Occupying the Time Machine

In 1895, H. G. Wells concocted an imaginary time machine
that hurled people into the future and back to the past.  Since then, that device
has been re-invented by sci-fi writers, film makers and scientists.  They
needn’t have bothered.  The time machine has already been in existence for more
than four hundred years. It’s called New York City.

Glimpses of the future can be seen in the blueprints of every
new skyscraper in every reconstructed neighborhood.  As for the latest instance
of ancient history, Exhibit A–the recent occupying of the onetime New School
for Social Research (now just the New School) located in Greenwich Village.

This institution was founded shortly after World War I by liberal
academics, and blossomed shortly before World War II when refugees from the
Third Reich were given shelter, salaries and classrooms by college
administrators.  Erich Fromm taught there; so did Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. 
The theater department, headed by the brilliant German leftist Irwin Piscator,
had activist students like Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte and Tennessee
Williams.  During the Cold War, when a blacklist chilled academia, the
philosophy department freely taught the writings of Marx and Hegel.

All of which made little difference to undergraduates in
2006, when they accused the school’s president, ex-Senator Robert Kerry, of
being autocratic and unresponsive.  So they did what students do under such
circumstances: they occupied buildings and shouted slogans.  But this was only a
run-up to the Occupy Everything movement of 2011.  Protesting the tuition fee of
some $20,000 per year, students took over a “study center,” hanging banners
with such slogans as “PEOPLE POWER NOT IVORY TOWER,” and “ANNIHILATE
CAPITALISM! RETALIATE AND DESTROY.”  With language as stale as yesterday’s
street falafels, they grudgingly abandoned the occupied rooms in order to let
the administration clean up the mess they had created.

The administration promised to let the occupiers take over a
university art gallery, provided that they were legitimate students (i.e. no
outside agitators) and did not sleep therein.  Fair enough, one would think.  However,
a blog kept during the occupation of the center, griped on.  “The pigs of the
NYPD are preparing to attack our space,” it maintained, though the New York
Police Department was nowhere in evidence.  “New School Administration, despite
their mealy-mouthed lip service to the movement, has decided to side with the
banks, landlords, millionaire university trustees, and whining conservative
students who are all clamoring for this break in the miserable daily routine to
end.”  In short, we are back in 1968, with
credit-card revolutionaries, furious screeds, and spineless responses by
allegedly responsible people.  The more things change, the more they are the


  • Stefan Kanfer

    Stefan Kanfer, former book review editor and senior editor for Time magazine, writes widely for City Journal on political, social, and cultural topics. He is the author of more than a dozen books, among them The Last Empire, the story of the De Beers diamond company; Stardust Lost, about the Yiddish Theater in America; biographies of Groucho Marx, Marlon Brando, Lucille Ball and Humphrey Bogart; plus novels and thrillers.

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