Back when I was in high school in Sarajevo, my best friend was Zoka. We listened to the same bands, went to the same rock shows, found the same stupid things hilarious, played soccer together, skied on the same mountain, supported the same soccer club, confided in each other re: girls, got drunk in the park after school from the same bottle of toxically cheap liquor. We argued about many things, very often about movies—back in the early 1980s (and thereafter) I fancied myself knowledgeable about cinema, which entitled me to deplore the movies he appreciated.
We spent less time together after high school but still remained close, playing soccer regularly and arguing pretty often. But then, bit by bit, in ways so incremental as to be imperceptible to me, he became a passionate Serbian nationalist. Posters of rock bands were replaced with pictures of Serbian saints and stately World War I generals. He no longer quoted lines from movies but from Gorski vijenac (The Mountain Wreath), the 19th-century epic poem about the Serbs’ righteous extermination of Muslims. I detested his turn to nationalist tradition, entirely alien to the urban spirit of Sarajevo, where we both grew up, and I frequently told him so. It got to the point where we were likely to spiral into an argument whenever we saw each other. I’d often insist, before getting wound up myself, that we avoid “politics” and stick instead to soccer and movies, but by the time the war started in Croatia, with news of atrocities committed by the Serb Army, it was hard to stay away from it.
The last time we were together was in the fall of 1991, the war was raging in Croatia. We argued for hours, in the course of which he insisted that Radovan Karadzic—presently serving a 40-year sentence for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity—represented the interests of the Serbian people, including Zoka. I remember most clearly my considered response to him, conveyed by way of a tonsil-burn scream: “Well then fuck you and fuck the people Karadzic represents!”
In the spring of 1992, Zoka had left Sarajevo and his girlfriend to join the Serb Army as a doctor (he was in medical school). She was of Muslim background and was, shall we say, disinclined to follow him and stayed in the city. Later, he’d say to one of our common friends that “she chose her people.” I don’t know what happened to her, but her people remained under siege for more than a thousand days, in the course of which more than 11,000 of her people, including more than 1,000 children, were killed.
Nevertheless, even after I landed in Chicago in 1992, we exchanged a few letters heavy with “politics.” Sometime in the summer of 1992, which was incredibly bloody in Sarajevo, I wrote, in what would be my final letter to Zoka, that Slobodan Milosevic, the nationalist president of Serbia and its Socialist Party, who would die in The Hague awaiting trial for genocide and war crimes, was a national socialist—in other words, a Nazi. In his response, Zoka fully supported Milosevic, who for him also represented the interests of the Serbian people, and wrote that “Hitler did many good things for Germans.”
“I still feel guilty and ashamed of my cowardice and naïve belief that if we only kept talking something might bring him back.”
In a kind of epiphany, I understood that the letter was written in a language I no longer recognized, not least because he was using a dialect and diction far closer to Gorski vijenac than to our past movie arguments. We were now so far apart that whatever I might say could never reach him, let alone convert him back into what I’d thought was the true and original version of my friend. I never responded to his letter, nor would I ever see him again, but he wrote a letter to my parents (who had been friends with his). There, he drew a little map representing the siege of Gorazde, a town 60 miles from Sarajevo where he was deployed, proudly explaining to them that the Serbs did not care about the town as much as they wanted to capture the nearby ammo factory. My mother, who’d implored me not to end my friendship with Zoka for “politics,” wept over the letter, because the Zoka she knew was absent from it. I read it too. It was written not only by a stranger, but by an enemy.
My relationship with the war has always been marked by an intense sense that I failed to see what was coming, even though everything I needed to know was there, before my very eyes. While Zoka took active part in enacting the ideas I’d argued against, my agency did not go beyond putting light pressure on his fascist views by way of screaming. I have felt guilty, in other words, for doing little, for extending my dialogue with him (and a few other Serb nationalist friends) for far too long, even while his positions—all of them easy to trace back to base Serbian propaganda—were being actualized in a criminal and bloody operation. I was blinded, I suppose, by our friendship which had ended, I know now, well before our dialogue did. For all that, I still feel guilty and ashamed of my cowardice and naïve belief that if we only kept talking something might bring him back. I retroactively recognized that his hate and racism were always present and that there was no purpose or benefit to our continued conversation. I had long been screaming into a human void.
I recalled my memories of Zoka earlier this fall, when it was announced that Steve Bannon would headline The New Yorker Festival and engage in an on-stage conversation with the editor-in-chief David Remnick. I was so upset that I rushed to a conclusion that Bannon’s fascism was, for The New Yorker, merely a difference of opinion that could be publicly debated for the intellectual enjoyment of its paying audience. Angrily, I envisioned an intense but polite exchange, a staged confrontation that makes for a good high-brow spectacle, with cheese, wine and further exchange of ideas in the foyer afterwards. In my tweets, I imagined an afterparty where Bannon would be mingling with edgy hedge fund managers, high-end literati and risqué fashion photographers, where all the differences in opinion would be temporarily subsumed in celebrity solidarity and washed away with champagne.
