How flawed is too flawed when it comes to opposing the worst aspects of the cultural left?
The author with Milo Yiannopoulos and Christina Hoff Sommers at the Society of Professional Journalists’ Airplay panel on GamerGate. Miami, August 2015.
Originally, I was going to write this piece — a piece about why Milo Yiannopoulos is a very bad hero for conservatives, libertarians, or anyone else really — right after the University of California-Berkeley riots sparked by his planned visit to the campus. Then I decided to wait: It didn’t seem sporting to slam Milo when violent thugs were trying to shut him up.
It seems even less sporting now, when Milo Yiannopoulos has suffered a swift and brutal fall after the disclosure of video and audio clips in which he appears to endorse sex between grown men and underage boys. We all know what happened: Besides getting disinvited from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he’s lost his $250,000 Simon & Schuster book deal and his Breitbart job. I’ve questioned whether to go ahead with this piece. I’m doing it for several reasons. For one thing, far too many people are still making excuses for Milo and treating him as a hero or martyr. For another, I feel some responsibility, having made my share of excuses for Milo at one point. And finally, this is not just about Milo; it’s about how not to oppose the cultural left and “political correctness.”
I got to know Milo through GamerGate, the anti-PC revolt in the videogame community; we both covered it sympathetically, saw each other in person at the first GamerGate meetup in May 2015, and were both on a GamerGate panel at a Society of Professional Journalists conference later that year. Several articles on Milo’s downfall, including by authors I respect such as my Reason colleague Shikha Dalmia, have repeated the claim that GamerGate was an anti-female hate mob. In fact, as I have written before, it was far more of an online war in which harassment happened on both sides, and more specifically a reaction to the politicization of culture by the “social justice” left. This is not to rehash GamerGate but to say that I still think Milo was basically on the right side of it. (I also think he did it far more harm than good.)
As much as I dislike Breitbart, I thought — and still do — that Milo was doing some solid reporting on the tech industry culture wars. His takedowns of social justice bullies like Shanley Kane, a radical feminist with a white supremacist past and a neo-Nazi ex-boyfriend, and Randi Lee Harper, an online bully doubling as an activist against online bullying, were “hit jobs,” but fact-based and well-deserved. I also saw a lot of appeal in the idea of “cultural libertarianism” advanced by Milo and his sidekick Allum Bokhari: a movement uniting people across the political spectrum in support of free thought and free expression, against identity politics and authoritarianism of all stripes.
Unfortunately, for all his talent, wit and charm, Milo soon showed himself to be, as the social justice crowd would put it, a problematic ally.
For one thing, some of his attack journalism clearly crossed ethical lines. A particularly egregious example was his reporting on Black Lives Matter activist and writer Shaun King. (I have many issues with BLM, and I think King is a leftist hack; but that’s no excuse for hackery in writing about him.)
In August 2015, Milo published a sensational story accusing King, who had described himself as the biracial son of a white woman and a black man, of being a fake: his birth certificate listed a white man as his father, and a police report on an assault he suffered in high school in 1995 gave his race as white. In a statement on The Daily Kos and a Washington Post interview, King said that the man on the birth certificate was not his biological father, that he had grown up believing his real father was black, and that his mother had just confirmed this. Milo’s response was to brag that King had validated his report by admitting that he had started to identify as biracial without any evidence, based on a “feeling” and on the acceptance he found from blacks.
But Milo left out a highly relevant part of King’s account: his claim that as a child, he was repeatedly told by other children as well as adults in his small-town community that his real father was black. Nor did Milo acknowledge that the police officer who wrote the 1995 crime report had told the mediathat King was widely known to be “mixed” — and that he had checked “white” on the police report form because it had no “biracial” option. Milo had to be aware of this statement, since King quoted it in his Daily Kos post. Yet he chided King for failing to address “why that report listed him as white.”
