Milo’s Stumble

James Butler

Milo Yiannopoulos is done for. The Breitbart editor, who made a name for himself by peddling ‘unsayable’ things, and riding the waves of right-wing adulation and left-wing horror which followed, finally stumbled over a genuine taboo. A recently recirculated tape of remarks on the benefits of relationships between adolescent boys and older men has finally caused the American conservative establishment to cut its ties with him. He has lost his slot at CPAC, the premier right-wing political gathering in the US, which has previously hosted defenders of internment and slavery; Simon & Schuster, the publisher which gave him a $250,000 advance for a book (working title Dangerous) and defended the offer on the grounds of freedom of speech, has cancelled his contract. Last night, amid rumours of staff threatening to walk, Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart. One might marvel at what stirs the underused muscles of conscience in a Breitbart staffer were the temptation to schadenfreude not so overwhelming.

One irony of this second-rate Night of the Long Knives is that the excuse beloved of Yiannopoulos’s enablers and those profiting from him – freedom of speech – is far from the absolute and unlimited right they claim. It’s worth remembering what those limits don’t constrain: outing and humiliating a trans student on stage in Wisconsin; calling for universities to ‘purge the illegals’ by shopping undocumented students to immigration enforcement; enlisting thousands of followers to hound a black woman off the internet. Such people and such lives are meat for entertainment – but hands off the kids. Publications that defend his free speech in those matters, but not in this one, clearly find something congenial in his invective.

The various targets of Yiannopoulos’s venom are utterly orthodox: women, gays, black people, Muslims, migrants. The reason he has found so rapturous a reception on the college circuit is not that he is saying the unsayable, but that he is restating the fundamentals of conservative American culture. His deviation from this orthodoxy demonstrates the consequences of broaching a real taboo: the dollars evaporate in front of your eyes. So conventional were his targets that Newsweek’s liberal anti-Trump journalist Kurt Eichenwald could tweet his admiration for Yiannopoulos’s castigation of campus radicalism even while deploring the recent revelations.

As an editor at Breitbart, Yiannopoulos became a key media face for the emerging pro-Trump coalition, the so-called alt-right – much to the chagrin of old-school Nazis and paleoconservatives, who found themselves represented by a gay man of Jewish descent, and worse, one with dyed hair and a camp inflection. Some commentators find themselves rapt by these apparent contradictions, or imply that they point to a nihilist opportunism on his part – as if so contradictory a man couldn’t possibly really believe such things. Though it’s easy to suspect him of Iago-like self-confection, his ultimate sincerity is unknowable, and not really the point. On TV he delivers ultra-reactionary lines without a flicker of doubt, and with every rhetorical trick he knows.

As anyone who watched him dance venomous circles around Channel 4’s Cathy Newman – or insinuate his way into Bill Maher’s affections through a shared disdain for trans women – might conclude, Yiannopoulos understands that political communication is less about rationality and deliberation than it is about rhetoric, identification and emotion. The weapons of reason alone are blunt against him. It is a lesson rapidly being assimilated across the European hard right.

In his speech announcing his resignation from Breitbart, Yiannopoulos thanked Steve Bannon, the site’s white nationalist proprietor and intimate adviser to President Trump, for the opportunity. He knows where power sits, and proximity to power is what has so far acted as a glue to keep the ramshackle Trump coalition together. Bannon could have saved Yiannopoulos with a wave of the hand, just as White House threats to defund UC Berkeley followed quick on the heels of its protest against him. That he has not – and that this old tape is suddenly in circulation again – suggests that glue is becoming at least a little unstuck under the torsions of political power: the coalition may yet splinter further.

Will Yiannopoulos survive? His reinventions have always depended on the charity of his audience. From Iron Cross-wearing Tori Amos plagiarist, to self-loathing Catholic homosexual, to bankrupt tech blogger, to Twinks 4 Trump, his obsessions have remained similar: hatred of women, especially women in the public sphere; admiration for the powerful and contempt for the weak; vitriolic antipathy to the Left. These are not pretended beliefs, but permanent features of his position; they are the same obsessions chronicled in Klaus Theweleit’s examination of the fantasy lives of proto-fascist Freikorps men in 1930s Germany. In his transgression of a taboo – by taking a stance which admits, though for shock purposes, the unsettling complexity of adolescent sexuality, even as it disdains to take seriously the need for protection against exploitation – he may find himself permanently excluded from the homosocial fantasies of the new young Freikorps. But, as Theweleit writes, such men await nothing more than to see ‘this whole noxious world explode’. Yiannopoulos may yet find another perch from which to help them on their way.


