When it was announced on Tuesday that Steve Bannon would headline The New Yorker Festival—to be interviewed by David Remnick, the magazine’s editor—many people were vocally dismayed. Roxane Gay withdrew a piece she was writing for the magazine’s website. Comedian John Mulaney announced that he was pulling out as a guest, describing the inclusion of Bannon as ‘PT Barnum level horseshit’. Filmmaker Judd Apatow did the same, proclaiming that he would ‘not take part in an event that normalizes hate’.
Several hours later, Bannon was disinvited. In a statement, Remnick wrote that while the festival was hardly ‘pulling [Bannon] out of obscurity’, and that the point of the interview would have been to ‘put pressure on the views of the person being questioned’, he accepted that ‘the Festival is different, a different kind of forum’. By this, I take him to mean that while a traditional journalistic interview should not constitute an endorsement of its subject, the geniality of the festival setting can legitimise or even elevate those on the bill.
And yet others saw the interview’s cancellation as further evidence of the destructive polarisation that has come to characterise our era. Malcolm Gladwell tweeted that, ‘I would have thought that the point of a festival of ideas was to expose the audience to ideas. If you only invite your friends over, it’s called a dinner party.’ Leigh Sales described the protests against Bannon’s inclusion as another sign of ‘the lack of willingness to hear & debate ideas that differ from one’s own’. Katharine Murphy also bemoaned the cancellation, saying it signalled a retreat to ideological echo chambers. Journalism, she wrote, should be ‘about getting people out of them, and debating ideas, in civil and rational fashion. If it’s all enclaves, we might as well give it away.’
The division here, more or less, is between those who understand a festival of literature and culture to be a venue for discussion—a place for a civil thrashing out of philosophies—and those who understand it as a venue for performance and self-promotion. In the former picture, the purpose of inviting Bannon would be to make him look foolish as civic-minded intellectuals joust with him on the battlefield of ideas (the logic of high school debate). (In certain contexts, there is merit to this strategy, but it is worth asking what fresh things Remnick might have expected to expose, given Bannon’s ubiquity since 2016.) In the latter picture, Bannon is simply being provided another channel in which to sell himself. The latter picture is more convincing to most young people and most who work in the precarious world of the arts, because we know that brand and identity are, today, inseparable. The job market is where you sell yourself rather than your capacity, and festivals of ideas are usually glorified industry conferences. Of course these festivals can be home to the fascinating, entertaining, and stimulating, but it is rare that someone appears unless they have something to sell. And why should they? This is the logic of neoliberalism, in which no idea or body escapes commodification.
Disturbingly, this brand-first model is especially attuned to the culture of contemporary conservative celebrity. As the alt-right has ascended, the radical conservative movement has found its success in showmanship. Characters such as Alex Jones, Roger Stone, Milo Yiannopoulos, and the President of the United States built their profiles as they inflated their personae, becoming cartoonish and cartoonishly reactionary. Like Steve Bannon, they are clickbait personified and they can adjust their bigotry to suit their context. This is permissible because, when they are portrayed by the mainstream media, the focus is primarily on the spirit of their character rather than the spirit of their ideas. Here, brand outstrips substance. Stone, for example, appeared on a panel at The New Yorker Festival during the heady days of October, 2016, where he was treated as a clownish Svengali who could provide insight into the mind of Trump; but he has also been a frequent host on Jones’s conspiracy-mongering Infowars website, which has, among other horrors, spread the lie that the Sandy Hook shootings were perpetrated by the American government and that the murdered children were in fact portrayed by ‘child actors’.
The project of conservatism is to maintain the hierarchies that deliver disproportionate wealth to the already wealthy, and the formula it takes in the era of Trump depends on a misdirection that Bannon and his ilk are particularly skilled at performing: inflaming prejudices—often racial—in order to shift anger away from powerful systems and towards powerless people. In respectable venues such as literary festivals or mainstream news programs, the message can be sanitised, transforming into an abstracted argument about Chinese trade or a claim that the employment of minorities will rise under a Trumpian economic plan. But the underlying motivations remain, concealed by the trappings of high-minded journalistic civility.
