To Bannon or not to Bannon? That has been the question on the lips of the literati this summer. Steve Bannon, aesthetic architect of the Donald Trump victory and a key author of his "American carnage" inaugural speech, is now an established political player. But he's also -- as former executive chairman of far-right propaganda website Breitbart News -- one of the godfathers of a white supremacist, illiberal movement which revels in its "deplorable" counterculture status, even as it bolsters populist governments in Hungary, Italy and the United States.
So, does Steve Bannon get a seat at the top table of intelligentsia hangouts, the circuit of "ideas festivals" and magazine conferences? Earlier this month, the New Yorker magazine invited, and then dropped, Bannon as a speaker at its upcoming festival in NYC.
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The proudly open-minded Economist magazine, based in London, promptly announced that it would not be disinviting Bannon from its own "Open Future Festival," which celebrates 175 years as a magazine devoted to "a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress."
In line with many intellectual organizations which have chosen to engage with chauvinist thinkers, they also wrote: "The future of open societies will not be secured by like-minded people speaking to each other in an echo chamber, but by subjecting ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate."
Ever the (classically) liberal talking shop, The Economist also published a series of statements on their official website from invited speakers who had chosen to boycott the festival rather than take part, leading to the complete cancellation of the #MeToo panel for lack of speakers.
Exposing Bannon -- or enabling him?
I went along to The Economist's London event last weekend to see whether the magazine's editor-in-chief could live up to her promise to "expose bigotry and prejudice" in interviewing America's racist-in-chief. (The event was held over 24 hours in Hong Kong, London and New York, with video links between each site.)
Zanny Minton-Beddoes is right that one of the great threats to open societies in our generation is the rising censorship of views with which the mob disagrees. If there was a manifesto to the Open Future event, it was the claim -- a correct claim -- that we must engage with our enemies to challenge them.
With such commitment to intellectual diversity, I wondered why the Economist couldn't staff either of its panels on free speech with a contributor from Spiked magazine, a tiny and controversial British outlet. (Full disclosure: I've spoken at Spiked-related events, and half of its people are amongst the brightest and most exciting thinkers you'll meet in the UK. The other half are professional controversialists who make a living defending the positions no one else will defend on TV. Pot luck which you meet.)
Perhaps it illustrates the problem of inviting the likes of Bannon to your event. For better or worse, only the nonconformists are prepared to share a billing. But in the raging culture war between the over-offended left and the out-and-out racist right, our guardians of free speech would do a better job of defending the right to offend if they didn't quite so obviously revel in exercising it.
What of Minton-Beddoes' interview with Bannon himself? Minton-Beddoes is a good interviewer, an experienced journalist deeply versed in policy and principle. She's not wrong to think herself a match for Bannon's brain. Yet these are not compliments Bannon's online followers will allow her. Comments under the YouTube clip of her interview attack her as "emotional," "hectoring," "annoying" . . . and that's just the words I'm allowed to reprint on a family-friendly website. This is par for the course for a woman who dares stand up to Bannon. So, kudos to Minton-Beddoes.
Bannon's followers immediately picked up another word to describe this interviewer: hostile. They're right. Perhaps in response to criticism of her invitation, Minton-Beddoes sought to telegraph her hostility to Bannon at every opportunity.
Take her opening. "You have called us the enemy. You have a very different worldview from us -- which, exactly as I've just explained, is why we asked you to come here." Fair. True. But it is also the perfect way for Bannon to emphasize his own distance from her world of chattering-class conferences.
"What I'd really like to do in the next few minutes is to really try to understand your worldview, your populist nationalism," intoned Beddoes slowly, as if speaking to an incoherent bulldog bat. In a later session, the economist Larry Summers rightly pointed out that the language of "building bridges" with the populist movement, which had dominated the festival's panels, reeked of "the smug complacency of our own superiority -- the idea that 'we' need to build bridges to some alien 'them.' " The global divide in worldview will not be healed by the educated treating public discourse like a charitable outreach project.
Bannon did his thing
As for debate: Bannon did what Bannon does. He talked over Minton-Beddoes; he obfuscated; he downright lied about the aims of his comrade-in-populism, deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of Italy, who wants to compile a registry of the minority Roma people in Italy and not, as Bannon claimed, for their own good. The clips will look great on far-right Twitter accounts, where Bannon's swipe at Jewish members of the Trump administration, Gary Cohn and Steve Mnuchin, will be read for what it is. Minton-Beddoes' own attempts to maintain control of the conversation are already being dismissed by his followers as intrusive.
Yet perhaps this suited The Economist too. If Bannon served a purpose here, it wasn't to be challenged directly. Instead, he was featured as a political bogeyman: only briefly present, looming over everything in his absence.
In London, we watched a video link to Bannon's interview in New York, then switched off the link to enjoy a much superior debate about Bannon chaired by the thoughtful economist Adrian Wooldridge. Here Summers made his excellent point about a discourse based on polarity; here the superb anti-populist writer Yascha Mounk finally managed to point out the violence experienced by ethnic minorities under Bannon's friends in the Italian and Hungarian governments.
Bannon's presence seemed to stimulate one of the best debates on how to defeat populism that I've heard for a long while in a London conference room. We saw four speakers debate different models of realistic nationalism without racism. But there won't be viral videos of it making the rounds on Facebook. Instead, Bannon got what he came for -- a clip of himself "correcting" a patronizing well-educated woman -- and left.
Was his invite necessary to get this debate going? It's not like Bannon is lacking platforms or invites to conferences. He also spoke at the Financial Times' Future of News conference earlier this year. None of the participants invited to respond had been previously unfamiliar with his oeuvre.
Yet perhaps The Economist is right. Perhaps Bannon should be welcome at more high-life conferences. Make sure you get a glass of champagne in his hands; and find a very elite interviewer who'll nonetheless nod adoringly at every word he says. There was great potential to embarrass Bannon here. After all, he has built a brand rejecting "the party of Davos." This wasn't Davos, but it was the next best thing. The Economist paraded him like a slightly malodorous curiosity. They'd have done better to spoil him with kindness.