If you are curious about how racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, and organizations dedicated to propagating the same are able to slip into the mainstream, do yourself a favor and listen to NPR's Wednesday morning interview with Breitbart senior-editor-at-large Joel Pollak.
NPR apparently felt the need to invite on a Breitbart mouthpiece to put in a good word for Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s newly announced senior policy adviser. Bannon previously led Breitbart, a publication beloved by the so-called alt-right, a loose coalition of white nationalists, “identitarians,” neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, racists, and misogynists who were ecstatic over Bannon’s appointment. Pollak’s segment was a master class in obfuscation and a primer on how to flip the script and turn totally justified accusations of bigotry, misogyny and anti-Semitism into “reverse racism.”
“Let’s hear a defense of Steve Bannon,” NPR host Steve Inskeep began, offering a view of exactly what direction this interview would take. Pollak started by launching into a gushing assessment of Bannon, calling him “a national hero,” and talking about how it’s so great we’ll have someone “so calm under pressure in the White House.” (Maybe this is true, though it contradicts accusations against Bannon of domestic abuse, sexual harassment and being a “verbally abus[ive]” “bully” “who is prone to a lot of tirades” by former staffers.) When Inskeep interjected to ask about Bannon’s tireless work to turn Breitbart into the alt-right outlet of choice, Pollak attempted to distance the site from the movement it has nurtured on a steady diet of xenophobia, racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.
“The only alt-right content we have is a single article out of tens of thousands of articles, which is a journalistic article about the alt-right by Milo Yiannopoulos, and Allum Bokhari, which basically went into this movement, and tried to figure out what it was all about,” Pollak said. “That’s not racist; that’s journalism.”
And just like that, Bannon’s site was suddenly unaffiliated with the alt-right movement—though Bannon himself boasted in August that Breitbart is the "platform of the alt-right.” Inskeep didn’t push Pollak on this point, though Bannon’s own words suggest that he either disagreed with his spokesperson or fabricated the link in order to be seen as the voice of the alt-right. Either way, aren’t both of these things problematic—tthat Bannon is either with the racists or wants to be? Isn’t it worth questioning why Bannon would seek to tie his publication to a movement whose founders have been unequivocal in their racism and anti-Semitism? (Prominent white supremacist Jared Taylor has said that while there are “areas of disagreement” among alt-righties, “the central element of the alt-right is the position it takes on race.” Richard Spencer, who coined the term alt-right, has talked about the "Jewish question,” called for forced sterilization of racial minorities and advanced the idea of “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”)
What does this tell us about the morals of both Bannon and Breitbart? How scary is it that this man is advising a volatile, inexperienced president-elect who found out only two days ago what a president does? We won’t know, at least not from this interview, because Pollak’s response went basically unchallenged.
Inskeep followed up by asking Pollak about a Breitbart article headlined, “Hoist it High and Proud,” published just two weeks after the Charleston massacre of nine black churchgoers, which is a very tactful, classy move. The piece encouraged its alt-right readers to proudly wave the Confederate flag (as Dylann Roof is seen doing in countless photos). It included this passage:
“While your supporters are trashing the monuments and reputations of the forefathers of so many Americans, Barack, you might just want to remind us again which state of the Union, north or south, your ancestors resided in during the traumatic years 1861-1865? Or did Kenya not have a dog in that fight? The Confederacy was not a callous conspiracy to enforce slavery, but a patriotic and idealistic cause for which 490,000 men were killed, wounded or taken captive.”
Pollak defended all this as part of a debate about the Confederate flag and history and heritage, which is fine if you think we should fly the flags of slaveholders and traitors to the United States, while going on and on about nationalism. I’ll give him that’s an arguable point; racists certainly argue it all the time. Inskeep gave a passive rebuttal to the piece, noting that “Alexander Stevens, the vice president of the Confederacy, declared the cause was slavery.” Here's when Pollak seized on the opportunity to pull out the most overused tool in the racist and racist-apologist’s arsenal: the reverse-racism card.
“NPR is taxpayer-funded, and has an entire section of its programming, a regular feature, called Code Switch, which from my perspective is a racist program,” Pollak said, continuing:
“I’m looking here at the latest article, which aired on NPR, calling the election results 'nostalgia for a whiter America.' So NPR has racial and racist programming that I am required to pay for as a taxpayer. So, you know, you can read Breitbart, you can read something else—I don’t think that’s racist, to talk about the history of the Confederate flag. There are people who disagree with that, as a symbol, but you’re picking on one opinion article. Breitbart is a 24-hour news website that provides coverage from within a conservative worldview.”
