You Step on My Foot, I’ll Step On Yours



A few days ago, on the 13th of September, I was taking the Q train to Brooklyn. A woman standing across from me was reading the New York City Subway map. As she was figuring out the directions, she accidentally stepped on a man’s foot. The man went on a rage. First, in an act of revenge he stomped on her foot and kicked her knee. Then he cursed her out and yelled, “You are stupid. Do you know why? Because you are a woman!” He repeated this several times, each time with more intensity and anger. The scene was chaotic and seemed to only escalate.

I confronted the man and told him that he was clearly in the wrong . He asked me, “Did you see what she did?” And then proclaimed, “No woman can disrespect a man like that!” I replied that his reaction was completely overblown and that the woman was the victim in the whole encounter. But he then directed the attack against me, yelling, “Who the fu*k are you to speak to me like that?!” 

After going back and forth with him, another passenger who was standing next to me, perhaps in his late 40’s or early 50’s, but had a muscular build and reminded me of Bruce Willis, also engaged the man by trying to explain why he was in the wrong. During this whole ordeal, which lasted a while, the woman was just standing still, in shock and afraid to move, probably fearing  the man would follow her even if she got off at one of the stops. Finally, while we were still confronting him, one more passenger stepped in to help and pulled the woman away from the situation.  Engaging the man had distracted him and opened up an opportunity for the woman to escape. After the escape, the man finally ceased his violence.


This experience made me reflect on how we turn on each other. Rather than having mercy on this innocent woman, the accidentally mistreated passenger turns his rage, based no doubt on his own treatment at the hands of the ruling class, on a rather innocent, accidental offender. There is the fact of the masses and their treatment by the system, such that they are corralled underground and forced into such tight quarters that they end up steeping on each other.  The man’s behavior and obvious sexism is a product of this wretched system. This is not at all to say I am excusing his actions. Not at all. But if we really want to stop this brutality, which is quite common, we have to be able to look at the background societal conditions that make this kind of behavior possible.

One might object that I am speculating about this man’s class position. But I have no doubt that he is a working class subject. Otherwise, he would not be in the subway. Again one might be puzzled by this statement — are there not middle class people using the subway all the time? The term “middle class”, though, is largely a misnomer as it is applied. Most people who are supposedly “middle class” are actually working class. This is because they depend on wages for survival. So indeed, most people using the subway are working-class subjects.

But what if this man was just crazy? There are always crazies around us, and it is possible the man has a tumor in his brain which is making him act in all these ways. The point of raising this possibility is that it potentially reveals certain assumptions that my case rests on, and if they are not true, the whole case is in jeopardy. My first reply to this objection is that even though it is possible this man has a tumor, it is much more probable that he does not as a general matter. Secondly, given that the man eventually had calmed down suggests he was not completely insane. He was still a rational being. This makes clear that he was utterly agitated by the conditions.  Indeed, it is important to note that most mentally-ill people are poor.

What adds to the complexity of this case is the man’s sexism and misogyny. In this essay I could simply attribute misogyny to the man and proceed from there. However, given how prominent this attribute was to the whole experience of the situation, I cannot ignore it.  So I will entertain a thought. The late Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich had an elaborate theory about this subject. Very roughly, Reich in his Charakteranalyse posited that violence and patriarchy cause people to accumulate muscle tension which made them not able to experience pleasure and in turn not want other people to experience pleasure. It is hard to say whether there is enough evidence to support this theory, but it is certainly provocative and insightful.  Perhaps Reich’s analysis can help us understand how poverty generates misogyny because of the kind of conditions that poverty creates.  Whether or not Reich is correct, my point is that it is broadly clear that people clash more when they are crushed.

Lastly, the reluctance of most of the passengers to oppose the man is also quite revealing. I do not deny that over time as the situation unfolded a few more people joined in to help. But the fact is that it took a while for some kind of coordination to come about, and at the risk of repeating myself, only a few people eventually joined to help out, all while the train was full in capacity.  This shows the effect that the system has on our moral courage. We see violence and injustice right in front of our eyes, but we are unwilling to do anything about it. We simply delegate or hope to delegate the task to others. As the philosopher Charles Taylor might put it, we do not see ourselves as socially embedded to the community. We’re self-interested, atomized, and ruggedly individualized. The notion of collective responsibility has been for the most part eviscerated.  I suppose some passengers on the train may have refused to speak up because they thought the man might have a weapon. Perhaps a knife or a gun. Given his disproportional outrage to the situation, this line of thinking might seem reasonable. But what would have happened if no one had spoken up and the man would have continued his violence?  The more people that speak up, the less probability there is of any serious violence taking place.

A Reflection on Newton’s Reflection

9.9. 2015

I recently read, with great pleasure, Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book. One of the exercises in the appendix of the book asks the reader to briefly analyze a famous statement from Isaac Newton, which I will do in this post.

