This essay, on the controversy over Steve Bannon’s invitation to the New Yorker festival,, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the Swedish elections). It was published in the Observer, 9 September 2018, under the headline ‘Condemning all debate with Bannon amounts to giving up on politics’.
Two memes have become central to much contemporary political debate. The first is that we need to break out of our echo chambers. The second is that we should not provide space for hatemongers. Increasingly, the two have come to collide.
One such collision came in the controversy over Steve Bannon’s (non) appearance at the New Yorker festival. Bannon, a key figure on the ‘alt-right’, was invited to the festival to be interrogated by the magazine’s editor, David Remnick, only to be disinvited when a number of speakers threatened to pull out in protest. To host Bannon at a literary festival, critics argued, was to afford a white supremacist a platform and to provide him with legitimacy.
It’s true that the media often puff up fringe extremists who have controversial views but no substantial following. Bannon, however, is not such a figure. His ideas may be odious but his influence is considerable. He spouts his venom from countless platforms, not to mention into the ear of the president of the United States. He doesn’t need the New Yorker to give him legitimacy.
Almost 63 million Americans voted for Donald Trump. Bannon has played a major part in popularising ideas, from economic nationalism to white identity politics, that helped forge that support. If we want to break that connection, we need to take on people like Bannon.
A festival hosted by the uber-liberal New Yorker may not, of course, be the best place to engage with Trump supporters. Better to have that debate in Michigan or Texas. But then the denunciations of Bannon being given ‘legitimacy’ would be even more ferocious.
Human Rights Watch’s Andrew Stroehlein argued, in a Twitter discussion, that there was no point in debating Bannon because ‘debunking’ ideas rarely changes people’s minds. What we need is a ‘new narrative’. ‘Every minute spent debating the opponents’ lies,’ he insisted, ‘is a minute when we fail to deliver our truth.’
It’s true that simply presenting facts and figures about job losses or racial disparities rarely sways people. It’s true, too, that we need to construct a different narrative within which to embed facts and arguments, a narrative that allows people to make sense of their lives and the issues that face them. We cannot, however, simply ‘deliver our truth’, like tablets from on high.
For a different narrative to be accepted by Trump supporters, we would need to take seriously their problems and grievances, while showing also that the causes lie not, as many claim, in ‘uncontrolled’ immigration or the erosion of ‘white’ culture, but in social and economic policies that have crushed working-class lives, black and white, migrant and native-born.
To do that would require us to defend their rights and livelihoods, rather than dismissing them as ‘racists’. We would need also to challenge the ideas that sustain the current narrative they hold. That means tackling figures such as Bannon in public debates, not refusing to engage with them because their ideas are odious. It is because Bannon’s ideas are odious, and yet have social purchase, that we have to engage with them.
A different kind of criticism came from the New Yorker’s Osita Nwanevu. ‘Proving that someone you consider wrong/stupid is actually wrong/stupid,’ he observed, is the opposite of ‘proving you’re open-minded & willing to seriously consider controversial ideas’. Interviewing Bannon is not ‘engaging’ but setting up ‘a kangaroo court situation with a preordained outcome’. The event, in other words, would necessarily have been in bad faith.
One can, however, ‘engage’ in more ways than one. One way of quitting the echo chamber is by expressing a readiness to scrutinise our own beliefs, and an openness to accommodate others’ views.
Engagement can also mean challenging ideas that we know we despise. Combating Bannon’s ideas from within our echo chamber is easy, but has minimal consequences. Stepping outside to challenge those arguments directly may be more challenging, and open us up to failure, but is also more meaningful.
Had the New Yorker debate gone ahead, no one would have expected Bannon or Remnick to have changed their minds. The real audience would have been those who were open enough to rethink their views on Bannon. The real debate is about whether such an audience exists. Those who condemn any debate with Bannon are denying that it does, or that it can be engaged with. That is to imply that there is no future for politics.
There’s not many places I hear proper debate across ideological lines these days.
Everything is always too rushed like on a BBC Newsnight programme, or Question Time.
But who really wants to debate someone like Bannon ….. or even Nick Griffin when he was leader of the BNP?
Does anyone on the left want to get in a thorough debate with Douglas Murray?
