Arendt Democracy Conference at Bard sparks controversy

The “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Hard Times” two-day conference October 12-13 (available online here) included an invited lecture by Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) politician Marc Jongen, whose reactionary, neo-fascist views are discussed in the NYRB here and whose reputation was such that it led to a guilt-by-association critique of Peter Sloterdijk (Jongen was once his assistant and applies his views on rage) in another NYRB piece by John Gray here, has come under fire for his inclusion. An open letter with a number of well-known signatories is in the Chronicle here. Below is the core of the critique:

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. Professor [Roger] Berkowitz [the Arendt Center’s director] 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.

I should mention Berkowitz has kindly offered work for my co-edited, with Yasemin Sari, Bloomsbury Companion to Arendt, but I found it unsettling at the time that the Center livestreamed his views on Twitter (where the character limit allows for no distance from these views). This of course comes at a time that Berkowitz recognizes is a time of crisis for democratic pluralism, precisely, though, because far, far right wing white supremacists are utilizing that plurality for the dissemination of their views. An invitation is obviously not an endorsement, but there is the performative effect of language that Arendt herself realized was a part of politics whenever she talked about words as deeds. The Arendt Center is an important place where her work is considered, largely because of Berkowitz’s efforts there. His response to the above letter is here. He writes:

The only way to respond to this crisis is to listen to, engage, and reject these arguments. That is precisely what happened at the conference. …Hannah Arendt spent her entire life on the receiving end of mass criticism. She was mercilessly attacked for her opinions on Zionism, Soviet totalitarianism, and Adolf Eichmann, and each time she joined the fray to argue that “debate constitutes the very essence of political life.” Arendt taught self-thinking against the tyranny of intellectual mobs. She celebrated universities as fragile bastions of free thought and contestation.