As an old man, Newton eloquently remarked:

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I am only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Newton is reflecting on his lifework as a scientist and philosopher and elaborately employs a series of metaphors to describe his quest for truth. Newton feels that he has uncovered only small fragments—seashells and pebbles—of truth. The “great ocean of truth” is too mighty to reveal its secrets. Occasionally the waves may spit out something on the shore, but it is just one small piece of the puzzle, and figuring out how to relate that one piece to the larger whole is a daunting and overwhelming challenge.

But as daunting as the task may be, Newton is not surrendering. I take him to be awed and humbled by it all. It would be a mistake to infer that he is dismissing his own contributions by comparing himself to a child playing on the seashore. This is a child who found “a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary“. The language of “[more] than ordinary” suggests originality. Newton is explicitly acknowledging that he made original contributions to science or other fields.  Of course, one might think that he is still be expressing an attitude of defeat in spite of his original contributions. But I think this is at odds with the overall tone and tenor of the statement.

Lastly, by comparing himself to a boy on the seashore, Newton seems to be making an implicit comment on the importance of a curious mind. Generally we think of children as more curious than adults. And it is likely that this view was widely held in Newton’s time as well; in fact the statement itself offers evidence for this proposition. Perhaps Newton is warning us against the limitations of an adult mindset. This raises an important question, to be further investigated in some future post, about what it takes to be creative. As the summer is coming to a close, I will go to the seashore tomorrow and ponder about it.

The British Museum’s Viking Exhibition dispels myths, gives new insights

The British Museum’s exhibition, called “Vikings: life and legend”, which is on display from March 6 until June 22, gives new insight into an ancient culture that is too often caricatured through tales and literature.

According to the museum’s press release, this is the “The first major exhibition on Vikings at the British Museum for over 30 years.”

The entrance to the exhibition leads you to a maze-like gallery that houses a collection of small objects such as pots, bridle gear, knives, and jewelry which were recovered not only from Europe but also from places as far flung as modern day Russia, the Middle East, and Uzbekistan. Most of these artifacts, however, were found in modern day countries of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, where the Vikings originally came from.

On first glance, this section of the exhibition seems rather disorienting and boring, lacking a narrative to capture the mix of wonder, excitement, and curiosity that we often associate with the Vikings.

But the disappointment fades away as a more careful look at the collection demonstrates the cultural interactions the Vikings formed as they raided, conquered, explored, and settled in large parts of Europe. By recovering artifacts from distance places, it shows the vast and advanced global network achieved by the Vikings.

Perhaps our expectation of the Vikings is precisely what the curators wanted to challenge. The curators’ intention might be to show that the role of raiders was only one aspect of the Viking society and that in fact they often had peaceful exchanges with the people they interacted. It debunks the myth that the Vikings were just ruthless and uncivilized barbarians.

As you follow the corridors of the gallery, you are eventually led to what is the biggest room — the magnum opus of the exhibition — a display of a Viking warship. Though the bulk of the ship was reconstructed, the basic skeleton is original. The sight is truly extraordinary and grand, underscoring the naval expertise and superiority of the Vikings. This section makes you forget about any of the previous section’s downfalls.

The Vikings called this type of warship on display the “Sea wolf”, which is over 37 meters long with 40 pairs of oar. It was excavated at Rosklide, Demark between 1996 and 1997. The particular ship on display, called the Rosklide 6, is the longest Viking ship ever found.

Surrounding the longship are other artifacts from the Viking era that complement the warrior spirit, such as bows, arrows, swords, and helmets. The display that gathers the most attention, aside from the massive ship, is a rather eerie sight — an excavation of a Viking skull with a helmet on top of it. The objects demonstrate the importance that the role of warrior had on the Viking identity.

The final section of the exhibition highlights the lasting influence of the Vikings in Britain. Not only did the Vikings have a geo-political impact, leading to the development of England and Scotland, but even everyday words in English such as “sister” and “egg” are Scandinavian in origin.



Op-Ed Live Debate: Sexton’s Legacy

Steinhardt professor Ted Magder and co-chair of the WSN editorial board Edward Radzivilovskiy debate President John Sexton’s legacy, university governance, votes of no confidence, the NYU 2031 expansion plan, the controversial vacation home loan policies, and more.

This debate is based on Radzivilovskiy and Raquel Woodruff’s editorial calling for Sexton and Martin Lipton’s resignation in September 2013. Ted Magder rebutted the piece in a letter to the editor.

Sexton and Lipton Must Resign: A Redux

Rebuttal to Professor Magder’s retort, by Edward Radzivilovskiy, Deputy Opinion Editor, Washington Square News 

*Note: This is my rebuttal to NYU Steinhardt Professor Ted Magder’s retort of my opinion piece for Washington Square News that called for the resignation of NYU President Sexton and Board of Trustees Chair Martin Lipton. Professor Magder’s letter can be found here. 

In the September 24 edition of WSN, NYU Professor Ted Magder responded to my recent editorial with Raquel Woodruff,  in which we called for the resignation of President Sexton and the Board of Trustees Chair, Mr. Martin Lipton. First, I would like to say that as the article was an opinion piece intended to take a firm position that we were not required to present all sides of the issue. However, we endeavored to solicit the views of Professor Magder on the issue of shared governance alone.

