Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a freelance journalist. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Ever since Steve Bannon was fired as US President Donald Trump’s chief strategist last year, he has clutched at every publicity straw he can grasp. Undeterred by the loss of his second job as executive chairman at Breitbart in January, he has pushed his campaign for worldwide national populism and declared his support for far-right leaders all over Europe, even backpedaling on his former rejection of hated “establishment” platforms to further his cause.
Many have protested, with figures such as Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon refusing to appear alongside him at the risk of “normalizing far-right, racist views.”
His invitation to speak at Oxford University’s prestigious uniion on Friday therefore, represents quite a coup.
After the news was released, and an understandable outrage ensued, current Union President Stephen Hovarth told the Oxford Student: “It is only through listening to the opinions of others that we can fully understand those opinions. Whether we are inclined to agree or disagree with them, there is a profound intellectual value in critically thinking through why it is that we agree or disagree instead of just rejecting them out of hand.”
How profound is the intellectual value of “critically thinking through” Steve Bannon? Possibly very. He masterminded Trump’s ascendance to the White House, and in so doing correctly identified a hunger felt by swathes of the American population that was neglected at a bitter cost by the left.
Under Bannon’s stewardship, Breitbart pedaled myths about black crime, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, and islamophobia. His advocacy of national populism echoes – and very deliberately expatiates – far-right movements across Europe. He certainly merits urgent critical appraisal by anyone who is not a fan of ethno-nationalism or white supremacy.
“I think it’s fine,” one former Oxford Union president told me, when I asked them what they thought of Bannon’s invitation. “Everyone will have a lot of fun, the members, the people protesting outside… it will be a fun day out.
“It all comes down to – on a high philosophical level – freedom, and the ability to understand. There is a lot of database evidence that many people’s ability is not that good… but ultimately, I believe in freedom.”
Freedom, though, is a currency whose value tends to diminish in proportion to the amount one has of it. It is easy, when one has only ever known an abundance of freedom, to take it for granted. When the news of Bannon’s invite broke, the Oxford Labour Muslim network posted a statement saying: “This cheap and dangerous publicity stunt can only be carried out by those who will never face the consequences of white supremacy and hate speech in their day to day lives.”
Those consequences can be devastating. The normalization of far-right rhetoric, the like of which Bannon consciously nurtured both at Breitbart and in the White House, has put wind into the sails of neo-Nazis. It has made light of atrocities like the Charlottesville violence in August last year, and stoked suspicions that immigrants are dangerous criminals. It has legitimized the kind of hatred which puts anyone who does not fit some twisted “all-American” ideal – ironic, given Bannon’s purported hatred of the establishment – in real danger.
One could pick from any number of Bannon’s one-liners, whack a question mark at the end, and interrogate it over the course of a few thousand words. You could essay debates on the reasoning behind statements like “guns are not a problem,” “Trump’s zero tolerance on the border is a humanitarian policy,” “Tommy Robinson has got to be released from prison,” or “Let them call you racist, xenophobes, nativists, homophobes, misogynists – wear it as a badge of honour!”, citing countless interviews Bannon has already given on these subjects. He has said it all before. So why ask him to repeat himself?
“The students will be able to challenge themselves against him,” the ex-Union President enthused. “I think they could land a punch. Unless something has changed, why not carry on as normal?”
That question, of course, rests partly on the assumption that “normal” hitherto has been fine. That it is OK for dubious and even dangerous characters to be allowed into the bosom of one of the most renowned universities in the world for students to play with them.
It has been acknowledged by past members that for some – relevant late examples being Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – the debate itself is just a “side-show;” a means to a wholly selfish end. This must also follow for the guests, which renders the motivations of the individual, and the capacity of the platform at Oxford to facilitate them, crucial.
Bannon’s rhetorical calling cards include: Jackson Pollock-smatterings of military terms, aggressive calls to action, swerving questions that don’t serve his purpose, advocating for far-right leaders in America, Italy, France, Switzerland and Hungary, appeals to emotions above facts, and interrupting people. They do not include considered answers, or engagement with any kind of meaningful argument. In real life, when you hand Steve Bannon a mic, he runs with it.
I asked the former Oxford Union President whether there was anyone whose invitation they would deem a “move too far” for the Union. After a pause, they replied: “Off the top of my head, I think anyone who would use it to break the law – slander, hate speech etc. And anyone whose physical presence would endanger the students.
“I would also say that if someone very very controversial is invited, it should be the case that they have to submit to lots of questions and challenges from the audience. If not, that obviates the point.”
To my mind, that point is superseded by another. If flexing the intellectual muscles of a group of students comes at the cost of amplifying a man whose political program thus far has endangered the lives of thousands – even millions – of people across the world, and who is not done yet, it is not worth it.