Help! Donald Trump has been elected president! Jeff Sessions is going to be Attorney General! Steve Bannon is getting an office in the White House! Quick, let’s start banning books!
Banning books is the iconic act of totalitarianism, from historical images of Nazi thugs burning books from Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Science to the fictional book burnings in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. So who in the world would think that a good response to the Trump moment in US politics would be to ban a book? As it turns out, a lot of people.
The book in question is Milo Yiannopoulos’ Dangerous, set to be published in March by the Threshold Editions imprint of Simon & Schuster. The Chicago Review of Books announced they will not review any Simon and Schuster book for a year. Emily Hughes, Penguin Random House’s manager of content development and social media, tweeted “Don’t review. Don’t publicize.” Writing in Elle Magazine, Sady Doyle declared that “there is good reason to believe that publishing it will endanger human lives.” Teen Vogue went further, declaring that Milo had already put a student’s life in danger by mocking her in one of his many campus speeches. Not to be outdone, CNN compared the furor over Milo’s book to the tempest surrounding the reissue of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Germany last year.
This is all over a book, mind you, that has not even been written yet. We are talking about banning books that do not exist.
One of the curious things about banning books is that the only way for you to have an opinion on whether the banning was a good idea or not is to read the book. Which you cannot do if it is banned. So you must delegate the reading of the banned book to someone else whose intellect and psyche is presumably less impressionable than yours, and then you must accept their opinion without question. This willing delegation of the power to police thought is the reason book banning and totalitarianism have appeared historically as two peas in a pod. Banning books that have not yet been written carries this logic a step further.
Note that the same Simon and Schuster imprint published Dick Cheney, the man who did more than anyone to push the U.S. into invading Iraq on a phony premise, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. The publication of Cheney’s book encountered no protest. So who is this far more dangerous person Milo Yiannopoulos, whose mere words put people’s lives in danger?
“Milo,” as he has come to be known in the media, is a provocateur, a smart guy, an in-your-face gay boy, a privileged prick, and a flaming jerk. He has become the face of the alt-right on campuses across the U.S. He is a senior editor at Breitbart News, which means his boss is going to be sitting at Trump’s right hand day-in, day-out.
Milo is a voice we had not heard before in American politics: an outrageously gay man pushing a hard-right populist agenda. He calls Trump “daddy.” He says he cannot possibly be a white supremacist because of “the amount of black dick that has been in my mouth,” which would make him “the most self-loathing white supremacist in the world.”
Gee, Milo, who says you can’t be the most self-loathing white supremacist in the world?
Not surprisingly, Milo is not universally embraced on the alt-right. The explicitly fascist Daily Stormer dismisses him as a “Degenerate Homosexual and an Ethnic Mongrel.”
There is reason to think Milo does not actually believe a lot of what he says, since he was saying the exact opposite just a few years ago. But he is clearly addicted to the fame and power being professionally offensive has brought him and he is moving ahead at max speed looking for more.
Milo rose to prominence as one of the loudest voices in “gamergate,” an epically ugly virtual knife fight among hardcore computer gamers that became one of the first examples of how internet trolling can escalate to the point that people quit their jobs, move out of their homes, and are essentially forced into hiding to escape a deluge of digital hate. Milo arrived in the “gamergate” fray after it was already well underway.
His second boost of internet fame came when he penned a scathing review of the Ghostbusters remake. The army of male internet trolls who had assembled through gamergate then turned their high-pressure hose of ugliness on Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. Things got so ugly that Twitter ended up banning Milo from using the social media service for “inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others.”
Milo has never threatened anyone with anything. He insults people, in the most offensive way he can dream up. He frequently and unequivocally denounces those whose digital threats follow his lead, though he claims to doubt that the internet trolling that follows him like a toxic cloud threatens real-world violence. Much of the controversy around Milo thus centers on whether he is responsible only for his own speech and actions, or the speech and actions of others.
Milo laid out his position to CNN:
There is no question that some of the things that were sent to her were horrible… I am not going to endorse anything horrible that people said to her. Obviously there were some things that were said to her that were disgusting. But I am not in the business of language policing other people. I am only responsible for the things that I say.
Writing in Vox, Aja Romano saw it differently:
In the internet war of words, Yiannopoulos essentially took aim at Jones and fired thousands of eager, angry Twitter users in her direction.
Holding a person responsible for the words of others is a thorny issue to say the least.
Elle Magazine’s Sady Doyle wrote:
If Yiannopoulos just gave speeches fulminating about “sociopathic feminist bitches” and claiming that “systemic racism and white privilege are bullshit,” he wouldn’t be much different than your standard men’s rights activist. Nor, for that matter, would the shock value of those quotes do much to differentiate him from Rush Limbaugh (”feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society”), Bill O’Reilly (”the left wants power taken away from the white establishment”), or Ann Coulter (”the same way virtually any immigrant to Finland makes it less white, almost any immigrant to America makes it less honest”), all of whom have published multiple books without attracting anywhere near this much protest…. he is not just another talking head. He’s younger, a creature of the Internet, well-versed in the medium’s interactive nature and permeable boundaries… Yiannopoulos is valuable to the right wing because he is a creature of the internet, well-versed in the medium’s interactive nature and permeable boundaries.
