The New York Times recently published an article that was, at best a poorly done hit piece; or, at worst, a poorly done piece that gives us insight into the paper’s view of the dangers of uncurated knowledge.
Jason Horowitz thinks he has the goods on White House counselor Stephen K. Bannon. The Times writer’s story in the February 10 edition bears the lurid headline: “Steve Bannon Cited Italian Thinker Who Inspired Fascists.”
Over the course of the next 1,500 words, Horowitz cites that same thinker as he summarizes Julius Evola’s philosophy and life and calls upon Evola experts who, themselves citing Evola, discuss how his philosophy is seeing a resurgence among the denizens of the alt-right. Oddly enough, Horowitz somehow forgets to include Bannon’s actual citation of the Italian thinker until the very end of the article. Instead, the opening of the story includes a hyperlink—as if to say, “feel free to check it out for yourself, reader, but rest assured, it’s plenty fascist.” That’s a bit of a dodge on Horowitz’s part, though. One would think that that a piece purporting to examine Bannon’s affinity for Evola, the reader might be treated to a little more substance. Nope. Sorry.
Here’s what you get instead:
But for all the examination of those remarks, a passing reference by Mr. Bannon to an esoteric Italian philosopher has gone little noticed, except perhaps by scholars and followers of the deeply taboo, Nazi-affiliated thinker, Julius Evola.
If you click on the hyperlink—go ahead; we’ll be here when you get back—it becomes apparent why. Here’s the exchange:
Question: Obviously, before the European elections the two parties had a clear link to Putin. If one of the representatives of the dangers of capitalism is the state involvement in capitalism, so, I see there, also Marine Le Pen campaigning in Moscow with Putin, and also UKIP strongly defending Russian positions in geopolitical terms.
Harnwell: These two parties have both been cultivating President Putin [unintelligible].
Bannon: I think it’s a little bit more complicated. When Vladimir Putin, when you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of his beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism; he’s got an adviser who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what’s called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism. A lot of people that are traditionalists are attracted to that.
One of the reasons is that they believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he’s trying to do it in a form of nationalism — and I think that people, particularly in certain countries, want to see the sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country. They don’t believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don’t believe in the centralized government in the United States. They’d rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.
The passing reference is not a hat-tip or even quote of Evola, as the headline implies, but rather an examination of his influences on a senior adviser to another world leader.
So, let’s recap. Bannon uses Evola to explain someone else’s motivations and the Times concludes that…what?…Bannon is influenced by Evola? Nope, can’t get there directly, so instead Horowitz decides to go the innuendo route.
Horowitz proceeds to quote white nationalist Richard Spencer, whose thinking apparently aligns with that of Horowitz and Times, that Bannon’s mere knowledge of Evola is headline worthy and signals some seismic sea-change in conservatism itself:
Mr. Spencer said “it means a tremendous amount” that Mr. Bannon was aware of Evola and other Traditionalist thinkers.
“Even if he hasn’t fully imbibed them and been changed by them, he is at least open to them,” he said. “He at least recognizes that they are there. That is a stark difference to the American conservative movement that either was ignorant of them or attempted to suppress them.”
Putting aside for a moment the irony of the Times citing a white nationalist while trying to demonize someone for citing a fascist philosopher. Let’s be honest about the Times’ intentions here.
The Times staff are well aware that based on the title alone, most people will just share the article on social media without reading it, much less bother to click the hyperlink to examine the primary material. The article is not really designed be read, just to be shared—it’s really is just a glorified Wikipedia entry on Evola. Like most of the clickbait responsible for the decline in the public’s trust of journalism, its purpose is to confirm a worldview among those who would share it. It’s merely another grasp at any straw in the hopes binding them together into a fascio of accusation thrown Bannon’s way.
If, however, this article is not mere smarm and political calumny trying to create guilt by association, and instead it reflects an earnest concern by the Times that Bannon’s mere knowledge of Evola is somehow dangerous, it’s revealing. What it reveals is a much more troubling worldview and culture among the Times staff and, by extension, those it considers to be its core readership than it reveals about Bannon. In this light, the article exposes a line of reasoning that can serve to explain so much of the recent anti-free speech hysteria and trigger warning phenomenon seen around the country.
Normally being well read and having knowledge of obscure yet influential philosophy and its impact on foreign policy would be seen as something to put in the plus side of the ledger in a determination of whether an advisor to the president is competent and worthy of his station. In this case, however, according to the Times, having knowledge is a negative. It’s not that Bannon is being accused of following or even quoting Evola (although the headline implies it). He’s being accused of knowing about Evola. Knowledge itself, in this case, is portrayed as a corrupting force.
It should be noted that the Times which continuously lamented the Republican Party and Trump’s, anti-intellectualism has had a change of heart on the issue and is now suspicious of someone for being well read. Maybe this isn’t ironic, but instead speaks to a perception among the Times staff that knowledge is a dangerous thing that needs to be curated (by them).
When we accede to this kind of knowledge-is-dangerous view of the world, we accept the possibility that merely coming into contact with ideas somehow poisons us. In this view human beings have no agency and therefore they must be protected from, or at the very least, warned against, certain knowledge. This kind of thinking is exactly why we now have warning labels on printed versions of the United States Constitution as well as proposed and enacted trigger warnings on books such as Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and Mrs. Dalloway. It’s a kind of thinking that allows rioters to feel no philosophical uncertainty or moral shame when destroying property, setting fires and attacking people for having a desire to speak about and listen to things that are controversial.
This view of knowledge is inimical to the liberal ideal and respect for the humanistic endeavor; an endeavor whose furtherance is predicated upon the acquisition and synthesis of disparate, sometimes uncomfortable knowledge. Instead of seeing the acquisition of knowledge as a good, the Times seems to imply that human consciousness is something so delicate and frail that it would lose any moral and ethical rudder when coming into contact with philosophy that it considers dangerous. Those who hold that knowledge itself is dangerous are the same zealots who would control its dissemination and disabuse us of any ability to judge for ourselves.
Horowitz’s article thus provides us an illuminating window into the soul of the Times and exposes a more serious cultural dilemma the aging grey lady faces: How to straddle the gap between profitable clickbait partisanship and intellectually elitist information curation. Evidence above suggests that the Times may have figured out a way to do both.
Of course, in writing this piece I, too, cited “an Italian Thinker Who Inspired Fascists,” so I don’t know if anything I say can be trusted.
You have been warned.