When Good People Go Bannon

Or, The Importance of Overton Defenestration

So I’m speaking today at The Economist’s Open Future Festival, on a panel with Anil Dash and Monika Bickert to debate whether technology is still a force for progress. Normally, this wouldn’t merit a Medium post, but one of the other individuals on the program turns out to be a ringleader of the alt-right, that collection of white supremacists, nativists, misogynists, and unabashed anti-Semites. That individual is Steve Bannon.

Despite that, I’m showing up for the panel. Here’s my reasoning.

How Awful is Steve Bannon?

Should The Economist Have Invited Bannon to Speak at their Festival?

Why not? Isn’t it Important to Debate Even Extremist Figures Across the Political Spectrum?

Why do Political Norms Matter?

A crucial element of that defense is the reassertion of basic social and political norms. Open debate across the political spectrum, right to left to other, is a necessary (and wonderful) feature of a free society; but even so, free societies and institutional democracies have to defend themselves against those who would destroy them from within. As a free society, we don’t censor or repress our homegrown extremists; rather, we deal with them in ways that signal our collective revulsion and rejection.

Free speech doesn’t mean a free spotlight for every extremist. (To borrow Renee DiResta’s excellent phrase from a different context, “[f]ree speech is not the same as free reach.”) There is a reason why The Economist will not invite the Grand Lizard of the Ku Klux Klan or the leader of the American Nazi Party to a (tough, skeptical) interview by its editor-in-chief on the stage of the Open Future Festival: Their racist/nativist/anti-democratic positions are irretrievably hostile to the survival of our multi-ethnic, democratic society. We deny them participation in conventional political discourse — op-ed pages, candidate debates, conference panels, invited legislative testimony — not because we are hypersensitive enforcers of political correctness, but because they are explicitly dedicated to destroying the very institutions, norms, and practices that, however imperfectly, define what’s good about this country. Treating racist extremists as pariahs is not just an expression of our revulsion at their views; it is a necessary tactic to defend our liberal democratic order against those who aim to gain power within our systems only to destroy them and replace them with something horrific.

There’s a name for this particular norm: The Overton Window. Over the last few years, and especially since the 2016 election got underway, America’s Overton Window has moved in all the wrong directions; if we’re to reverse that trend, to reestablish shared bonds of civility and reinforce common ground, we have to chuck Bannonism squarely outside it.

So What About Today’s Event?

For me, this is easy: Bannon is a ringleader of the racist alt-right, a repellent collection of white supremacists, nativists, misogynists, and unabashed anti-Semites. Insofar as his public actions reflect the man, he is a bigoted pseudo-intellectual who has tasted power and, cast aside by his patron/puppet, is now scrambling to find new audiences for his illiberal, racist agenda in Europe. As an important journalistic norm-setter, The Economist should relegate Bannonism to the same fringe ideological bucket as the KKK, and not dignify it via a marquee interview with its editor-in-chief. Unworthy of even a stubbornly contrarian institution like The Economist, affording Bannon a mainstage spotlight strikes me as a conference version of clickbait.

Why Not Bail Out?

And then we’ll debate whether tech is a force for progress.

Is The Economist Bad for Hosting Bannon in This Way?

Partner/co-founder: Higher Ground Labs. Venture fellow: betaworks. Board: Access Now, Public Knowledge. Nerd, really. <http://andrew.mclaughl.in>

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