The New Yorker withdrew its invitation to Steve Bannon, but missed the point about why giving the white nationalist a platform is so dangerous.
On Monday morning, the New Yorker confirmed that Steve Bannon, the white supremacist and former Trump administration chief strategist, would headline the esteemed magazine’s annual festival — a series of speaking events, with tickets ranging from free to nearly $300. Within a few short hours of the announcement, however, New Yorker editor David Remnick, who was scheduled to interview Bannon, released a statement: “I have changed my mind,” he wrote.
It would be more accurate to say that Remnick had his mind changed for him. Numerous high-profile speakers — including producer Judd Apatow, comedian John Mulaney, and actor Jim Carrey — announced that they would pull out of the festival if Bannon’s invitation stood. Online backlash was swift and many members of the magazine’s own staff issued complaints.
Bannon’s removal from the lineup was a necessary victory. The New Yorker’s decision to invite Bannon in the first place — let alone giving him a headline position — was either a cynical bid for attention through controversy or an ignorant commitment to the idea that Bannon’s neo-fascism can be best challenged through debate. Either way, it was a disgrace worthy of the boycotts it earned.
Remnick’s response made clear that his decision to disinvite Bannon was merely one of crisis management.
Yet Remnick’s response made clear that his decision to disinvite Bannon was merely one of crisis management. His two-page statement revealed a rationale that runs through much of the liberal media when it comes to engaging with the far right. Remnick said that he has every intention of interviewing Bannon in the future and has been planning to do so for some time — and that’s the problem. “If the opportunity presents itself, I’ll interview him in a more traditionally journalistic setting,” wrote Remnick, “not on stage” — as if the issue were the format of the platform accorded to Bannon, rather than Bannon using the New Yorker’s platform at all.
There is no doubt that the rise of the far right in the U.S. and Europe — the movement to which Bannon has dedicated his life — is a crucial object of journalistic inquiry. Bannon is part of that object, but that does not render him a valid subject for extended interviews. This subject-object conflation has informed all too much liberal reporting on the far right, which confuses exposing the phenomenon of racist populisms — the ways they spread, the systems which fuel them — with giving exposure to their proponents.
The idea of Bannon receiving the honorarium and travel expenses of a festival speaker was no doubt galling. But the real problem lies in the continued insistence by journalists like Remnick that there is merit to discovering something about Bannon and men like him directly via the words from their own mouths. It’s not that there is nothing to be gained from a journalist speaking to someone like Bannon: Though he is no longer an administration official and remains in the public sphere only to promote racist populism around the world, he did once serve at the highest levels of government and might be privy to certain facts that can only be gleaned from being in the room.
Remnick emphasized this dynamic himself. “The question,” he wrote, “is whether an interview has value in terms of fact, argument, or even exposure, whether it has value to a reader or an audience.” Yet, if this is Remnick’s standard, it’s hard to see how it can be met with a lengthy Bannon interview, even in a more “traditional journalistic” setting — unless we understand that “value to a reader” in this case might mean little more than liberal self-congratulation or perverse fascination.
Perhaps Remnick’s reference to “exposure” suggests a view that finds tactical and moral value in interviewing Bannon, on or off stage. The idea is that the fallacies of his hateful views are best made visible because the best way to defeat hate speech would be to listen to them and thus, allow his ideology’s internal contradictions and idiocy thwart itself. But tell a patient with a pus-seeping wound that sunlight is the best disinfectant. What’s more, Bannon’s ethnonationalism is not a mystery: His ideas have been well-aired through participation in countless interviews and debates, including a recent forum with the Financial Times
More to the point, Remnick states in no uncertain terms that he will not change Bannon’s views, but stresses that “the idea is putting pressure on a set of arguments and prejudices that have influenced our politics and a president still in office.” Where is this pressure exerted? Even a middle-school physics student knows that pressure is not pressure unless exerted on something.
Bannon’s arguments and prejudices are immune to pressure. There is no internal flaw waiting to be discovered in his racist worldview because its core principle is racism. Bannon has acknowledged as much himself. “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes,” Bannon told members of the far-right French party, National Front, in March. “Let them call you nativist. Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”
Those compelled by Bannon and company’s hateful worldview were not led to it by reasoned argument; pressure on the demagogue’s rationale won’t dissuade potential supporters. It does not matter if the narratives in which he bartered through Breitbart and then in the White House were not based in fact. It did not matter that, as a point of fact, Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban would not have prevented a single terror-related death had it been in place for the last two decades. The more fundamental fact for Bannon, as for Trump, is his racism, which is not open to shift by virtue of recalcitrant evidence and inconvenient truths.
