Last week Milo Yiannopoulos (AKA Milo Andreas Wagner), once the darling of the “alt-right” and of a sizeable chunk of the American Right, suddenly fell from grace as a result of someone drawing attention to things he said in a podcast a year ago which appeared to defend sexual activity between ‘boys’ and men. This has resulted in a book deal with Simon & Schuster being cancelled, his invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) along with Donald Trump and his vice-president Mike Pence being rescinded and a number of senior staff at Breitbart, the far-right propaganda/hate/’news’ site he is associated with, threatening to resign unless he is sacked. The developments have, some say, exposed the hypocrisy of the American Right who are willing to tolerate men abusing women and even young girls, but draw the line when the target, even theoretically, is boys.
I didn’t listen to the podcast, but in the specific detail that paedophilia as such refers to adults’ sexual activity with, or attraction to, pre-pubescent children and not those who have reached puberty, he is correct (some legal systems define it as including anyone below the age of consent). However, his comments about older men helping young men (potentially including those below the age of consent, as he indicated) find themselves is a standard trope of predator-apologism: young boys really have homosexual tendencies and enjoy the advances of older men. This attitude is precisely why, when the age of consent for gay males was reduced to 16 in the UK in 2001, the age was raised to 18 where one party was in a position of trust, whether they were the same or other sex. Conservatives objected because all men know that they really don’t like the advances of other men, and they know that they didn’t as small boys either — especially if they were unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of it. (This was the subject of a BBC Storyville documentary in 2009, as the scientist Carleton Gajdusek and his friends used it in regard to his molestation of small boys from the Pacific islands where he carried out research; I wrote about that here.)
Yiannopoulos and his supporters habitually use the defence of “free speech” when his speaking engagements at major universities are objected to or disrupted, scorning the objectors as “snowflakes” who demand a “safe space”, meaning safe from opinions they disagree with or the sense that their lifestyles are disapproved of. As has been pointed out amply elsewhere, the right to free speech does not mean that anyone has the right to provide you with a platform; it just means that the state cannot punish you for what you say, and even then, there are restrictions, such as that your speech does not incite violence. But nobody seems to be asking why he is being invited to speak at universities anyway.
Yiannopoulos is not an academic. He is not an expert in anything. It’s possible to be an expert or an authority in something and have repugnant views on something else (besides Gajdusek and his defenders, James Watson being a recent high-profile example); that is not the case with Yiannopoulos who had two tries at getting a degree, at two major British universities (Manchester and Cambridge), spending two years at each before dropping out. He is not a major contributor to an important technological project; lots of those have bizarre or extreme views. He did not manage to run a tech website successfully — The Kernel closed in 2013 after just 16 months owing thousands of pounds to a former contributor. He is simply an entertainer who goes around causing controversy for whatever his personal reasons are; according to Laurie Penny who, controversially, spent time with Yiannopoulos and his entourage:
Before this week, Yiannopoulos was a bratty, vicious court jester of the new right who made a name for himself by saying grotesque and shocking things that he may or may not have ever believed. He does this compulsively, with no respect for the repercussions, or for the fact that a lot of people do believe what he says and act accordingly.
He can do this sort of thing on his own time, with his own resources if he wants. He should not be able to expect that a respectable academic institution with responsibilities to the welfare of its students as well as to its intellectual legacy should indulge or accommodate him or his rabble of followers. He has a history of harassment, of gratuitous outings of private individuals, of grudges, of spiteful behaviour. His right to free speech is not in question, but in times like these, political extremism cannot be treated as mere entertainment. It should not be left to protestors to deny him a platform: universities should do it themselves, for the sake of their own good names.
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