  • 22 February 2017 at 4:47pm
    Parissing says:
    Ah but I think that the loyal opposition is enjoying this way too much: it's Schadenfreude in stock-car overdrive. Milo may not be anyone but Milo (I'm thinking of the current "He's no Hitchens" column on the Guardian page) but growing up in NYC, I was exposed (ah yes) at a tender age to the Village Voice and Pacifica Radio both of which gave some play to the all-but-inescapable North American Man-Boy Love Association. Left or right, Americans have always been in denial about youth and sex. Milo may have blown it and good riddance to him, but this kind of victory (if that's the word) just emboldens the prudes.

    • 22 February 2017 at 5:09pm
      kadinsky says: @ Parissing
      Hopefully, a knock on the door will eventually arrive for all child rapists, Parissing.

    • 22 February 2017 at 7:39pm
      Parissing says: @ kadinsky
      Ah, Kadinsky, this should be a place to discuss and debate, even an issue as thorny as teenage sexuality. Not for making threats that while they sound tough, you know will never come to pass. And if it makes you feel any less worse than you sound, I'm het and while around gay males much of my formative years, was never once abused. (As I doubt Milo was, although he's making big noise about it now.) The irony - to employ a stratagem of the blog's author - of Milo's fall is that he fell into disgrace the one time he ever talked about anything in a positive light.

  • 22 February 2017 at 8:00pm
    kadinsky says:
    Neither a vigilante threat nor an attempt to sound tough, Parissing. Simply an expression of hope that every victim of paedophilia eventually receives legal justice. Your life experience seems to have conditioned to see it different ly. Perhaps others here will entertain you in debate.

  • 22 February 2017 at 11:36pm
    suetonius says:
    My 2 cents, fwiw. I would suggest the important issue is consent. I don't think age of consent laws can actually deal with that, since people are very different at the same age. Some 15 year olds are plenty mature enough to consent, some aren't. No 10 year olds are old enough to consent. Historically it's also a problem heterosexual versus homosexual wise, and gender wise, 14 year old boys who ended up in bed with adult women were envied, 14 year old girls it went both ways, and 14 year old boys who ended up with men were victims. Parisssing is correct that Americans are in denial about youth and sex, but there are issues that have to get dealt with, carefully.

    • 23 February 2017 at 8:23am
      whisperit says: @ suetonius
      Yes, consent is central, but as you suggest, it's not straightforward. In particular, it is bound up with power.

      The Sexual Offences Act of 2003 did a reasonable job in recognising these dynamics - for example, in not only maintaining an "age of consent" but also in creating the "position of trust" offences.

      Perhaps the most problematic area, in terms of human rights, remains that of same-age teens who engage in consensual sexual activity whilst both are under age.

      However, I can't see a way round a statutory "age of consent" - it would be a disaster for young survivors to have to face elaborate, intimate and traumatising "tests" of competence in court. And where this involves an adult perpetrator and a child survivor, the potential for catastrophic retraumatising in court is very real. One consequence would be that child rapists would be even more confident than they are already that they could get away with their crimes.

      Men who rape children *always* think that what they are doing is "different"; that the child is really leading them on, that what they are doing is somehow an equal exchange; that they are "teaching" a valuable lesson...the justifications are endless. But they share with Milo Yiannopoulas an inability to empathise; a pathology that sees the world only through the prism of their own desires.

    • 23 February 2017 at 10:31pm
      Higgs Boatswain says: @ whisperit
      I am old enough to be suspicious of any generalisation about any group of people - however unpopular - that contains the word "always." My experience of paedophiles, both offending and non-offending, is that they are no less intrinsically empathetic than any other group of people (and my experience of teliophiles is that they too perceive the world "through the prism of their desires" - who doesn't?).

      I am also suspicious of those who demonise or dehumanise another group of people on the basis that they have an "inability to empathise". Empathy is always selective, and we all choose to empathise with people we find it easiest to identify with. In this respect it seems worth noting that Milo Yiannopoulos has, in the past, suggested that paedophiles should be imprisoned for their desires and used to start industrial fires. So he is at least sincerely unsympathetic to minor-attracted persons too, though I doubt that will redeem him in the eyes of the empathy-police.

      Child sexuality is a complex and emotive subject, and probably one about which it is impossible to have a rational debate at the present time. Active paedophiles do have a tendency to justify their own actions in irrational and self-serving terms, but so too do their critics and the self-appointed representatives of child-victims. It is an area where everyone would do well to check their own assumptions. And, of course, to be as empathetic as possible.

    • 24 February 2017 at 9:56am
      whisperit says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      I share your unease when reading sweeping generalisations about people and their psyches. So when I wrote as I did, I did so consciously, in part because some of the debate around Milo's comments seems a throwback to the years when child sexual abuse was hardly recognised at all, or if it did, it was seen as somehow an equal exchange between between child and adult.

