The Academic Mobbing of the Arendt Center

To the Editor:

The Soviet style collective letter directed against Roger Berkowitz and Leon Botstein (The Chronicle Review, October 23), allows the following brief translation: “Stray from the orthodoxy that we demand of you, and we will seek to destroy your reputation.” That Arendt scholars, of all people, should have fired this cannonade is nothing less than bizarre. Academic mobbing — a protest letter with 56 endorsements! — is not something one associates with the fiercely independent mind of Hannah Arendt. Nor is group denunciation. Both require a determined push back from all who believe that frank argument and opposing views are the beating heart of university life.

As for the incident that provoked the ire of Arato et al. — the decision to invite Marc Jongen to participate in the Hannah Arendt Center’s recent conference on “Crises of Democracy” — this much is obvious, at least to me: The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), of which Dr. Jongen is a Bundestag representative, is a legal political party, constituted under the rules of a federal republic and militant democracy that does not shy away from banning extremist entities. The Federal Republic is not the Weimar Republic. The AfD is not a fascist organization. It is currently the voice of nearly six million voters who believe that the political elites of Germany routinely ignore the concerns of Germans about mass immigration and border security. These are also the concerns of millions more voters across Britain and Europe (and America). Who better to articulate this disquiet than Marc Jongen, a recent vessel of electoral disenchantment? Who better to contest his views than the conference respondents? Where better to have a vigorous discussion than the Arendt Centre?

Liberals of a robust disposition — people committed to openness, freedom of expression, principled disagreement, and individuality — have long known that thought is only truly alive when it enables multiple perspectives and engages competing views with understanding and candor. Max Weber urged German universities dominated by conservative nationalists to hire Marxists and anarchists. An anarchist professor of law, he declared, would offer an angle on jurisprudence that conservative lawyers would never consider. John Stuart Mill, the father of British liberalism, actually sought out rivals to debate his views. Mill looked for critics because he assumed engagement with diverging standpoints would sharpen his own. He was equally emphatic that a précis of an opponent’s argument is never as good as hearing it stated with conviction by the opponent. Only a believer, present and animated, is likely to give a nuanced, earnest and sympathetic account of their beliefs: “Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.”

The letter-signers prefer to doze under a warm blanket of unanimity. They lack Weber’s courage and Mill’s confidence. The protesters state one thing — a support for a wide expression of views — but demand another: the exercise of “responsibility,” a mealy-mouthed word beloved by the censor. Prohibiting speakers whose views one opposes is not responsibility by any sensible measure. It is social tyranny. Arendt saw plenty of it in her own time; intellectuals mobbed against her on at least two occasions. Not surprisingly, one is hard pressed to find in her work any mention of intellectuals as a group that is not disparaging. The attributes she disliked — self-importance, pomposity, a lack of nerve, a propensity to outrage, conformity to a line, and, not least, disloyalty to friends — are all amply showcased in the anti-Berkowitz/Botstein missive.

By its very nature, politics entails dispute. It involves controversy, suffering, sacrifice, exposure, risk taking, ideological battle: principled stands fought in the open. Embodying Arendt’s conviction that “debate constitutes the very essence of political life,” the Hannah Arendt Center is a noble and much needed forum for discussion about the most pressing matters of our time. Most of the credit for that initiative lies with the indefatigable Roger Berkowitz; he is fortunate to have the support of Bard’s president, Leon Botstein. I urge both of them to continue defending a space for the expression of rival views. They have, rightly, issued no apology for a non-existent crime. When forums like the Center are pilloried and their directors traduced, when a gang of intellectuals aims to determine who will and who will not speak in public, then we really have arrived at “illiberal democracy.” Unchecked and unopposed, worse is bound to follow.

Peter Baehr
Professor of Social Theory
Lingnan University, Hong Kong

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