Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College
To the Editor,
I write in reference to the open letter addressed to Leon Botstein and me.
The letter says I made a mistake in inviting a speaker to a two-day conference. Not one of the 56 signatories attended the conference they are criticizing. At the same time, not one person who chose to attend the conference signed the letter. For those who would like to move beyond posturing, I suggest you take the time to view the conference in its entirety. You can do so here.
I fully agree when the Open Letter argues that “there is a need to engage with a wide range of political views, including illiberal and even neofascist ones.” It was in this spirit that I invited Marc Jongen to speak. The signatories argue that Jongen is an unacceptable illiberal or neofascist thinker. Thus, they insist I must admit that inviting him was a mistake, and disavow him. My question for the signees of the letter is this: What kind of illiberal, neofascist speaker would they find acceptable?
The core claim of the Open Letter is found in this sentence: “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.” Listening to a speaker at an academic conference does not legitimize their ideas; on the contrary, it opens a space for critical engagement with those ideas. The AfD is a real-world example of the crisis facing wobbling liberal democracies. 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. The role of the educator is nothing more than to present the world as it is to students for their judgment. She hated nothing more than those who assign themselves the role of censor. Which is why she wrote:
“Education can play no part in politics because in politics we always have to deal with those who are already educated. Whoever wants to educate adults really wants to act as their guardian and prevent them from political activity.”
Associate Professor of Politics, Philosophy, and Human Rights
Founder and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities