Activity and Merit

Arendt_1As brought to my attention in a post yesterday at the Daily Nous, the “party philosopher” of the German nationalist party Alternative für Deutschland, Marc Jongen, was invited to speak at “Crises of Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times“, a conference hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.  Jongen seems like not only a curious choice, but a downright insidious one, given the name and the history of the Center, and just the sort of invitation which sparks an outrage and protests and lots of hyperbolic hullabaloo–as found in this open letter signed by 40-50 or so academics (the name “Judith Butler” leaps out, there).

The Daily Nous points out the various responses of the Center’s director and others, and Justin Weinberg, author of the post, lists four distinct attitudes towards engaging with objectionable ideas and theories, and the people who voice them: endorsement, inclusion, acknowledgment, and ignoring.  The director of the Center indicates that although Jongen was included, his inclusion by no means includes an endorsement and the implication of such is an insult.

But there is a difficulty, here.  Certainly, inclusion does not equal endorsement, and directly addressing those who harbor malice is a better strategy than allowing them to skulk in the shadows and subtly corrupt the minds of the youth.  But at the same time, while inclusion may not be endorsement, invitation to speak at any conference–barring outright humiliation in the process–is nevertheless a kind of reward.  We toil at improving our CVs by writing papers and presenting at conferences, and our submissions are not always necessarily accepted.  This belies the deeper problem with academic merit: that far too often it relies upon reputation and “the fact that X did Y” rather than the content of what anyone does.  That so-and-so gave the commencement speech at Harvard, say, will carry more weight than that speech being utterly devoid of worthy insight.  That a young academic has four articles published in top ranked journals gives him more credence–even if they are trite pieces of borderline nonsense–than if someone publishes a book rife with insight but under a less-prestigious publishing house or within a start-up series.

In other words, we have collectively become extremely poor judges of merit; I think this flaw has its roots in the pervasive lack of any principled reasoning–most especially in the lack of principles about what human beings are and ought to be.

So while there is still a general agreement in much of the world that a Nazi, Nazi-sympathizer, or Nazi-emulator is a pretty bad thing to be, that agreement is being weakened by the lack of reasoned basis for that agreement.  In other words: mere sentimentality about the value of all human life can only win out against sophistical arguments against it for so long.  Relativism and all forms of subjective-valuation, as systems of moral reasoning, lack by definition a consistent and universal understanding of human life and therefore of its value.  If, as with Immanuel Kant, autonomy is invoked, that autonomy needs to be explained, and the only sound explanation for it rests on a non-relativistic conception of human intellection.

Without general agreement on such reasoned (rather than felt principles), we seem condemned to a system of holding mere recognized activity to be meritorious in and of itself, with lesser consideration for its content.  And so while Jongen’s invitation does not equate to endorsement… it is nevertheless still a reward, which is probably why, hyperbole aside, it is objectionable.

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