Bard College President has a genius response to snowflake professors beefing about a right-wing speaker

Yes, the title is HuffPoe-ian clickbait, but I couldn’t resist.

A big group of 56 Offended Academics, all of course in the humanities, wrote an open letter in the Chronicle of Higher Education, objecting to the appearance of a far-right-wing German politician at a conference on “Crises of Democracy” at Bard College in New York (Steely Dan fans will recognize Bard from the song “My Old School”). Their beef was that the appearance of a right-wing, anti-immigrant speaker would lend legitimacy and patina to that speaker by giving him a spot at a prestigious conference at a prestigious think tank. (I recognize only one of the letter’s signatories, all professors or students at good schools: the execrable, long-winded, and obscurantist Judith Butler at Berkeley.)

The huffy letter, addressed to both Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center and Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, begins as follows (my emphases):

We are writing to make clear our objections to the invited talk given by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) politician Marc Jongen during the 2017 Annual Conference of the Hannah Arendt Center, “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times” (October 12-13, 2017) (program) as well as your subsequent defense of that invitation. 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. The leadership of the Hannah Arendt Center and of Bard College has so far disregarded pressing questions of personal and institutional responsibility arising from this legitimation and normalization. This disregard is particularly troubling given that Hannah Arendt was a German-Jewish refugee who fled National Socialism and wrote powerfully about the plight of the stateless and the special dangers posed by race-based ideologies.

A few more statements from their Big Beef:

. . . We agree with Professor Berkowitz that there is a need to engage with a wide range of political views, including illiberal and even neofascist ones. We also believe, however, that organizers of highly publicized events have crucial responsibilities when the speaker makes statements that vilify already vulnerable groups. [JAC: The groups are immigrants, refugees, and Muslims.]

. . . 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.

. . . Jongen and the AfD have significant institutional representation in the Bundestag. They have no difficulty finding public outlets to express their opinions. But the underprivileged and terrorized groups whom Jongen and the AfD regularly attack have no such power or privilege. [JAC: Well, not precisely true, as there are many people, including these 56 big names, who give them a voice.]

. . . 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. Unfortunately, the statements of Professor Berkowitz and Professor Botstein fail to address such dangers of legitimation and include no discussion of the concrete steps, if any, they will take to mitigate the damage that has been done.

Note the call for repentance and damage mitigation. Here again we have the Cultural Revolution being enacted in our time. What do they want: for Berkowitz and Botstein to put on paper cone hats and sit in shame with signs around their necks reading, “We invited Marc Jongen to our conference”?

A week ago, Bard President Leon Botstein responded, also in the Chronicle, in no uncertain terms. He wrote what the censorious professors need to hear, and I give the entire response (my emphasies):

I read with some sadness the open letter to the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and Bard College, signed by a stellar cast of distinguished colleagues. The number and quality of the signatories are impressive. But that does not make the argument in the letter right. I am afraid therefore that we will have to agree to disagree.

The invitation by an academic center on a college campus, even one named for a distinguished individual, does not constitute either legitimation or endorsement. Right-wing and neo-fascist parties are a reality of modern political life. We cannot pretend they do not exist. We need to hear what their representatives claim directly so that they can be properly challenged. In this case, the speech was followed by a response from Ian Buruma, a preeminent intellectual and scholar, a longtime member of the Bard faculty, and now editor of The New York Review of Books. The event was part of a two-day conference featuring over 25 esteemed speakers on the crisis facing liberal democracies. The speaker was not presented in any context of endorsement or legitimation.

Neither Bard nor Roger Berkowitz, director of the Arendt center, needs to apologize or issue a denunciation. The accusation of an implied endorsement is actually an insult, given the public record of the college, the Arendt center, and the published public record of both Roger Berkowitz and myself. The self-righteous stance of the signatories and the moral condemnation in the letter do, sadly, bear a family resemblance to the public denouncements of the Soviet era by party committees in the arts that put terror in the hearts of young musicians and writers, and deterred them from speaking and acting against a group consensus.

The issues here are the survival of open debate and of academic censorship. I do not need to be reminded by this open letter of the horrors of fascism and right-wing xenophobia, any more than would Hannah Arendt. I was a child immigrant to the United States in a Polish-Russian, stateless family. My father was the only survivor on his side, and two uncles perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. The lesson I learned growing up, which was reinforced by Arendt in her role as a teacher, is that freedom is a political category and that it is incumbent on colleges to protect it. Allowing the expression, in a public discussion forum, of views and positions that we find reprehensible is a necessary part of the exercise of freedom in the public realm. This is particularly true in the academy.

