Day 35: Milo Yiannopolous and the Politics of Shock Value

(Guest post by Matt McQuaid)

The disgraced troll-pundit may have fancied himself an iconoclast, but his schtick is old as ever.

Every election cycle has a smorgasbord of new prognosticators, pontificators, and assorted hacks and flacks who ride on the victory-coattails of their chosen candidate to success, and 2016 was no exception. What makes Trump stand out among most is his delight in upsetting his detractors and his relishing in his own absurdity (among other, er, idiosyncrasies). It should come as no surprise, then, that the pundit that until recently had best parlayed Trump’s success into his own was the one that most mirrored these traits: Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopolous.

Yiannopolous, or simply “Milo” to his fans, seemed to be riding a rocket to pundit stardom as recently last week. His website, buoyed by Trump strategist and Rasputin-clone Steve Bannon, had managed to join the White House press pool. He had recently inked a book deal with publishing house Simon and Schuster. He just appeared on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. His college appearances, while controversial to the point of inciting riots, were well attended. To top it all off, he had just been slotted to speak at CPAC, a right-wing confab that is kind of like ComicCon, with less women and/or dateable men.

But all that came crashing down rather spectacularly earlier this week. In protest of CPAC’s decision to invite Milo as a speaker, a right-wing blog tweeted a video where the controversial journalist defended statutory rape between 13-year-old boys and adult men, and then joked about benefiting from his own molestation. CPAC rescinded their invitation. The book deal was cancelled. Public apologies and clarifications were issued. Then, less than 72 hours after the initial tape of his comments resurfaced, Milo announced he was resigning as senior editor at Breitbart.

Liberals, predictably, relished in his defeat. Others asked why his racism, misogyny, and Islamophobia had been excused, but his public boosting of child molestation was a line in the sand. Some drew broader conclusions about what his saga meant for the Republican party in the age of Trump. The question still lingers though, how did a man that gained fame by GamerGate and receiving a Twitter-ban for harassing an SNL cast member gain such a prominent pop culture role?

Like so many other pop culture anomalies in the age of Trump, his ascent and subsequent descent is a sign of the times.

It’s quaint to think about now, but thirty years ago, many of the values espoused by Trump, Bannon, and even the alt-right writ large were not controversial at all. Far from it, these values (hardcore Christian faith and its coinciding prejudices, hostility towards foreign adversaries and feminists, an emphasis on ‘law and order’ policies that seemed to disproportionately impact people of color) were seen as the status quo for most of the American people. When Reagan cobbled together the coalition that he declared the “moral majority,” he wasn’t just looking to take back American politics from the secular, pro-diversity, urban-dwelling left. He was looking to take back its culture, and for a long time, he succeeded. Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed were a hot ticket. The AIDS crisis was ignored. Drug addicts were locked away to rot while Mr. T did PSAs with Nancy Reagan. In what might be the favorite part of that time for conservatives, the whole notion of political correctness didn’t really exist.

Nowadays, with our heightened sensitivity, it would be unthinkable to have a show like Married with Children on TV. Back then, the unthinkable was Girls.

Of course, the bad guys of the 80s (and to an extent the 90s) were, as they are now, often the ones who challenged those cherished cultural norms. The Parent Music Resource Center led a witch hunt against Prince and Twisted Sister for corrupting the youth with messages of promiscuity and Satan-worship while the President sold weapons to the Contras. Shows like The Simpsons and Beavis and Butthead, tame by today’s standards, were heavily criticized when they first premiered as spitting in the face of common decency. Video games were to blame for school shootings. And of course, who could forget Ice T’s “Cop Killer?

The election of Donald Trump may have led many of those nostalgic for the values of the Reagan era to believe that the moral majority has returned for good. While it’s hard to deny that the Democratic party is weaker than ever, that doesn’t suddenly mean the GOP is winning the culture war. Homosexuality is no longer taboo or sinful. Less people are going to church and more people are living together before marriage. Silicon Valley tech companies are expected to showcase commitments to diversity in senior management positions. On TV, shows like Blackish and Insecure are popular not because they avoid racial topics, far from it- because they embrace them. Even feminism is having a zeitgeist.