Another incident shortly after that showed Milo not only playing fast and loose with facts but treating GamerGate as his army of Breitbart loyalists. In September 2015, a thread on the GamerGate forum on Reddit, Kotaku in Action (KiA), criticized Breitbart for going after Texas college student and Black Lives Matter supporter Monica Foy. Foy had reacted to the fatal shooting of a police officer with a tweet sarcastically asking if he deserved it, in a gauche attempt to make the point that such questions are raised about black men shot by police. Pilloried by Breitbart as a BLM activist spitting on a dead cop, she was hounded online and harassed with threatening phone calls. Many KiA posters argued that while Foy’s tweet may have been stupid and insensitive, Breitbart was engaging in precisely the kind of witch-hunt, and against someone who wasn’t a public figure (Foy had under 100 Twitter followers) for which Milo and others had assailed “social justice warriors.”
Enter Milo in a rare visit to KiA, with a lengthy post slamming the critical GamerGaters as ungrateful “idiots” with no appreciation for what Breitbart and Milo himself had done for them, while calling Foy “bloodthirsty,” “psychopathic,” and fat. In a particularly inspired twist, Milo suggested that Foy, who is white, probably only took an interest in BLM in the hope of catching a black guy since she was “too gigantic to get a white date.” Actually, Foy was married, and the New York magazine report on the story repeatedly mentioned her husband.
There was also the fact that Milo was increasingly acting as a provocateur stating or defending fairly extreme views. He defended the “cuckservative” slur flung by some far-right Donald Trump supporters at mainstream conservatives during the Republican primaries, glibly hand-waving its well-known white supremacist subtext of racial treason and “cuckoldry” at the hands of blacks. His criticism of (eminently criticizable) Third Wave feminism veered more and more into actually misogynist broadsides, like the article asserting that women’s enrollment in science, math, and engineering classes should be capped at five percent because they’re mostly a waste of space. Tongue-in-cheek? Most likely yes: Milo’s Exhibit A was his feminist opponent in a television debate on science and sexism who seemed to claim that women in science can’t cope without special treatment. But it was written in the “just trolling…or maybe not” style that was becoming Milo’s trademark.
I didn’t exactly let this slide. I made a post on the Margaret Foy situation, though I didn’t criticize Milo by name. I argued with Milo on Twitter about the “cuckservative” hashtag and racism; I recall him making the inane argument that since conservatives are routinely smeared as racists no matter what, the best way to fight back is to deliberately break the taboos on overtly racist language in order to subvert the power of this smear. Nonetheless, we remained amicable enough that I was one of the guests on Milo’s six-hour livestream in late October 2015 to mark the launch of Breitbart Tech. I know I defended the nasty stuff Milo wrote to several people by arguing that he was simply trolling and challenging the censorious outrage culture. Basically, I was one of Milo’s enablers. Mea culpa.
Why? Several reasons, I think. Partly because it’s not easy to slam the door on someone who treats you as a friend — and on a personal level, Milo was always warm and gracious to me. Partly because I still thought Milo was doing some worthy things. (I have no regret about participating in his livestream fundraiser for the legal defense of Gregory Allan Elliott, a Toronto graphic artist who had to fight criminal charges of harassment over a Twitter quarrel with some feminist activists.) Partly because I was afraid of coming across as a humorless PC scold. I’m sure some will see this as proof that I was trying to ingratiate myself with my patriarchal overlords and show them what a good sport I am. But the truth is that when cornrows on white women can be “called out” as racist and an elderly scientist can be vilified as a misogynist for a self-deprecating joke about his “trouble with girls” in the lab, it’s not unreasonable to worry about being too PC.
By the time I wrote in Milo’s defense after he lost his verification checkmark on Twitter in January 2016, I made it pretty clear that while I thought Twitter’s enforcement of its anti-abuse policies was biased and inconsistent, I found much of Milo’s behavior deplorable. (Yes, I actually used that word.) By then, I had also openly told him off on Twitter for a nasty attack on Canadian videogame journalist Liana Kerzner, a.k.a. “Liana K,” a “dissident feminist” partially sympathetic to GamerGate with whom Milo had had a notorious Twitter spat in the early days of the hashtag.
