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Steve Bannon and the sanitisation of public life

What is wrong with 21st century liberals? Where is their willingness to go into battle against people they consider to be backward and dangerous?

September 4, 2018

1:21 PM

4 September 2018

1:21 PM

Well done, New Yorker, you have just empowered the mob. You have boosted the moral standing and arrogance of those 21st century offence-takers who believe certain people should not be allowed to speak in public. In disinviting Steve Bannon from your ideas festival at the behest of irate tweeters and arrogant celebs, you have sent a depressing message to society: that it is always worth agitating for censorship because eventually you will succeed. Eventually the targets of your censorious ire will cave in and give you what you want: a sanitised public sphere in which there won’t be so much as a peep from people whose ideas we find difficult or disturbing.

The craven folding of the New Yorker in response to the cries and threats of Bannon-hating activists and slebs is a sad sign of the times. The New Yorker Festival is set to take place next month. Writers, filmmakers, actors, artist and politicians will descend on Manhattan to discuss pretty much everything. One of the invitees was Bannon, Breitbart bigwig, chief strategist of Trump’s election campaign, and the bête noire of liberal society. The New Yorker, which is implacably anti-Trump and a fully-signed up Bannon-basher, promised that its interview of Bannon at the festival would be ‘rigorous’ — that is, it would have been a grilling.

But that wasn’t good enough for the Bannonphobic celebrity set. They would prefer that Bannon and his ideas were simply scrubbed from public view rather than questioned and tested and held up to scrutiny. One by one, people who had been invited to speak or perform at the festival dropped out. ‘I’m out’, tweeted Jim Carrey. ‘I’m out’, tweeted actor Patton Oswalt. ‘I’m out’, tweeted comic John Mulaney. It was the same showy, pseudo-virtuous statement every time: if this personification of evil appears anywhere at this festival, then I, decent, correct-thinking, non-redneck citizen, am out. Film director Judd Apatow followed suit. As did Jack Antonoff, lead singer of one-hit wonders The Bleachers. What a great loss to cultural and political debate in New York City.

This mass flouncing of self-important luvvies sums up how allergic many influential people are to free and open debate these days. None of these people would have had to attend the Bannon discussion. There was no obligation on them to listen to the man blather on. And yet still they threatened to withdraw their star allure from the festival and, in the process, damage its takings. That is because they cannot stomach the idea of anyone listening to Bannon. Intolerance comes so naturally to them, it is so second nature in these circles now, that they thought nothing of using their cultural clout to bring about the silencing of someone they hate.

And the worst thing is, they succeeded. The New Yorker capitulated to their censorious demands. Editor David Remnick issued a statement saying the mag was wrong to think it was acceptable to grill Bannon in a public forum. He says his critics have a point when they say the New Yorker was effectively ‘giving [Bannon] a platform’ and that he would use it to ‘propel further the “ideas” of white nationalism’. What happened to grilling him? What happened to putting him and his ideas on the spot? Remnick puts ‘ideas’ in quote marks in reference to Bannon and his white nationalism, implying they are not real, substantial ideas, and yet he is unwilling to confront these ‘ideas’. It doesn’t add up. It smacks of moral cowardice.

This is an act of censorship. Some say censorship only occurs when the state prevents someone from expressing themselves. This is nonsense and they know it’s nonsense. The facts here are that the New Yorker took an editorial decision to interview a political figure at its festival, and then under pressure from people who were threatening to scupper the festival and hurt it financially, it changed its mind. It was forced by a literary mob to reverse an editorial decision; to pull an interview; to abandon something that the magazine’s editor clearly considered to be a worthwhile exercise. That is censorship. Mob censorship. It is as outrageous as if a crowd were to gather at the printing presses of the Guardian and threaten to interrupt its operations until the Guardian agreed to pull a column that pissed them off. 

The sanitisation of public life is one of the most worrying political developments of our time. What is wrong with 21st century liberals? Where is their confidence, their flair, their willingness to go into battle against people they consider to be backward and dangerous? Censorship is the refuge of the cowardly. The sight of a self-satisfied cultural elite using its privilege and power to silence someone it hates, to purify a posh festival of ideas so that no dissenting voices are allowed, will fortify the worldview of many Trump voters. Well done, everyone.


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