‘For the Record’ is a feature where our Fellows-in-Residence and Graduate Fellows have a chance to present their research ideas informally, reflect on their experience at the Center, or report on Center events. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics or other group or individual.
This month's For the Record comes from Fellow-in-Residence Deborah Chasman, Editor-in-Chief at Boston Review. Throughout her career, Chasman has focused on bringing the work of academics to the public sphere—experimenting with both old and new media, and working with both emerging and celebrated writers. During her fellowship year, she has explored the ethics of public communication, scrutinizing the way the ecology of modern media constrains our best efforts to communicate across lines of disagreement, and asking what kind of reading and publishing democratic citizenship requires.
The Uses of Anger
Last spring I had the fortune to meet one of my favorite filmmakers, the documentarian Errol Morris, director of the murder-solving Thin Blue Line and Fog of War, in which Robert McNamara confesses to war crimes in Vietnam. I found Morris’s 2018 Netflix series, Wormwood, about the death of a federal scientist, the most quietly devastating indictment of state power I’d ever seen. Morris likes to get to the bottom of things, especially when they have gone horribly wrong and powerful figures--from prosecutors to politicians—attempt to cover it up.
So I was excited to hear that he had started work on a documentary about Stephen Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and close confidant until his fall from grace after the deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA last spring. Morris was rushing to get it finished by the fall of 2018; he was hoping it could be a kind of intervention in the midterm elections.
Morris’s studio is in my neighborhood, and I got to stop in now and then to see how the film was coming along. It was thrilling for me to see it develop. What emerged was a chilling portrait of someone who tethered the real grievances of disenfranchised Americans with a technocratic political class to a racist and destructive political vision. While I already had strong feelings about Bannon—I despise the race baiting and dog whistles in his rhetoric--the film illuminated for me other things: Bannon’s craven opportunism, his astute understanding of how electronic media works, and an underlying motive that seemed to be as much about personal power as anything else. These seemed to me to be important things to understand about his success, and I was looking forward to the film’s release.
But as the final cut started circulating to potential distributors and film festivals, Morris was getting bad news every day. He was accused of making a film that gave Bannon a “platform,” and no one wanted to carry it. One early reviewer had even suggested it might be the end of his career. “This is my Waterloo,” Morris told me.
I was naive about the force of this particular criticism of the film. To me, Bannon already had a massive platform: the President’s ear and an online media company, Brietbart, that reaches millions and millions of people daily, far more than an independent film would ever reach. How could it, I thought, whip up a base that is already mobilized by right-wing media? And, in my mind, the film was a damning portrait of Bannon. Why were people reacting so negatively to it?
One specific and common complaint was that Morris hadn’t more directly taken Bannon to task in his interview. Of course, anyone who’s seen Morris’s other films would know that a confrontational interview would have been out of character: he tends to let his subjects talk freely in the hopes that they will reveal themselves. That’s how he got a confession from a murderer in Thin Blue Line. Nonetheless, the criticism of American Dharma scared away all potential distributors.
In an effort to make the film available to those wanting to see it, I helped arrange a February screening at the Harvard Film Archive, through the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. Hundreds of people came to see the film, so many that we exceeded capacity, in fact, and many had to be turned away. The screening was followed by a Q&A with Morris and Nieman Foundation director Ann Marie Lipinsky. Morris told me later that he was frustrated that many of the questions had to do with the issue of distribution rather than the film itself.
We had also arranged for a private discussion for fellows at the Nieman Foundation the following week. Morris and I were both hoping that we might have a richer discussion there. But when I walked in, the atmosphere seemed tense. According to Lipinsky, the question of “deplatforming” people such as Bannon--those considered beyond the pale of civil politics--and the responsibility of the media to avoid spreading their message had been an important topic at Nieman all year.
Nonetheless, everyone did their best to ask questions about the making of the film and the content. Then a young women (a Neiman fellow, I believe) raised her hand.
“How could you make such a film?” She asked, clearly deeply distressed.
Morris asked what she objected to.
She said something like this: “Bannon is seductive in the film, and that gives him power. It’s a very dangerous film.”
Morris did his best to respond, trying to explain his goal: to give Bannon enough room to explain himself and let the viewer figure out what to make of it. Of course, Morris does push back hard on some of Bannon’s comments--he even calls him crazy at some point, full of destructive fantasies--but his goal was to encourage Bannon to speak, not challenge him constantly. But ultimately, his response seemed unconvincing to the group.
The woman’s question stayed with me after the event. It seemed to reflect the widespread impulse today to shut down things that offend before they can be discussed, even among people of good will. And I thought it must have arisen from the women’s experience of feeling seduced Bannon’s words. This should not be surprising: Bannon is seductive. When I watched the film, I was shocked to find myself agreeing with some of his comments. Indeed he is enormously compelling in articulating the Democrats’ abandonment of the working class and describing a technocratic elite that can rightly be criticized for thwarting democracy in this country. Feeling myself compelled by some of his comments, I could understand why his messaging around the Trump presidential campaign resonated with so many Americans.
But seduction wasn’t the only thing I experienced during the film. Bannon is also full of bullshit. The film makes transparent how he uses a reasonable-sounding message to identify a problem, but then offers racism and scapegoating as the obvious solution. The movie exposes just how skillfully he moves from one mode to another, and how his understanding of new media and the weakness of Democratic strategists pushed Trump toward victory. Bannon purports to speak on behalf of the white working class, but the film mostly reveals Bannon’s raw desire for power. We can be quite sure that all he intends to give the working class is permission to hate.
Some may say this was obvious from the campaign itself—why would we need a film about that?—but my emotional responses to the film, the parts that seduced and bewildered and angered me, helped me understand more precisely the mechanisms of Bannon’s effectiveness in the world.
So, yes, anger is the right feeling about his seductiveness, because his seduction is his means to power. But I think we should pause before we cancel things that anger us. Anger is good—it tells us that something is wrong. As we look at the prospect of a second term for Trump, understanding Bannon’s success seems crucial in challenging it. In conversations about the difficult issues of our times, we need to examine our anger, understand its sources, and have confidence that using anger as the starting point for conversation, rather than the end, might be our best hope.