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

We were asked to post this response unedited by Patchen Markell, who does not have a Medium account.

Dear Roger,

My sincere thanks for taking the time to write this post. I was one of those members of the “small community of Arendt scholars” who was prepared to sign on to a statement raising some issues about Marc Jongen’s appearance at the Arendt Center conference at Bard this month. The statement (which I didn’t write) didn’t strike me as especially angry; it didn’t take an ostracizing or condemnatory tone; it didn’t even claim that Jongen shouldn’t have been invited. It was, I had thought, part of that interplay of plural voices to which you and President Botstein refer. But I recognize that a letter signed by a large group of people might seem less like plurality than like “ganging up,” less like discourse than like its weaponization. So, as a gesture of good will, and also because you and I have been friends for a long time, in agreement and in disagreement, I’ve decided instead to speak for myself.

We have argued before about whether there are speakers whom colleges and universities simply shouldn’t host, period, and about where that line is. I’ll say right up front that, while I find some of the positions, rhetoric, and tactics of “Alternative für Deutschland” utterly reprehensible, I didn’t think Marc Jongen came close to crossing that line, wherever it may be. Nor, on reflection, do I think that the facts of Hannah Arendt’s personal history should have made a right-wing, anti-immigrant German nationalist off limits at the Hannah Arendt Center specifically, though I was tempted by that idea, and I did find it jarring, after the fact, to see the Center tweeting lines from Jongen’s speech like “We have experienced a tremendous loss of inner security & a new form of terrorism & a rise of crime caused by immigrants.” I agree with you about the value of having rather than avoiding “difficult conversations,” both as a matter of principle and as a matter of political strategy: as a friend has reminded me, parties like AfD thrive on being able to present themselves as victims of censorship by liberal elites. But I also think this event exemplified some of the perils of staging those conversations, perils that, at least at a distance, didn’t seem to me to have been navigated as effectively as they should have been, and which your post doesn’t really acknowledge, either. So I want to try to spell them out here, not to condemn you, but in the hope that these reflections might be of use to you, or me, or anyone who is trying to navigate similar circumstances in the future.

The first peril arises from the fact that Marc Jongen is both an individual and a member of a political party, and that, at this moment, much of the interest he holds has to do with the fact that he is both of these things at once — that he is an intellectual who has thought hard about some things, and that, at the same time, he represents a much larger political and social formation in Germany and beyond. Why is this perilous? Because the conventions of academic life naturally incline us to treat speakers at conferences simply as individuals. (We don’t hold Quentin Skinner responsible for the views of John Pocock, and if we try to, we’re likely to be rebuked for it.) In keeping with these conventions, Ian Buruma’s response to Jongen, while critical, was framed as an expression of disagreement with Jongen’s own beliefs and opinions; and this was true of almost all of the questions I heard in the panel, too. This was a missed opportunity, at best. It meant that not only that Jongen wasn’t confronted about some of the positions and rhetoric of his party and its leadership, but more broadly that the significance of the AfD as a political phenomenon wasn’t a subject of discussion, and Jongen’s own introductory comments about what the party was all about were allowed to pass unexamined. The result, I have to say, was a pretty banal discussion, for Jongen’s own views of the nature of peoplehood didn’t seem especially deep or profound: in fact, they gave me flashbacks to the old debates about ethnic and cultural nationalism that were already pretty stale in the 1990s.

The second peril is closely related. Just as Jongen is simultaneously an individual intellectual and a member of a party, the principle of the free, fearless exchange of ideas is simultaneously the bedrock of academic life and also a notion that can be exploited, as a brand or as a weapon. For me, one of the most troubling moments in the whole event came at the beginning of Jongen’s remarks, when he commented that, since he joined the AfD, he could no longer take for granted that he would be invited to speak at conferences like this one, mentioning that he had been the object of protest by hundreds of other intellectuals in Europe — he characterized them as “protesting against free speech” — and expressing his gratitude that “America turned out to be the land of free speech.” In that moment, two things were happening at the same time: Marc Jongen was thanking the Arendt Center for being willing to engage his views, and, simultaneously, a representative of Alternative für Deutschland was casting the party — the very party that recently held a campaign rally alongside Pegida, the organization of “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West” — as a victim of intolerance.

Roger, I know that your commitment to the free, fearless exchange of ideas is real and deeply held, and not a strategic branding exercise — and it’s exactly for that reason that it pained me to see Jongen positioning himself and his party as allies with America, and with Bard College, in their resistance to those who would suppress freedom of speech, exploiting the Arendt Center’s principled commitments in order to leverage a certain kind of cultural capital for AfD. This is not a question of whether the Arendt Center “endorsed” AfD: of course it didn’t. But however unintended this may have been, I fear the Arendt Center’s sincere commitment to having difficult conversations may have played into AfD’s self-representation. It didn’t help, by the way, that Ian Buruma indulged Jongen’s premise that it was unacceptable to talk about the Third Reich in this context; that that would just be a case of slandering AfD by drawing inappropriate historical analogies. Arendt herself, of course, insisted that Nazism wasn’t just an extreme case of xenophobic and anti-Semitic German nationalism — but that didn’t mean that she let xenophobic, anti-Semitic German nationalism off the hook, either. Now that would have made for an interesting and difficult conversation! But Jongen ruled it out from the beginning, and he did so in the name of free speech.

The final peril is that the conference itself had multiple aspects. When I first heard about the event and about the discontent that was brewing around it, I made some inquiries with people who had been there in person. What I heard reassured me. It sounded like Jongen had been confronted vigorously, not only in his panel, but in one-on-one interactions later in the conference. It sounded like at least some people who had initially been skeptical or even upset about Jongen’s attendance had been won over — not won over by Jongen, but won over by the idea that it had been worth inviting him, in some cases because it had been illuminating to see him embarass himself with his stumbling responses to aggressive challenges. But this was not the only version of the conference that took place. There was also the conference that was broadcast to the world, both through the Center’s Twitter feed and through the videos of the event that were made available on the web. (That’s how I experienced it.) For better or for worse, this is also the version of the conference that will be available to posterity. And I think it’s worth reflecting on the fact that the discontent about Jongen seems to be most widespread among people who saw the event remotely, and in many cases retrospectively. This isn’t just a case of people being ill-informed about what “really” happened, because these forms of broadcast were deliberate; they’re part of the Hannah Arendt Center’s media strategy, if you’ll pardon the expression, and they are just as “real” as the experiences of those who were there in person. And now, after the event has ended, and a year or a decade from now, when there is no more opportunity to tweet a hard-hitting question to Jongen about the AfD, I fear that what will survive of this event is the image of a man on a stage in front of a sign bearing Hannah Arendt’s name, speaking of the unassimilability of Muslims and the need for a German Leitkultur.

In sum, Roger, I don’t necesarily think this difficult conversation shouldn’t have happened. But I also don’t think it’s sufficient to invoke the principled commitment to free discourse in defense of the event, even if that commitment is valid and important, as I think it is. The question is how to ensure that such principled commitments aren’t exploited for noxious political purposes. I suspect that the answer is that the conversation needed to be even more difficult than it was.

Thanks for reading this, Roger, and my best wishes to you.