Early on Monday it was announced that former White House adviser and current white nationalist Steve Bannon would headline the New Yorker Festival. That did not go down well with many readers and some writers of that august magazine. Almost immediately, some of the other scheduled attendees announced that they would pull out if Bannon stayed. By late Monday, New Yorker editor David Remnick had pulled the plug on his invitation to Bannon, explaining that, " I don’t want well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns. I’ve thought this through and talked to colleagues — and I’ve reconsidered. I’ve changed my mind. There is a better way to do this."
Bannon, in turn, responded with his own statement: "In what I would call a defining moment, David Remnick showed that he was gutless when confronted by the howling mob." Read my Post colleague Erik Wemple for the tick-tock.
As the author of "The Ideas Industry," I have some thoughts on this episode. But there are already many, many, many takes on What Happened, so first, let's review!
Many journalists and intellectuals applauded Remnick's move. Wemple observed that Bannon has been interviewed plenty of times already with little in the way of enlightenment: "What did this washed-up blowhard have to offer, anyway? Hadn’t we heard enough of his rat-a-tat-tat political pronouncements about the media elite, the forgotten and the promise of Trumpian politics?" My Post colleague Margaret Sullivan concurred, arguing, "There is nothing more to learn from Bannon about his particular brand of populism, with its blatant overlay of white supremacy."
My colleague Jacob Levy tweeted another excellent point:
On the other hand, there were plenty of critics of Remnick's volte-face. The Wall Street Journal's Benjamin Mullin framed the story as the New Yorker joining "the growing list of news organizations that have reversed their decision to engage with conservatives after a public outcry." The New York Times's Bret Stephens excoriated the decision:
If speaking truth to power isn’t the ultimate task of publications such as The New Yorker, they’re on the road to their own left-wing version of “Fox & Friends.”....
The gradual degradation of editorial authority is another depressing feature of our digital age, as supposedly neutral reporters use social media to opine freely, ferociously and very publicly about whatever they please, not least their own colleagues and employers. That the targets of these opinions are, like Remnick, themselves conventional liberals ought to be a warning to newsroom chiefs about the risks of employing progressive bullies....
[This disinvitation] has kept Bannon’s name prominently in the news, no doubt to his considerable delight. It has turned a nativist bigot into a victim of liberal censorship. It has lent credence to the belief that journalists are, as Bannon said of Remnick, “gutless.” It has corroborated the view that the news media is a collection of left-wing group thinkers who, if they aren’t quite peddling “fake news,” are mainly interested in advancing only their own truths. It has kept readers of The New Yorker locked in their usual echo chamber. It has strengthened the belief that vulnerable institutions can be hounded into submitting to the irascible (and unappeasable) demands of social media mobs. Above all, it has foreclosed an opportunity to submit Bannon to the kind of probing examination that Remnick had initially promised, and that is journalism at its best.
The New Yorker's own Malcolm Gladwell tweeted out a similar thought:
Meanwhile, the Economist subtweeted its own announcement that Bannon's appearance at its ideas festival would proceed as scheduled. Editor Zanny Minton Beddoes explained: "The future of open societies will not be secured by like-minded people speaking to each other in an echo chamber, but by subjecting ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate."
There are two competing imperatives at play here. The first, which Remnick articulated in his letter, is that the purpose of this event is to expose attendees to unpopular views, while at the same time subjecting Bannon to tough questioning: "The point of an interview, a rigorous interview, particularly in a case like this, is to put pressure on the views of the person being questioned.... The question is whether an interview has value in terms of fact, argument, or even exposure, whether it has value to a reader or an audience."
The other imperative is best captured by Vox's Zack Beauchamp:
The New Yorker Festival is a moneymaking event. The publication brings in famous and/or interesting people, has them sit on panels with New Yorker journalists, and charges readers who are interested in attending. Several other major publications, including the Atlantic and Vox, host similar events.
These kinds of events are, by their very nature, difficult to manage. They need to be attractive to audiences, which means booking interesting and/or controversial speakers. The events need the speakers to show up, which often means paying them, and they might not want to walk into the lion’s den of an adversarial interview in front of a live audience.
At the same time, the interviews themselves can’t betray the core journalistic mission of the publication — they can’t somehow do reporting and brand promotion at the same time. That means the journalists onstage shouldn’t (in theory) just suck up to the speakers and sing their praises — though that’s all too often what happens — but rather should respectfully challenge their ideas and arguments.
I was not kidding when I called my book "The Ideas Industry." Pretending like the brand-building impulse is not a factor here is absurd, since that is the primary purpose of these confabs. So the question is: how can one wrestle with potentially objectionable viewpoints in a way that challenges the audience without elevating a speaker with an illiberal worldview?
This is a difficult thread to needle, but the more I think about it, the more I conclude that the New Yorker -- and the Economist -- could do way better than Bannon as a speaker on the question of populist nationalism in America.
First, lets dispense with the fiction that folks like Stephens would be content with the New Yorker bringing in anyone objectionable. That's flatly false. If, say, David Duke or Richard Spencer had been the headliner, you can bet that the focus would have been on the amplification of their views over the prospect of criticizing them. So this is not about censorship, it is about finding the best source to engage this particular worldview. And on this point, Bannon in 2018 is just weak beer. This is a guy who could not get a Republican elected in the state of Alabama; that does not speak well to his political acumen. As the New Republic's Jeet Heer notes, "Bannon is no longer the prominent figure he was even a year and a half ago. He’s been elbowed out of both the White House and Breitbart. He’s now a marginal figure in American public life." Other Trump administration intellectual refugees, such as Michael Anton or Sebastian Gorka, would be even worse.
Still, Remnick's instincts are solid -- discomfiting speakers should be invited. It's just that the New Yorker can do way better than Bannon. Let me offer five potential Bannon substitutes who would likely provoke an interesting debate:
1. Charles Koch. Koch does not agree with Trump on many issues, but the Koch network has not exactly broken with Trump, either. What is behind Koch's thinking on this question? Koch takes ideas pretty seriously, and it would be interesting to see what he thinks his role is in the Age of Trump, particularly given the New Yorker's previous articles on him.
2. Jeff Sessions. The president might not like the attorney general one little bit, but Sessions was a populist nationalist back in the days when Trump was a Democrat. Furthermore, he has been Trump's most effective bureaucrat. Given that he will be unlikely to last past the midterms, I would legit be interested in his perceptions of what is going on.
3. Leonard Leo. The executive vice president of the Federalist Society has played an indispensable role in helping Trump staff the federal judiciary with reliable conservatives. Which makes one wonder, how can a group of conservative lawyers cooperate so well with a president who demonstrates such wanton disregard for civil liberties or the rule of law? That is an interview I would love to see happen.
4. Michael Lind. I maintain that Lind's Summer 2017 American Affairs essay is the most cogent and sophisticated development of the populist nationalism idea that Trump embraced. Why not ask the actual intellectual instead of a hack pseudo-intellectual such as Bannon? I'd be curious to hear how Lind feels about Trump after the past 18 months.
5) Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. True, Ocasio-Cortez holds views widely at variance with Bannon's. There are ways, however, in which she represents the rise of left-wing economic populism better than Bannon represents right-wing nationalist populism. Come November, Ocasio-Cortez will also wield more power. I would hope that Remnick would be as tough on her as on Bannon.