Until recently, I’d never heard of Milo Yiannopoulos. How I wish that blissful ignorance had remained intact.
Over the past several years, Yiannopoulos has developed a fanatic following among a minority of Americans who’ve embraced his nasty bleating on Breitbart. Had he been confined exclusively to Breitbart, I might not have ever become aware of him. Alas, he crossed my path over the weekend, turning up like a lightening bug smashing into my social media windshield.
The bombastic provocateur accepted a headline speaking gig at the American Conservative Union’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. That didn’t sit too well with some of Yiannopoulos’ critics, of which I’ve learned there are legions. He seems to enjoy attracting controversy as a means to burnish his reputation and line his pocket. Yiannopoulos is an unlikely hero for the conservative political action group; he’s an openly gay man who delights in thumbing his nose at mainstream social conventions.
All this came to a screeching halt after Yiannopoulos committed the ultimate social media sin—he became a Twitter hashtag, #Milo, for all the wrong reasons. Once anyone becomes a social media pariah, there seems no easy route to redemption.
On Monday, a purportedly conservative media called The Reagan Battalion posted an inflammatory video of Yiannopoulos on its Twitter page, letting loose a fresh round of vitriol toward him. In the video, which almost immediately went viral, Yiannopoulos suggested support for pedophilia, defending sex between men and boys as young as 13.
That did him in. Yiannopoulos had survived previous controversy, including sexist writings, racist rants directed at comedian Leslie Jones, a riot over his appearance at the University of California, Berkeley, and even a recent appearance on Bill Maher’s “Real Time” on HBO.
But the pedophilia charge apparently was a bridge too far for the CPAC crowd, which had previously defended offering Yiannopoulos a platform as a matter of robust free speech and an effort to attract young conservatives to the convention.
Along with losing the speaking engagement, Yiannopoulos lost a lucrative book deal with publisher Simon & Schuster. That deal, worth a reported $250,000, had been controversial when it was announced late last year and came as a shock even to Yiannopoulos. He expressed surprise that the publisher fell for his outrageous shtick, according to The Hollywood Reporter:
I met with top execs at Simon & Schuster earlier in the year and spent half an hour trying to shock them with lewd jokes and outrageous opinions. I thought they were going to have me escorted from the building—but instead they offered me a wheelbarrow full of money.
He even lost his benefactors at Breitbart, as he resigned from the news site. The occasion of his resignation from Breitbart prompted an apology for his comments about pedophilia. “I regret the things I said,” Yiannopoulos said during a news conference on Tuesday. “I don’t think I’ve been as sorry about anything in my whole life.”
This is an evolving epoch of nihilism, a period that has produced fake news, false prophets, and the celebration of intolerance and ignorance. As The Washington Post recently noted, Yiannopoulos’ celebrity was driven by a cult of personality “designed to demean and offend.”
In our cybercelebrity-driven world, this extremist pose may garner more than a Warholian quarter-hour of fame. Indeed, in Yiannopoulos’ case, it generated a book deal, college speaking tours, and television appearances—all of which now seems to be crumbling into dust.
But Yiannopoulos’ moment was never destined to endure. His supernova ascent as the mediagenic, so-called “alt-right,” poster-bad-boy for vile speech only set him up for an inevitable plunge from the dizzying heights of his hateful summit. His celebrity narrative could only be a morality story, one where the antihero seemingly attained fame and fortune by offering nothing of redeeming value in return.
So maybe, after all is said and done, I’m grateful to learn the lesson that Yiannopoulos inadvertently taught me. His rise and fall is an affirmation that the wages of excess, incivility and, ultimately, self-aggrandizing celebrity are not this nation’s sustaining values.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.