Activism

DePaul University Tour Shut Down by Protestors, Lead by Self-Styled Free Speech Warrior Milo Yiannopoulos

Yiannopoulos and his fans once again did not prove to be as robust as their rhetoric.

Photo Credit: Brent Payne / Flickr

At DePaul University this week, Milo Yiannopoulos had a tour event shut down by protesters. We can support the protests and at the same time note that this kind of confrontation is his meat and drink.

At DePaul, the self-styled free speech warrior and his fans once again did not prove to be as robust as their rhetoric. When protesters arrived they begged for the intercession of cops, and cartoonish redpill tough guy Matt Forney complained about being manhandled.

Nevertheless, the event received the usual hagiographic treatment on Breitbart and the Daily Caller, and once again Yiannopoulos was able to portray himself as the alt-right’s courageous truth-teller.

He was fortunate, in a way. On his current US campus tour, alleged threats to his free speech, and the back and forth between Yiannopoulos and his antagonists have been the only thing sustaining interest in the whole enterprise.

I know because I attended a Milo event at which there was no left reception committee. When he appears unchallenged, the Milo show is the dampest of squibs.

At the University of Oregon, where I saw him, it was not clear that he was especially grateful for the platform, or the lack of interruptions.

“Your professors are cunts, on the whole,” he tells the mostly student audience in an almost-full auditorium, “limp-wristed, pacifistic, sandal-wearing weirdos.”

It goes on like this for hours - the epithets are relentless and the provocations artless.  Without hostile interruptions, Yiannopoulos’s act, which unfortunately relies entirely on him speaking, is a one-note affair.

The Oregon engagement begins, like the others, with a one on one interview. Tonight his interlocutor is the co-president of the local branch of Young Americans for Liberty, who are sponsoring the evening. Then comes an open question and answer session, and Milo finishes up by giving fans an opportunity to take selfies with one of the right’s rising stars.

But right now, that’s a long way off. First, we have to wade through the redpill boilerplate that constitutes Milo’s political views.

“There is an assault in this country”, he informs his interviewer, “on straight white men”, waged by “middle class women and cucks.” In this case the latter is being used to describe male feminists, who “don’t need to be castrated, they’ve done it themselves.”

Moving onto rape culture, which he considers a myth, he asks, with a theatrical moan, “Is there anything worse than consent?”

These opinions are odious, of course, but in another way utterly banal. Most adults will find Yiannopoulos’s show exactly as transgressive as a dirty joke told by a racist uncle. He wants desperately to cause deep offence to the left, and with some campus-based comrades, he clearly succeeds. Others will struggle to muster an eye-roll. I’ve heard pithier put-downs of progressives on Australian bar stools.

So why are all these other people laughing?

After all, even if you agree with this stuff, there’s not much here that’s new. Milo described the alt-right, for which he as a kind of spokesman, as a group which is “young, creative and eager to commit secular heresies”.

But anyone who’s ever listened to Michael Savage or Mark Levin, or even waited around in a small-town barber shop has already encountered all of this guff at punishing length. If there’s a difference, it’s purely a matter of presentation.

His core politics are similar to those of the mens rights movement - he hates feminists and claims they’re waging a war on the *real* victims, men. But everyone on the American right pretty much agrees with this. He calls lesbians names and questions whether there should be further Muslim immigration. But these are not novel sentiments either.

For sheltered campus conservatives in provincial college towns, though, it all sounds terribly naughty, even revolutionary. Not because of what’s being said, which is “redpill”  boilerplate, but because of who is saying it.

In an irony whose full implications escape his audience - who are not, on the whole, well-attuned to such things - his identity is the only real value he adds to an otherwise bog-standard litany of complaints.

The conservative ecosystem is variously populated by talk-radio mastodons; dessicated, reptilian columnists; and near-vegetative think-tankers with about as much charisma as their lanyards. In this Jurassic world, Milo can self-consciously promote himself as something disruptive and new.  

Of course, he’ll say he’s also bringing glamour. But as has been  pointed out, the guy dresses like something out of a “Hey, kids!” PSA, or Poochie.

Tonight, in pink t-shirt, bling, gaudy trainers and lightly distressed denim, he looks like he’s beamed in from the “boys casual wear” section of a decade-old Macy’s catalogue. Only the buttoned-down Randroids who run YAL could think that his frosted tips and ostentatious indoor sunglasses are anything other than normcore-gone-wrong.

The really entrancing thing for America’s reactionary dweebs and young fogeys is hearing this from a gay, British man in his thirties, rather than say, Rush Limbaugh.

It means that for an hour or two, they can put aside their niche anxieties about creeping sharia, or who is using which public restroom, and imagine that they are part of something subversive.

The bonus is that even in making this pitch, he comforts his audience with the knowledge that they don’t have to take the political demands of other LGBT people seriously. He drops hints that deep down, he hates queers as much as they do.

One of his biggest applause lines in Eugene was the moment when he distanced himself from other gay men, averring that “the worst thing about being gays is other gays… They’re just such fucking fags.”

It’s all a bit like music hall for young tories: marginally risque but ultimately reassuring. It’s conservative all right, but not in the edgy way Yiannopoulos imagines it to be.

In fact he’s just one of a long line of performers who exist to endorse the whole slate of garden-variety petty bourgeois prejudices. It’s dull work, I imagine, but there’s a steady market for those who can give it fresh nuance.  

For now, he appears to be on a roll. From his start as a Breitbart writer and gamergate troll, he’s energetically barged his way into the dress circle of rightwing celebrity.

He now rubs shoulders with the likes of Ann Coulter, with whom he shares a performative, post-Trump antipathy to established movement conservatism. He’s successfully positioned himself as a member of the “alt-right”, a movement for which he drafted a manifesto which also functions as an apologia for the open anti-semitism and racism of that community.

