Public Intellectualism, A Home for Hatred: Thoughts on the Bannon-Frum Debate
In our political purgatory of Doug Fords, Maxime Berniers, and Faith Goldys, public intellectualism should be a sanctuary in the sky. For marginalized peoples especially, intellectualizing the dream of a more democratic society by fact-checking, idea-sharing, and place-making is a form of liberation and resistance. In Toronto, however, spaces for academic conversation seem to be as hellish as our politics. The latest installment of the acclaimed Munk Debates series is veritable proof.
On November 2nd, Steve Bannon was pitted against David Frum in a scholarly wrangle over the merits of populism at Roy Thomson Hall. If you were among the 2800 people who managed to nab a ticket, you were promised a provocative discussion on whether liberalism would be consumed by the tide of anti-elite politics that has swept across the Western world. Social activists across the city as well as the federal NDP decried the inclusion of Donald Trump’s former advisor, who is credited with embedding White supremacist ideology into the President’s “alt-right” agenda.
Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, was also a source of ire for some. His crowning achievement is authoring the infamous “axis of evil” expression, which served as a key propagandistic cog in the Bush administration’s imperialist war machine. Despite Frum’s opposition to Bannon, he is clearly no hero to people of colour, and so the presence of both men cast a dark shadow over the debate. The 1500-plus protesters that flocked to Roy Thomson Hall on the night of the event seemed to have arrived at the same conclusion: intellectual spaces are empowering the wrong voices.
Providing Bannon a platform to rationalize his prejudice is the most obvious offense in this situation. Those defending his participation framed the debate as a chance to effectively expose the pitfalls of his beliefs and disprove his worldview. They say that relegating Bannon to the margins of political discourse only strengthens his popularity, which feeds off a counterculture of the angry and affronted.
But the truth of the matter is that Bannon hardly offers anything interesting to dissect for those committed to anti-racist activism. His ideology is plagiarized from the textbook of world history, which has exhaustively chronicled the logic of racial oppression. What could Bannon possibly argue that hasn’t already been proven disastrous and unsound by the Holocaust, South African apartheid, Japanese internment camps, Jim Crow laws, or residential schools? More importantly, how many tea parties with racists must we suffer through until free-speech crusaders realize how absolutely anachronistic these discussions are?
As a society, we must sanctify learned principles of justice—like the necessity of tolerance, diversity, and humanitarianism—or we risk repeating atrocities. Letting Bannon question these hard-earned truths and treating his doubt as legitimate allows us to slip back into the dialogue of generations past and further normalize ideas that should have remained vulgar.
What’s more, as unsavoury as Bannon’s attendance was, a more insidious offense was embodied by his opponent. Frum is a hopelessly weak foil to Bannon’s violent ideology. The Canadian-American political commentator was chosen to champion a pro-liberal position, arguing that the demise of centrist politics was not-so imminent. The utter irony of this argument nearly erodes it from the inside out. Few things have kindled the West’s garbage fire of populism than the corruption, corporate greed, and disconnectedness of contemporary liberalism. The idea that Bannon’s populist grenade can be defused by the same sort of politics that detonated it is, at best, ignorant and, at worse, arrogant.
Something more radical ought to have stood in Frum’s place. Consider, for example, left-wing populism—a sort of anti-establishment, anti-globalization politics that broadcasts an inclusive image of the jilted working class. The nativism of right-wing populism pushes an “us versus them” narrative that vilifies immigrants, people of colour, and other minorities. On the left, the real exploitative outsiders are multinational corporations, plutocrats, and the one-percent. And make no mistake: this isn’t a fringe movement. Left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and most recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York have amassed passionate and electorally powerful followings.
Posing liberalism as the rightful adversary to right-wing populism when a viable alternative exists to the left not only abandons the reality of our political landscape but narrows the parameters of academic discourse. Dynamic, thoughtful, and productive conversations about the future of left-wing populism are being strangled by the pretense that neoliberalism has a monopoly over “progressive” politics. Our intellectual spaces have shifted to accommodate the far-right, yet fail to make room for the far-left. It’s a tragic situation considering the transformative might of public intellectuals.
Nonetheless, the future of public debate is not entirely bleak. The strong show of resistance organized by Torontonians illustrates a clear demand for more imaginative and justice-oriented conversation in civil society. And in reality, the Munk Debates are just one—albeit prestigious and well-funded—forum of intellectual discussion. Our universities, libraries, and research institutes across the city continue to facilitate thoughtful, subversive exchanges that inform the political activity of our day. Still, all of this marginally softens the blow of what seemed to be the closing argument at the Bannon-Frum debate: racism, xenophobia, and White supremacy have a home in public intellectualism.