Addressing the Inclusion of a Talk by Marc Jongen as Part of “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times”

The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College would like to share our position on the recent controversy surrounding the invitation of Dr. Marc Jongen to our fall conference this past October 12–13.

As a precursor to the below, read Roger Berkowitz’s introductory framing of the conference from his opening talk titled, “The Four Prejudices Underlying Our Crises of Democracy.”

Below is a statement that Academic Director Roger Berkowitz prepared on behalf of the HAC.

(This statement was written before Professor Berkowitz had seen the Open Letter later published in the Chronicle. Contrary to what was written in the Open Letter, no one who signed the Open Letter reached out to him.)
An Open Letter on the Hannah Arendt Center’s Inclusion of a Talk by Marc Jongen As Part of the Conference “Crises of Democracy: Thinking In Dark Times.”
Last Thursday and Friday the Hannah Arendt Center hosted its 10th Annual Fall Conference “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times.” The Conference asked why liberal-representative democracies are in crisis around the world. And it sought to explore how we, at this moment, can reinvigorate liberal and representative democracy.
The last time we have seen such a worldwide crisis in representative democracies was in the 1930s, during which most of the nations of Europe turned authoritarian and some transformed into fascist and totalitarian rule. With the continuing collapse of liberal, representative democracy we are in danger of returning to such an authoritarian period. The only way to resist such a return is to understand why it is that liberal democracies are failing. We need to comprehend why it is that many people around the world are giving up on the idea of liberal democracy and turning to what Viktor Orbán in Hungary calls illiberal democracy.
Towards that end, I invited over 20 scholars, activists, artists, writers, and politicians to come to the Arendt Center Conference and join a collective inquiry into the crisis of liberal democracy. As a two-day curated event, the conference sought to initiate a conversation and provoke thinking that would take the crisis we are facing as seriously as I believe it must be taken. Judging from the anonymous survey responses from those present, the two-day conference was a great success. I encourage you to watch the conference, which we have made available for free in its entirety.

Read the rest of the letter below.

Our initial response was met by an open letter (below) directed at the Center, penned by 56 political theorists and published yesterday in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

An Open Letter to the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College
It was a mistake to invite a German far-right politician to your conference
Dear Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, and Leon Botstein, President of Bard College:
We are writing to make clear our objections to the invited talk given by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) politician Marc Jongen during the 2017 Annual Conference of the Hannah Arendt Center, “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times” (October 12–13, 2017) (program) as well as your subsequent defense of that invitation. We believe that Jongen’s participation in the conference, regardless of the organizers’ intentions, enabled him to leverage Hannah Arendt’s legacy to legitimize and normalize the AfD’s far-right ideology. The leadership of the Hannah Arendt Center and of Bard College has so far disregarded pressing questions of personal and institutional responsibility arising from this legitimation and normalization. This disregard is particularly troubling given that Hannah Arendt was a German-Jewish refugee who fled National Socialism and wrote powerfully about the plight of the stateless and the special dangers posed by race-based ideologies.

Read the rest of their letter on The Chronicle’s website below.

Audience at Day 2 of the 10th Annual Hannah Arendt Center Fall Conference, “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times”

Following are a number of responses to the open letter addressed to the Hannah Arendt Center.

‘Against the Tyranny of Intellectual Mobs’
The Arendt Center’s director answers critics of his decision to invite a far-right politician to give a talk
I write in reference to the open letter addressed to Leon Botstein and me.
The letter says I made a mistake in inviting a speaker to a two-day conference. Not one of the 56 signatories attended the conference they are criticizing. At the same time, not one person who chose to attend the conference signed the letter. For those who would like to move beyond posturing, I suggest you take the time to view the conference in its entirety. You can do so here.

I read with some sadness the open letter to the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and Bard College, signed by a stellar cast of distinguished colleagues. The number and quality of the signatories are impressive. But that does not make the argument in the letter right. I am afraid therefore that we will have to agree to disagree.

In our populist age, right-wing ideologues have managed to move in high circles, by muting their overt racism and disguising their bigotry under a lot of smart patter. But they have also benefited from liberal elites’ lofty disdain, which validates their narrative of victimization.

The Soviet style collective letter directed against Roger Berkowitz and Leon Botstein (The Chronicle Review, October 23), allows the following brief translation: “Stray from the orthodoxy that we demand of you, and we will seek to destroy your reputation.” That Arendt scholars, of all people, should have fired this cannonade is nothing less than bizarre. Academic mobbing — a protest letter with 56 endorsements! — is not something one associates with the fiercely independent mind of Hannah Arendt. Nor is group denunciation. Both require a determined push back from all who believe that frank argument and opposing views are the beating heart of university life.

The politically conservative right is surging worldwide. If moderating forces wish to influence, occupy and hold the center so that things do not fall apart, they must come to grips with the issues that seizes the right and determine whether there are any upon which to build common ground. There may well be none, but it is fundamentally important to discern whether there are any.

I write precisely to “belabor the obvious,” to quote Roger Berkowitz. Of course the Arendt Center did not endorse the Alternative fur Deutschland when it invited Professor Marc Jongen to speak at the recent Democracy conference held at Bard. And of course the effort to understand ideas always inevitably entails a willingness to engage with persons with whom we disagree. To risk entering into what Arendt calls “the interminable dialogue” is the task of the Arendt Center, and that task inevitably requires a refusal to accept that we can learn only from those whose views safely accord with our own. Professor Jongen was invited to participate in a conference in which several competing perspectives were represented, and the Arendt Center saw to it that Jongen would be interrogated by a fully worthy antagonist in Ian Buruma, one of the leading intellectuals in the United States. The proper work of the Arendt Center is the examination of a wide range of ideas “that demand scrutiny, not suppression,” as President Leon Botstein of Bard College writes in his own letter of support for the work of the center, and I want to add my own voice to say “thank you” and “please don’t allow the voices of suppression and intellectual intolerance to prevent you from doing the brave work we have come to expect from the Arendt Center.”

