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The Hannah Arendt Center’s Dark Thinking

A study in questionable judgment

If you were on Twitter the morning of Friday, October 13, you might have noticed something strange and disconcerting: the account of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard was tweeting quotes from a speech by Marc Jongen, a member of the far-right populist Alternative für Deutschland party.

Founded in 2006 to preserve and promote the legacy of the twentieth century political theorist, the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard would seem an unlikely place to find a German nationalist speaking. In addition to being the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt fled from Nazi Germany, spent time interned as an “enemy alien” in France,  and worked in organizations on behalf of others fleeing the Third Reich. Nonetheless, Jongen addressed a polite audience at the Center for about twenty minutes on the subject  “Does Democracy Need To Be More Populist?” as part of a conference entitled “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times.”

Dark times indeed, but what were they thinking? This September, Marc Jongen’s party, commonly known by the acronym AfD, achieved something that has eluded the far right in Germany since the Second World War: it received enough votes to be represented in the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, sweeping to 13 percent of the chamber. The campaign was driven by xenophobia and opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-handed policy to refugees; the AfD stirred controversy by poking at one of the Federal Republic’s taboos, Germany’s remembrance of its responsibility for the Holocaust. In January, AfD state leader in Thuringia Björn Höcke called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, which is flanked by Hannah-Arendt-Strasse, a “monument of shame.”

Jongen himself, in addition to being a party leader for AfD Baden-Württemberg and now a member of the Bundestag, is a self-described “reactionary” and something of a house ideologist for AfD. He was formerly the assistant to the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, also not a stranger to controversy: Sloterdijk’s 1999 lecture “Rules for the Human Zoo” included vocabulary that to many suggested eugenics, causing an uproar in the German press that culminated in an exchange of angry open letters between Jürgen Habermas and Sloterdijk. The major worry at the time was that the post-war consensus about public discourse in Germany was beginning to deteriorate. (The spat registered barely a blip in the English-speaking world, and where it did, it was taken to be a curiosity of the Continental intellectual milieu.)

Sloterdijk has expressed sympathy for populist movements in the past, but Jongen and the AfD eventually proved too much even for him. In July, the provocateur-philosopher distanced himself from the AfD and his former assistant, calling the party racist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic. Marc Jongen partially assented to his mentor’s assessment, while staying on for the AfD’s historic electoral breakthrough.

Jongen was described as a “Vordenker,” a “thought leader” of the far-right AfD.

Roger Berkowitz, the director of the Hannah Arendt Center, met Jongen in an academic context, and when he made the invitation nine months ago Jongen was not an elected official. But Jongen has been a member of AfD since 2013, the year it was founded, and a member of its program committee since 2015. In January 2017, around the time Berkowitz booked Jongen for the Bard address, the Stuttgarter-Zeitung reported that Jongen had “completed his chapter in higher education”; it also reported his intention to enter the Bundestag and called him a “Vordenker,” a “thought leader” of the AfD. The same report described him as having “a decisive role in the program” of the party. Earlier that month, Die Welt judged that his bid for Parliament in Berlin was likely to succeed. Though the Center would like to make a distinction between his roles as an academic and as a politician, Jongen seems concerned with blurring that line. On the campaign trail, Jongen was searching for a “hybrid form” between the academic lecture and the political speech—Jongen sees himself as an “amphibian,” as he put it in the speech at Bard, going back and forth between academia and politics.

Jongen’s writing tends to combine reactionary politics with esotericism, following a hallowed tradition of German right-wing charlatans that goes back to the nineteenth century. He is an admirer of the work of philosopher Leopold Ziegler, author of a 1925 book called Das heilige Reich der Deutschen, orthe holy Reich of the Germans,” and a major contributor to the thought of the proto-fascist “Conservative Revolutionaries” like Ernst Jünger and his brother Friedrich Georg Jünger. (Although not a Nazi himself, Ziegler mused in 1940 that his ideas had inspired Hitler’s invasion of France.) Jongen’s own books, meanwhile, bear unassuming titles like The Essence of Spiritual Knowledge: A Journey into the Mind. He takes an intellectual approach he likes to describe as “psychopolitical,” perhaps without realizing how ironically apt that term might sound in American English. Jongen has written that German politics needs an infusion of “rage,” but he likes to refer to it using the Greek “thymos” to add a touch of class.

The Bard talk, which Jongen posted on his Facebook page, gave very little hint of Jongen’s interest in the mystical origins of Western man, but he still billed it as a victory for the movement. Both onstage and online, he marveled at his own accomplishment, remarking that the United States was the “land of free speech” and writing later that “The fact that the event took place at all—and I have not been shouted down—is already a great success—for political debate culture and for our cause.” In his speech at Bard, Jongen cited Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt to characterize Angela Merkel as “sovereign,” asking “Can Merkel really be called a democratic leader anymore?” Recherché philosophical references aside, attacking one’s opponent as illegitimate is now a hallmark of the political campaign speech.