      So the group I generalised about are not "paedophiles" or "people who have underage sex", but "men who rape children". Secondly, it is certainly the case that many child rapists are capable of showing some empathy - but in contrast to your assertion, a larger proportion than in the general population show significant impairment in this area - including, for example, those labelled as "sociopaths", or given a quasi-medical diagnosis of personality disorder.

      Similarly, I agree that we *all* see the world through the prism of our desires, and that "child sexuality" is "a complex and emotive subject". I agree too that this means that it will colour our discussions. But it does not render such discussion redundant or unhelpful. After many years of experience we *have* learned that the arguments Milo makes are retrogressive and many of the assumptions behind them are - to put it plainly - flat wrong.

      We can make rational and coherent points about this even while we also are emotionally engaged - isn't that what we are doing here?

      I have no idea of what your "experience of paedophiles" might be. For what it is worth, I have worked professionally as a therapist and advocate with many child survivors of sexual abuse. Indeed, you might wish to dismiss my views entirely as I seem to fall squarely into your own basket of deplorables, the "self-appointed representatives of child victims" and "empathy police". But as I tried to point out, this isn't an intellectual exercise. The question is about power - who has it, who are the vulnerable, who the marginalised, here? And who benefits when we avoid engaging with reality, and instead talk about how "complex" the subject is, or how people on both sides are self-serving and irrational?

    • 24 February 2017 at 10:19am
      SuZ says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      Unless you or somebody close to you has been afflicted by the trauma of child abuse, you'd be best advised not to represent yourself as an authority on this subject. To suggest the paedophile and his critics are equally deserving of scorn is simply offensive. Somebody of your age and proclaimed experience should be able to recognise that.

    • 28 February 2017 at 10:56pm
      johnnykevlar says: @ whisperit

      We are definitely well served by admitting to a subject's complexity. To me, it seems like the ability to empathize is the first prerequisite of a variety of criminal behavior. For example, I have a hard time imagining that any rapist would continue raping if he was unable to imagine the point of view of his victim. It just happens that what he imagines brings him pleasure whereas the majority of us would be horrified. Empathy is in fact the exact channel along which the crime brings him any satisfaction. For this very reason there are a lot of attempted rapes wherein the assailant is unable to get erect. Where the empathetic process upsets them against their expectations. Even if the endless justifications you mention are are self-serving, what is it that they are deliberately playing to except a kind of empathy, wherein there is an "equal exchange?"

      So Higgs is right when he says that empathy is selective. The real breakthrough to this mystery will be in understanding that selectivity scientifically and socially.

      This kind of controversy has pedigree. To give it a literary context, Graham Green provoked a similar scandal when he suggested Shirley Temple had been sexualized by 20th Century Fox to appeal to licentious old men. This was shortly before he fled to Mexico. I always wonder though, whether our feelings of shock and outrage at these events, at these thoughts, whenever they're publicly ventilated, are meant to substitute for a specific kind of self-knowledge.


  • 23 February 2017 at 10:11am
    Parissing says:
    Gentlemen, gentlemen (I assume) : Your thoughtful and sometimes testy responses re child abuse are grand but they represent a rather sharp left turn into the criminology / grievance part of town. The blog is about Mr. Milo, the unloved.

    I simply tried to make the point that Mister M. Y. was not being tried or dumped by various media outlets for the sin of child abuse but rather for wielding the extremely hot poker of discussing sex. Free speech and all that. It's quite clear from both the Guardian columns and the responses here that there are some things that cannot be discussed. As if the age of consent in its various embodiments was set in stone and universally acknowledged.

    I therefore conclude: 1. You know nothing about teenage lust, or prefer to forget it. 2. The free speech of the internet (etc.) appalls you. As I said above, Milo the Mendacious got canned and universally condemned because, perhaps for the first time in his irksome career, he was talking about something positive, something that is a part of gay culture. I am not a proponent of rape in any form - I know it's necessary to say that or I'll be pelted with hailstones. But heaven help us if people of different ages didn't help each other out sexually.

    I could go on. I just find the spectacle of people supposedly on the left applauding M's demise strange. (Much like I find liberals praying for the CIA to "take care" of Trump incredible.) It's a cheap victory, and proves little. Breitbart never had a conscience and Simon and Schuster sold theirs long ago. I doubt M is going away, and even if he does, he'll be replaced by someone worse. So enjoy your moment of moral superiority.

    • 23 February 2017 at 12:53pm
      whisperit says: @ Parissing

      The claim that, "S/he is a very *mature* 13 year-old S/he *wanted it*" is one that is used regularly by child rapists to excuse their crime, to justify the deliberate grooming of future victims, and to psychologically torture survivors later in their lives.

      I have no problem with debate around these issues, including what the age of consent should be. But how can one expect to say "It's OK for a 13 year old to have sex with a 28 year old" without consequences? Or to boast that "I was the predator" when, at 14, he was performing fellatio on his priest? Or of talking of attending parties at which "very young" boys were being sexually used by adults (and declining to name any of the perpetrators)?

