While accepting, in the sober light of hindsight, that Yiannopoulos is irredeemable, his apologists refuse to admit there were obvious warning signs.
I n September 2014, writing perhaps the first editorial for a feminist publication about the nascent GamerGate hate campaign, I ended the piece with the following warning:
“What GamerGate showed us was how a small group of angry 4chan users apparently convinced a horde of well-meaning people to believe that they should silence certain women for the good of all. … Attention must be paid. This will happen again.”
And so it did; the right wing forces who exploited GamerGate’s vitriolic attacks on feminists, queer people, and anyone deemed “PC” in videogames were ruthless in applying those tactics elsewhere, all the way up the ladders of Western politics.
In the wake of Joseph Bernstein’s 9,000-word Buzzfeed report on the newly-revealed private emails of one-time Breitbart tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos, it’s instructive to remember that. But amid all the caterwauling from folks in the media about how “we should’ve paid attention to GamerGate,” it not only stings deeply (I and many other people, mostly women and queer people, were warning everyone about this for years, from every rostrum we could find), it also ignores a deeper history that men like Yiannopoulos exploited.
4chan didn’t discover reactionary politics in August of 2014, after all. For years prior, black women on Twitter had been targets of 4chan campaigns designed to sow dissension in feminist movements and prey on white feminists’ willingness to equate “activist toxicity” with being black, female, and opinionated about racism on social media. The revelation in Bernstein’s report, meanwhile, that several “liberal” men in media had collaborated with Yiannopoulos by feeding him ideas for stories or calling targets, wasn’t proof of any new phenomenon either. Liberal/feminist men being bigots and abusers in private is a tale as old as time; Harvey Weinstein naturally springs to mind. But there are always clear warning signs. You need only to look at how many women of color had the number of Hugo Schwyzer (a man who attempted to murder his girlfriend, slept with his female students, and routinely used dodgy and possessive language to describe women he worked with) long before he was drummed out of feminist circles.
GamerGate wasn’t new, it was an escalation and formal marshaling of longstanding forces (one can’t even say they were dormant, just disorganized). Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon saw the terroristic power of GamerGaters’ rage against something as simple as a gay videogame character, and it’s no wonder they set about trying to harness it for ever more consequential ends. What’s gobsmacking about Bernstein’s report is that it took incontrovertible proof that Yiannopoulos did things like use Nazi-themed passwords for his emails, and literally sent one of his most famous articles to actual neo-Nazis for line edits, for some people to go “oh, maybe we should’ve listened” (never mind that evidence of Yiannopoulos’ history of Nazi sympathy has been out there for a long time).
GamerGate wasn’t new, it was an escalation and formal marshaling of longstanding forces.
More grating still are people who actually worked with Yiannopoulos because they saw him as useful to their “anti-PC” crusade, now trying to cover their asses. There was a furious alacrity to Cathy Young publishing an article at Forward that pretends to be a mea culpa, at once saying she “take[s] full responsibility” for “enabling” Yiannopoulos, and then trying to find a way to blame her “PC Police” bugbear for him as well. “If people who gave Yiannopoulos a pass on bad behavior (myself included) were his enablers,” she wrote, “so was the politically correct culture that fueled his ascent.”
If everyone is to blame, then no one is. Which, one suspects, is rather the point of her writing this.
Young’s self-justification is required reading for understanding how fascism preys upon the minds of the morally weak. Her tortured attempts to separate contempt for Yiannopoulos-the-man from unwavering faith in the “anti-PC revolt” she so cherishes are instructive because they point the way to understanding why A) so many “liberal” writers cozied up to Yiannopoulos long after the breadth of his bigotry and vileness was known, and B) why this is, in all probability, going to happen again. Young is, after all, a person who — like so many liberals, centrists, conservatives, and even some leftists — sees a 19-year-old yelling about trigger warnings to be at least as great a threat to human liberty as actual Nazis.
She makes that clear at the end of her Forward op-ed when she likens a left-winger accused of harassment to those same Nazis, arguing “I don’t know that there is much of a moral difference between [her] and the hate groups Yiannopoulos has defended.” (Author’s addendum: While the person in question has been accused of harassment, it’s also worth noting that she is a woman of color and critic of racism who has herself been the victim of backlash that took the form of harassment and doxing, which Young entirely fails to address.)
And who says conservatives aren’t fond of moral relativism?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the popularity of ideas like this are why Charlottesville happened. You get the sense that Young learned to treat Yiannopoulos not as a moral problem, but simply as a PR liability for a reactionary cause she remains committed to. She’s treating him, in fact, the way that a white nationalist advised Yiannopoulos to treat his newfound openly Nazi fans: with “patronizing contempt.” Yiannopoulos responded gratefully, “I have been struggling with this. I need to stay, if not clean, then clean enough.”
