Last February, after a political riot on the Berkeley campus, Tucker Carlson conducted a telephone interview with Milo Yiannopoulos, the object of the rioters' anger. Fires set, windows smashed, and at least two people pepper-sprayed by the protesters. And it was in that Carlson interview, at what seems to have been the absolute peak of the Fabulous Milo Phenomenon, that the 32-year-old British immigrant described the night at Berkeley as "a bit rowdy."
It was an interesting turn of phrase for a man who deliberately describes himself as a provocateur. More often than not, when the British turn to irony, they employ litotes or some other form of understatement: describing a fight as "a bit of a row" or "a spot of bother," for example. When Americans use metaphorical speech, they tend instead to hyperbole and overstatement: describing a fight as "cataclysmic" or a "nightmare scenario" (a phrase used by Tucker Carlson during the interview with Yiannopoulos).
Speaking in a quickly scheduled interview, rebounding from the events of the evening, Yiannopoulos reverted for a moment to the understated British forms of his youth. And it set in nice contrast the overstated, overloud, overwrought—and, really, quite brilliant—persona he had created for himself. In the intentionally outrageous talks he gave on college campuses last winter, the tour that culminated in Berkeley, he indulged a self-presentation as a fabulously camp gay man whose intersectional status (a gay Catholic, of Jewish and Greek immigrant descent, who preferred black lovers) had set him free to mock, insult, and savage the pieties of liberalism.
As a shtick, it seemed hard to beat. And as he was attacked and vilified by the colleges at which he spoke, Yiannopoulos developed a sharply pointed specialty in tying the extremes of leftist radicalism to the ordinary practices of the liberal rule of college administrators. He wrote as well, while working as the tech editor at Breitbart News, but his prose never delivered the full effect of the speeches in which he proved himself a clever rhetorician. He may not have been of the highest class; he turned too often to profanity, for example, both for effect and as a transition device. But he was still fascinating to listen to as he wrapped himself in his causes for victimhood and stood up to denounce the claiming of victimhood.
He was also heading for a fall. The madness he was creating, the weirdness he was indulging, reached a fever pitch last winter, and though people in the mainstream media seemed at times unable to take their eyes off him, they clearly wanted to. At the end of February, interviews from 2015 and 2016 were posted on YouTube, and they showed Yiannopoulos giving support and even encouragement to underage sex. Relationships "between younger boys and older men," he said, "can be hugely positive experiences."
The radical left had hated the provocateur for some time—often with reason, as anyone who read his (eventually banned) Twitter feed would understand. But the members of the more mainstream media were caught by their pretense of merely reporting the news and by the fact that Yiannopoulos really was a fabulous subject for an interview: articulate, good looking, clever, and very talented at introducing just the right amount of campy gayness for the particular audience of each interviewer. The only way the media could stop reporting on the Milo Shtick was if they could find a reasonable excuse to declare him beyond the pale—a pale, remember, sufficiently far out that it includes people like Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, and Sarah Silverman.
With the justifying of man-boy sex, the excuse was found. From National Review to Salon, everybody hurried to pile on: "The 96 hours that brought down Milo Yiannopoulos," as the report in the Washington Post was headlined. He resigned from his job at Breitbart News and lost his book contract with Simon & Schuster. The much-ballyhooed speech for conservatives he had been scheduled to give at CPAC was canceled. Yiannopoulos had been walking a high wire, and he finally fell to oblivion. The Milo Phenomenon had crashed.
Five months later, and Yiannopoulos is back—having released on July 4 a self-published book called Dangerous. Within a day, it had risen to be the number-one bestseller on Amazon, and the online bookstore was sold out of its share of what was said to be a book run of a hundred-thousand copies.
In one of the odd threesome of introductions Yiannopoulos provides in the book, he admits that he was "inarticulate and imprecise with my language" in the man-boy-sex interviews, and he insists that he does not now condone sex between adults and teenagers. In fact, he writes, "I myself was a victim of sexual abuse, and therefore mistakenly thought it was okay to discuss these issues any way I wanted to."
It's there, in the midst of the flurries of introductions, that the reader will find building a sense of sadness. For that line—I have the markers of victimhood, therefore I am free to mock victims—is exactly the shtick that Yiannopoulos used to pose himself as the Fabulous Milo, camping his way through the pieties of the contemporary world like Tiny Tim, tiptoeing through the tulips.
He does grant now that, with regard to the subject that got him in so much trouble, he was "mistaken" to think himself set free from ordinary decencies. But for the rest, he admits no error in Dangerous. The shtick is still in place: Milo is fabulous, and the haters are all joyless fools of fascistic bent. Each of the first nine main chapters is titled with the form "Why X Hates Me": "Why the Progressive Left Hates Me," "Why the Alt-Right Hates Me," "Why the Media Hates Me," etc.
Hate him they do, but this is not the vehicle to explain their hate—much less end it. While he had the Simon & Schuster contract for an autobiography, there were rumors that Yiannopoulos intended to produce the serious book he is clearly intelligent enough to write. And in Dangerous, he has the self-consciousness to try to situate his performances in the line of Lenny Bruce and later shock comedians. At the same time, he makes some moves toward defending his conservatism not simply as an attempt to épater la bourgeoisie at a time in which the bourgeoisie are dominated by leftist pieties but as part of the Great Tradition of conservatism, from Thomas Aquinas to James Madison. There are even a handful of near Chestertonian formulations.
But it all amounts to very little. Dangerous is a book mostly in the way that something by Bill O'Reilly or any other media figure is a book: short paragraphs strung together to pander to an audience. It's even sloppily copyedited, and Milo as Fabulous Writer seems never to have met a comma splice he didn't like. (That's American hyperbole, for those who are keeping track. A Brit would have suggested that the sentences in Dangerous do rather run on, don't they?)
None of this means that Yiannopoulos is wrong in general or even in any of the particular points he makes. It just means he didn't write the book he maybe could have written and certainly should have written, chastened into seriousness by his strange expulsion from the gardens of media notice and cast out into the wastelands.
"Milo" has been a fairly common Greek name for over two millennia, as it happens—descending from the Ancient Greek wrestler Milo of Croton. According to surviving historical records from the sixth century B.C., he was a fabulous fighter, winning six Olympic championships. Unfortunately, according to ancient legend, he also managed to get himself eaten by wolves while off in the wilderness.
A lesson there, maybe.
Published under: Book reviews