When it comes to the New Yorker Festival, this year, no one looks good.
The Festival—an annual event in which New Yorker writers and famous people interview each other and exchange ideas on stage—came under fire Sunday after announcing that this year's headliner would be Donald Trump enabler Steve Bannon.
The announcement did not go over well. Immediately, Twitter came alive. Festival participants like Judd Apatow, Jim Carrey, John Mulaney, Patton Oswalt, Bo Burnham, and Lena Dunham's ex-boyfriend all announced that they would be canceling in light of Bannon's invitation. New Yorker contributors made their feelings known as well. Kathryn Schulz, whose Pulitzer-winning article about how the Pacific Northwest is going to wash away in an earthquake gave all of Seattle nightmares in 2015, tweeted that she was "beyond appalled" by the decision to invite Bannon. Roxane Gay tweeted that the New Yorker is the publication credit she's desired most in her career but had pulled a forthcoming review from their website. Longtime readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Media figures roundly condemned the magazine. Everyone, it seemed, was mad at the New Yorker for "normalizing" Steve Bannon, and, perhaps worse, "giving him a platform." The response was so loud and so swift that, within hours, New Yorker editor David Remnick reversed his decision. Bannon was out.
Remnick, who was going to interview Bannon on stage at the festival, explained his decision to invite and then disinvite Bannon in a statement. As he noted, the New Yorker has a long history of interviewing people who've done vile things and hold vile positions, including George Wallace, Henry Kissinger, and Ayatollah Khomeini. These interviews, Remnick wrote, "added to our understanding of who they were." But, he also noted, “I don’t want well-meaning readers and staff members to think that I’ve ignored their concerns. 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."
Remnick has yet to announce what that "better way" might be, but he did say in his statement that he had originally reached out to Bannon for an interview on the New Yorker Radio Hour, the podcast and public radio show he hosts. Had that interview taken place (or if it does yet), I imagine there still would have been an outcry, much as there was recently when NPR's Noel King interviewed a white nationalist organizer on air, but the outcry would have come after, not before, the event. Lena Dunham's ex-boyfriend wouldn't have been able to stop it. Still, by committing to have some kind of dialogue with Bannon in the future, Remnick, clearly, does not seem to think he's out of bounds. And I tend to agree. In fact, I would have loved to see Remnick interview Bannon in person and in front of a hostile audience, and while I would never have invited him if I ran the show (who needs that kind of headache?) by disinviting him, I think Remnick made an even larger mistake.
I realize I'm in the minority when it comes to this issue, but I'm not afraid of the New Yorker Festival "normalizing" Steve Bannon or giving him a platform. Donald Trump is our president. He's been normalized. His platform is running the White House (or, more likely, golfing). Steve Bannon may be out of Trump's inner circle, but the ideology he subscribes to, as dangerous as it is, is on the ascent, both in Trump's America and in Europe, where Bannon is busy spreading his brand of fear-mongering, xenophobia, and racist isolationism. This man had more impact on the 2016 election than almost anyone on the left. And yet, how many of us on the left could even recognize his voice? We don't watch Fox News. We didn't read his website. A conversation with David Remnick would be an opportunity to see, up close, the human gin blossom who somehow made Donald Trump president and to find out what, exactly, makes the man tick. This might be an icky task, but it's also an important one, and as an experienced interviewer, David Remnick was up to it.
“I have every intention of asking him difficult questions and engaging in a serious and even combative conversation,” Remnick told the New York Times before the cancellation. “The audience itself, by its presence, puts a certain pressure on a conversation that an interview alone doesn’t do.”
Now, I'm under no illusion that a tough interview with David Remnick would change Steve Bannon's mind, but I am of the opinion that more understanding about the world is always better than less. This was a chance to breach the echo chamber; to expose the kind of people who carry New Yorker tote bags (and I have two myself) to the man who, for some awful reason, speaks to the America that exists outside of bubbles on the coast. Would it be pleasant? Of course not. But would it be instructive? I think, yes.
Disinviting Steve Bannon doesn't make him go away. It does, however, entrench us even more deeply into this seemingly insurmountable canyon between the left and the right. It also plays into the prevailing (though unfair) narrative coming from the right that the left is fundamentally intolerant. This is not true: At least some on the left are willing to engage with conservative thinkers, whereas you would never see, say, Bernie Sanders (or even David Remnick) invited to CPAC. But right-wing media will easily spin this into another story of leftist intolerance. I'll be surprised if Donald Trump doesn't gleefully tweet about it.
I do sympathize with the argument that by giving Steve Bannon an honorarium, which the New Yorker Festival was, audience members would be lining the pockets of someone they don't support. But there's a solution to that problem that doesn't require something as dramatic and draconian as disinvitation: Just don't show up. If you don't want to see Steve Bannon, go see Jim Carrey instead. But, instead, all these famous people, these New Yorker contributors, and these newly unsubscribed readers who shouted their disapproval are no different than the college students who scream that they do not want to be exposed to dangerous ideas every time Milo cons his way onto campus. I am not so fragile in my beliefs that Steve Bannon or Milo or any one of their ilk will be able to convince me that we should build the wall or lock her up, but if you don't want to be exposed to dangerous ideas, I'm sure Bo Burnham's talk will be a nice, safe space.
Considering the inevitable firestorm, inviting Steve Bannon may have been unwise, but disinviting him makes David Remnick and this storied institution look too weak to stand up to the mob. I'm not so mad about it that I would ever cancel my subscription, but, as Malcolm Gladwell, one of the few New Yorker contributors to stand up for Bannon's invitation, said, "Call me old fashioned. But I would have thought that the point of a festival of ideas was to expose the audience to ideas. If you only invite your friends over, it’s called a dinner party."