Jongen has written that German politics needs an infusion of “rage,” but he likes to refer to it using the Greek “thymos” to add a touch of class.

The speech could seem banal, even innocuous, to someone who wasn’t paying attention. (At one point Jongen disarmingly apologized for his halting English.) But Jongen did not fail to slip in jabs at his main political foe, refugees themselves, saying many were “soldiers of fortune attracted by the German welfare state,” and “[Germany] will fail to integrate . . . these culturally alien people, for the simple reason that they are too many and even more so, as the example of France shows, because their Islamic faith turns out to be a serious obstacle of integration.” Although Jongen strenuously denied race played any part in his concept of the nation, he invoked the sometimes-charged German word “Volk” and said every democracy relies on an “ethnos, partly cultural, partly genetic.”

After his talk, a short debate was staged with Ian Buruma, a former professor at Bard and now editor of the New York Review of Books, who used his considerable erudition to poke at Jongen’s conception of an ethno-state as being necessary for true democracy. Buruma had agreed not to bring up the Nazis in his debate, presumably to suit Jongen’s wishes, even though Berkowitz later explicitly compared the present moment to the 1930s. And while Buruma called Jongen’s characterization of migrants “alarmist,” he did not take pains to identify it as an intentional strategy designed to demonize a vulnerable group for political gain. Nor did he closely question Jongen about the questionable intellectual sources of his political ideas. A brief Q&A section was held with the concerned audience, and then Berkowitz thanked the participants, complimenting Jongen by saying he had thought about the issues “incredibly deeply.”

Linda Zerilli, a political science professor at the University of Chicago who attended the talk, told me, “I think that unfortunately the actual setting was such that there wasn’t really a deep interrogation of the AfD, of its origins and its policies. Where I would disagree with Roger is that he thinks Jongen was really interrogated.” Seyla Benhabib, a professor at Yale who watched the webcast later, agreed. “I couldn’t believe how sheepish the audience was, I think they were taken aback, and didn’t know what to make of this guy.”

One sophomore who went along to fulfill the requirements of a course told me the atmosphere in the audience was nervous: “the feeling was partly tense but partly amused, although I’m not sure that’s the right word for it. A lot of the people around me were laughing when Jongen would say something, which was kinda upsetting to me. I think it’s easy to sit in an auditorium surrounded by your fellow liberals at Bard College and laugh at people like Jongen, but we have to take him seriously and his ideas seriously.” She felt like there was a deliberate effort to tamp down the heat of the debate: “I felt like Roger Berkowitz intentionally called on faces he recognized and cut down on the amount of questions they were taking.  This seemed like an attempt to keep certain confrontational conversations from happening, which I take issue with.”

She wasn’t alone in this. As soon as snippets of the talk were posted by the Hannah Arendt Center’s Twitter account, consternation brewed in the scholarly community about the decision to invite Jongen. After the conference, Zerilli confronted Berkowitz about the growing concern among academics and the existence of a letter about Jongen’s use of the Hannah Arendt name. “I said to Roger he’s instrumentalizing this visit for political purposes.”

You don’t say! The very title of the conference, “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times” is a reference to two of Arendt’s books Men in Dark Times and Crises of the Republic, the latter being a collection of her writings on political turmoil in 1960s and 1970s America. The decision to change the word “republic” to “democracy” hints at what some scholars feel is Berkowitz’s tendency to read and adjust Arendt’s work to fit contemporary issues.

The Center claims the conference “sought to explore how we, at this moment, can reinvigorate liberal and representative democracy.” This is a laudable-sounding goal, but it’s arguably not in keeping with Arendt’s own; Arendt distanced herself from the appellation “liberal” and preferred participatory councils to elected representatives. Professor Benhabib remarked to me, “Arendt’s thoughts about representative democracy were complicated and not always defensible, of course.” Richard J. Bernstein, a philosophy professor at the New School who also knew Arendt told me, “One thing Hannah Arendt was not was a liberal; to remake her into a liberal democrat is really a distortion. She makes a strong distinction between republicanism and democracy. For her republicanism is about participation in politics. She’s certainly for free speech, and openness, but that’s not the heart of the matter, the heart of the matter is active participation in politics.”

Active participation is something some in the student body would have liked more of. The student I spoke to said, “I think the students should have some say about who is allowed to come on the campus and who is allowed to be given a platform. Inviting someone like Marc Jongen to speak at the conference was an action I’d learned to expect from [the Hannah Arendt Center] in the past year I’ve been at Bard. I just wish they consulted more with the student public when inviting these controversial speakers.”

The Center keeps a blog that addresses contemporary political controversies and tries to apply Arendt’s thought to them. She is usually called upon as an authority to shore up the boilerplate centrist opinions of the Center and Roger Berkowitz, often in favor of a broad reading of free speech and the limits of public discourse. More than one scholar I spoke to was irked by this “ventriloquism,” as they called it.

