The Teacher and the Troll-King: James Baldwin and Milo Yiannopoulos in the Age of Social Media and Liberal Decline

James Baldwin (Postal Stamp)
Copyright: konstantin32 / 123RF Stock Photo

We’ve had a peculiar confluence of two names that have re-arisen in popular consciousness: Milo Yiannopoulos and James Baldwin. Yiannopoulos, the disgraced now-former Breitbart Editor, for his outlandish and self-aggrandizing remarks, and Baldwin, for his popular rediscovery in the Oscar-nominated documentary currently in Cinemas entitled I Am Not Your Negro.

Below is a video of a famous encounter between the late James Baldwin, known then as a famous author and essayist, and the late William F. Buckley, founder of the conservative National Review and one of the last in a long line of conservative intellectuals that appear to have, in the main, stayed quiet recently, or perhaps abandoned the Republican Party to its curious fate altogether, in the age of you-know-who.

To have read Baldwin is to have been captivated: his voice displays the unique, seething intelligence that often comes from people who have been forced to live outside multiple boundaries and spheres of protection, which he did as a gay black man in mid-20th century America. One suspects he must have been compelled, as he writes and speaks about frequently, to confront and digest the outlandish and contradictory hypocrisies that so obviously prove the fuel for much of his writing and speaking.

Curious too, that Yiannopolous also makes similar claims of his own race,  ethnicity, and orientation, that of a gay Jewish man (or half-Jewish, if these distinctions are critical.) And yet, in Baldwin’s case, this outsider’s perspective seemed to fuel his test of spirit, in which he has come out victorious, immortal, a voice for the ages.  In Yiannopoulos’ case, we see that the ingredients were insufficient, the product half-baked.  (Indeed, any comparison is indecent and unmerited, and so I will not tarry long, here.  Yiannopoulos is no Baldwin. He’s not even a Mailer.)

There is no more obvious trait of Baldwin’s, in his writing and speaking, than something that can only be called a spiritual maturity, a shockingly gentle yet strident reckoning with the past and implied future that so clearly preoccupies him. He appears wiser, more complete and self-reflective than any of his antagonists, serene but immovable, willing to reckon with their blind spots like a patient teacher. In Milo’s case it’s the reverse: despite his most deft turns of phrase, his cleverest slip of the cuffs, the one impression you aren’t left with is a sense of his sincerity. This goes beyond the uncanny feeling that he simply doesn’t believe what he says. We intuit, on some layer just beneath the veneer of insouciance and bad posture, that he dislikes who he is, has not yet earned comfort in his own skin.

The first time I saw it, the Baldwin/Buckley debate video exploded a new world for me: a vigorous sustained debate between intellectually matched (or perhaps outmatched) opponents.  Though Baldwin did not have what you might call a “home field advantage” at the Cambridge Union, he does claim clearly to some degree going in, and then finally and fully by the force of his arguments, the support and adulation of the crowd.  I’m not going to give it the play-by-play, I will simply ask you to watch it.  There is a remarkable feeling that descends on the proceedings around the 38:00 mark, where the entire crowd spontaneously rises to their feet and offers Baldwin sustained applause, the television announcer breathlessly relaying that “this is the first time this has been recorded in the history of the Cambridge Union,” and Baldwin, clearly surprised and very suddenly the only one still seated, breaks into an unscripted, victorious grin.  This moment is as invigorating as any in the history of cinema.

This was the force of his ideas.  This is the force of ideas.

So hearing that Yiannopoulos, seen by many as the new direction, if not the new face, of the Trumpist movement, has been invited onto Real Time with Bill Maher, an HBO weekly program with a weekly viewership in the millions (in which I include myself) I see a challenge and an opportunity.