Young is trying to stay “clean enough” in this regard, washing off the taint of Yiannopoulos’ approval and his championing of her pet cause. You cannot separate what made Yiannopoulos so singularly loathsome from those causes, however. Pointing out that he availed himself of the useful idiocy of people who fear neopronouns or kneeling black athletes more than Nazism is not self-defense, but self-indictment.
Young, and many like her, will try to suggest that Yiannopoulos espoused worthwhile ideas while hiding a secret evil. They can’t accept that his evil was blatant. They will not face up to the fact that, despite his sophistry, his dog whistles to the extreme right were clarion clear in their meaning. They won’t admit they got hoodwinked by an embarrassingly transparent PR snowjob that did a poor job of hiding Yiannopoulos’ allegiances.
“Who’d have guessed,” Young writes with breathless incredulity, “that there was video of Yiannopoulos singing ‘America the beautiful’ in a karaoke bar to an audience in which some people gave Nazi salutes? Or that he used Holocaust-themed Internet passwords such as ‘kristallnacht’?”
Anyone. Anyone could’ve guessed that.
The Buzzfeed article did not reveal anything about Yiannopoulos’ beliefs that armies of women, queer folks, and people of color didn’t already know. It merely put faces, names, and words to events and ideas we knew existed in the abstract. People like Young appeared on stage with Yiannopoulos and boosted his profile, while defending him from criticism by the women of color who knew what he was about long before the “Dangerous F****t Tour” (which, I might add, still prompted fawning apologism and profiles). She sheepishly owns up to that much.
But Young’s mea culpas ring hollow when she adamantly refuses to reflect on why white nationalists find views like hers ripe for exploitation. Belief in the “PC Police” bogeyman is not merely a useful tool to the extreme right, after all, but an article of faith: the utter conviction that transgender people, Muslims, people of color, Jews, all control some kind of world-historical force that keeps white people oppressed. Curtis Yarvin, one of Yiannopoulos’ neoreactionary sources exposed by the Buzzfeed report, gives it a touch of grandeur and calls this conspiratorial force “The Cathedral.”
The widely-shared willingness to find something redemptive in these reactionary, anti-PC spasms is what allowed Yiannopoulos to find so many willing apologists on the political center and the left, as well as among libertarians.
Belief in the ‘PC Police’ bogeyman is not merely a useful tool to the extreme right, after all, but an article of faith.
GamerGate, a movement he lent much strength and fire to, spiraled out of control in part because of his malign influence. He was attracted to it not only because he saw a group of young people he could exploit, but because he agreed with their fundamental vision of “PC gone too far.” It was a vision that was always charged with bigotry. Openly. Gaters borrowed neo-Nazi propaganda to attack their favorite targets, for instance — this tranche of examples comes from 2014. Their figureheads, like Davis “I’m a huge white nationalist on paper” Aurini, weren’t shy about Nazi-adjacent beliefs, either. Yet another GG stalwart, one of Yiannopoulos’ white nationalist sources and ghost-editors, Vox Day, tried to start a GamerGate-style campaign in the world of science fiction in 2015 using exactly the same arguments.
This was all out there, plain as day, years before Yiannopoulos’ fall from grace.
None of us who were attacked at the time, or who covered the harassment campaign, were surprised by Yiannopoulos’ association with white nationalism. And yet people like Young want, need, to find something redemptive in it all that proves that their “anti-PC” crusade is still worth fighting.
In the words of critic Noah Berlatsky, “open Nazism is not very popular. But the idea that feminists, trans women, black women, need to be put in their place is very popular.” The thrust of Young’s argument is that all of us minorities bring it on ourselves, that if only we weren’t so loud or mean or pushy, we wouldn’t be making people sympathize with Nazis. Goodness, where have we heard that before? This isn’t an argument so much as it is proof that one is a moral invertebrate, squirming in pain from perceived insults and slights. A black woman said mean things, so maybe that guy who wants to kill the Jews has a point.
The hypersensitivity that reels from “trigger warnings” but thrills to Yiannopoulos’ joyful transphobia, that likens workplace diversity trainings to “gulags,” is what fuels the outrage culture about “outrage culture,” a screaming fury that can never be sated by giving it what it says it wants. It will merely demand we make ourselves smaller and smaller until nothing of us remains. Reactionary outrage about “PC” is not a philosophy as much as it is a burning sun that demands our compliance as its nuclear fuel, consuming it endlessly until it can feed no more and goes nova.
There is, of course, a middle ground in dealing with actual left wing abuse and toxicity. It’s a line I’ve tried to walk. For instance, I co-facilitated a daylong workshop-conference at Smith College with the scholar and reproductive justice elder Loretta Ross entitled “Calling In the Calling Out Culture.” Her and I, two women of color from very different generations and activist backgrounds, came together to give Smith lessons about ethical activism — and drawing a line between passionate advocacy and abuse. For years, I’ve written about dealing with the excesses sometimes produced by the zeal in our movements, and the failings caused by activist language or turning insights into inflexible rules.
