The Breitbart ‘journalist’ Milo Yiannopoulous has been in the news a lot recently. Violent protests against a talk he was supposed to give at Berkeley led to President Trump tweeting out his support, not so long ago he secured a controversial $250,000 book deal and a few days ago he appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time show and had some ‘heated’ exchanges with the other guests. Not bad for a figure who rose to prominence by covering the niche gamer-gate controversy in excruciating detail.
Before his appearance on Real Time, as ever, there was debate amongst liberal commentators over how to respond to Milo. There were folks like Jeremey Scahill, the co-founder of the far left Intercept news site, who was supposed to appear as a guest alongside Milo but withdrew from the show declaring that there was ‘no value in debating him’ and that he disagreed with the decision to provide him another venue ‘to spew his hateful diatribes’. Maher predictably disagreed arguing that “If Mr. Yiannopoulos is indeed the monster Scahill claims — and he might be — nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed on Friday night.”
Why I will not appear this week on Real Time with Bill Maher. pic.twitter.com/SOoE3udrDr
— jeremy scahill (@jeremyscahill) February 15, 2017
These dual competing narratives that Milo would either be discredited or emboldened by his appearance on Real Time continued amongst liberal commentators after the event. An article over at Salon declared that Maher had provided a “public service” and that “throughout the segment, Milo demonstrated that as far as provocateurs go, he’s nowhere near Maher’s level.” Conversely, Maher was derided for having a ‘bromance‘ with Milo, endorsing his transphobic comments (see Glenn Greenwald’s tweet below) and allowing “shameful mainstreaming of Yiannopoulos hate“.
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) February 18, 2017
Both of these responses to me illustrate the problem that most of the left have in dealing or even understanding a figure like Milo. It’s a truism that Milo is a troll and loves creating controversy but many of the people who utter those statements seem to pay no attention to what that actually means. No-one is surprised when Ann Coulter comes out with some new book saying liberals the scum of the earth or makes some inane comment in an interview about how the democrats are worse than ISIS or there needs to be a new Christian crusade. Inevitably some people will get outraged, but most people – especially those in the media – understand that that is how she sells books and gets booked for interviews. Milo is the EXACT same, the only difference is that he better understands the younger demographic and is more immersed in internet culture and online communities. That’s the reason his appearance on Real Time will have done approximately diddly squat to either stop or speed up his mainstream ascent- he isn’t reliant on such venues, he just exploits them. Milo has already successfully carved out his punditry niche and he knows exactly how to mine it. That’s why he was invited to appear in the first place and it is also why he is now an invited speaker at some major Conservative conference.
Milo’s base won’t have been put off by his appearance on Real Time, they got the content they wanted- Milo smirking away why liberals telling him to go f*ck himself. He even pointed this out himself during the segment: after being told to f*ck off for the second time and then receiving a half-hearted apology, Milo laughed ‘are you kidding me? I mean I’m going to jerk off all day to this‘ explaining that he had collected ‘two out of three go f*ck yourselves’ from the other guests and wanted to finish on a hat-trick. The guests sitting opposite him seemed to wave off these comments as just desperate bragado, which it probably was, but it was also completely true. Milo wants liberals (and mainstream conservatives) to forcefully denounce him. As long as they are talking about him he doesn’t care. Being told to f*ck off, also gives him more material with which to portray liberals as intolerant ideologues who can only respond to views they disagree with by using vulgarity, violence or censorship. That’s the same reason he g0es on tours to give talks at predominately liberal colleges. It isn’t because he wants to give some speech to a few hundred conservative students in some badly lit university hall. What he wants are debates about whether he should be banned and mass protests and if his appearance can somehow inspire a violent confrontation or vandalism, so much the better, that just means more headlines!
During the segment Maher chided Milo for calling the other guests stupid, advising him that he will have a better career if he ‘drops that shit’. But that comment shows that Maher misunderstands Milo just as much as the liberals he chides for overreacting to Milo’s provocations. The very reason Milo was sitting at the table with Maher to receive his advice was because of his history of garnering attention by making provocative statements and denouncing those he disagrees with. Bill Maher was thus telling a human clickbait headline that he would be more popular if he just toned it down a bit. He wouldn’t and Maher and other liberals need to understand that. Indeed, Trump’s presidency should serve as a daily reminder that there is already a large audience for people who are willing to court controversy and troll the mainstream.
So what’s my proposed solution to the Milo quagmire? Should liberals refuse to engage with him and try to ban him or is it better to engage and challenge him? Well, I think the best response would be to just starve him of attention and stop gifting him all of the attention he so dearly desires. But I live in the real world and realise that’s just not likely to happen, like him or loathe him, he is becoming an increasingly established talking head on the right. So my solution would be to accept that. To recognise that Milo is just a modern incarnation of Ann Coulter and respond accordingly. Ann Coulter’s nonsense should be countered, just like Milo, but it doesn’t warrant weekly coverage or hand-wringing debate over every media appearance.