There’s a certain madness in repeating the same action over and over again and expecting a different result. Since Trump’s ascendance, we have repeatedly seen liberal journalists and interviewers supposedly take on far-right figures in an attempt to expose and challenge their views, in both traditional and nontraditional journalistic settings. “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah did not, contrary to some responses, “obliterate” the racist commentator Tomi Lahren when he interviewed her. They had a conversation in which she said racist things and he called them racist. Then they went out for a drink after the show. This was not an evisceration; rather than the viscera being removed, they were filled with cocktails.
Like Noah, Guardian journalist Gary Younge received high praise for his combative interview with punchable white supremacist Richard Spencer. Spencer stated that Africans contributed nothing to civilization; Africans benefited from white supremacy; and that Younge, who is British, could not be British because he is black. Younge called Spencer “ridiculous” (he is) and asked, “You’re really proud of your racism, aren’t you?” And that’s the point: He is. This was not interlocution, nor a particularly revelatory exposure of Spencer’s well-publicized views. It was the incommensurability of a white supremacist ideology with one of tolerance. All the while, Spencer is able to offer up his hate as if it is simply another alternative, worthy of discussion just like liberalism or any other ideology.
Interviews with fascistic celebrities serve as a reassuring pantomime for liberals.
In my mind, these interviews with fascistic celebrities neither dissuade people from joining white supremacists nor does the far right gain much recruiting leverage from the pages of places like the New Yorker. Instead, these pieces serve as a reassuring pantomime for liberals — the presumed New Yorker readership. The Trumpian baddies, according to this fanciful reading, are revealed and then eviscerated. If this is what Remnick meant by “value to a reader,” he made a depressing point.
However combative or pointed Remnick’s desired interview, what better can he expect to achieve than Younge or Noah? What more can he expect to hear from Bannon’s despicable jowls? It’s precisely the original invitation to the festival that should give us pause as to whether Remnick understands the stakes of giving any platform to Bannon at all, traditionally journalistic or otherwise. If the idea is to understand the rise of far-right racism in this country, then Remnick is looking in the wrong place by interviewing one of its chief promoters. Bannon knows — even if Remnick does not — that fueling racist resentment has nothing to do with putting forward the best arguments.
Contrary to the notion of delving into ideas or personalities of the far right, we have seen a number of successes in recent months when it comes to opposing the far right by denying them a platform. Far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos posted a self-pitying screed on Facebook last week saying, “I have spent all my savings, destroyed all my friendships, and ruined my whole life” in his beleaguered efforts to spread his hateful message across college campuses. “My events almost never happen,” he wrote, “it’s protests, or sabotage from Republican competitors, or social media outcries.” When Richard Spencer canceled his college tour earlier this year, he publicly said that “antifa is winning.”
Once stars and focal points of the “alt-right,” both figures have had their influence stymied by activists refusing to enable their platforms. While Remnick bent to righteous pressure and disinvited Bannon from the New Yorker Festival, his continued insistence on interviewing the former strategist belies his claim that their “politics could not be more at odds.”
Bannon remains scheduled as a headliner at the Economist’s Open Future festival. While some scheduled speakers, including left-wing writers Laurie Penny and Ally Fogg have announced that they will no longer take part in the event, the Economist stood by its decision. It is for every participant to decide whether they are willing to remain on a lineup with Bannon; it is for each would-be attendee of such an event to decide if they want the publication behind it to feel the negative consequences of their intolerable headliner choice.
There’s a silver lining in the fact that Remnick may not get a chance to conduct his traditionally journalistic interview. In response to his disinvitation, Bannon called the editor “gutless when confronted by the howling online mob.” And because of the New Yorker’s decision to invite the white supremacist in the first place, it is Bannon who walks away able to play himself as a victim to his own base, viscera intact. Until media institutions stop extending open hands to white supremacists altogether — on stage or in print — this will continue to happen.