The news that Simon & Schuster had made a $250,000 book deal with right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was received by the liberal intelligentsia with only slightly less dismay than the election of Donald Trump (whom Yiannopoulos worships). Critics have accused the venerable publisher of peddling hate. In many ways, Yiannopoulos is as bad as his detractors claim. But the reaction to his book deal gives him exactly what he wants: attention and validation of his posture as a warrior against a censorious, politically correct “outrage culture.”
Disclosure: I got to know Yiannopoulos, a British-born writer for the conservative Breitbart website, in late 2014 when we wrote on topics related to the excesses of progressive activism in academia and popular culture. We were on a panel together, and I appeared on his webcast. Despite misgivings about Breitbart and about Yiannopoulos’ own conduct, I thought he was on the right side of many issues — from defending Tim Hunt, the British scientist pilloried for a joke about women in the lab, to criticizing a crusade against online harassment defined so broadly as to threaten speech.
But Yiannopoulos’ anti-politically correct rebellion quickly took disturbing turns. His polemics devolved into nasty personal attacks. His criticism of feminist extremism veered into misogynistic taunts presented as does-he-mean-it-or-doesn’t-he satire (such as proposing a 5 percent to 10 percent cap on women in science majors). He baselessly accused the Black Lives Matter movement of killing police officers. He not only defended “fat-shaming” as obesity prevention but posted a photo mocking an obese man in a gym.
Finally, last spring, Yiannopoulos began to champion the “alt-right,” the loosely organized movement with strong white supremacist elements. Shortly after that, he was banned from Twitter after participating in the harassment of black actress and comedian Leslie Jones. While Yiannopoulos has denied instigating racist attacks on Jones, he indisputably mocked her while she was being swarmed with such attacks — even posting fake screenshots of supposed racist tweets by Jones herself.
It’s easy to see why people would object to a publisher giving Yiannopoulos more visibility. Some authors are talking about a boycot; the Chicago Review of Books has announced it will not cover any Simon & Schuster books this year. (Yiannopoulos’ book, “Dangerous,” will be published by one of Simon & Schuster’s many imprints — one specializing in conservative authors.) New Yorker staff writer Alexandra Schwartz lamented “the existence of such truly noxious books” as a problem.
Yet that problem is protected by our society’s fundamental values. People have every right to write noxious things and profit from selling them (unless those things include crimes of which they have been convicted). Public censure is not censorship; but even public pressure to cancel a book should be used only in the most extreme cases.
In Yiannopoulos’ case, the pressure is counterproductive. It has already made his not-yet-published book an Amazon bestseller, and he has sent out a sarcastic promotional email featuring quotes from his enemies. Outrage and attempts at censorship have made Yiannopoulos a hit on the campus speaking circuit — and may do the same in publishing. If neglect can’t work, mockery would be a much better approach.
An even better way to make Yiannopoulos irrelevant would be to roll back politically correct authoritarianism. In a culture in which race, gender and sexuality issues are surrounded by taboos, even unsavory rebels can achieve stardom.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.