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Should The New Yorker have disinvited Steve Bannon from its annual festival?

Writer and director Judd Apatow, one of several high-profile artists that threatened to drop out of the festival, said he wouldn’t participate in an event that “normalizes hate.”
Steve Bannon speaks before introducing Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore during a campaign event at Oak Hollow Farm on December 5, 2017 in Fairhope, Alabama.(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)


This year’s New Yorker Festival was scheduled to feature an onstage discussion between David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, and Stephen K. Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist. But after public outcry from magazine staff and festival headliners, Remnick rescinded his invitation.

Within hours of publishing the lineup, artists including Judd Apatow, Patton Oswalt, John Mulaney, Jimmy Fallon and Jim Carrey announced they’d drop out of the festival if they had to share a bill with Bannon, the former executive chairman of Breitbart News who earlier this year said he wants to be “the infrastructure, globally, for the global populist movement.”

If Steve Bannon is at the New Yorker festival I am out. I will not take part in an event that normalizes hate. I hope the @NewYorker will do the right thing and cancel the Steve Bannon event. Maybe they should read their own reporting about his ideology.

— Judd Apatow (@JuddApatow) September 3, 2018

Remnick said he had hoped to challenge Bannon’s controversial ideas in the unique setting provided by the festival.

“I have every intention of asking him difficult questions and engaging in a serious and even combative conversation,” Remnick told the New York Times. “The audience itself, by its presence, puts a certain pressure on a conversation that an interview alone doesn’t do... You can’t jump on and off the record.”

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Bannon said Remnick’s disinvitation was a “gutless” surrender to a “howling online mob.”

“The reason for my acceptance was simple: I would be facing one of the most fearless journalists of his generation,” Bannon told The New York Times. “In what I would call a defining moment, David Remnick showed he was gutless when confronted by the howling online mob.”

Many on social media criticized Remnick’s decision to invite Bannon.

Well think of how “painful, and even maddening” it is for loads of ‘POC’ -myself, included- that a preeminent voice in calling out Trump, was sneakily (didn’t tell the venue, or other guests) prepping to have a proud white supremacist headline this event.

— Ayanna (@Big_Spiders) September 3, 2018

Hi Malcolm, we were exposed to this set of ideas in 1933 and they were in German. They aren't new or particularly well-hidden today. How about not exposing an audience to poorly-intellectualized hatred. How about not giving these "ideas" even an inch of room to metastasize again. https://t.co/617NSAJMUK

— STEVE HUFF (@SteveHuff) September 4, 2018

You don’t understand Bannon’s perspective by now?This guy hasn’t shut up for a decade. There’s almost nobody who needs the press less. That festival is a celebration. We love it. No one wants to share it with someone who joyfully destroys people’s lives. I’m glad he’s off it. https://t.co/fxjCFPrZyz

— Judd Apatow (@JuddApatow) September 3, 2018

I’m out. I genuinely support public intellectual debate, and have paid to see people speak with whom I strongly disagree. But this isn’t James Baldwin vs William F Buckley. This is PT Barnum level horseshit. And it was announced on a weekend just before tix went on sale. https://t.co/oYk1llNgvV

— John Mulaney (@mulaney) September 3, 2018

In a statement, Remnick disagreed with the assertion that inviting Bannon to the festival amounts to furthering his controversial ideas.

“The main argument for not engaging with someone like Bannon is that we are giving him a platform and that he will use it, unfiltered, to propel further the ‘ideas’ of white nationalism, racism, anti-Semitism, and illiberalism,” Remnick wrote. “But to interview Bannon is not to endorse him. By conducting an interview with one of Trumpism’s leading creators and organizers, we are hardly pulling him out of obscurity.”

A statement from David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, explaining his decision to no longer include Steve Bannon in the 2018 New Yorker Festival. pic.twitter.com/opayiw5GQ2

— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) September 3, 2018

Remnick added: “This isn't a First Amendment question; it's a question of putting pressure on a set of arguments and prejudices that have influenced our politics and a President still in office.”

In response to the criticism, New Yorker staff writer Adam Davidson defended Remnick on Twitter:

A word on David Remnick:

I don't think I would have invited Bannon and I am glad he disinvited him.

But it has been painful, even maddening, to see the personalized outrage at David.

1/

— Adam Davidson (@adamdavidson) September 3, 2018

Going a step further, New Yorker contributor Malcolm Gladwell defended Remnick’s original decision, arguing that “the point of a festival of ideas is to expose the audience to ideas.” He received the following reply from Steve Huff, an editor at Maxim.

Hi Malcolm, we were exposed to this set of ideas in 1933 and they were in German. They aren't new or particularly well-hidden today. How about not exposing an audience to poorly-intellectualized hatred. How about not giving these "ideas" even an inch of room to metastasize again. https://t.co/617NSAJMUK

— STEVE HUFF (@SteveHuff) September 4, 2018

Should The New Yorker have disinvited Bannon?

Remnick’s critics have raised two main arguments: Interviewing Bannon at the festival would “normalize hate” and give a platform to someone with dangerous ideas.

But, dangerous or not, Bannon the filmmaker and media executive has long had a platform to spread his ideology, and ideas like his have become increasingly popular as he and his allies have gained power. One indication of how far those ideas have spread is that, now, some are federal law.

If a journalist is supposed to speak truth to power, why shouldn’t Remnick seek to challenge Bannon’s ideology in a very public and high-stakes setting where the subject can’t jump on and off the record?

To be sure, there were reasons to disinvite Bannon, or never to invite him in the first place: the interview might not have been entertaining; artists might have felt uncomfortable sharing a bill with such a divisive figure; Bannon’s interview was announced after tickets had been sold; and attendees might think Bannon’s politics are abhorrent.

Still, it’s a wonder why many liberals weren’t more eager to see Bannon’s ideas challenged in person, given the many points Remnick could have covered.

At Breitbart, for example, Bannon helped to upend the landscape of online political news, something about which Remnick, the editor of one of the world’s most prestigious magazines, might hold some pointed opinions. In the White House, Bannon is reported to have personally spearheaded Trump’s so-called Muslim Ban, an executive order that’s still being fought in the courts.

Bannon has even expressed interest in running for president in 2020. But more recently, he’s been helping other right-wing leaders gain power in the U.S. and Europe, particularly in Italy, which he’s described as Europe’s “vanguard of change”.

Bannon has said he wants to bethe infrastructure, globally, for the global populist movement.” He’s already had success. His message, no matter how dangerous, is resonating with people. And, unlike liberals, he’s willing to take that message anywhere, even under the microscope of one of the world’s most respected journalists, and in front of hundreds of The New Yorker readers—none of whom, let’s face it, were going to convert to Trumpism as a result of seeing Bannon speak.

So while many on the left are busy writing articles for each other and declaring that “this is not normal,” you have to wonder whether liberals missed a unique opportunity to begin discrediting a man with discreditable ideas. After all, whatever else they’ve been doing clearly hasn’t stopped the ‘mastermind’ behind Trump’s 2016 presidential victory from gaining traction in the U.S. and beyond.

But instead, the main idea that’s being spread and normalized by Remnick’s disinvitation is a tired one that Bannon and his allies are happy to promote: that liberals are “snowflakes” stuck in a rigged media machine that not only can’t process conservative ideas, but also denies conservative voices a seat at the table.


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