I admit it. I’m fascinated by Milo. Milo Yiannopoulos, provocateur, occasional drag queen, Armani-suit-wearing, banned-from-Twitter Cambridge University dropout who just got a $250,000 book advance. The guy we wish was the reincarnation of Christopher Hitchens, but isn’t?
Times change. Milo exploded as a cultural meme precisely because he embodies the polyglot world of 2017. The worst thing about Milo is that, willingly or not, he’s a stalking horse for people worse than himself, like Richard Spencer, a neo-Nazi avatar of the alt-right. The best thing about Milo? He’s a trenchant critic of the censorious tendencies of the Left and, surprisingly, a proponent of courtesy — yes, that old-fashioned word — which allows us to live together despite our differences, even as he selectively exacerbates them. Feather boas and high heels notwithstanding, Milo is an old-fashioned prep school boy, clever enough for one of his most vociferous critics to dub him a “bargain bin Oscar Wilde.” He bemoans the influx of Muslims to Europe and the U.S., but he has a propensity for black boyfriends.
“Racist? me? I’ve had more black dick in me than the entire Kardashian family,” he said. One lesbian novelist friend called Milo’s schtick dated and stereotypical, but I was brought up by a single mom and her gay friends in the 1970s and I laughed like hell.
The most disturbing part of what I’d heard about Milo — other than his only half-sardonic habit of calling Donald Trump “Daddy” — was his alleged harassment of actress Leslie Jones, a star of the recent remake of Ghostbusters. What I discovered was that Milo himself had merely criticized the movie, along with Jones’ off-the-cuff tweets, which were, as he charged, fairly ungrammatical, like half the Tweets in the Tweetosphere. Here’s the problem: Milo’s snarkiness triggered (you should pardon the expression) a truly revolting outpouring of racism and personal abuse from the trolls who flock to Twitter in such astounding numbers I wonder sometimes if they’re not real people at all, but the creation of a twisted hacker in his mother’s basement.
Is Milo a racist? He’s an outspoken critic of Black Lives Matter, but that’s hardly a litmus test. He has categorically described racism as an ongoing problem and endorses reparations for African-Americans, going further than many liberals on this issue. Of course, when it comes to women, forget it. What Milo knows about feminism, or women for that matter, could fit under a cockroach’s fingernail. (Do cockroaches have fingernails?)
Love him or hate him, you can’t slot Milo into America’s oversimplified political discourse. He evokes both literary comparisons and rage. In a Tablet magazine story called “Donald Trump’s Little Boy is a Gay Half-Jew with Jungle Fever,” James Kirchik delivered a blistering assessment of Milo’s schtick:
Though his gay dandyism and adherence to the maxim that “there is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about” stirs comparisons to Oscar Wilde, Yiannopoulos more resembles another literary archetype, satirized by great American novelists from Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe: the British fraud who, by dint of his accent and charm, manages to fool Americans into thinking he’s far cleverer than he actually is. From the fictional Duke and King, grifter confidence men who trick Huckleberry Finn into believing they are disinherited European royalty, to Peter Fallow, the hard-drinking tabloid reporter in Bonfire of the Vanities, Americans have been wise to this affectation for well over a century. Occasionally, however, we still fall for it.
As snarky as Milo himself, Kirchik misses Milo’s true significance. Milo is the 21st century version of an SAS officer, aristocratic commandos who merely changed uniforms in the 1960s and 1970s, working as high-end mercenary soldiers for international magnates like Tiny Rowland, and when deniability was needed, government. Two world wars had reshuffled the world order and the next fifty years would be marked by efforts to re-establish it, or at least contain the fluidity that followed. If writers produce novels to establish order out of the chaos of their tortured psyches, the British (“very good at administration”) tried mightily to contain an increasingly fragmented world, efforts ranging from the establishment of the United Nations to the surreptitious meddling carried out by aforementioned men of action in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as well as within Britain itself, if reports are to be believed.
Milo is a one-man strike force for standing up straight and making sure your shirt is ironed. If you take away the shock value, Milo Yiannopoulos sounds a lot like my mother, and probably yours, too.
The real story behind Milo is globalization. Too much, too fast. If we’re missing the landscape behind his platinum hair, it’s because we’re mired in the very tribalism that Milo decries. Ian Clark, Deputy Director of the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge, has described the era following the Cold War — our era — as a time of “globalization and fragmentation.” Harvard economist Jeffry Frieden has likened this period of careening globalization to an earlier one that occurred at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s worth noting that Frieden believes the resulting instability led to World War I. As early as 1992, everyone from journalist Robert Kaplan to anthropologist Nick Spain predicted that the dismantling of the Soviet Union would lead to global instability. As increasing numbers of countries fall into a more or less permanent state of war, it’s hard to dispute that notion. The U.S. is neither immune nor exceptional when it comes to global trends. Since the Reagan administration, the world’s one remaining superpower has been dismantling the institutions that made it stable and powerful, and with Trump’s election, the process has accelerated.
