As you are probably well aware, former Breitbart editor and alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos was invited to be a panelist on Friday’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher. After journalist Jeremy Scahill cancelled his own appearance on the show in protest, Maher released a statement defending his decision, charging, “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.”
Anyone who tuned into Real Time on Friday night — or, more likely, saw a clip of fellow panelist Larry Wilmore telling the so-called “provocateur” to “go fuck yourself” — has confirmation that Maher’s defense was nonsense. Maher didn’t invite Yiannopoulos on his show so he could challenge and “expose” this sentient pile of daddy issues. On the contrary, he appeared pretty cozy with the Breitbart editor; together the men rolled their eyes at transgender activists who prefer to be called by the pronoun of their chosen gender. When Yiannopoulos expressed his earnest wish to protect women and girls from the allegedly predatory transgender women who might want to use the ladies’ room, Maher declared his argument “not unreasonable.”
Maher didn’t want a reasoned debate. What this self-proclaimed “rationalist” wanted was a spectacle, which is all but guaranteed where Yiannopoulos is involved. (As I write this, I can hear the chants of protesters gathered outside Flavorwire’s building, which, oddly enough, is the site of a press conference Yiannopoulos’s “team” hastily arranged on Tuesday afternoon.) Milo himself is a microcosm of a problem that began with the wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump’s campaign rallies — to use New York magazine editor Joe Hagan’s phrase, the problem with treating fascism as a “ratings spectacle.”
Yiannopoulos appears to revel in the contradictions he embodies. He’s openly gay and has spoken about being the victim of sexual abuse as a child. His gaudy costume jewelry — including the ubiquitous cross around his neck — and blonde-streaked hair are particularly incongruous against the backdrop of his racist, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist screeds. Slate’s Michelle Goldberg fittingly described him as a “Trump voter’s fantasy of a decadent gay sophisticate.” (For the mercifully uninitiated, Yiannopoulos’s star rose over the summer thanks to his targeted attacks on Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. In July, he sic’d a Twitter mob on Jones, who eventually closed her account after being bombarded with vile racist attacks; she returned to Twitter shortly after and was the target of a hack leaking private information, including nude photos.)
And yet this man has become a flag-bearer for the Republican Party for the sole reason that, as the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out, “he pisses people off — liberal people.” Yiannopoulos is catnip for someone like Maher, a man who proudly helmed a show called Politically Incorrect for over a decade. He clearly caught a whiff of ratings-boosting controversy and rushed to capitalize on it.
So of course Maher failed to hold Yiannopoulos accountable for his vile rhetoric, if you can call it that. Instead, he sat back with his own shit-eating grin and watched his guest denigrate Malcolm Nance — a retired Navy officer and counterintelligence expert — as “stupid.”
On that very same night, CNN anchor Don Lemon provided a brisk example of how to engage with opponents who aim to degrade the very concept of a debate — in this case, by shutting down a guest who repeatedly called the story at question “fake news.” During a discussion on the price of keeping the president and his family safe, the conservative commentator Paris Dennard, said, “I think this is fake news. This is not a news story.” Lemon interrupted and clarified to his viewers that fake news is not simply news you disagree with or dislike, but a false story spread with the intent of misleading readers — clearly a far cry from a discussion on the First Family’s security costs. But Dennard kept crying “fake news” until Lemon cut him off and called it a night.
Maybe some viewers, popcorn at the ready, had hoped to watch Lemon and Dennard spar over the definition of fake news for a few more minutes. But that most certainly would not have added anything useful to the discussion. In the face of an administration that appears intent on bombarding us with so many contradictory images, statements, and stories we can’t see straight, we need more of this kind of measured restraint. There’s ample room between ignoring something you don’t want to hear and giving it an unmediated platform.
This is a challenge congressional Republicans have failed to meet. After videos of angry constituents confronting their representatives at town halls went viral in recent weeks, many Republicans have cancelled their regularly scheduled town halls during the congressional recess. The goal is to avoid becoming the subject of a “YouTube moment,” most of which feature angry voters begging their senators not to abolish the Affordable Care Act. But by ignoring the pleas of their constituents and insisting that any anger is coming from left-wing (paid!) protesters, these Republicans have created a situation in which making a spectacle is the only way to get their attention. This administration would prefer that we be on the receiving end of such spectacles — that we sit passively on the couch and watch as they unleash chaos on the nation and the world.
Cutting off people like Yiannopoulos from enjoying the public attention they so desperately crave is not about censoring voices on the right, a perception that lead to an invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington next week. This is about who gets to speak — to hold our attention — and why. Let’s not forget who hired Yiannopoulos as an editor at Breitbart: Steve Bannon, the white supremacist who has arguably more power in the White House than Trump himself. Add Milo to the list of spectacles for which we can thank Bannon, right under the fanatical demonization of Muslims and immigrants.
Yiannopoulos had the smirk knocked off his face this weekend after a video surfaced in which he defends sex between grown men and young boys; in response, Simon & Schuster cancelled his $250,000 book deal, and CPAC rescinded its speech invitation. (Hold your applause, though, because on Monday, CPAC announced that Trump — who liked to walk in on teenage beauty pageant contestants while they were changing, and who is the President of the United States — is scheduled to speak.) In the richest bit of irony, several Breitbart editors were calling for Yiannopoulos’s dismissal before he announced his resignation on Tuesday afternoon.
If all this sounds like so much noise crowding out the many more serious problems we’re facing as a country, well, you are correct. How has a person whom comedian Aparna Nancherla aptly described as “half an idea that Sasha Baron Cohen threw in the trash came to life” dominated the news cycle for so long? It’s the same reason Maher invited him on Real Time and CPAC invited him to deliver a speech and the news channels aired Trump’s rally in Florida on Saturday — the point isn’t reasoned debate or an informed public, but a spectacle that is nearly impossible to resist.
Why else did Trump decide, apparently on the fly, to hold a press conference last Thursday — a rambling hour-plus exercise in neurotic narcissism during which nothing was clarified and nobody was reassured? We might be able to tune out Yiannopoulos’s nonsense, but as much as it might feel necessary to our collective sanity, we can’t just ignore what the president is doing and saying.
But Milo? Milo is spectacle incarnate. His only merit is that he makes people like me mad. Watching him try to wade through an “intellectual” debate is like watching Trump try to sound “presidential.” Both are pathetic, but only one requires our attention.