(During the evening, he retails the anti-establishment sentiments which are themselves now de rigeur on the right, saying that “the Republican Party needs to be torn up, burnt to the ground and rebuilt”.)

The hustle has been competent enough to secure the greatest reward that a bogus generational spokesman can reap: a profile in the New York Times magazine. And now, he’s on a US tour, bringing his fabulous brand of bigotry to America’s universities.

In Eugene, around 350 prople show up (at DePaul, Breitbart claimed there were 500, but they have a habit of talking their employee up). A solid three quarters of those in attendance were men. Given Milo’s obsession with detailing what he sees the failings of women - especially feminists, lesbians, and those who aren’t thin - it’s no surprise that his events are such sausage-fests.

Indeed, the passages of the evening in which he talks about the many women that he doesn’t like are one of the few times that a genuine emotion - disgust - rises to the surface of his camp repartee.

When he describes lesbians as “horrendous, quivering masses of horror”, described feminism as “cancer”, he’s practically spitting. It’s the kind of vituperation you don’t usually employ unless you’ve encountered a real threat.

I don’t know, or much care, whether Milo Yiannopoulos’s own contempt for women is a mask for fear. But he certainly appears to be answering to the fears of his audience.

The sources of this disquiet are evident in the queues for the question and answer session, and later for selfies. It’s very clear in these moments that Milo’s core audience, his most devoted fans, are bewildered, young, reactionary, male nerds.

You get the vivid impression when you hear them talk that their antipathy to feminism has bloomed out of a much more intimate kind of frustration with the opposite sex. Unfortunately, they’ve come to the world’s worst source of dating advice.

During question time, men ask for and recieve counsel about how to deal with feminists challenging them in their personal lives, and Yiannopoulos commiserated with them about “the oppressive hegemony of social justice”.

The whole ritual does no more than try to reverse the polarity of identity politics, insisting that actually, it’s white men who are oppressed. And the only way he can really make this case is to talk about class.

Thus, he talks about the “awful, awful, terrible, diseased, and damaged people lecturing and hectoring the working class” who have “rightly had enough of it”, and whose only hope of salvation is “President Donald Trump”.

The problem - apart from the fact that this is delivered in an upper-middle class British accent, and that his audience are mostly college kids - is that he’s not really offering the working class anything except the permission to dish out racial slurs and minimise rape culture.

He boasts about the scholarship scheme he’s set up for underprivileged boys, but he has nothing to say about the economy except hints of support for a Trumpian economic nationalism.

In another hackneyed move, Yiannopoulos posits the “Working class” not as a product of structural economic inequality but as another kind of political identity, one that expresses itself in salty language and low-level sexual harassment.

This is the kind of caricature you can only believe in if you don’t actually know that many working-class people. Like every other right wing hack, Milo absolutely depends on the angst of wounded identity, and its quest for an alternative victimhood.  

The working class he spins fantasies about are exclusively white, because like every right wing hack, his principal concern is activating white male resentment. This rhetoric was developed precisely to divide the working class, and to keep them in their place.  

At one point Yiannopoulos offers something of a credo: “The only way to respond to outrage culture is to be outrageous”. It’s handy because it’s a good cover story for pursuing his real goal, which is no more or less than the getting of attention.

But Milo Yiannopoulos is not outrageous, nor is he of himself especially dangerous. He’s just a wanker. When the Trump wave recedes, he may in time be regarded, along with the rest of the flotsam it deposited, as a curiosity. More likely, he’ll return to the mean and become one more right wing talking head in a perennially shallow talent pool.

The ideas he promotes are damaging, of course. He talks a lot about “the public square”, but the fruit borne of his adolescent attacks on feminism are likely to play out in more private spaces, where the most important negotiations about sex, consent, and equality happen.

God help the woman whose partner is a Milo fan. At the very best, she’ll have to listen to this horseshit on a loop. At worst, she’ll be living with someone who has the tools to rationalise selfishness, abuse, and even sexual assault.

What’s perhaps not considered often enough how much damage this nonsense does to those men who take it seriously. For one thing, it allows them to put off the day on which they grow up, and realise that the women who won’t sleep with them aren’t persecuting them, but making the kinds of choices characteristic of autonomous human beings.  

So as derivative as this whole enterprise is, it may cause problems. What’s to be done?

DePaul’s progressives had one strategy - protest - which I do not plan to gainsay. That’s a decision for local activists to make based on what’s happening on their campus.

There’s been more than enough hippie-punching in recent months directed at those who protest at public events that attract the far right, and I don’t propose to add to it. Protesting serves many purposes: publicly articulating common positions, building comradeship, and making claims or counter-claims on public space. There should be more of it.

It’s true, though, that on those occasions like the night in Eugene, where he is not met by protesters, Milo seems forlorn. His schtick goes limp; he’s revealed as a one-trick pony.

When a young man, identifying himself as a feminist, spoke up against him, Milo whisked him onto the stage for an extended chat. Briefly, the evening was enlivened, though no one was enlightened, because Milo doesn’t argue in good faith. But he knows that the audience comes for the fireworks.

Absent opposition, it’s harder to convince supporters that he’s bravely overturning PC shibboleths and taking it to the SJWs.

Perhaps the decision by students at the University of California, Irvine, to offer a counter-event to Milo’s visit offers a promising way to deal with this nuisance.

When it comes to the right, “ignore them and they’ll go away” is generally bad advice, but skipping the Milo show, and using it as  to build something positive sounds like something that could also build the left ahead of the Summer of Trump.

 

Jason Wilson is a writer and photographer based in Portland, Oregon. His internationally published work has appeared in many outlets including The Guardian (where he is a columnist), AlterNet, The Atlantic, and Religion Dispatches. 

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