Is America veering towards fascism, as many pundits have claimed? Or are we in danger of becoming a failed state, with Trump giving small government fanatics like Paul Ryan carte blanche to destroy 250 years of civil society? Either way, it’s high time we stopped arguing among ourselves. Politicos used to call it “the Left’s circular firing squad” and the familiar pop-pop of those firearms could be heard in the wake of the riot in Berkeley that shut down Milo’s speaking gig last week.
Milo’s speeches had attracted protesters before, but this was Berkeley, home of the 1960s Free Speech Movement. More than a hundred “black bloc” protestors — we used to call them Rent-a-Riot — broke windows and set a fire, causing $100,000 worth of damage. In Berkeley, where the median home price is over a million dollars, that’s about the cost of a bathroom. Not much to pay for a little local color.
Much cluck-clucking ensued. The most embarrassing piece came from Melissa Batchelor Warnke in the Los Angeles Times. “The alt-right and conservative media will slice and dice this footage to show the moral depravity of progressives,” Warnke wrote. “Conservative politicians will use this to ends progressives would never endorse; they will make innocent people suffer while citing these acts of extraordinary naiveté. It is the most obvious trap imaginable, and we fell into it. Again.”
Oh, please. If Trump has shown us anything, it’s that liberals and progressives will be attacked whether they’re genteel Wellesley girls or skateboarding anarchists, and, as we have all learned by now, facts don’t matter. (Hillary and her female staff as queenpins of a pedophile ring? Does anyone take these fantasies seriously?)
Berkeley’s broken windows were not the only excuse for self-flagellation. Journalists became fixated on the freedom of speech issue, which led them close to sounding, well, like Milo himself on the subject.
“The left’s failure to support free speech on campus to me is the story, a story of moral failure, and why Milo is an issue,” said two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Craig Pyes.
Pyes is right (he always is, damn it) but to me, the riot’s social context was more revealing than the constitutional issue. Before Milo’s appearance it was reported that Milo was partnering up with 60s radical-turned-right-winger David Horowitz to “out” undocumented Berkeley students. Milo later denied the story, but since it came from Breitbart, where both he and Horowitz are on the masthead, it wasn’t clear whether it was false. Either way, word was circulating on the Berkeley campus, and if I’d been one of those students, I’d have wanted to stop Milo from climbing onstage, too.
The war is different now. It’s not far away in a Southeast Asian jungle; it is at home, it is everywhere. In a fragmenting, globalized world, we feel at risk whether we’re an undocumented student, a Millennial living his parents’ basement, a middle-aged person who can’t get a job, or an older person faced with shrinking Medicare benefits.
It’s globalization, stupid.
In the late 1700s, globalization’s godfather, economist David Ricardo, talked about comparative advantage, the idea that capital should flow to places where it’s more efficient to produce a product. Timber from orangutan habitat in Borneo, for instance, or a factory in China that makes parts of your iPhone. Like Milo, who claims both Greek and Jewish heritage, Ricardo was a product of globalization himself, a Portuguese Jew who had emigrated to Britain from Holland.
What Ricardo downplayed was the displacement he himself experienced. Today, the rate of human migration is the highest in history. Millions of people have been cast out of work as corporations roam the globe in search of market efficiencies. Governments are increasingly fragile, and their decline is speeded by climate change, implicated in Syria’s war, along with refugee camps that have become the world’s newest cities.
Educated people know that the real threat to America’s white working class isn’t immigration, legal or otherwise, but automation and offshoring. But the risk is real, and, as companies send accounting jobs to places like Brazil, it’s not just the working class that’s affected. That’s why so many of Trump’s supporters aren’t actually poor, but relatively affluent white guys. Their solution is wrong, but they see the writing on the wall.
I’ve got my own version of pissed off. They used to say that alcoholism is writer’s black lung disease; the real occupational hazard is envy. My initial reaction to the Berkeley riot was outrage about Milo’s $250,000 book advance from Simon & Schuster. Corporate publishing, I groused, rewarding a conscienceless bully while good writers go begging.
But as I listened to Milo, I realized he’s more Armani than Adolf. Alt-right groups recruit at his appearances, but he’s forcefully disassociated himself from figures like the National Policy Institute’s Richard Spencer, whose beliefs include “European identitarianism” and “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
There are signs that the alt right movement is fracturing, and inevitably, the players are turning on Milo. Andrew Anglin of the anti-Semitic Daily Stormer blasted Milo, calling him “a subversive and a disease.” Just as Oscar Wilde, once feted for his wit, fell because of his sexual orientation, Milo’s gayness means that he isn’t ultimately in the club. Not that club, anyway; he’s definitely in Bill Maher’s.
Things fall apart, as a great writer once noted. Writing in The Skeptic, Westfield State University professor George Michael observes with a certain wryness that the America envisioned by neo-Nazi Anglin and his compatriots is a fractured and weakened country. “Only in a Soviet-style breakup scenario could white nationalists establish the independent mono-racial states that they so desire,” writes Michael, predicting that the scenario would bring the alt-right into conflict with the Big Daddy who brought them to prominence.
Circular firing squad, anyone?