WHEN MILO YIANNOPOULOS, the far right troll from Breitbart, was announced as a guest on Real Time With Bill Maher, few heads turned with dramatic surprise. Milo’s “Dangerous Faggot Tour” has been shuddering with controversy since it began, with protests at almost every date and many decrying his brand of diet Alt Right. When his February 2nd date at the University of California at Berkeley came, the counter-organizing had swelled so large that they overwhelmed the venue. Over $100,000 in damage took place as a Black Bloc broke windows, watched as a generator sparked into flames, and forced the University to cancel the event. Milo then went on a public tirade demanding retribution against the college, screaming that the left had violated his free speech.
In the search for allies in this struggle, he looked across the aisle to Maher. Last year, Maher had been approached to deliver the Commencement Address to outgoing Berkeley students. In the months prior, Maher had made it his crusade to go after Islam “from the left,” repeatedly singling out Muslim immigrants and countries with large Muslim populations as enemies of liberal freedom. Students then revolted against his appearances, opting to have a less offensive speaker to send off a diverse catalogue of students. Just as with Milo, Maher took to the airwaves in repeated rants about his freedom of speech, which, he claimed, the “out of control” liberals had robbed him of.
Free Speech Plaza
The choice to pick-up Milo out of the flames of Berkeley created an outpouring of rage, not only from antifascists hardened by the reality of Trump and the ongoing wave of violence against the most marginalized, but by the left-wing of Maher’s bench as well. After the announcement that Milo would be escorted onto the CBS lot and into Maher’s favor, Jeremy Scahill chose to boycott the episode and had to be replaced by a centrist talking head.
“Milo is a bridge too far,” said Scahill, in a statement put out in the wake of his decision. “Appearing on Real Time will provide Yiannopoulos with a large, important platform to openly advocate his racist, anti-immigrant campaign.”
With Milo’s campus attacks on transgender students, Scahill used the February 22nd episode of his podcast Intercepted to discuss anti-trans violence in the wake of a GOP gone Trump and a White House that is openly rolling back transgender protections.
Milo’s invitation on was, in Maher’s voice, a call for the protection of free speech. This has been the same rallying point for thousands behind the “Alt Light,” those voices on the edges of mainstream conservatism that echo the ideas of the Alt Right in a slightly moderated form. From the angry conspiracism of Infowars to the bitter misogyny of Mike Cernovich and the Manosphere, the “Chan Culture” of memedom and alienated white masculinity has found its brand identity is lamenting the “loss” of unmitigated “free speech.” While Maher loudly asserted his ideological variance with Milo, they met on their desire to attack the shifting face of liberal censorship.
What happened on the February 17th episode of the HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher can now, in light of what came later, be called Milo’s high water mark. This peak came not from the concision of his message or the size of the pulpit, but by the way that Maher’s celebrity and the fawning applause of his rich-city audience of outspoken whites validated Milo’s persona as that of an American icon. As Milo stepped out of reality to claim that transgender people have higher rates of sexual predatory behavior, that Muslims are a threat to average Americans, and that the rest of his audience had “low IQs,” Maher laughed along, even saying “that’s a defensible point” when it was again suggested that men use the cover of gender fluidity to rape women in bathrooms. What came to pass was not ideological unity with Milo, but the validation of angry trolldom, stripping victims of violence of any claim to their own trauma by assigning sainthood to the rich white man “throwing caution to the wind” to speak as he feels.
In the week that followed Milo’s life got put through the wood chipper as video surfaced where it appeared as though he defended child sexual assault, playing on a familiar trope where it is actually a culture of survivorship developed a narrative of victimhood for good-natured inter-generational genital fondling. The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the yearly hub for 10,000 conservative activists around the country, dropped him from his surprising slot as keynote speaker. His book deal from a conservative imprint of Simon and Schuster was dropped, which included a shocking $250,000 advance. As the shockwaves hit the conservative community, Breitbart staff reportedly nearly revolted and forced Milo to step down.