A moment to reflect on what Yiannopoulos is: Though he self-styles as a kind of conservative gadfly who targets liberal cultural pieties like modern third-wave feminism, #BlackLivesMatter, gender identity, campus activists/so-called ‘social justice warriors (SJW’s)’ and other familiar cultural flashpoints and somewhat-easy targets, he is mainly famous for embodying a kind of grimy, take-no-prisoners approach to argumentation with his adversaries that encourages below-the-belt tactics such as ‘doxxing’ (publishing personal information about his enemies), tweetstorming, brigading and encouraging his legions of very loyal followers (so-called “trolls”) to personally harass and attack the targets he names online. This was most recently done to Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones for the crime of being what Milo found unattractive.  Jones reportedly has since withdrawn from Twitter, but his style of attacks certainly have not been limited to her.  The list of victims is long, and the list of tactics is shameful and absurd.

Another point I find it important to make: this person is an editor at Breitbart, a website with visitor numbers in the dozens-of-millions per month, and was kicked off of Twitter having had 300k followers, surely by now he would have more.  You can choose to ignore him, but his stature is, unfortunately real.  Our task is to help it remain brief.

Because Milo interweaves legitimate and hard-hitting criticism of fair-game topics, this provides him with enough cover to perform his shtick as a presentable and sincere opponent.  He volleys specific and cited claims in-between ad-hominem remarks and stabbing insults, so the switches in register and content can be difficult to follow, the fact-checking delayed.  Many close examinations of his claims simply don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Accordingly, the media hasn’t really known how to handle him, and this is where he has been at his most deft and manipulative.  He understands the way technology and new communications platforms work.  Social media doesn’t lase, it ricochets.  It’s functionally impossible to hold any kind of serious debate in 140 characters or less, you can only trade jabs and generate attention, ricochet from one platform to another, a 5-minute media appearance here, 140 more characters there, article here, YouTube video here, a Podcast appearance there, a college tour here, with riots, and a Hannity appearance there, this time with video of the riots in hand to make the point about his radical and uncontrolled opposition, the true antagonists to free speech. Repeat sequence.

Given the tools, the trained fracturing of attention, the inability to hold conversations – this is simply the best moment in history to generate attention through controversy.  I submit that Milo is one of a new kind of media creation, what I call a “Troll King,” supported by a pyramid of followers, covered by the wreckage of his guerrilla-style podcast and YouTube appearances and remarks, surprisingly bereft of substance and easily confronted and revealed head-on.  A reality TV star with no reality show.  A smoke monster.  Famous, but mostly just on the internet.

A word on classification: it also seems clear that Milo depends, to a great deal, on the response of his opponents as the engine of his fortunes, and having been (mistakenly, in my view) grouped in with the hard Alt-Right movement as a fascist has done more for his fortunes than anything he has personally said or written.  In a recent Chapo Trap House interview, writer and scholar of the Alt-Right Angela Nagle points out that although his entire shtick is about lashing out at SJWs, he depends on liberals, he loves liberals, and he would be nowhere without them. Like a Satanist without the Christian Church. He isn’t actually a Fascist or even a member of the so-called Alt-Right.  (“Those people have me on a hit list,” Milo has observed out loud.)  “They all love Trump,” says Nagle, “that’s one thing that unites them completely, but they are bitchy and sectarian… Spencer and Yiannopolous hate each other a lot.”    “He’s not Alt-Right, he’s [what some call] “Alt-Light.”  “Basically they don’t have a program that concentrates on race, whereas the hard Alt-Right includes segregationists and really stresses race.” Milo has no platform.  Richard Spencer and his group’s interests are by contrast political and long-term.  “The Alt-Right is identity politics for white people,” Yiannopoulos says, and I’m against any kind of identity politics, so you should drop them.”  Clearly, Milo is as confused as anyone that he is grouped as a member of an ideology that he claims to reject and whose members clearly reject him.  The Chapos point out that the Alt-Light: the Gavin McInnes-es, the Milo Yiannopouloses are basically a reaction to modern liberal sanctimony, a punk-Howard Stern reaction they call a “transgressive lifestyle brand.”  On Maher, Milo casually referred to himself as “just a pop star.”