Doyle appears to argue that there is speech which is permissible in speeches and books but is not permissible on the Internet. This, I very much fear, is the direction a lot of this is ultimately headed: in an age in which individual speech is instantly amplified by the internet, our culture will find “free speech” as it has been understood in recent decades to be intolerable. Over time, a very different regime of regulation of speech will replace it, and our world will become a very different place. Remember that it has become impossible to give a speech or write a book and keep it off the internet. So the way speech is regulated on the Internet will become the way speech is regulated everywhere.
Amazingly, the Obama years seem to have convinced many on the left that as more restrictions are placed on speech, they will be the ones who get to decide what those restrictions are. One might think that the recent presidential election would have disabused them of this belief, but instead the calls for regulation of speech have only become louder.
Getting banned from Twitter was, without doubt, the best thing that ever happened to Milo. He became an instant alt-right superstar. Seeking to broaden his appeal beyond the alt-right, he turned his attention to college campuses. Like so much of what Milo does, this was a smart move. Outside the alt-right bubble, Milo doesn’t do well in the big wide world. His offensiveness lacks context for all but the most alienated young males. He comes across as unhinged. He does much better on college campuses, where his message resonates.
Every now and then Milo talks about trade, immigration, and Islamic terrorists. More often, he carries on about the rights of white men. But his assault on “political correctness” and his “free speech fundamentalism” is his core message. Sometimes it is his only message. Milo resonates on campuses because speech on college campuses in this country is, in fact, increasingly restricted, and students are very much aware of this.
This is a big issue and a long story, which is not well-known outside of academia. I have lost count of how many conversations I have had with people outside of the academy who begin by pooh-poohing my complaints, and then, after hearing just a few anecdotes, are more incensed than I am.
It is a difficult story to summarize in a few paragraphs. I will defer to Laura Kipnis, whose books include Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, which considers a wide range of non-mainstream sexualities as contributions to the human experience worthy of study. She has recently been writing about the politics of sex on campuses, and was shocked to find herself subjected to a year-long inquisition at Northwestern concerning the acceptability of her views. Her experience in this regard is not unique, but her reaction was: she wrote an extended analysis of her experience in a major academic journal. Courageous woman. Much of her critique of campus politics overlaps with Milo’s. Here is Kipnis:
The more colleges devote themselves to creating “safe spaces” — that new watchword — for students, the more dangerous those campuses become for professors. It’s astounding how aggressive students’ assertions of vulnerability have gotten in the past few years. Emotional discomfort is regarded as equivalent to material injury, and all injuries have to be remediated.
Here is Milo on CNN, explaining why he routinely engages in offensive speech:
As long as there are people who think that “offense taking”… is equivalent to some genuine kind of injury, I am necessary.
Oops. Which is the misogynist jerk and which is the radical feminist? Can we silence one and not the other. According to Kipnis, maybe not:
Most academics I know — this includes feminists, progressives, minorities, and those who identify as gay or queer — now live in fear of some classroom incident spiraling into professional disaster…. professors around the country now routinely avoid discussing subjects in classes that might raise hackles.
Milo makes a lot of hay challenging the idea that there is a “culture of rape” on college campuses. It is a focal point of every Milo speech, and of many critics, who contend that questioning the description of “rape culture” promoted by one sector of academia constitutes “hate speech.” Here is Kipnis, describing her experience running aground on this same reef:
Ambivalent sex becomes coerced sex, with charges brought months or even years after the events in question. Title IX officers now adjudicate an increasing range of murky situations involving mutual drunkenness, conflicting stories, and relationships gone wrong. They pronounce on the thorniest of philosophical and psychological issues: What is consent? What is power? Should power differentials between romantic partners be proscribed? Should eliminating power differences in relationships even be a social goal — wouldn’t that risk eliminating heterosexuality itself?
But then Milo and Kipnis part ways. Kipnis:
Nothing I say here is meant to suggest that sexual assault on campuses isn’t a problem. It is.
Milo aggressively ― offensively ― argues that sexual assault on campuses is vastly exaggerated (though he does not claim campus rape never happens). He goes on: “This isn’t about protecting women. It’s about man-hating. It’s a confected moral panic directed against young, male, mostly white American college students.”
There you have it: Milo’s special trick. He begins with an assault of political correctness that resonates with many students, and uses that as a launch pad into a petty, ugly pandering and gloating which rallies the worst instincts of a large number of white men.
Of course, students who do not get to actually read Milo will never learn how to think about these details. For them, Milo will simply be forbidden.
My concern is that debatable and ultimately conservative notions about sex, gender, and power are becoming embedded in these procedures [which govern sexual relations between students], without any public scrutiny or debate. But the climate on campuses is so accusatory and sanctimonious — so “chilling,” in fact — that open conversations are practically impossible.