“I regret the things I said,” he said, maybe for the first time ever. “I don’t think I’ve been as sorry about anything in my whole life.”
My Turn to Speak
While Milo and Maher may nominally inhabit different sides of the political spectrum, they meet on the same point: that neither should be asked to take a seat. Each has their own narratives as to the reason speech is suppressed; from the role of toxic liberalism to the stupidity of the lumpenprole, yet in the end their view remains the same. As people who study the history of speech suppression over centuries of shifting tyrannical rule, few would suggest that the cancelation of the events for either of these figures signals the dominance of censorship in the Western consciousness. Maher is one of the most heard figures in American politics, having had a regular show for over two decades along with a prolific career as a stand-up comic and commentator.
Milo, though only a spritely 32-years-old, has risen to massive fame, so infamous that his reputation precedes many of his ideas. He has spoken at dozens of universities to large crowds over the last couple years, becoming one of the most read “conservative” writers on the Internet. If you want to hear their opinion, on just about any subject, it is only a few characters away from you no matter where you are in your daily routine. Milo, especially, exists almost primarily as a tacit protest in favor of a vulgar view of free speech, where his actual ideology is often challenged to hold any authenticity. Is he saying feminism is worse than cancer because he believes it? Because he wants the right to say it? Because it gets him fame and fortune? All of the above?
The way that politically correct speech works on the left is always open to critique, for inconsistencies and inadequacies, yet those thoughtful analysis are vacant from the aggressive yells that mark both of these figures. Instead, it is the guttural anger of the privileged that see any impediment on their own monologues, the production of their words, as the ultimate tyranny. To have any loudspeaker denied, any syndication revoked, any audience member to turn their back, or any community to say no as a sign of oppression, though often unnamed.
Milo’s own history lends a certain insight into this, where the manufacture of controversy and the desire for attention trumps all other ethical concerns. Milo first made a name for himself during the revealing “Gamergate” controversy, a point that skyrocketed his celebrity in the Chan subculture and pushed him into the ill-fitting role of “Tech Editor” at Breitbart. According to Milo and his acolytes, Gamergate was the brave revelations of nepotism and illegitimacy in videogame journalism. From the view of the female writers targeted and the rest of the world watching in horror, it was the organized rage of the rejected male nerd lashing out with vicious harassment against women and people of color.
Milo rose to fame as an internet troll, leading unhesitant derision on people like Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. The digital stalking was almost always tinged with racism, misogyny, and virulent Islamophobia and transphobia, where Milo developed his own style where he would rapid-fire misrepresented statistics to argue for the pathetic inferiority of almost everyone in his wake. At Breitbart, Milo may have found his home as the publication created by Tea Party star Andrew Breitbart pushed further into the direction of nativism, all under the heading of Steve Bannon.
Milo may have even outgrown his role at Breitbart as he hit the college circuit, creating a growing cult of young white men radicalized through social ineptitudes and the offensiveness-as-praxis of message boards. He flirted with the hardline white nationalism of the Alt Right, but only until it became too toxic and he was able to scrape a layer of post-conservative “cool” off the top to increase his star. He had become what he wanted: a loved/hated icon of the loud, privileged white male.
While Milo has been lamented as less than a traditional conservative, an estimation he would likely agree with, his ideas are not that far outside the mainstream for the GOP. He persists that homosexuality is a choice, that Islam is inherently dangerous to the West, that transgender people are mentally ill, that fat people are sick, and that if Black Lives Matters cared about black lives they would intercede on “black crime.” While he may say this with a certain gusto designed to rile up his opposition, it is simply the blunt edge of the slightly more nuanced script of CPAC and its Heartland base. What Milo has achieved is to make the far right cool again, and allow the revolutionary vision of the Alt Right an access to a new generation of college-aged white men.