So liberals do Milo favors by making him into a Fascist Lex Luthor figure that is fully unearned.  He has laid some addressable arguments at the feet of liberals and progressives, and a fact that we ignore at our peril is that for many, these punches have landed.  You don’t just gather up millions of followers by targeting feminists with doxxing attacks.  Some of what you say has to make recognizable sense, if the message is to take. The one thing I will credit Milo with, in fact, is that he is remarkably clear on his positions, disarmingly honest about what he perceives as what his weak points are. He does liberals the very good turn and on many an occasion, of explaining exactly what charges they would need to answer in order to prove him wrong. And millions apparently agree with him, beyond just finding him entertaining. This is something liberals need to contend with, beyond just de-platforming and protesting, which merely defers the same ideas to the next, more cleanly presented avatar of conservative rage:  diseases aren’t cured by quarantine, only delayed. This is where I return to Baldwin’s example of substantive intellectual demolition. Will there be another Milo, after Milo is gone? Yes. But notice no one is debating the question “Is the American Dream Presented at the Expense of the American Negro” anymore. That one’s been answered. It is indeed possible to close a conversation, it is possible to win.

So Yiannopolous’ willingness to appear on Real Time sounded to me like the basis for a debate, of at least a confrontation constrained by the norms of conversation, the opportunity for a takedown of his ideas.  Corner him, leave no room to fire a tweet and leave. Here’s that appearance:

Now: I know this sounds old-fashioned,  the equivalent of “I’ll-have-my-seconds-call-for-you-at-dawn” in the social media era, and perhaps even wishful thinking that the Troll King should play by the rules of conversation. Practically speaking, outside of PBS and YouTube, we don’t have long-form discussions that anyone on the left or right watch with any frequency. But Bill Maher’s is an hour long panel show (which I’ve made mention of in this column before) augmented with a YouTube-only segment called Overtime. With the right presentation, this could provide a stage for such a conversation, and it would inevitably be excerpted (and re-excerpted with the word ‘DESTROYS’ in the title) on YouTube. The salient bits would be available to be searched in perpetuity, in the same place and same way that made Milo famous in the first place, and allowed me to share the Baldwin/Buckley debate with anyone reading this.

Debates can be lost in real time and won over the longer term. The truth will always come out. Once the fact-checking is done, someone is right. People love a jab, a joke, a good set-up. But in the end, most (but certainly not all) follow who has the facts, over time. This may not be in time for an election, by the way.

At first, it appeared this confrontation wasn’t going to happen.   One of the scheduled panelists, leftist author and conflict reporter Jeremy Scahill retracted his attendance, offering a hangdog letter that explained why he could not share the stage with a person like Milo. While I agree that Scahill has every right to manage his career, brand and frankly, ethical commitments, the only way I’d see this as useful was if Scahill knew the person who would replace him was at the rhetorical level of a Baldwin or a Hitchens. In my humble opinion, the left isn’t producing a lot of these right now, for precisely these reasons: we have shied away from the intellectual battles that would have sharpened us. So as Bill pointed out in his response, this was Scahill’s loss. Ceding the territory doesn’t put you above the fray. We have a word for this, and the word is ‘forfeit.’

Maher responded to Scahill’s charges insisting that the truth would come out, and that there could be no better response than to have Milo ‘exposed.’  “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he would later say.

That said, almost everyone agrees that Bill went too light on Milo that night.  The Washington Post even called it a “Bromance.”  I’m going to give Bill a slight pass on this one: he needs to have guests on his show who are willing to come on without anticipating an ambush or unfair treatment. The smart move for Bill is to outsource the actual combat to his panel. To the extent that he can ringmaster it, he should have guests on that are going to challenge each other while he maintains his ability to keep the conversation moving.  But yes: Bill seemed unprepared, without specific arguments of Milo’s that he wanted to tackle or controversies he wanted an answer about.

