Earlier today, the New Yorker editor David Remnick announced that Steve Bannon had been uninvited from the upcoming New Yorker Festival. It was a decision that came after an outcry on social media, where a number of high profile guests, including Judd Apatow, Jim Carrey and Patton Oswalt, stated they would not appear at the festival alongside the former White House chief strategist.
In Remnick’s memo to staffers, it was clear he’d given his decision a lot of consideration. “The main argument for not engaging 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,” he wrote. While Remnick did state that “to interview Bannon is not to endorse him,” he conceded that the New Yorker festival was not the right platform. “I’ve thought this through and talked to colleagues — and I’ve re-considered. I’ve changed my mind. There is a better way to do this.”
It was a timely turn of events. The news of Bannon’s removal from the New Yorker Festival came at a time when he was already a topic of hot debate in this country. Last night he appeared on ABC’s Four Corners, igniting a discussion around free speech and just who deserves a platform. While many criticised Four Corners for giving any airtime to a man who once proudly boasted of creating a "platform for the alt-right" others argued that interrogating a man like Bannon is the very thing that free speech stands for.
But the problem with free speech is that it exists within a larger power structure. Who gets to decide what constitutes free speech and what doesn’t? Seasoned journalists have defended Bannon’s interview on the basis of objective reporting, which, yes, is all very good in theory but it fails to understand the dynamics of power that are already in place.
We’re talking about a power structure where Milo Yiannopoulous was last year invited to speak at Parliament House, while Chelsea Manning is refused entry to Australia for a speaking tour on the basis of character grounds. (And when she is interviewed via video link she is deadnamed and misgendered in the first few minutes).
We can argue for journalistic integrity, for fairness and balance, for rigorous intellectual debate, but we’re ignoring the fact that these scales are tipped in the first place. How can we argue that giving voice to someone like Bannon is an impartial contest of ideas in a media landscape where people of colour are given such little representation?
Bannon is a man who, before he was fired from the White House in August 2017, was instrumental to Donald Trump’s racist and xenophobic policies. He’s a man who appeared along right-wing French politician Marine Le Pen and said, “Let them call you a racist, xenophobes, nativists, homophobes, misogynists—wear it as a badge of honour.” Giving voice to a man like Bannon is not simply a case of rigorous intellectual debate around racism.
For those who are still facing the consequences of Trump’s policies, and for those who deal with racism every day, it’s more than intellectual debate. It’s a reminder that those who do not hold the power are somehow less than. That their daily trauma, that the micro-agressions they face every day are somehow fodder for intellectual debate.
In an already limited media landscape, there are so few diverse voices. There are only so many seats at the table, so we need to seriously think about who is taking them up, and at whose expense.