Opinion

How Steve Bannon Teased New York's Liberal Elite – and Came Out on Top

The messy way the New Yorker’s David Remnick invited Bannon to an 'informal, free-ranging discussion' - then backed out - raises censorship issues that the hard-right ideologue can happily exploit. More dismally, it damages progressive politics, too

Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump's former chief strategist, talks about the approaching midterm election during an AP interview. Aug. 19, 2018.
J. Scott Applewhite,AP

The annual New Yorker magazine festival is the embodiment of the erudite weekly. But this year’s instalment nearly came unstuck before it even began after editor David Remnick decided to invite Steve Bannon, the hard-right ideologue and former Trump strategist, to speak.

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Remnick was to interview Bannon himself, in what he had promised in his invitation would be “an informal, free-ranging discussion of the political movements redefining international and local politics.” 

When news of the proposed event emerged this week, New Yorker staffers, contributors and potential festival speakers raised their objections.

Writer Roxane Gay suggested the invitation to Bannon demonstrated "how the intellectual class doesn't truly understand racism or xenophobia." 

Filmmaker Judd Apatow and actor Jim Carrey both tweeted to the effect that if Bannon was on the festival bill, they would withdraw from their planned events.

Malcolm Gladwell, the author and New York staffer, was one of few voices supporting the mooted talk, suggesting that a festival of ideas should "expose the audience to ideas. If you only invite your friends over, it’s called a dinner party."

After a day of criticism, Remnick issued a comprehensive statement, concluding: "I don’t want well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns. I’ve thought this through and I’ve talked to colleagues - and I’ve reconsidered. I’ve changed my mind." 

In his recent book "In The Restaurant," Christoph Ribbat, professor of American Studies at the University of Paderborn, wrote that the New Yorker of the postwar era defined itself as "a guardian of civilization. It points the way to the most cultivated products and ideas...and sees itself as the voice of idealized American democracy."

The same holds true of Remnick’s 21st century New Yorker. The ideal New Yorker reader remains educated, curious, well off, and every inch a Manhattanite.

The criticism levelled by people such as Roxane Gay - that the New Yorker editor and his readers are operating from a point of comfortable detachment, has a ring of truth to it: though the attendees at the New Yorker festival are extremely unlikely to be Trump voters, they are likely to be somewhat insulated from the consequences of the rhetoric of Bannon and his ilk. They have the luxury of finding him "interesting."

But what is Remnick’s responsibility? In his statement, Remnick pointed out that Bannon has been a significant figure in domestic and international politics in recent years and as such, worth attention and examination. 

Marine Le Pen (R) applauds former US President advisor Steve Bannon after his speech during the Front National party annual congress in Lille, northern France. March 10, 2018.
AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE HUGUEN

Responding to his invitation being rescinded, Bannon took the opportunity to praise and damn Remnick in consecutive sentences: "The reason for my acceptance was simple: I would be facing one of the most fearless journalists of his generation. In what I would call a defining moment, David Remnick showed he was gutless when confronted by the howling online mob."

The use of "fearless" here is disingenuous and self-aggrandizing, suggesting that only the bravest of liberal journalists would have the guts to even speak to the behemoth Bannon. 

Every bit as disingenuous were the many critics who implied that Remnick thought he could "challenge" Bannon in some kind of gladiatorial contest in the interview.

Remnick is too smart to believe this to be the case, as he made clear in his statement ("There’s no illusion here. It’s obvious that no matter how tough the questioning, Bannon is not going to burst into tears and change his view of the world.") 

Meanwhile, the Economist magazine - another organ of the liberal order - has taken a different tack, defending its decision to invite Bannon to speak at its Open Future Festival by claiming that "rigorous questioning and debate" will "expose bigotry and prejudice."

So is the cancellation of Bannon’s appearance at the New Yorker festival censorship? 

To an extent, yes. It’s no good to simply say that the revocation of the invitation after public pressure is "not a free speech issue," or that Bannon’s First Amendment rights have not been breached. A person who was to speak on a public platform will not now speak on a public platform, after pressure from his opponents.

The real question is whether this is a level and form of censorship that we are comfortable with. Those who say that the invitation should not have been extended will say that these are extraordinary times: Trump is no ordinary president, and Bannon no ordinary former adviser. The usual rules of discourse do not apply. Normalization cannot pass, in the White House or at a cultural festival.

Those who defend Remnick’s original invitation will say that the abandonment of the usual rules is exactly what the extremists demand. 

Bannon’s assertion that the cancellation is a "defining moment" would suggest this will be added to the litany of liberal weaknesses to which he aims to offer an authoritarian alternative. 

David Remnick’s commitment to the objective conversation must be admired, but we must hope that, as the editor said in his own statement, "There is a better way to do this." Remnick says that this should, and will, happen in the context of a written interview in the New Yorker magazine itself, where context and editorial input will presumably mean Bannon would be denied free rein.

But better preparation and presentation - not least consulting staff before announcing the event - could have ensured a Bannon speaking event could have been put in context too.

As it stands, Bannon can claim to have been too hot to handle for the "liberal elites" he stands against, and Remnick and the New Yorker appears insensitive to readers and contributors. A poor day’s work for free speech - and for progressive politics.

Padraig Reidy is editor of the London-based magazine Little Atoms and editorial director of 89up, which campaigns on free speech and human rights issues. Twitter: @mePadraigReidy