The Low Political Theater of the Jongen Affair, one month later

About a month ago I published a piece in The Baffler about the Hannah Arendt Center’s decision to invite Marc Jongen of the Alternativ für Deutschland Party to speak. I was critical of his invitation, the way his talk was presented, and how the Center and its director defended their actions in the aftermath. (I also broadly sympathized with the scholars who expressed alarm that the Center had made such a decision, although it was more of an expression of dismay than a practical step.) I can now add to this a criticism of Ian Buruma’s response to the matter.

What I tried, and now I think failed, to do with my piece, was to hint at the drama that Jongen had set up and how Berkowitz had either become an unwitting (or witting) participant. Impatient with the course of the conversation about the affair, and the fact that its been wrongly placed in the context of the boring “Free Speech on Campus” debates, I will use more direct language to clarify my point.

The sad fact is that this all has nothing to do with the high principles of free speech and pluralism. Jongen is a political mountebank, and Berkowitz seems to have been his mark. He sold himself to Berkowitz with his pedigree as Sloterdijk’s assistant and passed off his mystical, proto-Fascist mumbo jumbo as profound. Jongen accepted his invitation gladly, knowing what any reasonably shrewd politician understands: don’t enter a situation that’s not a win-win.

What Jongen surely realized was that if he was attacked or faced a disruptive protest, he could play the victim. On the other hand, if he was welcomed politely (as he was) he could equally claim victory. The lack of ability to see through this most basic of political gambits might just reflect extreme naivety and unworldliness on Berkowitz’s part, if it wasn’t for the fact that he also managed to position himself as a victim of political persecution and as a defender of pluralism and free speech. (So perhaps Berkowitz was not really a mark, but as every conman loves to say, “You can’t cheat an honest man.”) In effect, Jongen and Berkowitz formed a political partnership where they both got the chance to occupy the roles they wished to play: Jongen could be victim or victor depending on how events developed, Berkowitz would be courageous defender of liberal values against the rabid left and have occasion to pump out more of the ideologically-rote, self-aggrandizing pablum that the Center now stamps with Hannah Arendt’s brand. This is the real lesson about populist politics to be learned with Jongen’s visit.

For many of us who admire Hannah Arendt, particularly for her disdain of chicanery and cliché, this use of her name in a crude political kabuki act is infuriating. It would be one thing if Berkowitz had exhibited reflection or thoughtful meditation on the decision at all. But he did not, he was on the defensive immediately and then, again as a kind of political actor, attempted to divide his opponents’ forces by insisting that his critics respond to him one by one instead of joining a collective letter. He now shores up his ramparts with supportive editorials and letters, which, from this angle or that, make his decision seem a wise and sound one.

Now enter Buruma, whose apparent disdain for Jongen is much more potent on the page than it was in person, trying to wash his hands of the whole affair with a parting shot at the academics who protested the decision:

The protest against inviting Jongen was not only intellectually incoherent; it was also tactically stupid, because it confirms the belief of the far right that liberals are the enemies of free speech, and that right-wing populists are victims of liberal intolerance. I like to think that Jongen left the Bard conference politely discredited. Because of the protest, he was able to snatch victory from defeat.

The argument in essence being: “I did a fine job until you cocked it all up by getting upset.” This ignores the fact that Jongen crowed heartily about his invitation and talk on his return to Germany, and it misses the aforementioned gambit: There was never any real possibility of defeat or discredit for Jongen in this invitation. But perhaps if he had been handled a bit more roughly by Buruma, he may have had less occasion to be proud of his accomplishment.

Reflecting on the affair there is much to be learned about politics, not about the high theoretical side, but about the often-ugly practice of politics itself, something that Richard Nixon is a better teacher of than Hannah Arendt. It’s a politics less about high ideals and more often about sneaky tricks and moves: attacking the isolated and unpopular, opportunistically seizing goodwill where one can, playing out the melodrama of self-pity and petty triumph. One thing the whole affair does bring to mind is that, when dealing with people like Jongen, it’s good to remember a very old piece of political prudence: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”