The Chronicle Review

An Open Letter to the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College

It was a mistake to invite a German far-right politician to your conference

October 23, 2017

Robin Krahl
Marc Jongen

Dear Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center, and Leon Botstein, President of Bard College:

We are writing to make clear our objections to the invited talk given by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) politician Marc Jongen during the 2017 Annual Conference of the Hannah Arendt Center, "Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times" (October 12-13, 2017) (program) as well as your subsequent defense of that invitation. We believe 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. The leadership of the Hannah Arendt Center and of Bard College has so far disregarded pressing questions of personal and institutional responsibility arising from this legitimation and normalization. This disregard is particularly troubling given that Hannah Arendt was a German-Jewish refugee who fled National Socialism and wrote powerfully about the plight of the stateless and the special dangers posed by race-based ideologies.

Jongen, known as the AfD’s "party philosopher," rose to prominence only after joining the party in 2013. The AfD subscribes to a nationalist far-right agenda and is closely allied with the violent street movement "Pegida" ("Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West" ) that attacks refugees, immigrants, and Muslims. Jongen is devoted to providing intellectual legitimacy to the AfD’s extreme rhetoric and actions. His philosophical jargon seeks to justify the incitement and violence carried out by Pegida, including the physical blockade of refugee buses, as the expression of a laudable "thymos," or rage, that has been suppressed by liberalism and multiculturalism. During his talk at the Hannah Arendt Center, Jongen repeated the racist and xenophobic statements that make the AfD such a dangerous phenomenon in contemporary German politics.

We agree with Professor Berkowitz that there is a need to engage with a wide range of political views, including illiberal and even neofascist ones. We also believe, however, that organizers of highly publicized events have crucial responsibilities when the speaker makes statements that vilify already vulnerable groups. Given Jongen’s and the AfD’s well-known positions, it could not have come as a surprise to the conference organizers that Jongen’s talk would target refugees, immigrants, and Muslims, as illustrated by tweets sent by the Hannah Arendt Center quoting Jongen during the event: "We have experienced a tremendous loss of inner security & a new form of terrorism & a rise of crimes caused by immigrants." "Mass immigration was traumatic … & an act of violence in my opinion." "The Jews are leaving France, not because of populists, but because they are being attacked by Muslims." 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.

Questions of responsibility have been further compounded in the aftermath of the event, especially because of the fact that the Hannah Arendt Center livestreamed the conference, posted videos of all the sessions, and broadcast statements of conference participants on its official Facebook and Twitter accounts. Accordingly, the center lent its institutional legitimacy and communicative power to Jongen’s statements. What remains to be taken into account by the organizers is how this online content serves the interests of far-right propagandists. For instance, on October 14, 2017, Jongen shared the center’s post on his own Facebook account and official website, celebrating his invitation as a victory for the AfD’s "cause." Arendt’s name and the center’s reputation have now been used to legitimize the AfD’s far-right politics. That is a direct threat to the plurality the Arendt Center says it wants to promote and defend. Unfortunately, the statements of Professor Berkowitz and Professor Botstein fail to address such dangers of legitimation and include no discussion of the concrete steps, if any, they will take to mitigate the damage that has been done.

Professor Berkowitz suggests that there was no need "to belabor the obvious" by stating that the Arendt Center does not endorse the AfD’s agenda. However, one of the "crises of democracy" in our time is that "the obvious" can no longer be taken for granted, especially when esteemed institutions broadcast racist and xenophobic views to a wide audience without critical commentary. As a result, we are disappointed that neither the center nor Bard College has issued an unequivocal, principled statement distancing itself from the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and Islamophobic agenda of Jongen and the AfD. Such a statement could have also rebuked the AfD’s persistent calls for the abandonment of Holocaust memorialization. Indeed, Jongen’s request that the conference participants should not invoke Nazism or Hitler when discussing the AfD remains unchallenged.

This collective statement is a last resort, not the first. These concerns were conveyed to Professor Berkowitz, in the hope he would issue a statement addressing them and welcoming a broader discussion of the risks inherent in the center’s hosting and broadcasting of Jongen’s views. The idea of making a collective public statement was delayed in the immediate aftermath of the conference in order to give Professor Berkowitz sufficient time to respond to concerns expressed to him. For these reasons, we are surprised and disappointed that President Botstein saw fit to dismiss these attempts to foster a public dialogue as acts of "ganging up" and to compare them to "a Soviet era pattern of self-censorship." It is baffling that our critical opinions have not been given the respect afforded to Jongen’s racist and Islamophobic ideology.

