An Open Letter on the Hannah Arendt Center’s Inclusion of a Talk by Marc Jongen As Part of the…
The Hannah Arendt Center

From Wilmot James who asked us to share his unedited comments:

“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.

To enable an authentic discussion, one needs an authentic conservative capable of rational discourse. Marc Jongen fitted the part. A German philosopher, essayist and political activist, Jongen is regarded as one of the key intellectuals part of the far right Alternative for Germany party that won 13 per cent of the national vote in September. I looked forward to what he had to say at a conference that dealt with the crisis of democracy.

Coming from South Africa, the land of apartheid, Jongen’s narrow-minded German chauvinism offended me, and I said so. I have had bitter experience with the consequences of rigid uni-cultural nationalistic thinking in a heterogeneous society. But Jongen said a few things that anyone concerned about the future of democracy should take very seriously indeed.

Firstly, Jongen noted that he does not represent the populist right, a segment with which it is very difficult to hold a rational discussion because they have no real ideas and are basically anarchists. He leads a more thoughtful tendency with fairly clear programmatic objectives with which one may agree or disagree. Politics are a fight over ideas about resource distribution and a smart politician must know what that fight is about.

Secondly, Jongen was aggrieved that German citizens were not consulted as to whether 1 million refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict should be resettled there. How deeply that feeling resonates in German society is not obvious, but that level and kind of leadership decision, right as it was in my outsiders’ view, requires widespread consultation and buy-in from the local people who have to act as a welcoming committee to strangers.

Thirdly, Jongen claimed that he is no nazi and no mad hatter populist. He is a right-wing conservative politician who abides by constitutional values and pluralistic party politics. The challenge to moderating forces in democratic politics is to accept his credentials and hold him to it. Calling him names does not help. Describing him as someone he is not is dishonest. Prohibiting him to speak, as they do in Europe, merely silences a voice.

The risk of alienating the rational right is national break-up and fragmentation. Germany is not South Africa, but that was the risk Nelson Mandela as President had to manage. He defused right wing conservatives by taking them seriously, listening to their views and taking measures (such as having a pure proportional representative electoral system with no thresholds) to include rather than exclude.

We should become equally strategic. Political correctness is not strategy. If we wish to defeat the conservative right, we must take them seriously, hear what they have to say and come up with a compelling set of alternative ideas that resonates in the marketplace of votes in elections. That is why it is important to listen to people like Jongen, so that we know and understand what we need to counter and replace.”

Wilmot James, a former South African MP, is a visiting professor at Columbia University’s Medical Center and School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). He is a co-editor of Nelson Mandela’s presidential speeches published as Nelson Mandela: In his Own Words (Little Brown, Boston, 2013).