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Few stars are rising faster at the moment than that of conservative writer/broadcaster Milo Yiannopoulos. Virtually unknown just three years ago, the Greco-British journalist, 32, is now fast approaching the kind of iconoclastic status attained by such writers as Gore Vidal and HL Mencken (both of whom expended considerably more time and effort to achieve it).
What can explain this success?
Well – for one thing, Yiannopoulos is a quite formidable debater, and it is for this talent that he is primarily known. Type in ‘Milo Yiannopolous’ into YouTube and many of the videos returned to you will have titles containing words like ‘destroys’, ‘eviscerates’, ‘owns’ and so on… These are not exaggerations. Yiannopoulos has a unique way of making the people he engages seem naive, foolish and weak-minded. He is even – I have found – able to achieve this effect when the other person is in the right; and there is surely no greater testament to a debater’s skill than that.
Yiannopoulos is not merely good with words, he is good with emotions, presenting his side of any argument in a relaxed, self-assured and matter-of-fact style that naturally makes the arguments of the other side seem less certain, more bizarre and fundamentally weaker. In this sense he reminds me in speech of Mark Steyn in print. Both put to use the same rhetorical trick – the insinuation – quite deliberate – that they know they are right. Both treat contrary points of view as amusing, forgivable, even charming eccentricities. Yiannopoulos and Steyn are not trying to make the other side look stupid, so they have us believe, they are trying are help them understand reality – and by arguing this way, they do make them look stupid. There is surely no better way of wounding an intellectual’s reputation than to sympathise with his failures and politely excuse his errors.
Yiannopoulos’s writing, though less spectacular than his debating, still passes with ease any quality test for the journalistic mainstream. Here is a representative excerpt from an article taking down the goodwill-bloated ‘astrophysicist’ Neil Degrasse Tyson:
“Neil deGrasse Tyson is a philistine with no love of learning except for popularisations and oversimplifications that serve his political purposes… (He) constantly situates himself in the big brain league, but he has done nothing in his life to demonstrate that he belongs there — and a lot to suggest he doesn’t…. (He) claims to have been “mentored” by Carl Sagan, for instance. Yet it appears this “mentorship” boils down to little more than a couple of traded letters. If Tyson thinks that qualifies as mentorship, I wonder what he’d call my nocturnal liaisons with other men who share his skin colour. Adoption?… As dumb as Tyson is, his fans are even more preposterously thick, which is probably to be expected given that they’re all liberals. But the extent to which they hoover up and retweet his contradictory and brainless provocations is matched only by the hilarity of the occasional social justice car crash, in which the politics of grievance that Tyson likes to encourage comes back to bite him.”
But neither Yiannopoulos’s skill in writing or debating can fully explain his meteoric ascent. Beyond the mechanics of his profession, Yiannopoulos is himself remarkable. For one thing, he is gay. Indeed, if homosexuality can be graded, he is very gay; audaciously, flamboyantly so. He is also Greek, Jewish and Catholic. This exotic quality, brim-full of apparent contradiction (Gay, Jewish, Catholic, Conservative – are not words used to being in each other’s company), has combined with Yiannopoulos’s oratorical (and occasionally bitchy) style to produce a ready-made object of media fascination. Yiannopoulos gets ratings up in a way no other public commentator has since the death of Christopher Hitchens, a person with whom the journalist bears many important similarities.
Like Hitchens, Yiannopoulos expresses with intelligence arguments traditionally expressed with stupidity. Though I do sympathise with many right-wing concepts, it is nevertheless a fact of politics that the conservative side of the political spectrum attracts more dullards than the liberal side. Many – perhaps the majority – of those inclined to oppose Islam, for example, do so in a crude, yobbish style that puts off the discerning classes and fails to excite anyone else.
Yiannopoulos is successful precisely because he refines gut-sentiments into intelligent arguments. People watch Yiannopoulos debate Islam on television and scream ‘That’s what I think!” or “That’s what I’ve always said!”. He articulates feelings many desperately want to – but cannot – put into words.
So, that’s the good. Now for the bad.
Despite the considerable talents I have described, Yiannopoulos is not without his faults. He has, for one thing, consistently demonstrated a worrying lack of intellectual discipline; a tendency to seek controversy (for its own sake) over positive political impact. On twitter the writer has repeatedly engaged in pointless arguments with entirely apolitical pop-cultural figures, most recently Leslie Jones, the simple-minded comedienne and star of the much-maligned 2016 Ghostbusters remake. After a brief back and forth over various trifles, Milo made a joke implying that Jones (who is admittedly unfeminine looking) is actually a man. This comment then led to Yiannopoulos’s twitter account being deleted by the administrators of the site – (he is still banned).
Was this necessary? Did it serve a purpose? I don’t think so.
Like this author, Yiannopoulos is an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump’s 2016 bid for the US Presidency and has written countless articles explaining this support, most of which have been reasoned and compelling. But on this matter, too, he has a tendency to drift into inexplicable weirdness. Yiannopoulos often refers to Mr Trump in a sexualised voice as ‘Daddy’ and once stated that the “trashier” the Republican nominee becomes the more he loves him.
Now, I have no moral objection to any of this, but surely such unseriousness runs the risk of undoing the good work the journalist has done elsewhere. Once again I ask, is it necessary? Does it serve a purpose? Does Milo wish to be a neo-Orwellian truth-teller or a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother? Christopher Hitchens or Pete Burns? One cannot combine the two aspirations indefinitely.
The atheist Voltaire once remarked that the only prayer he had ever offered was ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous’. I can well imagine Islamists and Leftists offering this same plea to the Almighty in view of current political circumstances. On the issue of Islam – as on many others – we are so far in the right that a misstep on our part is probably the best the opposition can hope for. Milo and others would do well to bear this in mind.
On balance, I am of the opinion that Milo Yiannopoulos can be a very effective soldier for the anti-Islamist cause. His oratorical skill, humour and minority-status make him a very difficult target for the Left to hit with their favoured weaponry. They cannot possibly call Milo, a gay man of partially Jewish descent, irrational or paranoid for worrying about the advance of ISIS. They cannot possibly accuse him of being a Nazi, a White nationalist, or a possessor of ‘privilege’ (the Left’s favourite buzzword of the moment). Milo’s exotic qualities form a wall of confusion around his arguments, giving them a better chance of being considered for what they mean rather than as an extension of who formed them.
And while there are those who will object outright to the inclusion of an actively gay man in the conservative movement, one must strive to remember that the threat of Islam is so broad that it will necessarily require an equally broad coalition to prevent its success.
If you find the right’s embrace of Yiannopoulos strange, you’ll be even more surprised by what the future holds.