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.”

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 But after public outcry from magazine staff and festival headliners, Remnick rescinded his invitation.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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

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:

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.

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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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.