I am therefore, much as Hannah Arendt might have been, disappointed but honored by the chorus of well-credentialed critics.

I find it amusing that Botstein mentions the “stellar cast” and “chorus of well-credentialed critics,” for of course one’s status doesn’t make one’s arguments right. To steal from yet another rock song, one by Dire Straits, I’d say about Botstein’s answer, “That’s the way you do it.”

As far as “damage,” well, author Francine Prose teaches at Bard, and several members of her literature class went to hear Jongen’s speech (and challenges to it) the morning before the class discussed some literature on the Holocaust (that included Primo Levi’s superb book Survival in Auschwitz). Writing about it in the Guardian, Prose adamantly claims that going to that talk was a valuable lesson for her students:

None [of the students] believed that Jongen’s presence had legitimized his ideas; he hadn’t been awarded an honorary degree. Being invited to address a conference at a college, they agreed, was not like being asked to speak at a public rally. They were proud to be associated with a school that trusted their ability to weigh unpopular ideas, an institution brave enough to invite Jongen: an educational institution. They felt that hearing Jongen had been part of their education.

It was. Seeing Jongen made them realize that the past is not the past (as Jongen insists) but the present as well, that the evil espoused by Hitler and carried out by Stangl did not die with them.

Gessen writes that “what Jongen said has been heard before, and could have been discussed in his absence”. I disagree.

I could have assigned my class to read about far-right ideology, or to watch a video, but it wouldn’t have been the same. It would not have had the effect of seeing Marc Jongen (as it were, in the flesh) and realizing that men of that sort are not all dead and gone, but remain a living, pernicious force in the world that my students are about to inherit.

Those students are smarter than all those big name professors put together!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, and comrades, is why all those huffy professors, despite flaunting their credentials, are deeply misguided. I once again repeat what John Stuart Mill said in 1859: unless each generation hears and discusses the offensive arguments of the previous generation, they’ll forget not only those arguments, but also how to refute them.

h/t: Randy

38 Comments

  1. BobTerrace
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Well said President Botstein.

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Seems Oleanders ain’t the only thing in bloom up in Annandale.

  3. Matthew Jenkins
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if it occurred to any of the audience that Mr Jongen may have insights into the situation in Europe which they may lack.

  4. rickflick
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations to Botstein and Bard College. I live near Bard and we attend some of the schools excellent musical presentations. Botstein, in addition to being the schools president is also the music director and conductor of their orchestra. So, I feel some kind of kinship with the school and Botstein, and I’ve gotten to know the fellow as he is a very loquacious conductor, providing lectures on the composers and the music on offer. It is with great satisfaction that I read his defense of free speech.

  5. sshort
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    My son was interested in attending a liberal arts college when we started looking a couple of years ago. We briefly thought of Evergreen (whew!) visited Reed (very impressed with the academics and the intellectual rigor, but after the recent news… whew again!!)

    Then we visited Bard, and among its stellar arts faculty, we also found a strong commitment to science and critical thinking. And Botstein himself was a big draw. We heard him speak on the free speech issue and he is completely in line with the U of C statement and true academic freedom.

    My son is now a sophomore at Bard and continually impressed and enthused with the challenging and engaging faculty. And the vision and leadership of Leon Botstein. As are we.

    • Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad that worked out!

      • sshort
        Posted November 1, 2017 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Very well indeed. A brief distinction:

        All first-year students are required to arrive three weeks early for a preparatory seminar called Language & Thinking that attempts get them up to speed quickly for college-level work. A few students every year don’t make the cut.

        Instead of a well-deserved Winter Break…all freshmen are required to stay on campus for an intense seminar called Citizen Science. The module for my son’s first-year was a multi-disciplinary approach to epidemiology.

        My son does report some annoying SJW posing and aggrievements on campus, predictable at any liberal arts college these days, but the instructive difference here is the posture of the President and the faculty. They are not there to parent, patrol, or to acquiesce. They come to Bard to inquire and instruct.

        • Posted November 2, 2017 at 6:48 am | Permalink

          Wonderful. I am very happy for you and your son.