The last straw for me, finally, was Milo’s new role as a cheerleader for the alt-right a few months later. No, that lengthy “guide to the alt-right” he and Bokhari co-wrote for Breitbart wasn’t just a journalistic investigation; it was a valentine that praised the likes of white nationalist Richard Spencer as brilliant intellectual mavericks and defended prolific tweeters of Jew-hating memes as mischievous anti-PC rebels. They didn’t quite embrace white nationalism, briefly noting that they find classical liberalism preferable; but they treated it with sympathy and respect, as a mainstream viewpoint deserving a place at the table. Elsewhere, Milo could be found arguing that it’s not anti-Semitic but merely factual to say that Jews run the banks and the media, or joining an alt-right mob in hurling vile tweets at a conservative Jewish pundit after the birth of his son. Milo’s contribution to the torrent of abuse tweeted to Ben Shapiro was a taunt about the baby being fathered by a black man. (We get it: Shapiro’s a “cuck.”)
This is not a “Milo and me” piece, so I won’t dwell on my subsequent interactions with Milo. I wasn’t too shocked by his downfall; I had been wondering for some time when one of the many deplorable things he had said and done would catch up with him. And yes, I was also aware of the audio and video clips in which he said disturbing things about sex between adults and underage boys, apparently defending it as well as discussing his own boyhood experience with a parish priest (which he then insisted was fully consensual) and much more recent presence at Hollywood parties that involved sex with “very young boys.”
If you want to argue that Milo is a victim of left-wing double standards, you probably can, given the standing ovation actual child rapist Roman Polanski got in Hollywood. But then, to the left, Milo was odious long before this revelation; what really mattered was that the right finally found him unacceptable. The truth is also that he should have been unacceptable long before this, for all the reasons mentioned above.
For the record, I don’t think for a moment that Milo is an actual white nationalist or a fascist. (I’m not sure Milo is anything at all, as convictions go, but we’ll get to that later.) But did he promote them? Yes. Did he have a major role in inviting them to come out from under the proverbial rock? Of course. Did he try to legitimize some awful people? Absolutely.
For instance: a year ago in one of his articles for Breitbart, Milo referred to “the popular pro-Trump account Ricky Vaughn” as one of the users partially censored by Twitter for political reasons. What he didn’t mention was that the pseudonymous “Ricky Vaughn,” a prominent alt-right figure, is a hardcore racist and anti-Semite whose tweets include such gems as, “The jews (sic) fear that Donald Trump is Hitler because they know that they have done great evil in America” and “College campuses are feral negro playgrounds.” (In one exchange around May 2016, which vanished with Milo’s Twitter ban and has not been archived or preserved in screenshots — but which I remember quite well because Milo still managed to shock me — another Twitter user made a disparaging comment about “Ricky” and Milo replied, “I think he’s great.”)
It’s true that in the months before his downfall, Milo made a visible effort to distance himself from the alt-right, of which he had previously styled himself a “fellow traveler.” In one of his recent campus talks, he made a rather impassioned and, I will say, genuine-sounding plea against embracing white nationalism or “white pride” as the answer to left-wing identity politics and called for treating people as people without regard to race, gender, or sexuality:
For what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly agree with this Milo. But was this a sincere sentiment or simple damage control because, as much as Milo relished his scandalous reputation, being seen as a mouthpiece for a racist movement was a bit much?
Which brings us to the next question: Is Milo sincere about anything? He has repeatedly claimed that he’s all about freedom of speech and rebellion against the outrage culture; but just four years ago, he argued in The Kernel, his now-defunct online tech magazine, that people on the Internet are too mean, that “hate speech laws are inadequate,” and that trolls should be banned from the Internet forever. (As Milo eventually was from Twitter over the harassment of actress/comedienne Leslie Jones.) To be sure, a person can evolve; but Milo never acknowledged his rather drastic change of heart about freedom of online speech until he was confronted with his 2012 article.
Also worth noting: a couple of months after that article was published, Milo publicly shamed a man, revealed his name and place of employment, and drove him off Twitter for a snarky response to Milo’s tweet about having been a victim of domestic violence. (The context was his ability to relate to pop star and abuse victim Rihanna.) You should see Milo waxing righteously indignant at the man’s flippancy about domestic violence, both on Twitterand on his blog. Looks like the outrage culture begins at home.
When you combine Milo’s chameleon history (did I mention the time he chastised actor Stephen Fry for un-PC remarks about women back in 2010?) and his more recent shtick as Schrodinger’s troll (you know, one who simultaneously means and doesn’t mean the outrageous things he says), it’s pretty clear that nothing he says can be taken seriously. Which is why it’s also difficult to put much stock in his apology at his press conference the other day, when he expressed regret for his remarks appearing to condone adult/child sex and averred that he has now recognized his boyhood experiences as abusive and harmful.
