While Steve Bannon's xenophobia and white nationalism were enough for The New Yorker to rescind their invitation to interview him next month at their festival, they were not a dealbreaker for The Economist, whose editor-in-chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes, will still interview him on September 15th at their Open Future Festival in New York City.
In her statement, Beddoes wrote, “progress is best achieved when ideas are tested in open debate.” Although Bannon’s beliefs were “antithetical” to those of The Economist‘s, she continued:
"We asked him to take part because his populist nationalism is of grave consequence in today’s politics. He helped propel Donald Trump to the White House and he is advising the populist far-right in several European countries where they are close to power or in government. Worryingly large numbers of people are drawn to nativist nationalism. And Mr. Bannon is one of its chief proponents."
The Economist's decision to interview Bannon has not inspired the same high-profile backlash as The New Yorker's, which lost several of its most prominent guests after they dropped out in protest. So far, its festival has only lost two major attendees: British journalist Laurie Penny, and activist Ally Hogg, both of whom were scheduled to speak as part of a panel on #MeToo held in London.
"We know what [his] views are," Penny said, "but by giving him space at an event like this it dignifies him with the status of someone's ideas who are worth hearing out. There are no new arguments for neo-nationalism. There are only new recruits."
The romantic notion that challenging people who hold horrible ideas to public debates, and then setting traps for them to fall into will probably never go away. After all, how many times have we woken up Monday morning to read tweets saying, "Look who John Oliver Destroyed Last Night?" - and then found out next Tuesday that those people he "destroyed" were still there? As I argued yesterday, this doesn't work for someone like Bannon, who wears his politics on his sleeve and thus, can't offer any revelations.
Can Anyone Successfully Debate Bannon?
Despite my cynicism over this matter, I held out hope that at least one person who'd challenged Bannon might be able to accomplish these lofty goals - Errol Morris, one of the greatest and most influential documentary filmmakers of all time, whose new documentary with Bannon, American Dharma, just premiered at the Venice Film Festival.
Morris films his subjects with a device he calls an "interrotron," which utilizes mirrors to reflect both himself and his subject so that they can look at each other and have a face-to-face conversation, even though the camera is in between them. In his masterpiece, the Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War, consists of a filmed conversation with former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, a man whose tragic flaw was that he only understood the consequences of his misdeeds in retrospect. The interrotron allows us to understand McNamara's mixed emotions over his legacy, even if he doesn't always put them into words.
Unfortunately, the first reviews of American Dharma have been mixed. Variety critic Owen Gleiberman said, "we never see [Morris] stand up to Bannon’s most brazen lies...We never hear Bannon talk about his white nationalism; that’s all buried...what you see in “American Dharma” isn’t investigative filmmaking — it’s a toothless bromance." Lee Marshall of Screen Daily said the film "blurs the line between truth and propaganda." Perhaps part of the problem is that Morris decided to abandon the interrotron for this film, opting instead for multiple cameras, which may have played to Bannon's strengths.
However, Morris's explanation for interviewing Bannon fell into the same trap as Remnick's and Beddoes': a belief that we have to step out of the echo chamber to "understand" these people. As he said in an interview:
"So much of journalism is about silos today - people with the same beliefs talking to each other. It’s important, essential, for us to come to an understanding of what’s going on out there in the world and why this has appeal. He’s come to Europe to try to peddle his own national populism. I have no doubt that he would like to put an end to the European Union, to the Euro, to NATO. These are destructive ideas and we must come to a deeper understanding of what’s going on. To ignore any of this is a mistake. Bannon has, I would say almost a unique ability to harness the press. And I’m part of it. But I hope I’m part of understanding the problem, not contributing to it."
Morris may be right that understanding the roots of these awful ideas, and engaging people who believe in them, is worthwhile; what is not worthwhile is the target of engagement. It's one thing when you talk to a Republican voter while canvassing for a Democratic candidate and convince them to join your side; it's another to sit down with the architect of destructive policies and think you're going to "get him" or "destroy him." Steve Bannon is little more than a hate monger, and like all hate mongers, he thrives on attention. Publicity represents another chance for him to spread his noxious agenda. Journalists and filmmakers need to realize that there's nothing more to be gleamed from talking to Bannon - he loves being the villain, and that's all he'll ever be. If they shut off the cameras and microphones, his oxygen will be gone and he'll be forced to retreat to the shadows from whence he came.