Debate: Should the Union have hosted Corey Lewandowski?

Felix Pope and Freddy Potts debate whether or not the Oxford Union were right to have hosted Donald Trump's controversial former campaign manager

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YES
By Felix Pope

The US election was won by Donald Trump for many complex and intertwined reasons, reasons which political scientists and journalists will spend decades puzzling over. Globalisation, neoliberalism, racism, misogyny, and the role of the media all played a part—but equally so did the role of liberals in shutting down debate and defining ever more narrowly the boundaries of acceptable speech.

Instead of engaging with and rebutting Trump’s arguments (not too difficult a task to accomplish) Clinton was happy to merely characterise him as a racist and his supporters as “deplorables”. Gone was any attempt to understand, debate, persuade and win over his white working-class backers, for in 2016 much of the left believes that mere accusations of bigotry are enough to stop a demagogue. Which they are not.

The same logic was evident in the arguments of those calling for Corey Lewandowski to be disinvited from his talk at the Oxford Union. Hysterically labelling him a ‘Nazi’ they insisted that to give him a platform at the Union was to legitimise him, to allow him to speak was to allow his hateful ideas to be propagated and that it would only enable the growth of fascism in this country.

This smacks of nothing more than intellectual cowardice. If you truly believe that the arguments against Trumpism are so weak that listening to Lewandowski speak for an hour will convert the audience into raving nationalists, then how can you claim to genuinely oppose Trump in the first place? How can you simultaneously hold that your arguments are correct and rational, and yet that they would stand for nothing in the face of critique from a man who couldn’t even get himself elected as the treasurer of a small New Hampshire town?

As a committed anti-fascist and anti-racist I believe that the arguments used to defend the wall, to apologise for institutional police racism, and to uphold Trump’s characterisation of Mexican illegal immigrants as rapists are not only incorrect but utterly incoherent.

Giving Corey a platform to express those views was tantamount to giving him just enough rope to hang himself. Throughout the talk, laugher (at, not with him) rang throughout the chamber. He stated that while Clinton lied, Trump was always honest, that Trump had never backtracked on a policy, that Mexico would still pay for the wall, that Trump’s campaign could not have been racist because it secured (gasp) eight per cent of the black vote, and that global warming was a “scam” invented by the Chinese. The overall impression was of a man detached from reality.

Questions from incisive, argumentative audience members drove this point home, allowing Oxford students a brilliant opportunity to confront in some small way all that they opposed in Trump. The constantly audible protest outside undoubtedly reminded Corey and indeed anyone watching online later, that Trump’s policies will not go unopposed and that resistance will face him at every turn.

To no platform Corey would have been to forsake that power. It would have been to confuse shutting him up with winning the debate, and it would have given credence to his argument that Trump was so dangerous to the establishment that his ideas had to be shut down by the PC thought police.

Moreover to accept the principle that speaker’s dodgy views make it acceptable to prevent students from hearing them speak is to set a dangerous principle. It may begin—as no-platforming did—with only genuine neo-Nazis, such as the knuckle dragging racists of the National Front. Soon it swells to encompass the representatives of populist politicians, then anyone who dares to question the prevailing liberal orthodoxy on campus is liable to find themselves shut out.

This year headlines were made when Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell, Julie Bindel and other such left-wing campaigners were prevented from speaking at universities by the very no-platforming policies they had once advocated. When the scope of debate is shut down to this extent it is the students who suffer.

NO
By Freddy Potts

Corey Lewandowski may have been, in colloquial language which is so often derided, ‘destroyed’ or ‘roasted’ by the crowd, but that’s ultimately irrelevant. What matters is that he was there at all.

In the period when Lewandowski was his campaign manager, Trump called Mexicans rapists and called for a wall on the Mexican border, a ban on Muslim immigration, a register of Muslims in America, violence against protestors and made a whole series of sexist remarks. Lewandowski’s campaign philosophy during this period was ‘Let Trump Be Trump’, which is either acceptance or approval but definitely isn’t opposition.

And so to the Union. One justification presented for its invitation to Lewandowski is that the Union is ‘belief-neutral’, i.e. it considers no beliefs beyond criticism, considers all beliefs at least theoretically worth hearing and doesn’t display a bias in what it chooses to hear. This is, to be frank, a nonsense position in and of itself. It presupposes either that the people running the Union are themselves belief-neutral or capable of acting that way, or else that some impersonal facet of the Union is able to will belief-neutrality into being. Either assumption is curious.

If belief-neutrality seems bizarre even in the abstract, then it fares no better from an encounter with reality. The Union is, by its own admission after the “Colonial Comeback” cocktail in 2015, institutionally racist. It’s also often argued that the Union’s overriding responsibility is to its members, and that it therefore should invite speakers who will interest its members. This is the final nail in belief-neutrality’s coffin unless one wishes to contend that both the Union’s decision-makers and its membership somehow stand as a collective impartial spectator. A body which deemed itself institutionally racist picking speakers in order to pique its members’ interest is so far from belief-neutral that, even if belief-neutrality were possible, claiming the Union displays it is an absurdity.

That being the case, the question remains as to why Corey Lewandowski was invited at all. It’s not as if he’s a marginalised voice, given his role as a CNN pundit since June. If you want to ‘hear what Lewandowski has to say’, the first thing to do it simply to try YouTube. Lewandowski, as a prep-schooled University of Massachusetts graduate, also has no special insight into what the ever-mysterious ‘legitimate concerns’ of the majority of definitely-not-racist white people in Michigan or Ohio are.

And in terms of the election, there’s no great mystery in how the Trump campaign managed to win—after Lewandowski left!—they campaigned in the Rust Belt and counted on their opponents’ complacency. There are innumerable hot takes online outlining this and competing election theories. Crucially, none of those require giving a fascist-enabler a platform.

What we’re left with in the end, with belief neutrality meaning close to nothing and Lewandowski offering no vital insight, is quite disquieting. It’s my opinion that the idea of challenging Lewandowski at the Union is little more than naïveté or narcissism. If he was ‘destroyed’ last night, it was destruction at the hands of a coterie of Oxford students drunk on their own reputation because the assumption underlying the rhetoric about challenging Lewandowski is that pithy retorts to whatever absurdity he spouts matter. The US election saw all the clever op-eds, all the pointed satire and Drumpfery, all the so called reasoned discussion, ultimately count for nothing in terms of the final electoral college tally.

The irony of this is that it in fact stands in direct contradiction to the Union’s ostensible belief-neutrality. Belief-neutrality ultimately contends that what’s said within the Union’s walls is not meaningful—were it meaningful, then certain speakers would be prioritised through the act of choosing them over others. However, in denying that it’s complicit in the normalisation of crypto-fascism when it offers it up as just another ideology to debate—even though that normalisation through debate is the explicit agenda of the likes of Marine le Pen, hosted by the Union last year.

In sum, Lewandowski’s presence at the Union last night was either an entirely meaningless ego-trip for its attendees, or else it was a contribution to the normalisation of detestable views. Or both. Either way, it shouldn’t have happened.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Corey’s speech was enriching for both sides, raising several controversial points. It drew a big crowd and will further the appeal of the Union. What’s the problem Potts, did someone burst your safe space bubble?

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