  6. S Forbes 2011
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    “unless each generation hears and discusses the offensive arguments of the previous generation, they’ll forget not only those arguments, but also how to refute them.”

    Part of the problem of today’s SJW’s is that too many are intellectually lazy. In defence of suppression of speech they don’t like, I have seen the argument that they should not have to waste their time to do the work to refute the ideas they find odious. It’s better just to suppress them. Seriously.

    In the spirit of Jerry I too quote a lyric – the modern university should ask the question: “What have I become” (J. Cash).

    Scott Forbes

    • Michiel
      Posted November 2, 2017 at 3:32 am | Permalink

      Indeed, it’s actually part of the postmodern SJW mode of thought (if you can call it that). If all experience is subjective and there are no objective facts, why waste time thinking and arguing? Not to mention the SJW doctrine is so innately contradictory (if everything is subjective, how can they be so certain about their own point of view?) that even thinking about it for a few minutes gives you a headache.

      It’s truly becoming more and more like a religion, where it’s followers simply “know” and have faith in the doctrines, and actively try to dissuade people from actually thinking or arguing about said doctrines.

      • Posted November 2, 2017 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        I’ve asked people who disdain truth to tell me what they are doing when they write or speak in indicative sentences. Nobody has been able to tell me.

    • Posted November 2, 2017 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      They are also historically illiterate.

      I took engineering at university, so I had very little time for liberal arts courses. The few I took I got straight As in: I loved them.

      Since I graduated, I have pretty assiduously read myself up on history. It has been incredibly valuable in evaluating current events. And it has shown me that this has all been done before. All this political BS we are getting now? Heard it all before.

      Putin’s shit? He could have Hitler’s speech writer(s).

      Trump’s shit? Right out of the 1920s.

      • Posted November 2, 2017 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Which is amazing (the historical illiteracy) , since historical sensitivity is supposed to be a strength of the humanities and (to a lesser degree) the social sciences. Of course, I’ve seen that as soon as the pomos etc. start doing history of science or philosophy, for example. Someone asked my ancient philosophy professor something like: “So, what do you think of Heidegger’s translations of Plato or the preSocratics?” (Heidegger is of course a precursor to many of the pomos because he too disdained – or pretended to -truth and evidence and science and even logic.) The answer was, needless to say, “Often fraudulent.”

  7. Dave
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    You almost have to laugh when you read the 56 Offendobots warning of “….the special dangers posed by race-based ideologies.” If they’re referring to Intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, “Toxic Whiteness”, “White privilege” and all the other doctrines of the SJW cult, then I have to agree with them. All of those scare me far more than a guy who merely objects to Frau Merkel letting 800,000 Middle Eastern “refugees” into the country without asking the German people first.

    • Simon
      Posted November 2, 2017 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      The Left labours under the unshakeable delusion that evil is a right wing thing and that the litany of communist/Marxist authoritarian mass murderers were not true leftys at all. The likes of David Pakman argue that Stalin’s excesses were really right wing in character. It’s just simple circular logic. Left good, right bad, Stalin bad therefore Stalin right wing. The 20th century showed quite convincingly that collectivist ideologies end up being authoritarian.

      To bring this back on topic, with all of the bickering about whether the “far right” (or moderates as they sometimes are in reality) deserve a hearing and the dangers of right wing extremism, it seems to have escaped general notice that left wing ideologies have even more blood on their hands and they have a much stronger institutional foothold right now. Freedom of speech is a major pillar of the system which allows disparate groups to feel engaged in the political process. The skewing of public discourse to the left has engendered legitimate grievances and feelings of marginalisation on the right, particularly amongst the working class. The result is political destabilisation.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I thought the far left had a beef with H. Arendt because of her hook-up with Heidegger, and his Nazi connections.

    Christ, sometimes I feel like a time-capsule for all the old, 20th-century left-wing grudges and grievances, and even I need a scorecard to keep this shit straight. 🙂

    • Posted November 2, 2017 at 8:25 am | Permalink

      Me too.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 3, 2017 at 4:43 am | Permalink

        And I.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 3, 2017 at 5:17 am | Permalink

          And sub.

