To speak his name with any air of affability, any degree of defensiveness, has become one among a host of sins any progressive person wouldn’t dare commit. To approach Bannon without a pen for his removal by petition, without a pitchfork and torch, is to be complicit in all the most malodorous and demented elements of the elusive, decentralized, multi-perspectival alt-right. Don’t worry, I’m not going to defend him. I signed the Southern Poverty Law Center’s petition to make it known this guy doesn’t have any business in the White House and I suggest you do too. We all know he sucks. The catch is, as of now: we do too.
Steve Bannon is the first true test for American media in the “Trump is POTUS” era. So far, right, center and left news outlets are all failing it. The right because they are cozying up to him, showing too much comfort with racially tinged controversy to truly unite the country as they say they hope to. The center because their language on Bannon is disturbingly neutral, problematically stoic. The left because they’re embracing a “sentence first, full trial later” approach to the data we have.
Here, to the best of my knowledge, is all we know.
Steve Bannon was charged in a domestic violence case by his now ex-wife who, during the court proceedings, said under oath that her husband didn’t want their children going to school with Jews. His ex-wife, Mary Louise Piccard, never appeared in court and the charges were dropped. His appointment to such a high position in Trump’s staff has also been celebrated by a variety of white nationalist and hate groups.
He also runs Breitbart, a website he said he turned into “the platform for the alt-right.” The alt-right is controversial but nebulous. Its wide berth of ideologies make it damn near impossible to critique in a way that applies to all its contributors alike. They are as much the trollish, anti-political-correctness of frequent Breitbart contributor Milo Yiannopoulos as they are the more decisively white nationalist websites like American Renaissance. Yiannopoulos himself co-wrote a guide to what the alt-right is as well as giving a tongue-in-cheek speech about how to destroy it. The alt-right is like a religion in that all its adherents and proponents practice in a different way, coming together in factions based on varying levels of extremism and intensity.
Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart has published some incendiary material. On women, feminism makes them ugly, birth control makes them crazy and, if they’re getting harassed online, they should log off. Yiannopoulos is behind all these, writing in his characteristically sarcastic, quippy way, making it hard to know where the tasteless jokes start and the actual “analysis” begins. Some other choice headlines: “Political Correctness Protects Muslim Rape Culture,” “Trannies whine about hilarious Bruce Jenner”, “Hoist it High and Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims a Glorious Heritage” (the last was published shortly after the Charlestown church shooting). The comments section on most Breitbart articles is where it gets really nasty.
Perhaps the most notable headline, given the allegations, is ”“Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew. This article was published on May 15, 2016 and was followed up by reassurance the phrase “renegade Jew” was used without remorse or regret on May 16, 2016. The fact Bannon published these articles is used in most articles as the clincher that he must be a white nationalist anti-Semite.
This is where it starts to get flimsy though. The article everyone is talking about was written by a Jewish man, David Horowitz, critiquing another Jewish man, Bill Kristol, for possibly throwing the election to Hillary Clinton by mounting a third party bid. His critique of Clinton? He saw her as anti-Israel. Horowitz has gone on to defend Bannon since these allegations began. Breitbart also features a strongly pro-Israel Jerusalem section.
This, from what I’ve gathered, is the data we have before us.
The fact Breitbart is publishing articles about why the Confederate flag really represents states’ rights and not racism shortly after a shooting in a black church is more than enough reason to not want Bannon giving counsel to the POTUS. It’s tastelessness personified and it’s racist in its insinuation people should ignore strongly negative racial connotations for the sake of recognizing points about antebellum Southern libertarianism.
But the press really isn’t doing itself any favors. The right-wing is vociferously defending even his most grievous actions, saying the left is a bunch of crybabies.The center is playing it safe with words like “provocateur,” “edgy” and “alt-right” when there’s plenty of proof the site he edits and the campaign he’s run is, at best, flirting with the edges of any given bigoted beliefs. For the left, Steve Bannon became a white nationalist anti-semite in about the time it takes the Superman ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain to get out the gate.
Bannon and the articles he publishes are troublesome, disturbing and in need of careful scrutiny. They are not, however, easily reducible to labels and defamation, however well-intentioned. The articles above are not irrational, racist screeds. They use facts and statistics to put forth uncomfortable and controversial opinions. As a result, they need to be combatted ideologically and rationally, not through character assassination or by trying to settle the case before the jury’s even had a chance to really sit down. We should all roundly reject bigotry but we should also never reject the importance of arguing about how to be good people in a good society. Even if the opponent is disgusting to us, we can’t just label them a racist and ignore them. With all due respect, that’s part of the reason why we just elected Donald Trump.
Do I think it’s possible, likely even, that Steve Bannon is a bigot and a dangerous person? Do I even think he can be pro-Israel and anti-semitic all at once? Absolutely, but screaming that he is, posting headlines without reading the articles’ content and reporting with certainty about uncertain things is the Merriam-Webster definition of defamation. It’s well-intentioned irrationality.
Breitbart News is planning a lawsuit over all these allegations and, though it may be unpopular to say, they could very well win a case like this. The alt-right is whip-smart and it’d truly be a shame for people to resort to ad hominem attacks when there are so many better ways to cut their legs out from under them.
In the Trump-Bannon era, the press needs to strike the perfect level of caution, neither too little nor too much. Err on the side of the right-wing and you run the risk of becoming complicit in evildoing. Err on the side of the center and you may end up doing nothing when everything was required. Err on the side of the left-wing and you’re bound to end up the boy who cried wolf.
There are no more safe spaces in Trump’s America, there are no more trigger warnings. We are in No Man’s Land and complaining the other side shouldn’t have brought a machine gun won’t do us any good. Instead, we need to fight back with cool, calm, collected and compassionate logic. We need to hone our arguments for a liberal and open state, a culture of acceptance and diversity, into being airtight and ethically unavoidable. The other side will play dirty but we can win by playing fair. Goodness ultimately insists on itself.
If you think Bannon, Yiannopoulous and their ilk are dangerous, it is because you think their ideas are. So fight against those, tear them down with reasoning, swallow the rightful offense you feel and do the surprisingly necessary work of combatting their facts and statistics with your own.
Defaming the defamers just doesn’t work as well as defrauding them.