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Munk debate exposes “free speech” farce

John Bell

October 10, 2018

Almost 100 years ago W B Yeats wrote a poem called The Second Coming that seems to capture the essence of the world around us today. It spoke of a world where “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” and where “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Now, as then, capitalism is in crisis. Global warming is an increasingly grim reality. Economies falter as the richest minority horde and hide their wealth rather than invest – they have no faith in the future of their system. The rest work longer and harder but cannot make a gain. Our young have no expectations of a better future. Our elderly are robbed of their pensions, the promise made to them by the system they toiled to build.

In 1919 Yeats described a world where the centre could not hold. Crisis bred a polarization: which class solution would prevail? Working class revolution was in the wind, but organization was fragile. Capitalism turned to fascism to defeat it. Unchecked, it will do so again.

Rise of the right

“The centre cannot hold” is an accurate description of events now taking place the world over. In Europe far-right nationalist organizations are grow in size and audacity. Recently fascists rallied in the German city of Chemnitz. Elections in Italy and, more recently Sweden (see article this page) saw big gains for far-right parties fueled by racist, anti-immigrant platforms. So it goes across Europe.

The centre cannot hold because it has come to mean only increasing austerity, with attacks on the lives and welfare of the most vulnerable, and gross benefits for the rich. In 1978 the average American CEO took home about 30 times what the average worker earned. Today that gap has risen to over 271 times. Working people see that obscene gap; their instinct is to blame the bosses, but the far-right intercedes with convincing fictions to make us doubt our own experience.

Fascism and the far-right offer easy but false answers: the problem is immigrants/Jews/Blacks/Muslims/women/LGBTQ people – anybody but the bosses. Capitalism is a system that has always fostered divisions of racism, sexism and the like. Divide and conquer is the secret to its success. Small wonder that the far-right amplifies these ready-made divisions to a fever pitch.

And small wonder that mainstream media and politicians award fascists a platform to preach hate, and public space and police protection to organize on the street and act out its violence.

Free speech or hate speech

There are those who believe the centre can be rebuilt and defended by their reasonableness and wit; they invite the far right to speak under the illusion that fascism can be defeated by exposing its “bad” ideas. But Yeats put his finger on this error: the worst advance because of their passionate intensity. Is there a better description of Donald Trump’s appeal, or of Doug Ford’s?

Enter Steve Bannon –  the founder of Breibart news, former Trump advisor, and self-identified racist. A dedicated white-supremacist and master manipulator like Bannon knows that any media exposure advances his cause. It doesn’t matter whether what he says is true, as long as his “passionate intensity” is given sway.

Although plenty of liberals and mainstream conservatives support the abstract idea of “free speech”, that Bannon somehow deserves a platform because their “good” ideas would defeat his “bad” ones, more people not only disagree, they act. Recently, when the New Yorker magazine offered Bannon top billing at its speakers’ festival, other participants refused to share the platform with him. Readers rushed to cancel their subs. New Yorker writers and staff expressed their outrage. Management was forced to dump Bannon – a clear victory.

Here is the issue in a nutshell. Media and pundits from the centre anoint far-right creeps like Bannon with the mantle of “populist”. That suggests that he speaks for the great unwashed without qualification. The fact is, when coherent arguments are made to pose left alternative that doesn’t pretend to prop up a discredited centre – a Jeremy Corbyn, a Bernie Sanders, or closer to home a “party of the ballot box and the street” like Quebec Solidaire – people can be won to it. In the Quebec election the clear anti-poverty and pro-environment politics of QS moved the whole debate to the left, eroded support for the anti-immigrant CAQ, and put capitalism itself on trial.

If the Ontario NDP had run such a campaign, instead of hedging its bets and trying to drag us all back to a non-existent centre, we might not be dealing with a Doug Ford government, flirting with the far-right, refusing to denounce a Nazi mayoral candidate, and moving to impose a blitz of austerity cuts and privatization of public assets.

False debate

This is the background for the upcoming Munk Debate featuring Bannon vs conservative pundit and former George W Bush speechwriter, David Frum. On one side the man who coined the phrase “axis of evil” and shaped a propaganda campaign of lies that led to wars that have destroyed millions of lives. On the other, the man who address the French neo-Nazi National Front, saying: “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes... Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”

As the satire website, the Beaverton observed: “Munk Debates: Steve Bannon and David Frum to debate whether hate crimes are better than war crimes.”

Granting a platform for unrepentant white-supremacist hate speech is unconscionable. The money and ideology behind the Munk debates is unswervingly pro-corporate and doesn’t care who “wins” such a debate, as long as the outcome weakens any real alternative based in workers’ empowerment.

A successful Bannon appearance will strengthen the far-right in this country. It is designed to give them confidence and legitimize recruitment. That is not an abstract danger: it will result in vandalized synagogues, increased gay-bashing, physical and verbal assaults on Muslims, domestic abuse and more.

Worst, it normalized the ideology of racism and fascism behind banal words like “populism”. In the process the terrain of public debate – the centre populated by media pundits and politicians – shifts inexorably to the right. The centre cannot hold.

There is an alternative. There are electoral alternatives, like QS, that can slow the rightward tilt and win workers to a position that challenges the essence of capitalism.

And there needs to be a grass-roots democratic activist alternative on the street, organized to shut down events like the Bannon event. We must rob our enemies of their passionate intensity, and reclaim it for ourselves. That starts with shutting down the Munk debate farce, and running Steve Bannon out of town. That will be a setback for the far right, for Doug Ford and a real victory for freedom of speech and protest.

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