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.
I thought it essential that at the conference we include at least one person who represents the idea of an illiberal democracy. Majorities of people in Hungary, Russia, Turkey, and Austria and that large pluralities of people in France, Germany, and the United States (amongst other countries) are embracing ideas of democratic nationalism and democratic authoritarianism. These movements seek the closing of borders to refugees and immigrants as well as the strengthening of ethnic and racially based national cultures. The effort to resist the rise of illiberal democracy demands that we understand why liberal democracy is failing as well as the attraction of illiberal democracy.
The person I chose to make the argument for illiberal democracy was Marc Jongen, a former philosophy professor at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung) and longtime assistant to Peter Sloterdijk. Jongen has long written about the importance of passions and collective identities in public life. More recently — and after I had invited him — he was elected to the German Bundestag as a member of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, in English Alternative for Germany). In popular press accounts, the AfD is regularly called a far-right party and sometimes a neo-Nazi party. There are people in the AfD who clearly make arguments that are illiberal, offensive, and highly prejudiced against Muslims and other immigrant minorities. In this embrace of illiberal democracy, the AfD is part of a world-wide movement against an increasingly unpopular and weakened liberal democracy. That the AfD is popular and democratically successful and that it received 13% of the vote in the recent German elections is only one of many signs that liberal democracy is in crisis. Mr. Jongen, as a philosopher, has made it his task to seek to articulate the intellectual and ethical arguments for the rise of German populism and the justification for the importance of ethnically-based national cultures. I invited him because he struck me as one of the few people involved in the rising illiberal democratic movements who could participate in an intellectual effort to understand the crises currently plaguing liberal democracies. I am grateful for his enthusiastic and respectful participation in the entire conference over two full days.
I knew then, and have seen confirmed, that the decision to invite Mr. Jongen was controversial. I asked my Bard colleague and NY Review of Books Editor Ian Buruma to respond to Mr. Jongen because I felt it important that Mr. Jongen’s remarks be formally answered. And in fact, while Mr. Jongen had a full opportunity to speak and articulate his argument, he was answered by Mr. Buruma, myself as moderator, and numerous questioners who challenged him directly and forcefully. The event — singly and more importantly within the context of the full two-day conference — was a rare opportunity to argue at length with someone who makes an articulate case for one version of illiberal democracy. It is essential that we understand and argue against illiberal ideas and not simply condemn them out of hand. I am heartened that the students and participants at our conference rose to the occasion.
I have heard that some in the small community of Arendt scholars are angry that the Arendt Center invited Mr. Jongen. I have been told that by bringing Mr. Jongen to speak, the Arendt Center was somehow endorsing the AfD. I want to belabor the obvious and say this is not the case. There is no political endorsement of the AfD or Mr. Jongen by our having him speak.
I think it worthwhile to explain why it is important that the Hannah Arendt Center exist as a place where we can listen and respond to people like Mr. Jongen, people with whom we strongly disagree.
At the core of Arendt’s political thinking is the idea that politics is based upon the fact of plurality. Each of us sees the world, understands it, and experiences it from our own unique perspectives. Politics, for Arendt, is the exercise in expanding our perspective and learning to see the world from as many different viewpoints as possible. For Arendt, hearing opposing opinions is the necessary condition for a politics of plurality.
“We know from experience that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it.”
The plurality of voices in the public sphere is not simply an abstract constitutional principle; the freedom to speak one’s opinion and to hear contrary opinions allows each of us to encounter divergent and opposed points of view that remind us of the basic plurality of the world. Hearing opposing and unpopular views reminds us that our own view of the world is partial; it compels us to listen to the opinions of others and protects the opinions of the majority from uncritical acceptance. That is why for Arendt considering opposing views is the foundation of all expansive and right thinking.
“Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.”
The world is not something that can be true or false; the human and political world is plural in its essence and must be enjoyed and also preserved in its plurality. The fact that offensive opinions exist — including opinions that are antithetical to plurality — is part of our world; the necessity to hear and resist those opinions is what defends the plurality of the world that we share in common.
Over and again in her life, Arendt got into trouble because of her willingness to give uncomfortable and offensive views a full public hearing. Her account of Adolf Eichmann sought to understand who Eichmann was and what it was that allowed him to actively participate in the killing of millions of Jews. For many of her readers, this effort to understand Eichmann was a betrayal. They thought he should be simply and categorically condemned as a monster. Arendt also thought he should be condemned and hanged for what he did. But she insisted first on the necessity of understanding him, and coming face to face with his account of what he had done. The act of understanding evil, she believed, was fundamental to the effort to resist evil.
