By Jonathon Van Maren
There has rarely been a career implosion so swift and so spectacular as that of Milo Yiannopoulos. On February 17, he appeared on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” where he did what he does best: tried to come off as a lovable but incorrigible rapscallion while flattering the host without the least bit of subtlety. He already had a $250,000 book deal with Simon and Schuster, and on February 18 proudly announced a speaking gig lined up at the Conservative Political Action Conference, of all places. By all appearances, he was gearing up to push his circus into the mainstream. The following day, it all fell apart.
The tweet came not from one of the social justice warriors who yearned for Milo’s scalp, but from a tiny conservative group called the Reagan Battalion. The anonymous activists had unearthed damning footage of Milo chatting on a podcast called “The Drunken Peasants,” belittling what appeared to a sexually abusive relationship between himself and a priest and seeming to excuse pedophilia. The comments, which exploded across the Internet, introduced Milo to the limits of free speech for perhaps the first time in his professional career:
Milo: “You’re misunderstanding what pedophilia means. Pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13-years-old who is sexually mature. Pedophilia is attraction to children who have not reached puberty. Pedophilia is attraction to people who don’t have functioning sex organs yet. Who have not gone through puberty. Who are too young to be able…That’s not what we are talking about. You don’t understand what pedophilia is if you are saying I’m defending it because I’m certainly not.”
Man off-camera: “You are advocating for cross generational relationships here, can we be honest about that?”
Milo: “Yeah, I don’t mind admitting that. I think particularly in the gay world and outside the Catholic church, if that’s where some of you want to go with this, I think in the gay world, some of the most important, enriching and incredibly life affirming, important shaping relationships very often between younger boys and older men, they can be hugely positive experiences for those young boys. They can even save those young boys, from desolation, from suicide… providing they’re consensual.”
The next day, CPAC cancelled Milo’s speaking engagement and issued a statement condemning the comments. Simon and Schuster cancelled his book deal. Milo issued increasingly desperate Facebook posts consisting of, for the first time in his career, apologies for his words, vulnerability concerning his own status as a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, and declarations of his identity as a “gay man” in an obvious attempt to use this status to shield himself from the barrage of criticism. Nothing worked, and the only digital news outlet on the Internet not covering the story was Breitbart, where Milo worked as tech editor. By February 21, a day later, Milo had resigned from Breitbart. He then held a press conference that was equal parts damage control and defiance. He promised that he’d be launching his own media enterprise soon, that he’d publish his book this year anyhow, and that he was never going anywhere.
Although I followed it closely, I waited to offer any commentary on the Milo implosion because I was waiting to see what this media venture might look like—it was supposed to launch this week, but has failed to materialize. A flurry of other columns highlighted the relief of many conservatives who watched Milo’s rise with dismay and analyzed the sad fact that it took comments about pedophilia to finally make Milo too toxic to handle. The Guardian actually excerpted my earlier review of Milo’s Dangerous Faggot Tour in their collection of conservative reactions to the Milo phenomenon. Milo’s fans, on the other hand, have come roaring to his defence—including, I was disappointed to see, a lot of conservatives.
I am not someone who wants to demonize Milo. I take his explanation of his words at face value, although as one of my columnist friends wryly pointed out, “It would be a real shame if conservatives spent any time trying to put a fine point on what constitutes pedophilia to defend this guy.” I’ve written before that in many ways, I see Milo as a very tragic figure. But conservatives need to realize that not only is Milo Yiannopoulos not one of us, he is also not what he presents himself as.
First of all, Milo is not a conservative, and takes every opportunity to make this point. At the speaking engagement I attended at Michigan State University, he announced that he hated the conservative politicians—“those c****”—as much as he hated progressive ones. The day before the Conservative Political Action Conference made the bewildering decision to invite him to speak, Milo informed Bill Maher that he was not a conservative. When David French of the National Review celebrated the birth of a son, Milo tweeted a photo of a black baby at him to insinuate that French was a “cuck,” a racially-charged pornographic term he helped popularize that the alt-right uses to refer to a white man being forced to stand by while a black man had a sexual relationship with his wife. Milo greeted the birth of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s son with a similar tweet.
And that brings us to an even more important point: Milo Yiannopoulos is not just a loveable and mischievous free speech warrior who pushes boundaries to make a point. He’s often a very nasty person, which is something that many people overlook because of the happy-go-lucky demeanour he spends so much time cultivating. When Katherine Timpf of National Review wrote a column making the very obvious and uncritical point that angry social justice warriors fuel Milo’s career, he responded by posting on his Facebook page that Timpf only had a career because men liked to masturbate over her, and then claimed he had heard that she “dropped the n-word like a Klansman” in private. In other words, he tried to smear a conservative writer with the very same racially-charged and unsubstantiated accusations he’s made a career out of condemning, while repulsively degrading her at the same time. This was not playful banter. It was a vicious attempt to hurt her and her career.
Milo has done the same thing to Ben Shapiro, publishing accusations about Shapiro’s private transactions for speaking engagements for no reason other than embarrassing Shapiro and hurting his career. These people he’s attacking are rock-ribbed conservatives, remember. This is not Milo directing misogynist name-calling at Lena Dunham, a celebrity conservatives love to hate. This someone many people consider to be a conservative hero lashing out at conservative commentators simply to be nasty. Shapiro, to his credit, has never responded to Milo’s unprovoked public attacks and showed incredible restraint in refraining from commenting on the wreckage of Milo’s career, even though he had to have felt a sense of schadenfreude. Many targets of Milo’s vitriol probably watched his career crash with the thought, Well, it couldn’t happen to a nicer person. Several people who know Yiannopoulos personally have told me that he is a lovely and charming person, and to his friends I’m sure he is. But his nasty streak is vicious—and is often directed at conservatives.
Some conservatives tolerated Milo because they felt he was a “useful idiot,” pushing the boundaries of free speech on the fringe while giving the rest of us some breathing space. But considering that a libertine sensationalist pseudo-celebrity almost managed to end up on the dais at CPAC, it’s pretty clear that Milo was actually using the mainstream Right as the useful idiots, instead. It’s obvious that Milo was planning to take his circus truly mainstream and make an impact on conservatism that would be as long-lasting as it would be dangerous. Not only is Milo not a conservative, he spends a lot of time saying that to anyone who will listen. The question must be asked: Why are some conservatives wasting any breath defending him? Milo isn’t the latest victim of progressive speech codes. He’s the victim of his own brash libertinism and nastiness. When I heard him speak, I thought the crude sex jokes were tiresome—but I’ll admit I never thought that they’d be the reason for his downfall. I’m almost relieved that at least there’s still a social consensus surrounding sex between men and boys.
Milo Yiannopoulos isn’t going anywhere, of course. He’s amassed an enormous Facebook following of over a million fans, and they appear impervious to any damaging revelations. Milo’s media venture will probably get brisk traffic, and I’m sure his speaking engagements will be well-attended. Even if he chooses to self-publish his book, it’ll probably be very profitable and sell well. But one thing has changed: Milo’s path to the mainstream has been cut off. Conservatives will never again tolerate him speaking somewhere like CPAC. His access to those platforms, speaking engagements, TV appearances, and book deals is blocked. Every media mention of Milo will now say something along the lines of, “Yiannopoulos, who once defended sexual relationships between men and boys…” Simply put: If Milo was too toxic for Breitbart, he’s going to be stuck with his true believer fans and his alt-right trolls permanently–and that’s a good thing for conservatism.