The question of how to profile members of the alt-right is not simply an intellectual exercise. As the movement rises, the people they hate (meaning anyone whose race or identity is incompatible with their ethno-nationalist worldview) are put at risk of violence. And hosting a leader of the alt-right such as Bannon in the context of a battle of wits is not simply a problem because it further spreads his views, but because it implies that the movement’s philosophy is worth debate. This stings the marginalised more than it does the comfortable, because the marginalised voices that Bannon would argue do not belong in the American mainstream have long been excluded from these privileged spaces that The New Yorker Festival represents; or, when they have been included, they’ve typically been taken to represent the marginalised group, rather than simply being asked to speak for themselves. If our concern is a debate that does not exclude voices, the inviting and disinviting of Bannon seems relatively trivial given that, unlike so many other Americans, he will not struggle to find another outlet. And cancelling Bannon plays into his hands (although it is, at this point, probably the lesser of two evils). The right frequently steals the ideological tools of the left and wields them more adeptly; here Bannon will deploy his own identity politics, using this debacle as evidence that elite institutions oppress those like him, that they hate the righteously frustrated and furious voices of dissent.
Obviously there are circumstances under which it is reasonable to interview a white nationalist. However, coverage that makes Bannon seem at all reasonable can only aid his cause, and his cause is unacceptable. Any intellect he may or may not possess, any philosophy that could be rigorously examined at a festival interview, is secondary to what his behaviour tells us about his political vision. Following his stint at the White House, his most notable recent endeavour was a failed attempt to save the US Senate candidate Roy Moore, whose campaign had struck rough waters when he was accused of sexual harassment by nine women, one of whom was 14 when the alleged incident occurred. Bannon’s ex-wife claimed that he choked her, and she wrote in a statement that he didn’t want his daughters ‘going to school with Jews’. He was also a founding editor of Breitbart.com, an enormously influential website that he described as a ‘platform for the alt-right’. During Bannon’s tenure as executive editor, it ran countless repulsive articles such as ‘Political correctness protects Muslim rape culture’ and ‘Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy’. The profiles that describe him as a ‘voracious reader‘, for example, seem to miss the point. To treat him civilly is to challenge him to pistols at dawn as he is rolling through your house with a tank. It is possible to imagine an interview in which Remnick simply catalogued the most abhorrent activities in which Bannon is implicated, forcing him to confront them, but I doubt it would take that form. This paragraph is not an argument for ignoring Bannon, but rather for contextualising him.
Most of us are hypocrites when it comes to issues of free speech. When we rationalise why a particular voice should be excluded from a given platform, it is usually just a cover for whether or not we like their politics. To clarify, I do not like Steve Bannon’s politics. When it comes to questions of whether to provide a political salesman airtime, the deliberation is best served by asking questions of context and purpose rather than seeking to generalise about principles of free and open discussion. This is because The New Yorker Festival and its equivalents possess significant cultural capital and limited space in which to distribute it. A commitment to open debate is admirable and necessary, but it is still up to the powerful to frame the terms of this debate. It is impossible to make decisions about the people to whom we offer media coverage and festival slots without commenting on their value as contributors to public discussion. A limited number of articles can be written and a limited amount of airtime can be filled. I imagine there are people who could not, for moral reasons, win a slot at the festival. For instance, I would be surprised to see Alex Jones on the bill, despite the fact that he has clearly influenced the President. So, to recognise Steve Bannon as a worthy interlocutor is to accept him as part of your moral universe. A question that is always worth asking: when a powerful organisation dedicates a portion of its structural power to the alt-right, giving them space to sell their message—even if the intention is to scrutinise it—at whose expense is this decision made?
Dan Dixon is a writer completing a PhD in English at the University of Sydney.