For starters, Trump ran on promises to get rid of Muslims and lawless Mexicans, tweeted erroneous facts about black criminality (just one of his many retweets from white nationalists) and built a coalition among people who, studies show, had negative views of blacks and Muslims. The tagline for Trump’s campaign was “Make America Great Again.” America has been getting browner, but Trump’s folks voted for a previous America that was whiter and thus, in their estimation, "better." There’s little Inskeep could have done here, since I get that there’s zero chance of winning an argument with a racist who is paid to deny racism, but there you go.
I could get into all the ways that Code Switch, which is dedicated to discussions of “race and identity,” isn’t racist. Talking about issues of race isn’t racism, but people like Pollak use this argument when it benefits them and trash it when it doesn’t. Never mind how badly he contradicted himself while absolving Bannon of any responsibility for the actual racist content that ran on his site, but pulled out an article from Code Switch and held it up as an affront to the taxpaying populace, who he probably imagines are all white. In the topsy-turvy world of Breitbart and racist denial in general, there is no racism — not in headlines bemoaning diversity, or Bannon's on-the-record complaints about there being too many Asian tech CEOs — except on websitese dedicated to issues facing people of color.
Bannon has spent four years ensuring that Breitbart contains all the red meat the alt-right can feast on, from an entire section tagged “black crime” to frequent contributions from Jason Richwine, whom the Daily Beast notes “resigned from the conservative Heritage Foundation when news broke that his Harvard dissertation argued in part that Hispanics have lower IQs than non-Hispanic whites.” That, Pollak should be told, is actual racism. Textbook.
But I really want to get to this, the moment just after Inskeep pointed to a 2011 quote from Bannon in which he labeled feminists “a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools." In response, Pollak went into a whole spiel about Bannon’s hiring of gay writer Milo Yiannopoulos—the same Yiannopoulos he referred to earlier as the author of “the only alt-right content” on Breitbart, while failing to note that Yiannopoulos is a celebrated champion of the alt-right. (Yiannopoulos previously called Richard Spencer “dangerously bright” and was kicked off Twitter for racially terrorizing Leslie Jones, which only upped his alt-right standing.)
But here’s the nugget from Pollak:
“There is a political correctness in this country that would say that if you said that once [called feminists "dykes"] on a radio show that you should be drummed out of public life. I would defy you to find a person in the LGBTQ community who has not used that term, either in an endearing sense or in a flippant, jovial, colloquial sense. I don't think you can judge Steve Bannon's views.”
This is rife with the same lame things white racists love to repeat. They fault “political correctness” for every despicable view they hold, pretending that not being able to utter racist and xenophobic rants makes them victims; oppressed martyrs marching for free speech and the ability to publicly call black people the names their daddies did. It’s maybe the biggest lie ever told, not least of all because it isn’t even true: Breitbart’s entire catalog of articles is proof. Racists still say whatever they want, and they are currently shouting it out loud, in ways both verbally and physically violent. They aren’t opposed to political correctness, they’re opposed to the consequences of being vile. And they’re feeling pretty good right now, because two of the worst examples of their ilk are now in the highest echelons of government.
At the very least, Inskeep could have pointed out that political correctness hasn’t seemed to hinder Bannon at all, that this is a man who now will skulk the halls of the White House and have the president-elect's ear. As long as media keep letting these people create an alternate reality where they aren’t challenged, where it is okay to rant about “dykes,” where it's no biggie to tailor a publishing empire to avowed racists, where false equivalencies convert discussions of racism into manufactured reverse racism, we’ll stay here.
Pollak, who says he’s an Orthodox Jew according to Jezebel (and therefore a perfect spokesperson to trot out at times like this), is on a press jaunt that will likely last for a while, so we;ll probably see lots more of this. For the record, here’s how the conversation ended:
INSKEEP: I want to invite a yes/no question, because we’ve just got a few seconds here. This is a question that’s just on a lot of people’s minds. Is Steve Bannon—and by extension, Donald Trump—winking at racists? Not quite embracing their views, but trying to get their support and their votes? Yes or no?
POLLAK: Absolutely not.
INSKEEP: Not at all?
POLLAK: Not at all.
INSKEEP: OK. Joel Pollak, thank you very much, really appreciate the time.
No, thank you, NPR, for giving this guy a chance to come on and defend hate as no big deal, and for contributing to the ongoing effort to normalize all this stuff.
I’m sure it’s very appreciated by the 300 people—and counting!—who've been attacked, harassed and harmed by those inspired by Bannon and Trump.
Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.