To wit, when some scholars protested the American Political Science Association’s decision to invite John Yoo, the author of the Bush administration’s “torture memos,” to deliver a speech, Berkowitz took to the Center’s blog. “Do we have a democratic and intellectual and political responsibility to listen to him?” he asked, offering that “in the Arendtian spirit we cannot deny recognition to others based upon difference [of] opinion.” Still, Berkowitz admits that there are limits:

We can make the political judgment that someone should be expelled from the political community and we can try to persuade others to agree with us. That was Arendt’s view and it is why she believed that Aldolf Eichmann should have been killed for his crimes. But in our judgment Professor John Yoo has not in any way approached such a standard of evil that would render him unfit to be heard and argued with.

Note that the stakes of the protest were not Yoo’s execution or the removal of his rights by the state, but something rather less dramatic: his exclusion from a scholarly community for violating the ethics of his profession as a lawyer, a normative boundary that is certainly the purview of that community to maintain. The invocation of Arendt aside, the Center’s position seems to be, “We don’t think he’s really such a bad guy as all that. After all, he’s no Eichmann.”

Eichmann returns as the paradigm in Berkowitz’s letter published on Medium, to defend Jongen’s invitation to the Center. “Over and again in her life, Arendt got into trouble because of her willingness to give uncomfortable and offensive views a full public hearing,” wrote Berkowitz.

Her account of Adolf Eichmann sought to understand who Eichmann was and what it was that allowed him to actively participate in the killing of millions of Jews. For many of her readers, this effort to understand Eichmann was a betrayal. They thought he should be simply and categorically condemned as a monster. Arendt also thought he should be condemned and hanged for what he did. But she insisted first on the necessity of understanding him, and coming face to face with his account of what he had done. The act of understanding evil, she believed, was fundamental to the effort to resist evil.

The implicit comparison between Eichmann and Jongen was not lost on Jongen, who tweeted in response to the Medium post, “Roger Berkowitz has to defend my invitation, at first good arguments, but the Eichmann comparison is insane and egregious.” The Center’s account tweeted back, “we don’t see the Eichmann argument as comparison; an illustration of Arendt’s willingness to understand even those she thought evil.” But this response elided the fact that the comparison, conveniently, happens to go both ways: Berkowitz and the Center play the role of Arendt during the Eichmann affair, fearlessly sticking to her brilliantly nuanced assessment of evil in the face of the philistine persecutions of those who failed to understand her. This impression is only heightened by Bard president Leon Botstein’s dyspeptic addendum, in which he compares other scholars’ efforts to prepare their own letter an example of “ganging up,” “ostracizing,” and “Soviet-era self censorship.” Suffice it to say that the concerned text of the letter protesting Jongen, which takes pains to accept the principles of pluralism and free debate and was signed by many prominent scholars, does not quite have the feel of a Stalinist show trial. And that the conceit of comparing one’s own intellectual controversy with the one surrounding Arendt’s Eichmann goes somewhat further than ventriloquism.

The Center’s position seems to be, “We don’t think he’s really such a bad guy as all that. After all, he’s no Eichmann.”

If we, too, may permit ourselves to channel Arendt’s spirit, it might remind us that, as Corey Robin has pointed out, Hannah Arendt herself drafted and organized a letter campaign against Menachem Begin’s invitation to speak in the United States in 1948, signed by Albert Einstein and Sidney Hook. The letter read, in part, “Before irreparable damage is done by way of . . . the creation in Palestine of the impression that a large segment of America supports Fascist elements in Israel, the American public must be informed as to the record and objectives of Mr. Begin and his movement. The public avowals of Begin’s party are no guide whatever to its actual character.” (Emphasis mine.)

Many of the scholars I spoke to used the term “bad judgment” to describe Jongen’s invitation. That’s an ordinary-sounding phrase, but judgment was a deep preoccupation of Arendt’s; she called it “one of the most mysterious faculties of the mind.” Hannah Arendt didn’t live to finish her work on judgment, which was to be the last section of her opus The Life of the Mind, following Thinking, and Willing. But she left behind lectures and notes that suggest what shape that work may have taken. She said that in order to judge, we must take into account the perspectives of others, to imagine what they may think or feel, to adopt what she called “an enlarged mentality.” It was in this spirit of pluralism that Berkowitz says he brought in Jongen, to expose others to his views. This is somewhat defensible, so long as we take Jongen at face value—buy his normal appearance, politeness, and respectability—and don’t suspect bad faith. (Arendt as political thinker knew very well that lies are part of politics.) But where was the consideration of the students’ views, or of the community of scholars who are dedicated to Arendt’s life and work that Berkowitz now calls an “intellectual mob”? Berkowitz claims to have known the address would be controversial, but yet here is the controversy and he is taken aback.

And, perhaps most essentially, where was the perspective of the refugees themselves? The only image that was provided of them was as criminals or victims. Of course, the perspective of a refugee was also Arendt’s own. We are enjoined to be large-minded in order to fairly judge, so omitting the perspectives of a wider world can only be called a failure.