    • Posted November 2, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      The pomo left doesn’t have a beef with Heidegger, at least not in the way one would hope. I.e., they don’t disdain him because he was a Nazi, or even because he rejected rationality (effectively) but because he was insufficiently radical. This is Derrida for you – Sartre, who has occasional useful things to say, just misunderstands him. A confusion which is still perpetuated: Heidegger was *not* an existentialist, and nor was Kierkegaard. Both were the *opposite*, in fact: both emphasize how one is chosen and must answer a call. Johannes Fritsche’s book on Heidegger goes through the deal for him in detail while explaining how reactionary-right H. would have been (and was) perceived at the time of B&T.

  9. Randall Schenck
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Nice reference to Dire Straits and the Money For Nothing, tune. Might also apply to another Straits tune, What It Is.

  10. Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  11. Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    A breath of fresh air.

  12. Ken Phelps
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    “what Jongen said has been heard before, and could have been discussed in his absence”

    If only the ctrl-left would apply this reasoning to themselves.

  13. PatrickQ
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    “The self-righteous stance of the signatories and the moral condemnation in the letter do, sadly, bear a family resemblance to the public denouncements of the Soviet era by party committees in the arts that put terror in the hearts of young musicians and writers, and deterred them from speaking and acting against a group consensus.”

    Great sentence.

  14. RPGNo1
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    If you want to know more about Marc Jongen (unfortunately in German only)
    https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marc_Jongen

    He is not a well-known represesentative of the AfD like Alexander Gauland or Alice Weidel (chairman/chairwoman of the AfD parliamentary group)or the former party leader Frauke Petry.

  15. Charles Sawicki
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times”
    We need to be reminded that the worst are still with us promoting their agendas. Well said!

  16. Craw
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Bravo

  17. BJ
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Does Ms. Prose mean to say that her students somehow weren’t emotionally devastated by hearing the viewpoints of someone else? Surely it’s just that their PTSD has just not yet manifested in a noticeable way.

    Mr. Botstein’s letter is the best response I’ve seen so far to censorious petitions by academics and intellectuals demanding that their opponents be stopped from speaking. Bravo to him.

  18. Posted November 1, 2017 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Humanities without critical thinking is a lost to humanity, pretty much a handbreak on enlightened values.
    Thinking about a speaker like Jongan I can imagine feeling the walls closing in around me… but listening as apposed to following, subscribing to his narrative are two different states.

  19. ploubere
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    A simple rule: If you feel the need to silence another’s argument, it’s because you don’t have an adequate response. Not that I see any value in engaging with every troll online, but in this case, the point of such a conference is to understand and confront such arguments. That’s how you delegitimize.

  20. Steve Gerrard
    Posted November 2, 2017 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    “We are writing to make clear our objections to the invited talk given by the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) politician Marc Jongen during the 2017 Annual Conference of the Hannah Arendt Center, “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times” (October 12-13, 2017) as well as your subsequent defense of that invitation.”

    They do not seem to notice, do they, that it is a conference about democracy, that it is about the crises currently occurring in democracy, and that the invited speaker is a politician in a party that is participating in democracy. The AfD, and parties like it, are winning votes, and that is what legitimizes their leaders, such as the speaker, not which colleges they are invited to speak to. Discovering how academia and intellectuals should respond to the perceived crises begins with listening to what these alarmingly successful politicians have to say, not with covering ears and hiding heads in the sand.

  21. Posted November 2, 2017 at 3:10 am | Permalink

    Good to see an example of an academic institution with a spine. Although it really is a pity it’s necessary for the College President to have to point out the very basic points of freedom of speech to his staff.

    This reminded me a bit of the time (2014 I think) when Nick Griffin, the then leader of the far right British National Party was allowed to make a complete idiot of himself on the political discussion programme ‘Question Time’. All they did was let him speak in front of a group of racially mixed, reasonably intelligent people. These far right loons always look foolish or unhinged when trying to spout their drivel in front of the very people they try to scare white people about.

  22. Michiel
    Posted November 2, 2017 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    Wow, that reply by President Botstein was certainly refreshing to read. I wish more people would stand up like that to the constant accusations by these postmodern humanities professors, students and activists. So many times the accused person or institution immediately caves and grovels.

  23. Posted November 3, 2017 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I posted Botstein’s response (CoHE) on my FB page and added a little bit about the need for Freedom of Speech.

    As of last night not one of my (FB) “friends” liked it. Maybe they didn’t read it. But either way.


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