Ever since I read Laurie Penny’s scathing, insider account of Milo Yiannopoulos and his schtick, I knew that she had his number like no one else — and now that Yiannopoulos has been disbarred from his positiong as the useful idiot of the hard-right, I’ve been wondering what Penny made of the fall from grace.
Wonder no more. It turns out that Penny’s been embedded with Yiannopoulos and his entourage through this turbulent week, and her 6,000-word opus on Yiannopoulos and the "lost boys" who follow him around on his tour bus is not only gorgeously written — par for the course with Penny, see, e.g., her 2016 debut novella Everything Belongs to the Future — but also devastating in its incisiveness, which combines empathy (understanding why Yiannopoulos and his minions do what they do) with exactly zero sympathy, and a world-beating demonstration of gamesmanship when it comes of Yiannopoulos’s promise to sue her if she calls him a racist — instead, she uses this fact as a jumping-off point to say that Yiannopoulos doesn’t believe a word he says, but says it anyway, without regard to consequences, in order to enrich himself, and furthermore, the right’s live-wire response to being accused of racism demonstrates precisely the same emotional fragility they attribute to their opponents.
There’s so much insight and wordplay in this piece that it would be impossible to call it out, but some of the highlights include pointing out that: the immaturity of these boys on Yiannopoulos’s bus is a reflection of their privilege (contrasted with the popular discourse’s insistence that the black children murdered by American police officers be viewed as adults); the pedophilia stuff that cost Yiannopoulos his position as court jester was actually milder than the genuinely despicable things he’d already said about e.g. women, trans people and Muslims, but the right’s guardians of morality didn’t give a shit about that; and that Yiannopoulos’s purge was about the fascist right getting rid of its inconvenient, loose-cannon brownshirts before the blackshirts took over.
But that section on Yiannopoulos’s cowardly threat to sue if she called him a racist? Pure genius.
It turns out that some words do hurt. You may have noticed that, in this piece, I have not explicitly described Yiannopoulos or the movement that has made him famous as white supremacist, Neo-Nazi, fascist, or racist. The main reason for that is that it has been made explicitly clear to me that, were I to write such a thing, a libel suit the size of Mar-A-Lago would drop on me, and Yiannopoulos would use every trick in his surprisingly defensive playbook to prize out an apology, because that’s what friends are for. He’s done it to other reporters. He’s not the only one. In fact, a defining feature of the new-right populists is their ability to build a reputation as rhino-hided truth-sayers while flailing their hands in panic if anyone uses whatever words happen to hit them where it hurts. So, for legal reasons, I must state that Milo Yiannopolous, possibly alone of all the smug white people in the world, is not a racist. For moral reasons, however, I must state that Yiannopoulos’ personal beliefs are irrelevant given that he’s built a career off peddling bigotry in public. What about sexism? “Sexism I don’t have the energy to wrestle with you over,” says Yiannopoulos, who, I can personally confirm, is the maple-cured bacon of misogynist piggery — oily and sweet and crass and, on a gut level, dreadful for your health.
It seems perfunctory to point out the hypocrisy of building a movement and a career on the back of insulting people — Muslims, migrants, women, people of color — while nursing a hair-trigger sensitivity to any personal attack you haven’t pre-approved. That hypocrisy, though, does not appear self-evident to anyone within this movement, because a fundamental tenet of far-right pro-trolling is that it’s only other people’s feelings that are frivolous. Their own feelings, by contrast, including the capacity to feel shame when they’re held accountable for their actions, are so momentous that infringing them is tantamount to censure, practically fascism in and of itself. These are men, in short, who have founded an entire movement on the basis of refusing to handle their emotions like adults.
(Image: Molly Crabapple)