You wouldn’t know it by watching our politics, but American society is less Reagan-esque than ever, and with this cultural shift comes a new set of norms. Society is expected to at least acknowledge- if not make amends- for past transgressions, and this new standard brought us the most recent incarnation of political correctness that you’ve heard conservatives say they feel alienated and victimized by – similar to how a lot of people felt during the reign of St. Reagan and the moral majority.

People that feel alienated and victimized need a boogeyman for the enemy they can cheer for, a righteous rebel who gleefully waves a middle finger to the establishment and does exactly that thing that them squares in the status quo told everyone not to do. The boogeyman sticks up for the underdog. The more he gets attacked, the more popular he becomes, because for the boogeyman, hatred of detractors and adoration from fans are one and the same.

This brings us back to Milo Yiannopolous. If Trump’s Inauguration was any indication, pop culture kicked conservatism out of Hollywood a long time ago, so the rebels against the PC gatekeepers can kiss music and TV goodbye as a medium for stirring the pot. That leaves the marginalized Reaganites with pundits, bloggers, public pontificators, talk show ranters, and of course internet trolls, and no one pisses off the snowflake status quo more than Milo and the Breitbart gang.

As a liberal, I’ve watched my friends became aware of Yiannopolous and react on que with histrionics. I’ll admit it, when I first found out about this guy, I also was consumed by a visceral hatred – it’s hard not to be. I believed it when people said this guy’s rise in popularity is symptomatic of a new American fascism, that the alt-right is the new Hitler youth, and Milo is it’s bejeweled, fabulous commander. When people made the Sultan of Slander out to be the next Joseph Goebells, the one who will turn the blackshirts into the pink-shirts, I couldn’t help but nod my head and think there was something to it.

I now realize that’s giving him too much credit. Dictators believe most of the insane nonsense they spout, and they want to be taken seriously. Take a closer look and you’ll see that this guy is laughing all the way to the bank. Milo isn’t Mussolini. Milo is Sid Vicious. Milo is Jerry Springer. Milo is Marilyn Manson, Jackass, South Park, the Marshall Mathers LP, and Janet Jackson’s nipple at the Super Bowl halftime show. Yiannopolous – and to an extent Trump – are the punk-rock bad boys whose albums you hide from your parents in the Caitlyn Jenner era.

Despite his rather unceremonious fall from grace, Milo still, somehow, has some supporters. He might stage a comeback (like Rush Limbaugh after everyone found out he’s a junky) but for now, it seems his goose is cooked. One can’t help but wonder – were it not for this sudden collapse, what would’ve become of his career?

Probably not much. If you have you talent and shock value, or talent and influence, you can probably move onto the next big thing and your mark will be left on history. The thing about provocateurs though – If they have no substance, they get old quickly. Once standards change, they stop being shocking, people lose interest, and they are forgotten in time. It’s the difference between NWA and 2 Live Crew

When he appeared on Bill Maher last week, Maher compared Milo to the late Christopher Hitchens, but that comparison is far too generous. The fact is, Milo is not a very good writer, and he’s barely even a journalist. He has some background as a hard-news reporter, but the bulk of his career has been tabloids and editorials. As for his editorials, they read like a tirade from a basement-dwelling Youtuber that swears he’s going to make it big some day. Even Alex Jones seems like Woodward and Bernstein by comparison. Milo’s writing has about as much social value as a GG Allin record.

Yiannopolous will probably be forgotten, but someone could take his place. He’s proven that being an internet troll can become a career, and the bizarros that haunt the darkest corners of Reddit and 4chan are most likely lining up to take his place as I write this.

If the left wants to empower these people, we can react the same way we did to Yiannopolous. Or, we can not take the bait. We can call them out as shock-jock pundits, who are doing nothing but trying to troll their way to the top. Instead of enabling their slander by reacting as they want us to, we can call out their insecurities – why are you doing this? Are you okay, like, mentally? Is there something else going on here that you need to talk about? With Milo, that seemed to be the case. We can mock them as being ridiculous – who do you think Sean Spicer hates more, Chuck Schumer or Melissa McCarthy?

What we shouldn’t do is freak out and give them the reaction they want. Because, much like The Human Centipede, trolls win by thriving on our disgust and outrage.

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