I am grateful for Roger’s opening of a controversy at Bard-College on populism as an expression of the crises of democracy. The Hannah Arendt Center always invited scientist, intellectuals and politicians with controversial opinions.
Marc Jongen as philosopher and politician matches such a composition. He expressed views, which we also find in the CSU, the Bavarian conservative party, ruling Germany as minor partner of the nationwide conservative CDU since many years. The problem is not, what he said, because he distanced himself from racism and anti-semitism, but that he is a Member of Parliament of the new rightist party AfD.

Additional Sources

Included below are additional writings on plurality and campus speech published recently by the Hannah Arendt Center.

Further commentary

Some Relevant Facts

  1. It has been reported in the New Yorker that Dr. Marc Jongen spoke without response and that the Arendt Center treated with absolute neutrality. Dr. Jongen in fact spoke for 20 minutes. There was then a formal response by Ian Buruma, the editor of the New York Review of Books, and author of Year Zero: A History of 1945 (Penguin USA, 2013) amongst many other books. The Question period lasted over 40 minutes, double the time of Dr. Jongen’s talk. Every question was critical, if not hostile. The idea that Dr. Jongen was not challenged or that there was no criticism is wrong.
  2. The Open Letter said “This collective statement is a last resort, not the first. These concerns were conveyed to Professor Berkowitz, in the hope he would issue a statement addressing them and welcoming a broader discussion of the risks inherent in the center’s hosting and broadcasting of Dr. Jongen’s views.” Actually, no signee of the letter told Roger Berkowitz any specifics about the letter and not one was willing to show him the letter. He was specifically denied permission to see the letter or know what it said. He only learned of the letter when a third party who did not sign the letter contacted Dr. Berkowitz and told him that a letter was being circulated that if published would destroy the Arendt Center and Dr. Berkowitz’s reputation. He was told that if he did not respond to the letter, the letter would be released. He was, however, not permitted to see the letter. So he was told to explain why he invited Dr. Jongen. After publishing his explanation, which you can read here, Dr. Berkowitz was surprised to see the letter appear in the Chronicle. No one showed him the letter beforehand or told him what it said or specifically to what he was supposed to respond. To suggest that the signees of the Open Letter reached out to him and sought to engage him in argument or dialogue belies the facts.
  3. Roger Berkowitz moderated the panel with Dr. Jongen himself so he could be sure to select questions from those who would be able to challenge Dr. Jongen. Amongst the questioners were a former MP from South Africa who asserted that Dr. Jongen reminded him of apartheid era politicians, a German student who challenged Dr. Jongen to address the suffering of refugees in Germany, and a Cuban artist whose work centers on refugees and immigration who asked him about his policy on Islamic refugees.
  4. None of the signees of the letter were at the conference for Dr. Jongen’s talk and the video does not tell the whole story. For example, you can’t see who the questioners were. You can’t see that the audience was filled with dozens of young students in headscarves sitting right in front of Dr. Jongen. You can’t see the tension in the room or the engagement of the audience.
  5. After Dr. Berkowitz and others suggested Hannah Arendt would not approve of a collective letter of over 50 professors demanding a colleague disavow an invitation of a speaker at an academic conference, some commenters argued that Arendt herself had signed a group letter. They point to a famous letter Arendt and Albert Einstein, amongst others, signed in 1948 to protest a fundraising trip by Menachem Begin. And they suggest that this letter of political protest against someone who was at the time the head of a terrorist organization is analogous to a letter condemning a colleague for inviting a speaker to participate in an academic conference. It is hard not to see the holes in this argument. Begin’s party did emerge out of a terrorist organization. The AfD did not. Jongen is not a terrorist. Begin was invited on a political trip to raise money for his political party. Jongen came to Bard for two days to subject himself to angry questions and interrogations. He sat through the entirety of the Arendt Center conference listening to 20 other speakers with radically different opinions than his own. He made himself open to others who challenged him throughout the conference, over meals, during breaks, and after his talk, engaging many dozens of critics. Finally, nowhere does Arendt demand an apology from those who invited Begin. She and her co-signers want to make people aware of his past and counter his fundraising. They write: “It is inconceivable that those who oppose fascism throughout the world, if correctly informed as to Mr. Begin’s political record and perspectives, could add their names and support to the movement he represents. Before irreparable damage is done by way of financial contributions, public manifestations in Begin’s behalf, and the creation in Palestine of the impression that a large segment of America supports Fascist elements in Israel, the American public must be informed as to the record and objectives of Mr. Begin and his movement.” In no way did the Arendt Center add its name and support to Dr. Jongen’s movement or any other political party. They did not solicit financial contributions, public manifestations on his behalf, or issue an endorsement. On the contrary, they invited Dr. Jongen to a conference where he and they knew he would be unceasingly criticized in the spirit of the academic tradition of disputing with those whom one fundamentally opposes. Hannah Arendt fully supports the kind of political protests that her letter exemplifies. But as someone who at numerous times in her life was ostracized and excommunicated from her communities—first from Germany by the Nazis and later from the American Jewish community after her book on Adolf Eichmann—she never did and most certainly never would join in a group letter attacking a scholar for being willing to listen to and debate an unpalatable political figure. It should be said that the Arendt Center has sponsored numerous speakers and events about the refugee crisis in Europe and around the world. The majority of speakers at this conference were of the left and many were of the far left. The fact that Arendt and Einstein’s letter is held up as justification for the Open Letter against Dr. Berkowitz defies logic.

We hope we’ve provided a clear and informed picture of the criticism and how we’re addressing it. Thank you for your continued support of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.