We are disappointed that neither the center nor Bard College has issued an unequivocal, principled statement distancing itself from the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and Islamophobic agenda of Jongen and the AfD.
In writing this public letter, we hope to bring to view a set of common concerns shared by a wide range of scholars from different countries, disciplines, and perspectives. As scholars concerned about the rise of the far right across the world, we see this public letter as a step to face up to our own responsibilities in the aftermath of this event. The question is not whether Jongen has a 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. Having granted Jongen that privilege and power, the center and Bard College cannot evade their responsibilities, especially those that arise from the normalization and legitimation of the AfD. We strongly urge the Hannah Arendt Center and Bard College to recognize these responsibilities and consider how best to live up to Arendt’s intellectual and political legacy.

Signed,

Andrew Arato, Dorothy Hart Hirshon Professor of Political and Social Theory, The New School for Social Research

Étienne Balibar, Anniversary Chair Professor at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University, Visiting Professor at the Department of French and Romance Philology, Columbia University

Ronald Beiner, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto

Cristina Beltrán, Associate Professor, Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University

Seyla Benhabib, Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy, Yale University

Richard J. Bernstein, Vera List Professor of Philosophy, The New School for Social Research

Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Jeremiah Smith Jr. Lecturer, Harvard Law School

Linda Bosniak, Distinguished Professor of Law, Rutgers University-Camden

Wendy Brown, Class of 1936 First Professor of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley

Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory, University of California, Berkeley

William Callison, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley

Joseph Carens, FRSC, Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto

Robin Celikates, Associate Professor of Political and Social Philosophy, University of Amsterdam

Simone Chambers, Professor of Political Science, University of California, Irvine

Jean Cohen, Nell and Herbert M. Singer Professor of Political Thought and Contemporary Civilization, Columbia University

Çigdem Çidam, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Union College

Volkan Çidam, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Bogaziçi University

Alexandra Délano Alonso, Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies, The New School for Social Research

Lisa Disch, Professor of Political Science and Women’s Studies (by courtesy), University of Michigan

Didier Fassin, James D. Wolfensohn Professor of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

Leonard Feldman, Associate Professor of Political Science, Hunter College

Alessandro Ferrara, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Rome Tor Vergata

Rainer Forst, Professor of Political Theory and Philosophy, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt

Simona Forti, Professor of History of Political Philosophy, Università del Piemonte Orientale, Italy

Nancy Fraser, President, American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division; Loeb Professor of Philosophy and Politics, The New School for Social Research

Zeynep Gambetti, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Bogaziçi University

Greg Grandin, Professor of History, New York University

Peter E. Gordon, Amabel B. James Professor of History, Harvard University

Jeff Goodwin, Professor of Sociology, New York University

Ayten Gündogdu, Associate Professor of Political Science, Barnard College-Columbia University

Lawrence Hamilton, Professor of Political Studies, Wits, and NRF/British Academy Bilateral Research Chair in Political Theory, Wits University and University of Cambridge

Bonnie Honig, Nancy Duke Lewis Professor, Modern Culture and Media (MCM) and Political Science, Brown University

Axel Honneth, Jack C. Weinstein Professor for the Humanities in the Department of Philosophy, Columbia University

James Ingram, Associate Professor of Political Science, McMaster University

Turkuler Isiksel, James P. Shenton Assistant Professor of the Core Curriculum, Political Science, Columbia University

Andreas Kalyvas, Associate Professor of Politics, The New School for Social Research

Steven Klein, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Florida

Lori Marso, Professor of Political Science, Union College

John P. McCormick, Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago

Benjamin McKean, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Ohio State University

Anne McNevin, Associate Professor of Political Science, The New School for Social Research

A. Dirk Moses, Professor of Modern History, University of Sydney

James Muldoon, Lecturer in Political Science, University of Exeter

Laurie E. Naranch, Associate Professor of Political Science, Siena College

Frederick Neuhouser, Viola Manderfeld Professor of German and Professor of Philosophy, Barnard College-Columbia University

Patricia Owens, Professor of International Relations, University of Sussex

Serena Parekh, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Northeastern University

William E. Scheuerman, Professor of Political Science, Indiana University, Bloomington

Joan Wallach Scott, Professor Emerita, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton

George Shulman, Professor, Gallatin School of New York University

Ann Laura Stoler, Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies, The New School for Social Research

Lyndsey Stonebridge, Professor of Modern Literature and History, University of East Anglia

Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor and Chair of Anthropology, The New School for Social Research

Nadia Urbinati, Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory and Hellenic Studies, Political Science, Columbia University

Camila Vergara, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science, Columbia University

Anna Yeatman, Professorial Fellow, Whitlam Institute within Western Sydney University