I took it extremely personally, in other words, because I’d published in The New Yorker and participated in the Festival many times. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of betrayal, since it appeared to me that Bannon, the Great Thinker of White Nationalism who has dedicated his life to destroying and subjugating people like my wife (an African-American) and me (an immigrant) as well as our children, families and friends, was welcome to a large tumbler of high-end bourbon, after a stimulating debate on an America he deems endangered by unruly people of color and immigrants. The New York Times reported that in his invitation to Bannon, Remnick wrote: “We would be honored to have you.”
“Only those safe from fascism and its practices are likely to think that there might be a benefit in exchanging ideas with fascists.”
But within hours of the announcement, just as I was intensifying my furious search for things to break, The New Yorker disinvited Bannon. Remnick issued a memo to the staff in which he explained his reasons for wanting an interview with Bannon and acknowledged that a public conversation was the wrong format for it. I found Remnick’s reasoning to be comforting in its sincerity and belief in the truth of journalism, even if I continued to think that an on-stage interview would’ve inescapably and obviously had the shape of an exchange of ideas. Indeed, a number of opinions were publicly expressed before long, on Twitter and in the pages of the NYT, that banning Bannon was stifling a necessary dialogue, that “we” have to engage with the “other” side, whoever we and they might be. And suddenly, Bannon was sparkling in the bright lights of the marketplace of ideas (wherever that may be), and I was again grasping for things to break.
The public discussion prompted by the (dis)invitation confirmed to me that only those safe from fascism and its practices are likely to think that there might be a benefit in exchanging ideas with fascists. What for such a privileged group is a matter of a potentially productive difference in opinion is, for many of us, a matter of basic survival. The essential quality of fascism (and its attendant racism) is that it kills people and destroys their lives—and it does so because it openly aims so.
Witness Stephen Miller and Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance for illegal immigration” policy. Fascism’s central idea, appearing in a small repertoire of familiar guises, is that there are classes of human beings who deserve diminishment and destruction because they’re for some reason (genetic, cultural, whatever) inherently inferior to “us.” Every fucking fascist, Bannon included, strives to enact that idea, even if he (and it is usually a he—fascism is a masculine ideology, and therefore inherently misogynist) bittercoats it in a discourse of victimization and national self-defense. You know: they are contaminating our nation/race; they are destroying our culture; we must do something about them or perish. At the end of such an ideological trajectory is always genocide, as it was the case in Bosnia.
The effects and consequences of fascism, however, are not equally distributed along that trajectory. Its ideas are enacted first and foremost upon the bodies and lives of the people whose presence within “our” national domain is prohibitive. In Bannon/Trump’s case, that domain is nativist and white. Presently, their ideas are inflicted upon people of color and immigrants, who do not experience them as ideas but as violence. The practice of fascism supersedes its ideas, which is why people affected and diminished by it are not all that interested in a marketplace of ideas in which fascists have prime purchasing power.
The error in Bannon’s headlining The New Yorker Festival would not have been in giving him a platform to spew his hateful rhetoric, for he was as likely to convert anyone as he himself was to be shown the light in conversation with Remnick. The catastrophic error would’ve been in allowing him to divorce his ideas from the fascist practices in which they’re actualized with brutality. If he is at all relevant, it is not as a thinker, but as a (former) executive who has worked to build the Trumpist edifice of power that cages children and is dismantling mechanisms of democracy.
We must never forget, of course, that The New Yorker has steadily and relentlessly probed Trumpist malfeasance, publishing substantial, unimpeachable stories about the administration’s unmaking of America. In his memo, in fact, Remnick insisted that his intention was to question unflinchingly these Bannonite practices. Nonetheless, sharing the marquee with Zadie Smith or Haruki Murakami, Bannon the Fascist would’ve been allowed to appear in the guise of an Idea Man.
To engage properly with Bannon and his ilk, the white nationalists and supremacists presently populating and energizing the American government, they must be identified as what they are: fascists. Much of American media and press on this side of the Fox News darkness does not dare to call out a fascist. That is partly out of knee-jerk complicity with the culture of leadership and celebrity worship. But I believe that it is also a matter of unbearable fear that the shape of American society, and the practices it has long depended on to maintain some semblance of democracy, are being destroyed, and no one quite knows what to do about it, save hoping to be saved by Mueller and/or impeachment.
If Bannon were to be called as he is, a fascist, the marketplace of ideas would have to confront the fact that the American government is being rapidly radicalized, that things unimaginable might be around the corner, and that there are many tempting paths to full collaboration. The idea that we’re all in this together and that we must keep talking is dangerous, just as my commitment to friendship was, because we might find ourselves wasting time and anger on a fundamentally unbalanced dialogue, where one side is armed with ideas, and the other is armed with weapons.
It is frightening to think we could be entering the civil war mode, wherein none of the differences and disagreements can be hashed out in discussion. It is quite possible that there is no resolution to the present situation until one side is thoroughly destroyed as an ideological power and political entity. If that is the case, the inescapable struggle requires that anti-fascist forces clearly identify the enemy and commit to defeating them, whoever they are, whatever it takes. The time of conversations with fascists is over, even if they might be your best friend from high school.