Yet I’ve been able to do this without sharing a stage with or otherwise abetting a Nazi. It all puts the lie to the idea that empowering men like Yiannopoulos or the petty hate movements spawned by 4chan is the price we have to pay to have an open and fair discussion on progressive excess. Yet again, people of color have led the way and had this discussion for years. We converse without all the hyperbole that attends the usual “PC gone mad” shtick, unironically parroted by people with unassailably lofty media platforms. A world where Bill O’Reilly escapes with a golden parachute is not a world where “PC” can “ruin lives,” I’m afraid.
The revelation in Bernstein’s report that so many liberals cozied up to Yiannopoulos is not shocking in this light, however. Fear of the “PC” phantom is in vogue even on the left, where rants against the malevolence of “identity politics” (meaning, any political discourse that doesn’t center white men) are a dime a dozen. Leftist scholar Angela Nagle blames it for the rise of the “alt right” in her book Kill All Normies, for instance.
It’s an existential terror that can seem like a bigger threat, in one’s mind, than actually-existing fascism. It’s why Jonathan Chait can write for days about those awful student activists “censoring” conservative views, but is utterly silent on right wingers stopping black academics from speaking in public, or using legislatures to strangle schools that teach or research things they are ideologically opposed to.
Such people, regardless of what values they claim to cherish, become enablers of the ugliest forms of reactionary politics — and it’s those enablers who are the key to its success, who look the other way, “play devil’s advocate,” who claim that there are “two sides” to issues that demand moral clarity. They are not, in any sense, Nazis. But Nazis find them useful.
Thus we were left with this grotesquerie: liberal men like David Auerbach passing gossip along to Yiannopoulos and whining to him about Wikipedia “censorship” (he has since issued several furious, if unconvincing denials), or a liberal journalist and TV producer like Dan Lyons yukking it up over transphobic jokes with Yiannopoulos, or Mitchell Sunderland, a writer/editor at Broadly, siccing the man on “this fat feminist.” While not mentioned directly, New York Magazine’s Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi also partook in email threads and tweets that egged Yiannopoulos on and fed him ideas; Sunderland publicly alluded to an email chain he and Nuzzi used to collaborate with Yiannopoulos.
They are not, in any sense, Nazis. But Nazis find them useful.
For her part, Nuzzi is also one of the only people caught up in this mess to try to justify herself. Bernstein publicly tweeted that Nuzzi had no part in the secret email list he reported on, but Nuzzi’s critics continue to point to numerous tweets where she expressed warm feelings for Yiannopoulos or pitched article ideas to him.
“I was friendly with Milo online before there was an alt right,” she tweeted, “when he was a silly troll. We never met or ‘collaborated.’”
Aside from the fact that I’d expect the Washington correspondent of New York Magazine to know “the alt right” has existed since long before 2016, the heyday of her friendship with him is when she — for instance — helped Yiannopoulos marshal rape threats towards feminist journalist Jessica Valenti. This was also a period where Yiannopoulos was posting Breitbart articles with half-naked photos of underaged trans women and trying to destroy the lives of GamerGate targets. Nuzzi hardly helps herself by implying this was all okay with her.
In this she merely paraphrases Cathy Young. In trying to defend David Auerbach from criticism, Young writes, “His last email to Yiannopoulos…was sent in early March 2016, several weeks before Yiannopoulos’s flirtation with far-right and neo-Nazi groups became public.” Evidently his behavior before March 2016 was all acceptable; omelettes, broken eggs, et cetera.
To both Nuzzi and Young, there were no real red flags, despite Yiannopoulos’ obvious malevolence and bigotry. In October 2015, when Nuzzi tweeted that she wished she was hanging out with the man, he’d just published, “Sorry, Girls! But The Smartest People In The World Are All Men,” libeled a critic of GamerGate as a paedophile (while posting underaged pictures of her), brought down harassment on a Houston Press reporter’s family, and spread the conspiratorial lie that Shaun King isn’t black. These attempts at ruining lives were, apparently, fine by Nuzzi. He was just “a silly troll” after all. Her ideas might’ve just inspired a racist article about Neil deGrasse Tyson, or led to a campaign to hound a trans woman into nearly killing herself; not, you know, Nazi stuff.
To both Nuzzi and Young, there were no real red flags, despite Yiannopoulos’ obvious malevolence and bigotry.
While accepting, in the sober light of hindsight, that Yiannopoulos is irredeemable, they refuse to admit there were obvious warning signs. Perhaps because the warning signs were uncomfortably close to cherished beliefs of their own.
To all these people, the terror of creeping “PC,” with all its starkly exaggerated shadows on the walls of their minds, was so great that they could see their way clearly to working with Milo Yiannopoulos. Cathy Young’s and Olivia Nuzzi’s responses are but the first of what I’m sure will be many attempts to redeem the utterly broken moral instincts that led to this happening. Thirsting for freedom from guilt, plenty of people will listen. They will learn nothing.
And therefore, as I said three years ago, this will happen again.