The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, New York, recently sponsored a conference on “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times.” I attended as a presenter, but stayed on for the entire two-day affair. Discussions were lively and free-flowing, particularly in comparison with the usual boilerplate churned out at academic conferences.
As might be expected in that setting, most of the presenters leaned left. To cite just one example: Micah White, one of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street, talked about his experience with radical politics. White stated that his goal was “revolution,” though he conceded that the legacy of “the twentieth century” made that an improbable hope.
Since I had researched OWS for my book, I found White’s presentation fascinating.
The head of the Arendt Center, Roger Berkowitz, labored mightily to diversify the conceptual range of the speakers at the conference. As part of this effort, he invited Marc Jongen, prominent member of “Alternative for Germany” (AfD), a political party invariably characterized by the media as “populist” and “far right.” With 13 percent of the vote in recent elections, AfD has become the third largest party in Germany. It’s a new and imponderable force – from my perspective, a carrier of the revolt of the public.
In his presentation, Jongen sought to equate populism with popular consent. He portrayed Angela Merkel, Germany’s eternal chancellor, as an aloof and arbitrary ruler. Two issues seemed to be of abiding importance to the AfD: spending German money to prop up weak EU economies like Greece’s, and inviting a million Muslim refugees into the country. On neither question, Jongen contended, had German public opinion been consulted. The Merkel government had simply imposed its will, under the mantra “there is no alternative.”
Jongen made politically incorrect statements about the cultural differences between Arab Muslims and Germans. He associated the immigrants with an increase in crime, and said the German public had been “traumatized” by their sudden arrival. But he was thoughtful and measured in both tone and content. His responses to aggressive questioning acknowledged the validity of other points of view. I have no idea how accurately he described AfD’s positions, but nothing Jongen said at Bard sounded to the right of Donald Trump.
Unknown to me, I was witnessing a controversy. A large group of academics not only disagreed vehemently with Jongen’s opinions, but had condemned Berkowitz and the Arendt Center for allowing them to be voiced.
This angry band of Ph. D.’s initially put pressure on Bard College to un-invite Jongen. When that failed, they published an “Open Letter” in the Chronicles of Higher Education to protest the event. It was signed by 56 academics.
Their argument seemed to be that Marc Jongen and his ilk must never be allowed to speak in respectable society, because this would “legitimize and normalize” his “far-right,” “racist and xenophobic” views. Jongen should be placed in the intellectual equivalent of solitary confinement. By bringing him out in the open, Berkowitz and the Arendt Center had created a “direct threat” to the “plurality” they claimed to espouse. So said the protesting professors.
The theory that a political debate can only be won by silence should sound strange in the mouths of people who toil in the realm of ideas. Alas, it isn’t strange at all. I have a friend who compares his academic work today to “a mine-clearing operation”: at any moment, you might step on a hidden sensitivity and blow up. The once-rowdy American university has become a place of conformism and fear.
But even on its own terms, the “Open Letter” makes little sense to me. The AfD received six million votes. It’s already a legitimate political organization in Germany. To say otherwise is to deny the democratic principle. If the party really presents a threat to plurality, its ideas should be confronted and exposed. That was Berkowitz’s intent in inviting Jongen. To place a ban on AfD representatives in academic conferences will not add or subtract to their legitimacy, any more than inviting Micah White added or subtracted to the legitimacy of his nostalgia for revolution. On the other hand, such a ban would deny conference attendees the opportunity to measure and criticize, face to face, the extent of any threat to democracy or plurality from AfD.
Writing in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen, who also spoke at the conference, dismisses with some contempt the legitimacy of AfD’s vote and rejects any implication of censorship in the call to disinvite Jongen. What matters for Gessen isn’t so much legitimacy or democracy. It’s ideology. She equates Jongen with Trump, and makes it clear that neither should ever be allowed to speak in the polite circles of academia.
The controversy had nothing to do with censorship – that’s certainly true. Jongen is free to speak his mind from any number of platforms. But Gessen appears to believe that by invoking the potent taboo “far right,” she has made an argument that places Berkowitz and the Arendt Center in the position of having to offer special reasons for inviting Jongen. The reverse is in fact the case. Gessen and the “Open Letter” signers have an obligation to show why, in a freewheeling conference on the travails of democracy, a significant slice of the ideological spectrum should be denied a voice.
Gessen praises the stature of the professors who signed the letter. No doubt they are excellent scholars and people of good will. However, “This political opinion will never be spoken among us” is a dangerous rhetorical weapon even in such worthy hands. Wielded by lesser creatures, it has, historically, emboldened the enemies of democracy.
At the conference I heard discussion of white privilege and the demonization of the Other in US society. Inclusiveness and tolerance, in that largely liberal crowd, were the primary virtues of politics. But “the Other” in every instance meant a certain stereotype of victimhood with which the speaker was very comfortable. The Other, so conceived, represented respectable diversity.
Jongen said distasteful things about Muslims and immigration. His opinions – his very existence – made sensitive spirits uneasy. He was “far right”: the Other at Bard. I note that members of the audience there handled it just fine. They asked tough questions and elicited interesting answers. But for the 56 signers of the “Open Letter” and their allies like Gessen, that was not enough. Jongen, that rough beast, must be banished to the nether regions before he can reach Jerusalem.
Ultimately, Berkowitz had his way. He was supported by Bard’s remarkable president, Leon Botstein, who found the “self-righteous stand of the signatories” to have “a family resemblance to the public denouncements of the Soviet era” – an allusion that scandalized the anti-Jongen professors. (Gessen, born in Russia, devoted a full paragraph to explaining what totalitarianism really means.)
So Marc Jongen, of the AfD, spoke at Bard College under the auspices of the Hannah Arendt Center. “What Jongen said had been said before, and could have been discussed in his absence,” Gessen complained – but this is true of every presenter at every conference since the world began. I learned something from the encounter, at any rate. Possibly, others did as well.
In a real sense, it was a victory for intellectual openness over the dogmatic impulse and fear of taboo. The whole affair nonetheless felt more like pathology than politics: another psychotic episode in the strange ongoing breakdown of the American mind.