I did not want this piece to be a catalogue of Milo’s sins; but a few more things need to be noted. One: Milo has a history of shady behavior that includes unpaid wages, fees and debts at The Kernel and more recently the strange doings surrounding the “Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant” for white male students (where an ex-staffer, Canadian conservative activist Margaret McLennan, also says she wasn’t paid for her work). Two: in at least one instance, there is strong circumstantial evidence of Milo instigating a truly repulsive attack on Liana K, the journalist with whom he had a Twitter feud.
Last year, there were persistent rumors that Milo was behind a long piece vilifying Liana — penned by a self-admitted troll and targeting not only Liana herself but her husband and her elderly mother — on an obscure muckraking blog whose owner, onetime GamerGate supporter Ethan Ralph, was an ardent Milo fan. This rumor received some confirmation last December when pro-GamerGate videogame journalist Nick Monroe went public on Twitter with a screenshot from a leaked chat in which Ralph discusses the piece on Liana and states that “Milo said personally to bury this bitch.” Monroe also shared a screenshot from his own correspondence with Milo, who essentially admitted using those words but claimed he was encouraging Ralph to expose Liana as “a liar and a plagiarist” on his webcast, not to dig up personal dirt. (Milo did not respond to my email request for comment last week. Incidentally, he also made the plagiarism charge against Liana to me over a year ago when I objected to his slam at her on Twitter; he even claimed that she had plagiarized from me. I asked for evidence, which he said he did not have at his fingertips at the moment. Still waiting.)
In spite of all this, I have sympathy for Milo, who absolutely was a victim of abuse and whose “fabulous supervillain” persona is obviously a façade hiding all-too-human insecurities. There are some archived blogposts on his old website which I think show a glimpse of the real Milo, and which actually made me hesitant to publish this piece. But the problem is that Milo is dangerous, and not in the ego-tripping sense in which he uses it for his own hype; not dangerous to the “marginalized people” he insults, and not to the “social justice warriors,” but to any movement he tries to champion, and especially to the anti-PC movement which I’d be fine with calling cultural libertarianism if Milo hadn’t ruined the phrase.
For one, when saying and doing outrageous things for the sake of anti-PC affront is part of your brand, it takes away the value of anything you say that is actually meant to be serious. Look at the articles being written on Milo now, and you will see that “rape culture on college campuses is a myth” (a statement that I believe is 100% accurate) is being treated as just another outrageous stunt, on a par with “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy.”
No less egregiously, Milo’s brand of anti-PC revolt may play well with those people who already hate PC with a passion, but it alienates everyone else. (It even alienates some PC-haters: a friend of mine who is passionately anti-PC, and who at one point followed Milo on Twitter on my recommendation, told me she unfollowed him in a few days because she was fed up with his “kidding-on-the-square misogyny.”) If anything, it validates PC. One of the chief arguments made in defense of the PC regime is that “political correctness” is really about nothing more than treating people with respect and recognizing the equal dignity of women, racial minorities, and other groups historically treated as inferior. When Milo’s idea of defying PC is this…
… well, it certainly seems to lend some credence to the “PC is respect” formula, doesn’t it?
In the end, the Milo debacle actually has some important lessons for conservatives, libertarians, and anti-PC liberals. For instance:
- The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.
- Making “social justice warriors” apoplectic is not an accomplishment. (For one thing, it’s far too easy.)
- And most important: Speaking up for other people’s humanity and dignity, and against actual bigotry — not the nonsense version promoted by PC culture — is not “political correctness” or “virtue signaling,” it’s simple human decency.
As for Milo himself: He, too, deserves human decency. At his press conference, he said that after a misspent youth he decided a few years ago that he wanted to “do something good with [his] life.” I’m pretty sure what he’s been doing for the past couple of years isn’t it. But there’s still plenty of time, and if Milo’s next self-reinvention takes him in a better direction I’ll be the first to cheer.
Update: Due to an editing glitch, the piece originally referred to Shanley Kane having a neo-Nazi boyfriend. It should have been “ex-boyfriend.” I regret the error.