Dan Vallone: There’s no place for Steve Bannon in New Hampshire

  • Bannon

For the Monitor
Sunday, November 12, 2017

A healthy democracy relies on a vibrant marketplace of ideas. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in his dissent in the 1919 case Abrams v. United States, “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

This bold embrace of free speech is at the heart of our willingness to challenge falsehoods, put forth new ideas and drive our nation toward a more just society.

But there is a dark side to our expansive defense of the First Amendment. As with all marketplaces, there has always been an illicit market in the trading of ideas; a space where merchants of outrage (to borrow a phrase from The Economist) peddle white nationalism, anti-Semitism and other conspiracy theories laced with vitriol.

Through concerted legal efforts and herculean moral movements, by people of all backgrounds and beliefs, we have steadily reduced the intensity and reach of activities in this market.

Landmark civil rights acts and Supreme Court decisions enshrined in law America’s foundational idea that all people are created equal. We made progress, however imperfect, toward a more meaningful conception of justice; and over the past 20 years witnessed a steady decline in the number of hate crimes (as reported by the FBI).

Today this progress is under attack.

In 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 917 hate groups in America, up from 784 in 2014. This uptick is representative of a concerted effort to puncture the shield of civic values that protects our fragile democracy. Modern merchants of outrage – led by and personified in Steve Bannon – are leading a campaign to turn us against one another with an intensity not seen in generations.

In message, Bannon’s is a familiar dehumanization campaign. The “alt-right” movement championed by Bannon and his Breitbart News espouses age-old, bigoted attacks against multiculturalism, feminism, LGBTQ rights, and Islam and Judaism.

What distinguishes Bannon and his band from earlier merchants of outrage is their ability to weaponize social media and other new technology to yield devastating results.

Precision targeting with online ads allows Bannon and others to inundate people with false content designed to warp perceptions and reduce other Americans to less-than-human caricatures.

This same technology allowed Bannon’s movement to play out online, bypassing obstacles such as newspaper editors, fact-checkers and neighbor-to-neighbor conversations, which might have revealed the emptiness of his message and prevented him from penetrating our normal civic discourse.

Having thus scaled the walls of our democratic defenses, Bannon’s campaign is now at our doorstep. Our response to this moment can be nothing short of the complete rejection of Bannon and his dehumanization campaign.

It was degrading to our most fundamental values for a political group to invite Steve Bannon to speak in New Hampshire. Although we celebrate free speech, we have no obligation to provide an audience for those interested only in fueling hatred; in fact, we are compelled by our fidelity to the Constitution and to each other to condemn any such attempt.

We need and want vigorous debate about how to best move our country forward, and we benefit from having people from all kinds of political persuasions participate in such discussions. But our conduct must be bounded by a shared recognition of essential American values and basic norms of decency and respect.

There is no place for Steve Bannon and his movement in our state or in our country.

In Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 message to Congress he wrote, referring to the Civil War to end slavery, “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” Such is the clarity with which we must see the current attack on our democracy. This is our moment to show we will stand up for a vision of America worthy of the sacrifices Lincoln and so many others have made.

(Dan Vallone is a West Point graduate who served six years on active duty as an infantry officer. He lives in Concord.)