The strong belief that we must confront and face up to evil and offensive people and ideas also led Arendt to cite many Nazi authors in her work The Origins of Totalitarianism. She insisted that to understand Nazism and Stalinism, it was actually necessary to read and argue with both these ideologies. She has been roundly criticized for doing so, many going so far as to suggest that her extensive citations of Nazi writers betray a latent anti-Semitism. But Arendt makes the case for why it is essential that we engage with those we find to be deeply wrong.
In a letter to Eric Vögelin, Arendt writes that her problem was “how to write historically about something — totalitarianism — which I did not want to conserve, but on the contrary, felt engaged to destroy.” To resist totalitarianism meant, as she wrote in Origins, that we must first seek to comprehend it. Comprehension “means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality — whatever it may be.” Her goal was to come to understand totalitarianism as an unprecedented and uniquely modern form of total domination. Only by understanding and comprehending the foundations and origins of totalitarianism, she argued, would it be possible to resist it.
In speaking of understanding totalitarianism, Arendt writes of reconciling ourselves to the fact of totalitarianism. Arendt’s overarching project is to “come to terms with and reconcile ourselves to reality, that is to be at home in the world.” Her goal is to love the world, even with evil in it. This reconciliation with an often-horrific world is, she writes, the hardest task.
Reconciliation with totalitarianism as a fact of history and thus a present possibility does not mean an uncritical acceptance of the evil of totalitarianism; rather, reconciliation means risking “the interminable dialogue with the essence of totalitarianism” that can allow us to “understand it without bias and prejudice” as something that is bound up with our own needs. Only in such an honest and dispassionate reconciliation can we recognize the stirrings of totalitarian impulses in ourselves and in our world. Such reconciliation is what allows us to at once love and resist the real totalitarian dangers of our time.
As the founder and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, I take seriously the responsibility of Arendt’s legacy of bold, independent, and fearless engagement in public matters. As I understand that charge, it means creating a public space of intellectual seriousness where difficult questions can be discussed, pieties challenged, and the plurality of the world both experienced and affirmed.
Founder and Academic Director
Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
Associate Professor of Politics, Philosophy, and Human Rights
p.s. While I take full responsibility for my decision to invite Mr. Jongen to speak at the Arendt Center Conference, I am heartened by the support from Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, who was both a friend and student of Hannah Arendt’s. When I informed President Botstein that there was anger in the academic community of Arendt scholars concerning my invitation of Mr. Jongen, he asked I include his response.
I am surprised that serious individuals who consider themselves scholars, in any sympathetic manner, of the work of Hannah Arendt would object to your invitation to, or the presence of Marc Jongen at the conference. An invitation to a conference designed to explore the crises in democracy we face in the world today is not an endorsement. Indeed, the need to confront, openly and in public, critics of what appears to be a weakened liberal consensus is indispensable to the future of freedom and democracy. The idea of threatening some sort of public condemnation on account of Jongen’s participation cannot be justified in the spirit of Arendt.
I make this claim with some certainty as a consequence of my contact with Arendt during my undergraduate years and afterwards, particularly before and after my assuming the Presidency of Bard. I witnessed her willingness to debate hostile critics regarding Eichmann in Jerusalem and her dismay at those who turned dissent into offense — individuals who personalized philosophical and historical inquiry in a manner that made it impossible for civil discourse across ideological lines to be conducted. There are no valid grounds to criticize the organization of a public discussion that includes individuals one may fundamentally disagree with.
The Hannah Arendt center was not created in her name to promote one view, except for the importance of thinking, speaking, writing and publishing — all actions with language. The invitation of individuals who may hold what for many are heretical, dangerous or reprehensible views is part of its mission. Mr. Jongen is a public figure and a trained philosopher who holds views that demand scrutiny, not suppression.
In my opinion, Arendt would be horrified and dismayed at the extent to which we, within the university community, seem at ease with ostracizing colleagues and condemning others for heresy and moral failure and some sort of “disloyalty” because of contrary opinions or a receptivity to debating controversial views. If there is any meaning in the idea of the public realm, it rests in precisely what the panel with Marc Jongen represented.
In the name of the college and my personal understanding of Arendt and her work, you have my support in this matter. Frankly, this sort of “ganging up” within academic circles, which to many has the effect of inspiring a Soviet era pattern of self-censorship, is outrageous, entirely at odds with the life and work of Hannah Arendt and damaging to the ideals of critical and free inquiry for which the university properly stands.
Leon Levy Professor in the Arts and Humanities