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Missoula Rises wants UM to bar Bannon from speaking at high-tech conference

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster/via Courthouse News)

Missoula Rises intends to ask the University of Montana to bar conservative provocateur Steve Bannon from speaking at an entertainment technology conference coming to campus in December.

Members of the non-partisan group will reach out to both the university and conference organizers to keep Bannon from attending the conference, Missoula Rises press coordinator Lisa Davey said Tuesday.

“It’s definitely a grassroots thing,” she said. “We have not done any official action, but definitely members of our student committee and members of the group in general are communicating with each other and sharing ideas about how to contact them and effectively communicate with the conference and the university.”

Bannon is scheduled to speak at the 15th International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology, or ACE.

The conference allows students and faculty from around the world to present their ideas and inventions within the realm of entertainment technology: virtual reality, video games, smart gadgets and technology design.

The event is scheduled in UM’s UC from Dec. 10-14.

University of Montana communications director Paula Short said the group reserved space for about 60 to 80 participants 10 months ago.

She released a statement on behalf of the university clarifying that UM is not a sponsor of – or affiliated with – the conference.

“The University of Montana, like all public universities, is a place that values free speech and expression,” the statement said. “In this spirit, we permit events on campus representing a diverse array of speakers and topics. Mr. Bannon is a recently announced addition to the conference, for which space on campus was reserved many months ago.”

Davey said she is disappointed with the university’s approach to Bannon’s visit, and wishes the statement denounced “Bannon’s rhetoric and his divisive tactics.”

She said the university should be more proactive before he arrives, barring him from having stage time at the institution.

Bannon was President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist until August of 2017, when he returned to Breitbart News, a “platform for the alt-right,” in Bannon’s words. He left Breitbart News in January and has lectured on conservative causes worldwide since.

Davey said she’s not sure what Missoula Rises plans to do of Bannon arrives on campus, but said his visit will not go unchallenged.

“Really, the reason [Missoula Rises] exists is the mantra of ‘no hate in our state,’ “ she said. “So every time someone is here who is really known to be a spreader of hateful rhetoric, I think we want to make sure we’re there saying we’re not okay with this. We do believe in an environment of love and acceptance.”

In an interview Tuesday with Missoula Current, Adrian David Cheok, a professor at the University of London and chair of the conference’s organizing committee, said the event selected a Montana venue because of the state’s fast-growing high-tech industry.

“We wanted to go to areas that can benefit from the new industries of computer entertainment,” Cheok said. “Montana is actually a very beautiful location, but also it’s got growing industries in the tech industry. Computer gaming is the kind of thing that can be programmed anywhere, you just need a computer.

“We want to possibly influence the young people to get into this great industry that can also lead to very good, high-paying jobs.”

Cheok said that Bannon was asked to speak at the conference because of his extensive background in Hollywood and with video game companies.

Bannon was a pioneer in the marketing of virtual goods, Cheok said.

“The old model was that you would pay $80 to Microsoft for some game and you get the CD-ROM and everything, and the new model now is maybe you get the game for free but you end up paying by buying all these virtual prizes and virtual goods. It’s a huge industry,” Cheok said.

He said that Bannon’s talk will focus on pushing technology companies to train workers from minority groups in the United States.

“We heard his talk at a black entrepreneur conference, and he talked about how his concept of how economic nationalism can actually help minorities – blacks, Hispanics and working-class people – to get more jobs in the high-tech industry, which includes the computer entertainment industry, and I think that will be the main topic he’ll speak about at the conference,” Cheok said.

He said that visas allow tech companies to hire less expensive labor – workers who are fully trained for the job, then immigrate from countries like China and India.

Giving high-tech companies more incentives to train and hire U.S. minorities is Bannon’s idea of economic nationalism, Cheok said.

“I’ve seen Steve Bannon many, many times,” he said. “He’s not a racist and being an economic nationalist is not about the color of your skin, it’s about your citizenship. It seems to me, he really does say many, many times that it’s not the color of your skin, what race you are, your religion or sexual orientation or anything like that. It’s about giving opportunity for people in this country to have much better chances.”

Cheok said that while many people will focus on what Bannon is known for with Breitbart and the Trump administration, his pitch about how globalism benefits American tech companies but results in the destruction of American jobs should be heard.

“Not so long ago, America was the top for all the technologies,” Cheok said. “IBM was making computers in America, TVs were being made in America. It’s not that the American people don’t have the talent to do engineering, it’s definitely possible. It’s just that when you can do it a hundred times cheaper in China, then the companies will do that.”

Davey, though, said that by giving Bannon a platform on campus, UM and conference organizers are presenting him as a leader or role model.

“We don’t need to give the alt-right any additional platform or legitimacy,” she said.

On the university’s behalf, Short said UM supports the respectful exchange of ideas and opposing viewpoints, and will honor the perspectives of everyone involved in the conference. Safety and security policies will be followed, she said.

“The University of Montana, like all public universities, is a place that values free speech and expression,” Short said. “But we also are committed to providing a safe venue both for the presenters and participants coming for the conference, as well as for our campus and community members who may want to attend the event.”