Milo Yiannopoulos isn’t going away. Until today, it appeared the career of the the foppish far-right provocateur, former Breitbart editor, and former failed and highly sued London tech entrepreneur was on life support: In February, seemingly pro-pedophilia comments he had made during an interview were surfaced by an anonymous Twitter account and subsequently went viral, costing him his Breitbart gig and a lucrative book deal. Now, though, it looks like he’s going to have another chance to enrage the left — a chance that will bring with it a healthy budget and a good-sized staff.
Tina Nguyen of Vanity Fair reports that Yiannopoulos told her that he is “launching a new media venture in the coming weeks with what he says is a $12 million investment from backers whose identities he is protecting.” The goal is to troll, troll, troll:
The business, which will be called Milo Inc., will be even more focused on stoking the sort of ugly political conflict that’s closer to the surface than ever in these early months of the Trump administration. As Fox News remains busy with its latest scandal, Milo Inc. promises to be the latest incumbent in a growing far-right media sphere that is overwhelmingly populated with politically incorrect, and often jarring, provocations once considered verboten by conservatives. Yiannopolos [sic] will compete not only against sites such as TheBlaze and Alex Jones’s Infowars but also against his very own former employer, Breitbart, which has become a formidable force in the space after its former chairman, Steve Bannon, helped usher Trump to victory and later joined his administration. Yiannopoulos, for his part, is relying on a formula that he employed at Breitbart. He said that Milo Inc. will be dedicated to “making the lives of journalists, professors, politicians, feminists, Black Lives Matter activists, and other professional victims a living hell.”
Milo Inc., according to a press release, will be based in Miami, with a planned staff of 30. It will be in the business of what can be best described as corporatized trolling via live entertainment, with Yiannopoulos and his investors hosting events featuring right-wing talent. “The business of Madonna became touring,” said Yiannopoulos in a phone interview, citing the artist’s deal with Live Nation. “I’m doing the same thing, but instead of signing up with Live Nation, I’m building one. I’m building it for libertarian and conservative comedians, writers, stand-up comics, intellectuals, you name it.”
Yiannopoulos has never been an actual right-wing intellectual, despite his pretensions otherwise — just watch one of his appearances on YouTube and try to discern a single point more interesting and original than “LOL feminists are ugly” or “Black Lives Matter sure is thuggish.” Rather, his entire recent success has been built on his ability to shock and offend left-of-center audiences. This can explain why he has focused so much time and energy on college tours: College students are simply more easily offended than older adults.
And sure enough, as Yiannopoulos’s brand recognition has grown, the responses from protesters have escalated — as, for that matter, has the behavior of some of his supporters. To take just two of several examples: In January in Seattle, one of Yiannopoulos’s fans shot a protester during a rowdy demonstration against him and was subsequently arrested (the victim was okay); and in early February in Berkeley, a full-on riot broke out, forcing the university to cancel his appearance and causing $100,000 in damage.
It’s important to keep two points in mind here: First, it’s hard to know who threw the first punch during any campus protest, since these events will, given the realities of social media, inevitably attract pugilistic outsiders, so it isn’t necessarily the case that college students themselves are instigating violence. Second, while Yiannopoulos mostly spouts the same far-right talking points as your average drive-time hack ranting about reverse racism, he also engages in a particularly threatening subgenre of provocation. In December at West Virginia University, for example, he displayed the photo of a sociology professor onscreen with the words “Fat Faggot” and denigrated him (Yiannopoulos is gay, called his tour the “Dangerous Faggot” tour, and has “given permission” to his fans to use the slur); during a speech at the University of Wisconsin–Madison he attacked a trans student in a similar manner, leading her to write a furious email accusing the administration of failing to protect her; and activists and administrators at Berkeley claimed Yiannopoulos had planned to out undocumented students there, though he denied that charge and the sourcing is a bit shaky.
Legally speaking, these speech acts are no less protected than Yiannopoulos’s standard sludge, which is part of the reason it’s difficult for administrators at public schools, at least, to use them as a justification for keeping Yiannopoulos off campus — and as Fordham University can attest, even private universities can, in certain cases, get into legal trouble for viewpoint discrimination. But these acts are, in important ways, different from everyday ranting about feminism or Black Lives Matter — they’re designed by Yiannopoulos to have a personally intimidating effect on students and faculty who disagree with him; they’re designed to incite harassment. So it would be silly to claim that students who are upset by Yiannopoulos’s presence on their campuses have fallen victim to hysterical emotionality — some of them are responding to what feel like very real threats — or to argue they shouldn’t vocally protest the presence of such a hateful speaker.
All that said: Given how much of the conservative narrative is currently centered on the false idea that conservatives are being “censored” and the overstated idea that liberals are hypertriggerable crybabies and/or violent thugs, it’s worth asking whether attempts to fully shut down Yiannopoulous’s campus speeches, let alone to riot in response to them, have been worth it in the long run.
For one thing, no individually successful act of no-platforming can prevent Yiannopoulos from saying whatever he wants online to a very large audience — including directing harassment at individual targets, which he did on Twitter all the time prior to his suspension from that service. For another, there’s a strong circumstantial case to be made that Yiannopoulos has gained a great deal of influence and money as a result of campus meltdowns he has caused. In the wake of the Berkeley riot, for example, his book, then not yet cancelled, shot to number one on Amazon. Now, having firmly established himself as someone who can cause incendiary scenes on college campuses, he’s been gifted another $12 million to work with. Can it be proven that he wouldn’t have been granted this largesse if there hadn’t been such disruption at his events? Of course not. But it seems like a reasonable hypothesis, because the right absolutely loves the optics of these disruptions. As long as Yiannopoulos can generate such scenes, there will always be conservative donors there to support him. So it’s hard not to wonder what his current job prospects would look like if he hadn’t developed this particular “skill.”
In other words, there’s a reason why Yiannopoulos chose the venue he did for the first Milo Inc. event. That’s right — back to Berkeley. For a “week-long celebration of free speech.”