I remind Professor Magder that he chaired the Faculty Senate Council when it had this to say about shared faculty governance in a memo addressed to the University Leadership Team and dated October 29, 2012: “The practice of … shared governance has been neglected at NYU. This is a concern not only to faculty, but also to students, the public trust, and the NYU institutional vision alike.”

This is what I asked Professor Magder to address. His response was that after this date, the FSC and the Leadership committee held two meetings and came to an agreement on faculty governance, and the Board endorsed the wording of the agreement by December 2012.

However, after this date, five NYU schools passed votes of no confidence in President Sexton, a slight detail that Professor Magder failed to acknowledge in his response to our query. These votes of no confidence were based in no small part on the frustration among many faculty regarding President Sexton’s top-down management style.

As to the other points mentioned in the original opinion piece, some of which were addressed by Professor Magder, he actually said nothing in his email reply to us. Thus, it is difficult to know what he means when he complains that “nothing I said appears in the article.” In fact, everything he said, which was not much, appeared in the article.

Magder suggests that we contacted him in his capacity as the Chair of the FSC and the Chair of the Space Priorities Working Group. However, we contacted him strictly in connection to his former chairmanship of the FSC. Magder said nothing about the Space Committee or its recommendations. The fact that this Space Committee was convened after 2031 was already approved suggested to us that faculty oversight was an afterthought and not a priority for the Sexton administration.

Professor Madger complains that our editorial was “shockingly one-sided.” Yet, in our second paragraph, we list Sexton’s considerable achievements and recognize his “compelling legacy.” We also noted that the faculty has soundly rejected his vision, as the no-confidence votes attest. I reiterate here that a president who has lost the confidence of his faculty cannot effectively lead a university.

As to Professor Madger’s final point, which contends that we expect no change or that none has occurred, we can only say that our editorial was written to effect such change. The change we called for, and which I reiterate here, is that John Sexton and Martin Lipton should resign.  I believe we have made a case for this opinion, and have supported it with evidence that we judge to be substantial.

Interview with NYU politics professor Christine Harrington: response to NYU’s second-home loans policy

Note: The interview has been transcribed from a phone conversation on 21/6/2013. 

Professor Christine Harrington is a professor in the politics department at New York University. She is also affiliated with the Institute for Law and Society (Associated Faculty); and New York University School of Law (Affiliated Faculty).

Edward Radzivilovskiy:  Do you have any comments or opinions about revelations in the recent NY Times article about NYU giving loans for vacation homes to several administrators?

Christine Harrington: I had no idea. We are shocked. We are absolutely shocked. We know as faculty and as people who have been in this university for decades how important it is for there to be adequate, good quality access for faculty housing.  There are policies and rules that are followed for the loan program. I don’t believe  there has ever been a view that this would go for purchasing second homes. We also know, in addition for there being rules and policies that apply to everybody, there are also circumstances or exceptions when somebody has an outside offer, which includes things such as provisions of housing or subsidies or loans or so forth.  And in those rare few cases, FSC Senators are asking who made these decisions for second faculty homes? How was this done?

The question isn’t that they should never be counter-offers —that would be really mischaracterizing the situation—the fact is that there are limited circumstances for that, and usually they apply to faculty members. Did administrators who received these loans have counter-offers?

Edward Radzivilovskiy: Do you think that these lavish gifts/bonuses are going out of student’s tuition? 

Christine Harrington: We don’t know. Faculty, and I believe students also have been pressing for fiscal transparency.  One way to share a consensus and be working together is for there to be trust, openness, and honesty.   It took the Faculty Senate Council over two years to get basic information on the numbers of tenure-track and contract faculty by schools. The kind of information we’d need to answer your question— financial information—is always more sensitive. The Faculty Senate Council Committee on Finance has made  repeated requests for financial information on how the Global Network University is funded and asked to see the budget plan for 2031. These requests, as I understand it, have been rejected, leaving faculty in the dark, as well as students.

Edward Radzivilovskiy: Can you elaborate about faculty access to information and the implications of limited access?  

Christine Harrington: Suspicions are raised when faculty representative are denied access to basic financial information that impacts academic policies. Suspicions would not necessarily lead to the level of a university conflict if faculty representative  could review the facts, the data on which decisions might be based— before the decisions are made.  I am very troubled by the level of conflict and antagonism that has been produced by the failure to have open and transparent access to documents.

Edward Radzivilovskiy: Please describe what happened in the meeting on the 13th of April between FAS senators and five members of board of trustees as a result of an invitation from Martin Lipton:

Christine Harrington: We had a conversation focused on why there was a vote of no confidence in the leadership of the university.  And one of the first things discussed in response to a question asked by a Board member was whether the vote of no confidence resulted from  a miscommunication problem. FAS Senators made clear that this vote of no confidence did not come about as a result of a failure of the administration to communication. There was a general sense [in the meeting]—very clearly— that the matter is not of simply one of communication. The board members got that, they acknowledged that, but whether they agreed with it or not I cannot speak for them, but again, votes of no confidence don’t come about if the matter is simply about communication.

Edward Radzivilovskiy: Thank you, Professor Harrington.