Steve Bannon shouldn't be given a platform. Those who bear the scars of racism should
As the old adage goes, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. Despite being within living memory of the Second World War, people are arguing that we should once again be giving a platform to ethnonationalists, white supremacists and racists. Let me remind you, we’ve already been fooled once.
The latest instance is the sorry case of the New Yorker Festival, which announced Steve Bannon as its headline speaker and within 24 hours had disinvited him after an outcry from its staff and negative feedback from the public. A host of celebrities pulled out of the festival, saying they would not appear if Mr Bannon was on the roster, including Judd Apatow, Jimmy Fallon and Jim Carrey. Apatow tweeted: "I will not take part in an event that normalises hate."
The New Yorker’s editor David Remnick released a mealy-mouthed statement that both disinvited him and justified the original invitation: “We are hardly pulling him out of obscurity,” he said, adding: “We’d be taking the opportunity to question someone who helped assemble Trumpism." But he has now changed his mind. Nonetheless, he said, he’d still want to interview him in a “more traditionally journalistic setting”.
When Mr Bannon was invited, that was his first victory, garnering him attention, access to a mainstream platform and ultimately legitimisation. It added his rhetoric to general public discourse. Being disinvited was his second victory, giving him a chance to claim his opponents fear his ideas, to claim censorship of free speech and victim status.
This is anything but. People like Mr Bannon are hardly victims when they are the ones doing the victimising. And they have power; after all, Mr Bannon is the architect of Donald Trump. He and his cabal are behind the recent rise of American right-wing nationalism and have now founded the alt-right The Movement group in Europe.
Mr Bannon called the disinvitation "gutless". To accuse someone of being afraid when they refuse to give you space for your odiousness is what bullies do.
This is an architect of the alt-right, the man who says people should wear racism as a badge of honour – a man who believes the state should be dismantled and who has mocked mainstream media for giving platform to extremist voices like his, telling ABC's Four Corners programme: "Racists are] an infinitesimal percentage of people and they’re only made important because the left media gives them a microphone”.
Inviting such a man was either the work of a naive Peter Pan who is living in a fantasy world or people who simply don’t see the consequences of rising hatred and mainstreaming of exactly the kind of horrific views that had catastrophic consequences in the last century.
I simply cannot give a free pass to the editors of publications like The New Yorker, The Economist – which has invited him to speak at its Open Future festival this month – or organisers of the Munk Debates in Toronto, which will give him a platform in November to defend the rise of populism.
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We already know from history how this debate goes. It didn’t go well then and it’s proving a failure now. The far right is on the rise across the US and Europe. Neo-Nazis are marching in Germany.
People who argue that we need to debate the ideas of white supremacism and racism need to remember lives were lost to defeat Nazism, fascism, apartheid and segregation. We don’t need to debate these ideas. We need to put them where they belong, in the dustbin of history. And when their embers continue to burn, we don’t fan them with oxygen.
The defence is that free speech is sacrosanct. But those who claim it as such also refuse to accept that it has consequences. If you believe that speech is free, so we must also defend the right of those who are targeted by speech and prevented from living freely and safely. Those rights are sacrosanct too.
If Mr Bannon and his ilk are on stage, so should be those who bear the scars of the real-life results of those ideas. Let’s see those consequences side by side on stage.
For many, this is a game. Mr Bannon has the respectable veneer afforded to white males. Some believe white nationalism doesn't affect them but it is an existential threat for all of us.
Of course, the question persists about who gets to decide what ideas are dangerous. But on this occasion, we already know these ideas are dangerous. This is not theory. This is about ensuring survival. And the way to survive is to ensure we are not fooled a second time.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World