is a deep regret that such heroism was called for. We should never, as Sexton does, use the anniversary of the attacks to turn our attention away from the pressing problems of today by pretending that they were a "proud moment" to be remembered so gladly and gratefully

So instead of remembering what Sexton does, please take a moment this Monday to remember in whatever way you see fit (whether by observing a moment of silence watching the shinning Towers of Light or by attending a communal memorial like the one at NYU) that people died on that day and that people continue to die every day because of the willingness of so many to look for responses to 9/11 besides that of mourning the people that died and working to keep our world a place that they would have recognized. Sexton, one of my deepest wishes is that you never would have had an occasion to feel that pride.

10 Comments:

Anonymous John Henderson said...

It's September 11, so I'm very willing to give you a great deal of latitude in how you feel. Come to think of it, I don't think I'll tell you how to feel any other day of they year. You're who you are, and you get to feel how you want.

Novel concept, that. Letting people feel how they want to feel. Now I would never tell you how to live your life, but if I were, I might suggest you cut other folks the same slack I'm more than happy to cut you. You said:

"Second, and most galling, is the fact that Sexton apparently views 9/11 as a moment to celebrate with pride, rather than as a tragedy to mourn."

OK, you've got a mad-on for Sexton. Fine. But my goodness, is it really beyond the pale to view 9/11 through anything other than a curtain of tears? Is it really worthy of no other emotion than sadness? Does it gall you to know that I find plenty of other emotions today besides grief?

You continue:

"Even for those who did heroic things in response to 9/11, what we should feel is a deep regret that such heroism was called for."

Thanks for telling me what I should feel. It's been a big help today. Before you explained that I should only feel deep regret, I was able to feel admiration and pride that courage and heroism could be found in the actions of so many different people.

I hope you feel better soon, but I won't insist you do. Just think of it as my gift to you.

9/11/2006 11:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a moron. I can't believe the author of this blog is a grad student. You need professional help.

9/17/2006 12:24 AM  
Blogger zach said...

name calling. how completely unproductive.

I think it's worthwhile to examine how Sexton's emails refence and mobilize the trauma of September 11th, 2001 as discursive affirmation and redemption for a certain vision of the university - particularly when Sexton does this so openly.

It's hardly moronic to suggest that BNR isn't the one tellign folks how to feel here, that this blog post is a response to an email sent to 40,000 some-odd people by a public figure and generally when public figures make staatements, critical interventions are expected if not welcomed. BNR reminds us that Sexton's words aren't being produced in a vacuum but seem to want to operate in one, and I think that's a useful observation.

9/17/2006 7:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's worthwhile examining how your own emails reference yet fail to mobilize the typical bullshit we heard from GSOC all last year. Get over it: the strike is over and no one really cares about how you feel about Sexton's vacuums.

I heard the appliance section at Kmart is looking for a few good windbags; could you possibly step up to the plate since you are so interested in suction devices?

9/17/2006 8:20 PM  
Blogger Bread and Roses said...

Anonymous,

If you didn't care what we thought or how we felt, I do suppose you wouldn't read our blog. Technorati tracks 54.3 million blogs; if you really did not care about what we have to say you would go spread your meaningless vitriol on any one of them.

9/18/2006 12:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only reason I read your blog is because I'm waiting for you to post some photos of you fat ass.

9/18/2006 5:19 PM  
Blogger specter of marx said...

Nerds kindly request that readers refrain from posting threatening and/or obscene comments on this blog. We invite productive critical commentary that is germane to our content, and thus have no wish to moderate comments. Please be respectful and constructive in all future posts.

Thank you.

9/18/2006 7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, I was offering critical commentary that is germane to your content!

Reference to ass is neither threatening or obscene: it is simply a body part. Or are you going to try to marginalize and abjectify it?

9/18/2006 9:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo, John Henderson! I cannot believe this arrogant blogger was trying to tell everyone how to feel about September 11th. I am no fan of Sexton, but am less of a fan of obtuse, clueless, obnoxious "rebels without a clue" like the blowhard who publishes this blog.

9/22/2006 2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My pet turtle died. I hope GSOC tells me how to feel about that.

9/28/2006 9:45 AM  

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