Academics respond to Arendt conference speaker

The Hannah Arendt Center (HAC) recently invited Marc Jongen, a member of the German nationalist party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD) and newly elected member of the German Parliament Bundestag, to speak at its 10th annual conference, “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times.” Jongen’s invitation and subsequent talk sparked controversy, as the AfD is frequently labeled as a far-right, or even neo-Nazi, political party. In response, 56 academics published an open letter opposing Jongen’s talk in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Roger Berkowitz, founder and academic director of the HAC, and Leon Botstein, Bard’s President, both published defenses in response to the letter. Beyond those remarks, there have been dozens of responses from members of the academic community in support, opposition, or in the gray area between. In case you haven’t been following the controversy so far, here is a summary of the event and the various perspectives.

Jongen’s talk, “Does Democracy Need To Be More Populist?” discussed populism and national belonging (you can find the talk and the conference in its entirety here). He was introduced by Berkowitz as a philosopher, political activist, essayist, and immigrant (Jongen immigrated from Italy to Germany in 2001). Jongen and the AfD recently became the third largest party in Germany after the AfD won 13% of the vote in the recent federal election, making it the first overtly nationalist party to sit in the Bundestag in 60 years. As a philosopher, Jongen’s role in the party is to lend intellectual legitimacy to the party’s platform.

Supporters of Jongen’s inclusion at the conference are not necessarily supporters of Jongen or the AfD. Rather, they believe if we are to understand what is happening to representative democracy around the world, it is necessary to hear all sides, including those who are considered “the opposition.” Citing Arendt’s political thought and opinions on balanced discourse, supporters see the absence of Jongen’s perspective as more dangerous than its inclusion. Those in opposition to Jongen’s invitation believe that his presence on stage inadvertently spread AfD’s rhetoric, and that anti-immigrant, nationalist sentiment has no place at academic conferences. They do not agree that their protest of Jongen’s talk is a protest against free speech, but see it as a protest against AfD’s dangerous rhetoric.

Jongen began his talk by thanking the HAC for the invitation, saying “I’m really deeply honored that I can speak to you today, which is not for granted for me anymore to speak in front of such audiences […] since I joined the AfD.” Jongen has been an object of protest by people all over Europe at other speeches and intellectual conferences, which he characterized as protests “against free speech.” He expressed gratitude that for him, “America turned out to be the land of free speech.”

The formation of the AfD is the foundation for his definition of populism. The AfD started in reaction to the economic and immigration policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration. In a “significant and alarming deepening of the state of emergency,” according to Jongen, Merkel opened the German borders and allowed over a million immigrants to enter the country. The AfD saw this as a “tremendous loss of security.” As Jongen explained, “some of them real refugees, persecuted in their home countries and legitimately looking for shelter in Germany. But with them, in their shadow so to say, also many of the persecutors came, and even criminals, and many soldiers of fortune attracted to the German welfare state.” Jongen said that Germany has been left in a state of exception where Merkel is sovereign.

Jongen treads carefully as he explained why immigration posed a threat to representative democracy. According to him, there are now too many “cultural aliens” whose Islamic faith is “an obstacle to assimilation.”  The AfD manifesto has a section on “why Islam does not belong to Germany,” and calls for mosques and minarets to be banned, Muslim calls to prayer to stop, and for people who wear veils to be criminalized. The AfD has also called for a change in attitude toward the crimes committed in World War 2. None of this was mentioned by Jongen, who requested that Nazism should not be discussed during the talk. Jongen initially positioned himself against Nazi ideology:

“We all agree, and I explicitly agree, that it would be a very bad idea to build our society and our nations and states on the concept of race, of genetic affiliation. Too horrific experiences have been made in the 20th century with people trying to do so, so that’s over and done. Thank God.”

But he followed up with coded qualifications:

“But there is enough evidence I think to suppose that a sufficiently strong consciousness of “we” for a functioning democracy can only be established among a people who share the same values and thus will engage in a common project for the future. And for sharing the same values, to put it very cautiously, it’s very helpful to be rooted in a common ground, to be united in a common past or history.”

Jongen was answered by Ian Buruma, a former Bard professor and the current editor of the New York Review of Books, before the discussion turned to a Q&A. In his first remarks, Buruma agreed to not bring up Nazism and said that he personally didn’t think Jongen was a racist. Berkowitz, acting as moderator, also answered to Jongen’s remarks before handing the mic over to audience members.

Berkowitz, representing the HAC, published an open letter defending Jongen’s inclusion at the conference, citing a major tenant of Arentian political thought: “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.” Berkowitz said that although he knew Jongen’s invitation would be controversial, it was “essential that at the conference we include at least one person who represents the idea of an illiberal democracy,” as the United States and so many other countries see movements embracing democratic nationalism and/or democratic authoritarianism. Additionally, he, in his words, “belabor[ed] the obvious” and insisted that “there is no political endorsement of the AfD or Mr. Jongen by our having him speak.” Within the letter were remarks written by Botstein in support of the HAC.

Both Berkowitz and Botstein published responses in defense of The Chronicle letter. Berkowitz wrote that “listening to a speaker at an academic conference does not legitimize their ideas; on the contrary, it opens a space for critical engagement with those ideas.” Both cited Arendt’s principled commitment to having difficult conversations in spite of criticism from fellow academics.

The talk, and subsequent defense from Berkowitz and Botstein, led to criticism from the academic community. The signatories of The Chronicle letter agreed that the HAC was not endorsing the AfD or Jongen, but expressed concern 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.” They described Jongen’s role as the “party philosopher,” using intellectual argument to legitimize AfD’s rhetoric. Jongen shared a Facebook post by HAC promoting the conference on his own Facebook account and website, celebrating his invitation as a victory for the “cause.” Citing this example, the signatories wrote that “Arendt’s name and the center’s reputation have now been used to legitimize the AfD’s far-right politics.” The controversy has been characterized by some as an attack on free speech but, in the end, the letter was not questioning “whether Jongen has the right to freely express his beliefs, but whether he should be granted the privilege and power to use the Hannah Arendt Center to advance his agenda.”

Perhaps the question is not whether far-right political figures (or any representation of “the opposition” for that matter) should be allowed to speak at an academic conference, but how we can talk about opposing views without spreading harmful rhetoric. The debate should not be centered on freedom of expression in academia, but on balanced discourse in academia. It is true that Jongen’s comments were answered and opposed at the event, but in the end, the conference gave the stage to Jongen and the views of the AfD and not to the groups harmed by AfD rhetoric. As the signatories of The Chronicle letter wrote, “Jongen and the AfD have significant institutional representation in the Bundestag. They have no difficulty finding public outlets to express their opinions. But the underprivileged and terrorized groups whom Jongen and the AfD regularly attack have no such power or privilege.”

In order to prevent good intentions from being exploited, we must ensure that the discussions presented at academic conferences, and academia in general, are balanced and that all voices are included.

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