To engage or not to engage with racists?

If you blinked, you might have missed the media flutter about the New Yorker magazine reversing its decision to invite Stephen Bannon, one-time Svengali to Donald Trump, to be interviewed at its festival. The reversal was caused because editor David Remnick received a lot of criticism and pressure, with other invited celebrities such as Judd Apatow and Jim Carrey saying they would not attend if Bannon was there. Of course, this has resulted in the usual right-wing whining about the ‘intolerant left’, that they are being ‘de-platformed’ and denied the chance to voice their views.

Remnick issued a lengthy statement explaining why he invited Bannon and then reversed course, which did not satisfy anyone, In it, Remnick defended the invitation by saying that Bannon was a newsworthy person and that it was necessary to engage with people of having different views. But it is clear that the event that Bannon was invited to was unlikely to result in a tough interview because it was not your standard interview setting, with the reporter and subject going one-one. The whole ‘festival’ is more like a party. Matt Taibbi explains that while interviewing Bannon could be a worthwhile exercise, this was not the place.

The whole idea of a “New Yorker Festival” is an abomination that no working journalist could be involved in without puking. I had to have it explained to me twice. It’s basically a horrifically overpriced intellectual amusement park, where you get to pay $79 to watch Andy Borowitz genuflect before Adam Schiff, and another $79 to watch Jeffrey Toobin do the same with Sally Yates — probably talking all about Trump, of course, which is ironic, because for $79, you can attend a panel called “Trump, Inc.” that stars Felix Sater and Michael Avenatti talking about “the man and his money.” A lunch tour with Calvin Trillin costs you $249, while “making sense of the madness” with poor Chris Hayes is a bleacher seat at $59.

A bunch of people agreeing with each other, over food. As even New Yorker staffer Malcolm Gladwell noted, that’s not an ideas festival, it’s a dinner party.

It’s a naked money-suck and an admirably transparent effort to turn Manhattanite Trump anxiety into lots of cash. In this context, the recruitment of the hated Bannon as one of these overpriced bearded-lady booths feels a lot less like journalism and a lot more like a particularly revolting new form of commerce.

As a reporter, I absolutely want to interview Steve Bannon. I’ve got questions about a lot of the stuff in the Wolff book, and then also about how he conned reporters like me into thinking Trump was actually courting black voters in August and September of 2016, when what he was actually doing was baiting us into ridiculing the idea that Republican voters were interested in racial reconciliation.

Bannon understood that there was a big chunk of voters out there who would be more annoyed by East Coast press caricatures of them as racist hicks than they would be concerned about Trump’s actual racism. The plan worked, and Trump recovered in the polls during the widely panned tour.

I’d love to ask about that, to get some insight into how easy they thought it would be to use me and my colleagues. I might learn a painful lesson. But something tells me that kind of questioning wasn’t what Remnick had in mind.

Natasha Lennard argues against Taibbi’s position, saying that interviewing Bannon and others like him in any setting is not worth it.

The New Yorker’s decision to invite Bannon in the first place — let alone giving him a headline position — was either a cynical bid for attention through controversy or an ignorant commitment to the idea that Bannon’s neo-fascism can be best challenged through debate. Either way, it was a disgrace worthy of the boycotts it earned.

Yet Remnick’s response made clear that his decision to disinvite Bannon was merely one of crisis management. His two-page statement revealed a rationale that runs through much of the liberal media when it comes to engaging with the far right.

THE IDEA OF Bannon receiving the honorarium and travel expenses of a festival speaker was no doubt galling. But the real problem lies in the continued insistence by journalists like Remnick that there is merit to discovering something about Bannon and men like him directly via the words from their own mouths. It’s not that there is nothing to be gained from a journalist speaking to someone like Bannon: Though he is no longer an administration official and remains in the public sphere only to promote racist populism around the world, he did once serve at the highest levels of government and might be privy to certain facts that can only be gleaned from being in the room.

