Steve Bannon Invite Sparks Outrage at University of Chicago

Color photo of Steve Bannon, then-advisor to President Donald Trump, holding a microphone.
Steve Bannon, former chief strategist for President Donald Trump, shown here at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Congress (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)
Some students and faculty members freaked out when a University of Chicago professor invited Steve Bannon to debate him on campus, but school officials are standing firmly in favor of free speech

Unlike scores of institutions of higher learning in the United States that have bowed to pressure to disinvite controversial speakers, the University of Chicago has proved itself a bulwark of free speech by rejecting calls to block far-right Machiavelli Steve Bannon from visiting its campus.

The university is defending the right of one of its economics professors to invite President Trump’s erstwhile chief strategist and former executive chairman of the alt-right news outlet Breitbart.com to a debate about Bannon’s views on nationalism and economics. The school has promised to protect Bannon’s freedom of expression as well as the free speech of those protesting the event, which has yet to be scheduled.

The university’s stance has defied howls of lefty indignation that erupted in late January, when Bannon accepted an offer from Luigi Zingales, a professor of entrepreneurship and finance at the university’s Booth School of Business, to visit the school and allow Zingales and his fellow academics to challenge Bannon’s pugilistic brand of right-wing populism.

In a statement posted to his Facebook page, Zingales, who is no fan of Trump or Bannon,  explained that he was interested in examining the “the backlash against globalization and immigration”  taking place worldwide.  And because Bannon personified this backlash in the U.S., it was worthwhile to engage him on the subject.

“I firmly believe that the current problems in America cannot be solved by demonizing [those] who think differently, but by addressing the causes of their dissatisfaction,” Zingales wrote. “Hate cannot be defeated by hate, but only by reason.”

The university’s social-justice warriors were not favorably inclined. Less than 24 hours after the campus newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, reported that Bannon was slated to cross rhetorical swords with the university’s best and brightest, students descended on the business school to wave signs reading “Ban Bannon” and “No Nazis,” while chanting, “Disinvite!” and “Say it loud and say it clear, stop inviting fascists here.”

Professors and grad students — more than 100 so far — signed a letter to university president Robert Zimmer and provost Daniel Diermeier, denouncing Bannon for trafficking in “white supremacist ideologies.” The scholars pointed to his leadership of Brietbart (which Bannon once called “a platform for the alt-right”) and observed that Bannon is considered the chief architect of the Trump administration’s so-called Muslim ban.

If the university allowed Bannon to appear on campus, they declared, it would be “normalizing hate speech by granting it a privileged forum.”

Additionally, about 1,000 university alumni signed a similar letter expressing opposition to Bannon’s impending visit, arguing that his visit will “harm both students and the reputation of the university.”

The former Maroons appear to believe Bannon is so evil that his presence will trigger impressionable students to the point where the school will suffer a collective mental-health crisis:

“Students seeking emotional support around the event will put strain on the university’s wellness resources, including mental health, spiritual life, and housing staff. Many students who live on-campus are members of groups that Bannon singles out for hate: even if they choose not to attend Bannon’s speech, none of them are free to avoid the chaos that will accompany it.”

Students descended on the business school to wave signs reading “Ban Bannon” and “No Nazis,” while chanting, “Disinvite!” and “Say it loud and say it clear, stop inviting fascists here.”

Last but not least, three officers of the university’s student government, including student body president Calvin Cottrell, issued a press release in which they excoriated Zingales as irresponsible and contended that Bannon’s “presence and rhetoric” posed a “real and immediate” threat to all students (and especially “students of color and Jewish students”).

Through it all, school officials have remained steadfast and unapologetic. On January 25, the university published a statement on its website, saying the school was “deeply committed” to free expression, academic freedom, and “the ability of faculty and students to invite the speakers of their choice.”

“We recognize that there will be debate and disagreement over this event; as part of our commitment to free expression, the University supports the ability of protesters and invited speakers to express a wide range of views,” the statement concluded.

In a recent interview withWall Street Journal reporter Tunku Varadarajan,  University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer reiterated his administration’s position , saying he wouldn’t think of asking Zingales to withdraw the invitation to Bannon.

Zimmer said that only “a few” members of the faculty have asked that Bannon be disinvited and that most of their colleagues are talking about “non-disruptive protests.” (The faculty members among the 100 signees of the above-mentioned letter to Zimmer and provost Daniel Diermeier represent a small fraction of the faculty, which numbers more than 2,800.)

Summarizing the school’s response, Zimmer said, “It’s ‘How are we going to effectively argue with this guy?’, not ‘How are we going to prevent him from coming to campus?'”

The University of Chicago’s free-speech stance is in line with its historical ethos. In 2014, amid a wave of intolerance that was sweeping the nation’s institutions of higher learning, Zimmer appointed a Committee on Freedom of Expression to draft a statement “articulating the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” Issued in 2015, the committee’s report has come to be known as the “Chicago Principles.” The central notion: “[I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

The following year, the university’s dean of students sent a letter to incoming freshmen, advising them of the school’s censorship-free “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.”

From the dean’s welcoming letter:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

In his recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Zimmer observed that students organized a town hall to address the Bannon affair. It was moderated by members of the student government, and Zingales participated and took questions. (According to previous coverage in the Maroon, Zingales agreed to the town hall after a relatively polite sit-in staged during one of his classes.)

The Maroon posted an audio file of the hour-long session, wherein Zimmer patiently explained his motives.

“One of the things I want to do is make Bannon accountable for his flirting or playing with racism,” he said, targeting Bannon’s America-first nativism.

“[Bannon] said, ‘We are not an economy, we are a people,'” Zingales noted. “What I want to know is: Who is in this ‘people’? I’m probably not in this ‘people.’ I’m an immigrant with a strong accent, so I probably don’t belong to his definition of ‘people.'”

Zingales has written op-eds, published in the New York Times and elsewhere, in which he calls Trump a “crony capitalist” and compares the president to Italian media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, the corrupt right-wing populist who led Italy as prime minister for a total of nine years.

During the give and take with the students,  Zingales defined the Trump movement as having a “billionaire soul” and a “populist soul,” with Bannon representing the latter. He argued that 30 percent of the American people likely share Bannon’s worldview — a fact neither he nor the students can afford to ignore.

Asked about the possibility of violence, Zingales said he nervous about fringe elements that “create violence and then with the other hand say, ‘You can’t invite him, because it creates violence.'”

Zingales added that he disagrees with the notion that if violence were to break out, he would be responsible. “I think the people who commit the violence are responsible for the violence.”

One woman wondered if Zingales would go as far to invite Adolf Hitler to campus for the same kind of event. Zingales responded that he would have invited the “early Hitler,” because it “would have been useful to know ahead of time what he was about.”

He went a step further, saying he would have invited Mao Zedong to a similar forum, though “Mao killed more people than maybe Hitler and Stalin together.” (For those keeping score at home, Zingales is correct, according to a recent piece in the New York Review of Books.)

Toward the end of the discussion, Zingales related how one member of the school’s anatomy department sent him a letter criticizing him for inviting someone who is so offensive to the university community. Zingales said he found the letter ironic, because dissecting cadavers was considered a very offensive practice during the Middle Ages. Modern medicine owes a great debt to the Italian medical schools that persisted in the practice in the face of opposition.

“So I don’t think the way in which we pursue our analysis — the way we talk to people —  should be determined by majority rule,” Zingales said. “It should be determined by the freedom rule. That’s part of what intellectual inquiry is about.”

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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