If one were to take that appearance as the basis for criticism, you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about: for the most part, Bill failed to illuminate Milo’s controversies, and Milo himself was, for the most part, on his very best behavior.  Bill pushed Milo on going after individuals (the aforementioned Ms. Jones, who Milo called “barely literate,” saying she “looks like a man”) and agreed that if it’s warranted to make a point, he’ll go there, but he gave Milo only small grief here.  Milo also deliberately pushed boundaries while talking about an unnamed transsexual woman he had publicly collided with as “a confused man,” and taking a conservative hard line on gendered bathrooms. The most abusive he became during the live broadcast was when he made an off-note pair of jokes that he hires neither women nor gays.  Certainly, anyone new to Milo might have been caught thinking, “He sounds like most Trump voters.  Was that all?”  Nothing to set fire to a university over.  Certainly not as bad as some of the things Buckley says during the course of the Baldwin debate, and Buckley was seen as respectable.  Milo, while popular, is not.

And this is where, I suspect, most TV critics failed to do their homework.  It was after the show stopped broadcasting, but the cameras continued rolling, in the “Overtime” segment posted to YouTube the following day, that the promised fireworks finally emerged.  Guests Larry Wilmore and Malcolm Nance were left to challenge Milo, as overseen by Maher.  In the Q&A format, Milo was able to really let loose, and become provoked into far more specific baiting and leading.  When the conversation once again veered towards where transsexuals should use the bathroom, Milo was only too happy to take it further, going after Caitlyn Jenner, calling trans people victims of a “psychosexual disorder,” and finally levelling the bizarre and unsubstantiated claim that they are disproportionately involved in sex crimes (true, but only if you mean as victims).  When Wilmore pointed out that these were the same unfounded charges generically made against homosexuals (like Yiannopoulos himself) years before, that they were perverts and that homosexuality was a disorder, Milo replied, “Maybe it is.”

This is where Maher did seem to lighten up on Milo, and perhaps give him too much of a break. However, it did seem that he was trying to pull him back from the precipice when he said, “You remind me of a young, gay, alive Christopher Hitchens, but you gotta lose that shit.”  “People are just beginning to hate you,” he continued.

Again, the defining, remaining image was not that Milo was particularly incisive, or hard-hitting, or really leveling anything like a real challenge to anything but the well-worn excesses of zeal on the left; beating on a tired strawman.  By virtue of the protests, the editorials and controversy, he had been made to seem bigger than he was.  Laid bare in conversation with B- and C-level celebrities, he seemed to reach no greater classification than “classic prick.”  If anything, it was so obvious, that one wonders how he got on the show on the first place.  And that’s the point.  It’s one thing to suspect that the dark emperor has no clothes, it’s another to lay it out.

And yet, consider all of the heat that Maher took, before and after, for having the temerity to have this person on the show. Liberals and progressives were winding themselves into knots to confess how they never liked Maher, have been suspicious of him and his lunatic crusades, that he was too easy on Milo, that in having Milo on, Maher “mainstreams hate,” he’s no longer liberal, that he’s failed to change with the times, and on, and on.

What happened?  We used to be the party of debate.  Maher scanned the crowd of liberals for a champion and unfortunately, came up short.  Our response, once again, was to respond to the invitation with calls for intellectual quarantine.

Liberals used to see an opportunity like this and glove up for the fight, not for the fight that prevents the fight from happening.  Am I the only one who sees an opportunity like this and doesn’t think “stop mainstreaming hate,” but rather “I can take that guy.”  Who from the liberal side should have, could have, would have been the knight on the progressive side to meet Yiannopolous, jab for jab, in the field of open discussion?  Jon Stewart?  Is there anyone we would have tolerated attending in the first place?  Or are we just above it now?  Why do we shy away from, de-platform, contest, protest and simply avoid that which we should run to assert: an opportunity to declare, finally, and forthrightly, what our values are, assertively, dominantly, conclusively?  Or are we just out of practice?

Watch the Baldwin debate. This is who we were. This is who we need to be, again.

We have ceded the territory.  There are no more Baldwins.  Only Yiannopouli.

 

 

 

 


Also published on Medium.