An Open Letter to the Hannah Arendt Center: A Response by Leon Botstein
To the Editor,
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.
The invitation by an academic center on a college campus, even one named for a distinguished individual, does not constitute either legitimation or endorsement. Right-wing and neo-fascist parties are a reality of modern political life. We cannot pretend they do not exist. We need to hear what their representatives claim directly so that they can be properly challenged. In this case, the speech was followed by a response from Ian Buruma, a preeminent intellectual and scholar, a longtime member of the Bard faculty, and now editor of The New York Review of Books. The event was part of a two-day conference featuring over 25 esteemed speakers on the crisis facing liberal democracies. The speaker was not presented in any context of endorsement or legitimation.
Neither Bard nor Roger Berkowitz, director of the Arendt center, needs to apologize or issue a denunciation. The accusation of an implied endorsement is actually an insult, given the public record of the college, the Arendt center, and the published public record of both Roger Berkowitz and myself. The self-righteous stance of the signatories and the moral condemnation in the letter do, sadly, bear a family resemblance to the public denouncements of the Soviet era by party committees in the arts that put terror in the hearts of young musicians and writers, and deterred them from speaking and acting against a group consensus.
The issues here are the survival of open debate and of academic censorship. I do not need to be reminded by this open letter of the horrors of fascism and right-wing xenophobia, any more than would Hannah Arendt. I was a child immigrant to the United States in a Polish-Russian, stateless family. My father was the only survivor on his side, and two uncles perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. The lesson I learned growing up, which was reinforced by Arendt in her role as a teacher, is that freedom is a political category and that it is incumbent on colleges to protect it. Allowing the expression, in a public discussion forum, of views and positions that we find reprehensible is a necessary part of the exercise of freedom in the public realm. This is particularly true in the academy.
I am therefore, much as Hannah Arendt might have been, disappointed but honored by the chorus of well-credentialed critics.
President, Bard College