      I am baffled at how you can describe any of this as "positive".

      Milo, of course, has enjoyed the rewards of "saying the unsayable" up to now. His latest boasts are the continuation of a self-centred, individualistic view of society and a failure to recognise that the protection of the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalised is a central function of the state and society. Whilst raising the spectre of gay sex might have mobilised the opposition of conservatives who were hitherto broadly supportive of him, he has said nothing "positive" for the survivors of abuse and only managed to associate gay sexuality with paedophila again.

      Neither is Milo's free speech being infringed. No-one is prosecuting him for what he said. He is being criticised for his opinion (ouchie!). And he's lost some sponsorship so he will have to find support from others if he wishes to continue to broadcast his views on the same scale. Who knows, he may even be reduced to making posts on the blogs of niche literary magazines. Quel dommage.

    • 23 February 2017 at 1:49pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Parissing
      There are a number of good reasons for people's reticence about these issues. If history is a dialectic, then we have just come out of the most appalling thesis in which the possibility of child abuse was too shocking to even consider and the consequences of that wilful blindness infernal. It is not surprising that we are in an antithesis where it must be considered abhorrent in each and every situation.
      Then there is that in the 70s, when the spirit of taboo breaking was healthily rife, quite a few left wing people in the UK who had not thought about it properly got taken by paedophile organizations like PIE which promoted out and out child abuse.
      Finally, while there might well be cases where adolescents and adults have sexual interacted in a way beneficial to both, it is impossible to frame the laws of consent in a way that precludes the much more usual case of the adult abusing their power. It is easy for an adult to manipulate the emotions of a younger person, especially if they are in any way damaged or vulnerable - that the younger person is willing does not guarantee anything.

      Last of all, I want to know why? Why is there any need to question the law or defend this man? You say that people ‘of different ages … help each other out sexually’ but there is nothing an adult can do for an adolescent that someone their own age but a bit more experienced could not do just as well - if they happen to have a thing for older people, it will not harm them to wait.
      As for why the left is rejoicing in Yiannopoulos’s downfall, it is because he deserves it and we have precious little else to cheer at the moment; it is not because he is telling the truth - if he had been banned from CPAC and lost his publishing contract for calling Trump’s travel ban a monstrosity, we would not be crowing.

    • 28 February 2017 at 7:19pm
      John Cowan says: @ Joe Morison
      > there is nothing an adult can do for an adolescent that someone their own age [...] could not do just as well

      In many jurisdictions, two teenagers having sex is officially just as much statutory rape as if an adult were involved. Others, like New York, have a sliding scale, but there is an increasing pressure toward bright-line rules criminalizing all underage sex. After all, if a 16-year-old is not able to consent to sex with a 19-y-o, why should they be able to consent to sex with a 17-y-o? It's supposed to be about one party's inability to validly consent, which is not affected by the other person's status.

  • 28 February 2017 at 6:10pm
    Chrisdf says:
    I would honestly like to know if he was actually ever funny, but haven't been able to find any evidence for this. I initially gathered he was an alt-right version of Ali G so expected to find a few non-pc jokes at least. Nothing so far, but pleased to be shown otherwise if that's the case. It would be all too convenient to find out that the US right has in fact absolutely no sense of humour -- but we must resist easy caricatures...

  • 28 February 2017 at 7:50pm
    BrianBruise says:
    As one of the founders of the Canadian Gay Liberation Movement I can say that one of our goals was to liberate the sexuality of people of all ages, genders and sexual identities from the hidebound guilt induced by any form of sexual activity inherent in the dominant Judeo-Christian culture.

    The issue of the power relationship between a younger individual and an older one is important. Although let me use an unusual example. Say a young man (or teenage boy if you prefer) who is one year below the age of consent has a number of consensual sexual encounters with, say their handsome 22-year-old neighbour; and they are found out. The guilt and horror of the young man is not to be found in their feelings for one another, but in the guilt the youth feels in having to testify against the man when the youth was the one that initiated the contact in the first place. The 22-year-old now becomes a pariah and is put on a "sexual devients" list for the rest of his life. If you get a chance read Russell Banks' "The Lost Memory of Skin" about a heterosexual young man who through some very naive actions on his part falls into a similar kind of web.

    Finally to make a serious segue here to a topic also involving sexuality and gender I want to ask those who are alarmed simply by a discussion on the age of consent, do they also believe that parents who start grooming their pre-adolescent children to dress and act as the gender opposite to that they were born to; and when they hit their adolescence, allow or even encourage them to start hormone therapy.

    I support trans-gender folks out there but also strongly believe that such a profound decision regarding one's future self and all that entails, should be made at an age which has enabled some life experience and wider knowledge to influence their actions, not just the influence of their enthusiastic parents.

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