The True Tyranny
Maher’s celebrity came out of a tepid career in film as a young comedian before landing a late-night spot on ABC through the nineties, where his show Politically Incorrect became known for pairing four people of different persuasions to debate current issues. Awkward pairings became the attraction: Did you see the one where G. Gordon Liddy sat next to Marilyn Manson? Though controversy floated over the show’s tenure, it wasn’t until 9/11 changed the country’s attitude that Maher saw retribution. He was eventually fired for questioning George W. Bush’s claim that the people involved in the attack were cowardly. His subsequent show, Real Time With Bill Maher, is ostensibly left of center, yet with HBO’s “uncensored” branding, Maher was promised to see not retribution for his words. While casually liberal, the main attraction of the show, its primary orientation, is Maher’s own aggressive assertions that can change week by week. There remains little ideological orientation other than the exasperation of the host, whatever insult or point he wants to drive home on a given Friday night.
What Maher and Milo want to declare is that the supposed suppression of their speech, whether by TV executives or college students, is the greatest of oppressions. This does not mean that there government speech laws that are literally imprisoning them for using a profane dictionary of words, but that anytime they are told they are unwanted the same catastrophic censorship is true. For two men who have built their careers, and entire personas, on being able to say whatever pops into their head at any time with a large audience, the suggestion that they will not be provided a platform makes them incensed. For them, and for a generation of white men, personal rejection is akin to systemic repression. To require that public comments have some validity, that they own up to the consequences of those statements, that they have proof of legitimacy, are all to impede on their central belief: that their words must be heard, at all times and in all places.
This belief comes less from a renegade spirit to challenge lived experience of speech suppression, but instead from a lack of experience. A condition streaming from never having been told “no,” having never been challenged on their behavior, and in this world normal consequences feel as though the door on Stalin’s gulag has been shut with a bang. This experience is one owned by white male privilege, to walk in a room and know that your opinion will be heard and will become the default. This is only amplified with their wealth and the mass social capital of fame, fertilized through social media headlines and trending hashtags.
For Milo specifically, the shut down that occurred at UC Berkeley and De Paul University in Chicago came less as a reaction to his “speech,” but his willingness to become an organizing center for the Alt Right and to create very real conditions of violence for transgender, Muslim, and undocumented students, all of which he evades by simplifying his presence as “naughty words.” In a certain sense, the same conditions were true for Maher as students saw the rising tide of Islamophobia given legitimacy with a liberal face when Maher reigns down judgment on their religion, and it is this climate of unburdened rage and misinformation that leads to attacks like that seen in Quebec City. No segment of the opposition to Milo or Maher has argued for hate speech laws that would legally bar them from speaking out, and no one is under any obligation to provide them a platform or to provide aid to a growing current of reactionary violence.
Though Milo took some bit of responsibility for his comments, he continued to feed a conspiracy narrative that took aim at his opponents and placed the revelation at their feet. The Alt Right came out divided on the situation, where Mike Enoch and The Daily Shoah actually came to his defense in a certain sense, agreeing with Milo that their “enemies did this.” This will certainly signal a quick decline for Milo, but there is no reason to believe he will just suddenly disappear. Another publisher, maybe one with a more bold history of controversial publishing, will likely pick up his book. The consequences that have been seen come not just from what Milo has done and said, but the fact that an organized contingent created consequences for his behavior that were public and sweeping. This adds weight to his work, and creates a climate of concern for those outlets and organizations that would capitalize on his villainous fame. It was organizing that set Milo back, not just his own hubris.
Speech has consequences, and “free speech” as a concept is not consequences-free. As Trump gave weight to the white supremacist fantasies of the Alt Right and the dangerous spark given by Milo, more people on the left are providing those consequences to voices that wanted to throw stones with impunity. For Milo and Maher, this may mean that they have found a marriage of convenience as their opposition is far from fading. It may also mean that we have a lot more words to hear, but now they have to hear some back.
Shane Burley is a writer and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How We Stop It (Forthcoming 2017, AK Press). His work has been featured in places like In These Times, ThinkProgress, Roar Magazine, Labor Notes, Make/Shift, Upping the Ante, and Waging Nonviolence. He can be found at ShaneBurley.net, and on Twitter @Shane_Burley1
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