Last Friday, Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos was a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher. Yiannopoulos is an internet provocateur and white nationalist troll whose real-life rap sheet includes harassing a trans student at the University of Wisconsin, calling Black Lives Matter a hate group, saying that Islam and feminism are cancers, and leading a racist and sexist abuse campaign against Leslie Jones.
After learning Yiannopoulos had been booked on Real Time, founding editor of The Intercept and journalist Jeremy Scahill cancelled his own scheduled appearance on the show in a statement, which read, in part: “There is no value in ‘debating’ [Yiannopoulos]. Appearing on Real Time will provide Yiannopoulos with a large, important platform to openly advocate his racist, anti-immigrant campaign. It will be exploited by Yiannopoulos in an attempt to legitimize his hateful agenda.”
The show went on without Scahill, and in the interview the Washington Post called a “bromance,” Yiannopoulos buddied up to Maher, telling him “You’re the only good one,” and “You’re sound on Islam, unlike most of the people on your side.” (Pro tip: If Yiannopoulos ever says you’re “sound” on a particular topic, question yourself). Maher promised a prepared and thorough detailing of the real-life harm Yiannopoulos has caused, saying “If Mr. Yiannopoulos is indeed the monster Scahill claims—and he might be—nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed on Friday night.” Not only did Maher fail to do that, he also failed to push back on the hateful and inciting statements Yiannopoulos said on the show. For instance, when Yiannopoulos attempted to defend his transphobia, saying “Women and girls should be protected from having men who are confused about their sexual identities in their bathroom,” Maher responded, “That’s not unreasonable.” Again and again, Maher let Yiannopoulos coast by with responses that repeated the same line: “We can disagree and that’s wonderful.”
Framing Islamophobia, transphobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and racism as merely a difference of opinion, merely a disagreement, is an intentional tactic that upholds white supremacy under the ruse of free speech and offers more free passes to Yiannopoulos. By suggesting that his abhorrent white nationalist views are simply something reasonable people can agree to disagree about, Yiannopoulos levels the playing field for himself and brings his views to the level of discourse, where they do not belong. You don’t debate with Nazis, and this excellent piece from The Establishment explains why. Giving airtime and a stage to the idea that Jews, Muslims, Black people, and trans people are less than human gives credence to these ideas and establishes them as worthy of debate—as if debating human and civil rights is an interesting and provocative thought experiment, not a dangerous conversation that holds the lives of real people in the balance.
Thanks to both his Real Time appearance and his constant complaints about the chilling of free speech on college campuses, Yiannopoulos was invited to give a keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual political conference for conservative activists and elected officials, but by Monday, old videos of Yiannopoulos joking about the sexual abuse of children and casually advocating for sexual relationships between teenagers and adults were resurfaced by conservative blog The Reagan Battalion. Although Yiannopoulos was invited to speak at CPAC despite his long history of abuse towards women, immigrants, people of color, Muslims, Jews, and trans people, it was these comments that were indefensible to CPAC. The conference disinvited Yiannopoulos, saying in a statement:
“Due to the revelation of an offensive video in the past 24 hours condoning pedophilia, the American Conservative Union has decided to rescind the invitation of Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference…We continue to believe that CPAC is a constructive forum for controversies and disagreements among conservatives, however there is no disagreement among our attendees on the evils of sexual abuse of children.”
And the hits kept coming for Yiannopoulos. After the videos resurfaced, Simon & Schuster cancelled his forthcoming book, for which Yiannopoulos had already been paid a $250,000 advance. In a brief statement, Simon & Schuster announced, “After careful consideration, Simon & Schuster and its Threshold Editions imprint have cancelled publication of Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos.” Lest you think this is an act of #resistance on the part of Simon & Schuster, Roxane Gay, who previously pulled her own upcoming title from Simon & Schuster to protest its relationship with Yiannopoulos, wrote:
“In canceling Milo’s book contract, Simon & Schuster made a business decision the same way they made a business decision when they decided to publish that man in the first place. When his comments about pedophilia/pederasty came to light, Simon & Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them. They did not finally ‘do the right thing’ and now we know where their threshold, pun intended, lies. They were fine with his racist and xenophobic and sexist ideologies. They were fine with his transphobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. They were fine with how he encourages his followers to harass women and people of color and transgender people online.”
That “careful consideration” line from Simon & Schuster is a real doozy that allows the company to hide the fact that despite the countless warnings, statements, and articles that laid out the danger that Yiannopoulos is capable of and has already been part of, the publisher proceeded with the book deal anyway. Like CPAC—and now Breitbart News, where Yiannopoulos has just resigned—the line for Simon & Schuster is not Islamophobia, transphobia, misogyny, anti-Semitism, or racism. While these previous targets of Yiannopoulos’s hate and attacks have been easily marked as “other,” it’s his flippancy and comments about the abuse of white children that deem him unmarketable. As Simon & Schuster make it clear that sexual abuse of white children is their last line, more companies are being forced to make similar decisions about what lines can’t be crossed because the public scrutiny will cost them financially. During this Trumpire, it’s critical to examine where those lines are drawn and what communities are deemed okay to sacrifice and demean in the name of profit.