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.