What if he starts “winning the argument”? That’s what people on the left really don’t want.
It’s far easier to keep these people at arm’s length and parody and mock them.
In the case of Murray, it depends what you mean by ‘the left’. People like Peter Tatchell or Maryan Namazie as examples are happy to debate with him, despite having very different views on say immigration (they do of course agree on things like universal values & secularism). If you’re meaning the Identifarian left, then that’s not just true of Murray it’s also true of anyone on the left who they’d accuse of wrong think.
Also, Murray is hardly a saint on this. For instance his attitude to Kenan on the Moral Maze was pretty much in bad faith, and made no real attempt to respond to the points raised.
I remember that Moral Maze show. A problem is the format is too rushed for proper conversation.
And you need both parties to be willing to engage. As for Maryam Namazie, you only have to listen to her long interview with Sam Harris to see what the problem is. There, they had plenty of time, but she refused to enter into a proper conversation and dragged the thing into ridiculousness.
He was questioning her “open borders” idea and she couldn’t deal with close scrutiny of that.
Which I suspect is the case with much of the left when it comes to being asked awkward questions on the issues of immigration and living in the diverse society which results from it.
I would really like to hear a proper leftist having it out with Douglas Murray.
When I was in high school, in our American history class we used a series of booklets called “Problems in Democracy” put out by Amherst, I believe. This was maybe sixty years ago, but that class has stuck with my classmates and me ever since. Essays and selections with different points of view and arguments about important events and trends in US history were presented by authors with different perspectives. We certainly learned that issues were rarely black and white even when people held black and white views. Perhaps forums — maybe podcasts — that addressed our history with various perspectives, not arguing a right or wrong, would help educate people about why we believe what we do and about how we can shift some of our views.
It was called “Problems in American Democracy” in my high school in 1970, and was required. It had earlier been called “Americanism vs. Communism”, so political Correctness has been around a while. However, the course was not as bad as you might think, and an easy A.
In our experience it was never called “Americanism vs. Communism.” And it was a wonderful course which taught us that history was never black and white in terms of cause and effect and that there were many points of view as there were many participants. AND I think it gave us room to investigate and think past our boxes. Wshere did you go to school?
OT, but Florida, public school. It was mandatory, and so had to be dumbed down for the slowest and most recalcitrant students. That’s what mandatory looks like. I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere.
One advantage of such debates is that it allows the demonized figure to speak for himself instead of letting only his enemies to speak for him. I mean “demonized” in a neutral sense, the guy who is considered not only wholly wrong but dangerous. So is he really a demon? Or just incorrect and rather nasty? Or maybe you’ve been told wrong about him? After all, you’ve only gotten your information about him from his enemies.
Check out what Wikipedia says about Bannon, https://bit.ly/2CGAgW4, fourth paragraph from the top; also https://bit.ly/2QiKUoL, where he calls Richard Spencer a “goober”, an insulting synonym for “hick”. Note the significant overlap with the progressive left, for instance supporting increased taxation of the rich. NB, he describes himself as an economic nationalist, IMHO both wrong and dangerous, so demon-y.
Interviewing Bannon should be motivated – part or even primarily – by a desire to discover what (he says) he’s about, explore the issues and ideas he raises, scrutinising, questioning and challenging if and/or when needs be. For liberals/progressives/lefties to get anywhere in what are basically conservative democracies, their ideas and policy proposals must, at the very least, engage in discourse/debate, and then go on to win a battle of ideas. For that to happen, taking debate to the likes of Bannon, challenging them on their own terms, is important.
When conservatives, reactionaries, the right, refuse to debate and remain in their echo-chamber – Bannon’s Breitbart was a classic example, feeding reassuring propaganda to reinforce prejudice, while preying on and reinforcing ignorance – that’s par for the course. When liberals, progressives, the left do likewise, that’s sub-par and they’re doomed to fail.
After Berkeley, Middlebury, and Evergreen, dis-inviting Bannon just plays into the narrative that leftists will only listen to other leftists. Anything else is ‘giving a platform to fascists.’ It’s hardly surprising that many independents (and many old-school liberals) feel that leftists no longer believe in free speech.
What if the elimination of politics IS the endgame?