Michel Valentin, a fiery agitator and former faculty member at the University of Montana, said he has agreed to debate nationalist Stephen Bannon, who is listed as the keynote speaker for a now-defunct conference in Missoula.
"I will rise up to the challenge and try to oppose him and unmask him if I can," Valentin said Thursday. " ... [Bannon] represents something dangerous, something very dangerous for democracy."
Valentin described himself as a "rebel" ready to take on the "slippery" Bannon who pushes a brand of nationalism with a racist dimension that, said Valentin, he is "clever enough to hide." The former French professor said some people want to ignore the antagonist, but he wants those in the audience to clearly hear an opposing viewpoint.
"What if I'm going to take him on nonviolently, although I can verbally be very vehement," Valentin said.
The ACE 2018 International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology had been scheduled to take place at UM, but most of the presenters backed out in part due to the organizer's announcement that Bannon would deliver the keynote address.
Valentin said the invitation to debate Bannon came from ACE. However, Valentin said Thursday he wouldn't be surprised if Bannon failed to show up. All the information on the conference so far has come from ACE and UM.
The university is not a sponsor of the event.
Bannon, a disruptive political figure, pushed a nationalist agenda to help elect President Donald Trump and served as the president's chief strategist until he was forced out last August.
In response to stated conference agenda, researchers in the technology field raised concerns about Bannon's appearance and the academic quality of the event, and they mounted a boycott. Organizer Adrian Cheok subsequently announced the conference had been shuttered by an "anti-free speech mob."
He said all that remained was the keynote address, and Cheok sought a faculty member to debate the former chair of right-wing Breitbart News. Bannon has described Breitbart as a "platform for the alt-right" — an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism and populism.
Thursday, Valentin said he believes he was invited to participate in the debate after no current faculty accepted the offer. Valentin worked at UM for 30 years and often agitated against the administration and its cuts to the College of Humanities and Sciences. He accepted a buyout a couple of years ago.
Cheok earlier said Bannon will speak about how "economic nationalism will help minorities (blacks, Hispanics, etc.) to obtain more high-tech jobs such as in the computer entertainment industry."
In related news, members of the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate discussed Thursday providing a statement in support of free speech and civil discourse for faculty members to sign. Chair Matthew Semanoff said the point is partly to recognize the fact that Montana is not isolated from racism and anti-Semitism.
Semanoff said he had hoped the offer to debate Bannon would go unanswered. Soon after word of the proposed debate came to light, he said UM and other Montana campuses saw white nationalist leaflets distributed.
He said the Montana Human Rights Network has confirmed public statements are important in response, and the one being crafted for faculty to sign will be in support of free speech and civil discourse. Semanoff said it's also important to acknowledge that work remains to be done to foster inclusivity, diversity and openness.