Bannon’s ethnonationalism is not a mystery: His ideas have been well-aired through participation in countless interviews and debates, including a recent forum with the Financial Times

Bannon’s arguments and prejudices are immune to pressure. There is no internal flaw waiting to be discovered in his racist worldview because its core principle is racism. Bannon has acknowledged as much himself. “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes,” Bannon told members of the far-right French party, National Front, in March. “Let them call you nativist. Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”

Those compelled by Bannon and company’s hateful worldview were not led to it by reasoned argument; pressure on the demagogue’s rationale won’t dissuade potential supporters.

In my mind, these interviews with fascistic celebrities neither dissuade people from joining white supremacists nor does the far right gain much recruiting leverage from the pages of places like the New Yorker. Instead, these pieces serve as a reassuring pantomime for liberals — the presumed New Yorker readership. The Trumpian baddies, according to this fanciful reading, are revealed and then eviscerated. If this is what Remnick meant by “value to a reader,” he made a depressing point.

I have written before about the almost daily charade that we see of right-wingers being invited on supposedly liberal programs and then being ‘obliterated’, ‘eviscerated’, ‘destroyed’, and similar descriptions. And yet, there they are the following day, popping up again like whack-a-moles, saying the same things as before. I have actually stopped reading stories with such headlines.


  1. says

    I suppose it depends on what you mean by “engage with racists”.

    Should we “engage with murderers”? If one means giving them interviews in the New Yorker about how they came to their decisions to murder, no. Probably not. If it means arresting them and holding a fair trial in which they may choose to testify on their own behalves, sure. Absolutely.

    “Engagement” that treats racism as full of interesting and potentially positive ideas that need to be considered and analyzed, possibly retaining some is bad. We need not and we should not “engage” in such a way. “Engagement” that trivializes the seriousness of racism giving racists a microphone and then rhetorically LoL’ing them and calling them stupid for getting facts wrong is also bad. “Engagement” that acknowledges we have already collected more than enough evidence to conclude that racism is bad and now need only clean the racism out is perfectly good. If you’re asking the person who gives you a bad vibe enough questions to make sure that they’re racist before you take appropriate action, that’s fine engagement. But let’s never lose sight of the fact that once we have identified the behaviors as racist and/or the person as committed to racist behavior, the appropriate step isn’t asking more questions, it’s imposing consequences that will appropriately protect the overall wellbeing of society and its members.

    Bannon has been identified as committed to racist ideas and behaviors. It’s time to impose appropriate consequences, not to amplify his racist ideas and encourage others to duplicate his racist behavior.

  2. says

    Remnick defended the invitation by saying that Bannon was a newsworthy person

    So were Charles Manson and Adolph Hitler. Basically, the media is interested in sensationalism, and just lacks the courage to come right out with it.

  3. says

    Crip Dyke:
    once we have identified the behaviors as racist and/or the person as committed to racist behavior, the appropriate step isn’t asking more questions, it’s imposing consequences that will appropriately protect the overall wellbeing of society and its members.


    Since white supremacists are committed to the principle of oppressing others, the “others” have a perfectly reasonable right to self-defense. For one example, the anti-semitic neo-nazis are literally saying they want to oppress nuclear-armed Jews. Telegraphing that desire is about the worst strategy I can imagine; I just hope I’m clear of the blast/burn radius if they get their wish. They think they are defending themselves, but they are aggressors and they’re threatening people who really are not inclined to put up with that sort of shit. Personally, I think civilization has been pretty forbearing, for now.

  4. secondtofirstworld says

    It’s an interesting topic in the sense it has way more to do with Europe, than with America. I’m expecting Marcus already knows about this, but Bannon has now formed a faction in the European Parliament reportedly using his own money.

    Anybody is entitled to think that after he was fired, Bannon is done for. So the question isn’t whether to engage one or not, but should everybody care for their influence? I agree with disinviting him, for now, he’s harmless in America, the emphasis is on the for now part.

    This is because Bannon knows, due to uneven geographical distribution with little to no social upward mobility from elsewhere, white America will increasingly become more interested in other white countries as they progress in age. What Fox News couldn’t achieve with the no-go zone reporting, Bannon will try to make into a reality. Europe is mostly white but still is, fortunately, more realistic than red states or Eastern Europe, where you can win campaigns by only talking about stopping immigration.

    Choose to not engage that and lose people around who share your values due to the 14th Amendment being revoked.

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