This chilling campus climate provides Milo with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of low-hanging fruit. He gets to be another borish and privileged, asshole berating all those less powerful than him, while nevertheless electrifying large and growing audiences on a scale that his critics can only dream about – all because open conversations are practically impossible.
Julie Bindel is a well-known feminist writer in England. She is “second wave” feminism incarnate. She sees herself as fighting the patriarchy, which she has done tirelessly for decades. She is the co-founder of the law-reform group Justice for Women, which helps women who have been prosecuted for killing violent male partners.
Like Milo, Bindel has recently been banned from campus appearances by transgender activists for, among other offenses, arguing that a male to female transsexual should not work as a counsellor of female rape victims.
Last February, the University of Michigan did something extraordinary: they hosted an actual debate between these two dangerous pundits of the right and left. I suspect that very few of those denouncing Milo have read or heard much of anything he has actually said. I recommend that they give this debate a look. It is a real debate. How rare! Both participants are articulate in explaining their positions, listen carefully to their adversaries, and engage with the details of the other’s assertions. It is highly educational, and appropriate for a college campus. I will probably use it in a class I am teaching next quarter at the University of California at Davis.
During the debate, the University of Michigan Spectrum Center (for queer students) provided a “safe space” to shelter students from the “incredible harm” this debate might inflict upon them:
It has come to our attention that an event titled, “Does Feminism Have a Free Speech Problem?” is taking place this evening on our campus. We recognize that the rhetoric of the speakers featured in this event is incredibly harmful to many members of our campus community. The Spectrum Center will be providing a supportive alternative space this evening and holding extended staffed hours until 9pm. There will be no program; our intent is to offer a relaxing, positive space for students who want to gather in community.
The assertion that students need protecting from an actual debate between left and right is just the sort of thing that makes Milo such a hot ticket on campuses.
Milo also made sure that he got off some of his trademark offensive remarks during the debate. He always does. As he explained to CNN,
In an outrage culture, I think the appropriate response is to be outrageous… I don’t want everyone to be like me, but I think that it is important that there are some people like me…. If I offended you that’s good, that’s me performing my function. You should grow a thicker skin and grow up.
Milo is certainly not the first person to make an intelligent case for the social merit of offensive speech. Lenny Bruce and George Carlin come immediately to mind. But in this debate, Milo’s offensiveness did not come off well. It impressed no one. Beside the point. Who cared? It was amazing to see how engaging Milo intellectually, rather than attempting to silence him, disarmed his allegedly “weaponized” rhetoric.
Milo hates it when he fails to incense. So as his “Dangerous Faggot” campus tour proceeds he has been upping the ante. He now insults people on campus by name, even putting their pictures up on the screen behind him. He calls them fat and ugly. He is horrible. He flails around, almost pathetically, stooping to seemingly anything in his rush for censure. These rants are most certainly difficult for the people Milo targets, but he does not put their “life in danger,” as TeenVogue claimed.
Every time the left tries to silence Milo instead of debate him, Milo wins. Which means that Milo is winning an awful lot. Which is why he has multiple YouTube videos with nearly a million hits each. And why Simon and Shuster have given him a quarter of a million dollar advance for a book he has yet to write. The attempt to silence the book instead of debate it will only broaden the sphere in which Milo has an appeal.
Don’t read the book? Don’t review it? Don’t debate it? Just silence it? REALLY?
This is the world we live in now, folks. Trump is about to be sworn in as president. Milo’s boss, Steve Bannon, has a new position in the White House carved out just for him, right next to the President’s office. Milo has millions of YouTube hits, writes on Breitbart News, and is interviewed by cable television. You think you can “deny a platform” to Milo? What planet are you on?
This is the world my students are growing up into. They need to know these arguments, and these people. They need to be able to digest the content of all of this. Which parts of Milo’s thought do they agree with? Where, precisely, does it run off the rails into bullshit and hate? I want my students to be able to debate Milo and win, not need the school to provide a safe space for them to cower in while Milo and his superiors take over the country.
Last month, a school district in Viriginia pulled copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” from classrooms and libraries while considering whether to permanently ban the books because they include racial slurs. The district was responding to a complaint from the parent of a biracial high school student. “I’m not disputing this is great literature,” the parent said. “But there is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording… What are we teaching our children? We’re validating that these words are acceptable. They are not acceptable.”
Yesterday, singer Rebecca Ferguson responded to an invitation to perform at Trump’s inauguration by saying she would do so on the condition that she could sing “Strange Fruit,” an extraordinary song about racist lynchings in the South originally recorded by Billie Holiday. Time magazine named it the “song of the century.” The Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry.
Ferguson immediately became a hero of mine. Way better than merely saying no, her response highlighted the fact that hate crimes have been increasing since the presidential election, and fears that this trend will continue.
I wonder if “Strange Fruit” could even be sung today on many college campuses. The lyrics describe a “Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,” with “bulging eyes and twisted mouth,” and “the sudden smell of burning flesh.” Would the school create a safe space for those who would be “incredibly harmed” by the words?