I promised myself that I’d spend less of 2017 dissecting the provocations of assorted jerks and frauds. I held out for a while. But as Milo Yiannopoulos’s reign as the latest conservative enfant terrible crumbled this weekend over video of him suggesting that very young teenagers can consent to sex with adults, with organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference rescinding a speaking invitation that they had extended to him and a conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster canceling his $250,000 book contract, it seemed worthwhile to note one particular element of his confidence game.
Yiannopoulos’s rise coincided with a new wave of protest on college campuses and was directly facilitated by conservative college students who booked him in an attempt to raise even more ire from their liberal peers. At the same time that conservatives were criticizing liberal college students as vulnerable snowflakes making unreasonable requests of their administrations, conservative college students and groups were enabling the rise of an intellectual fraud at the cost of their own funds and credibility.
Utopianism can be a form of naivete. Given the sheer variety of students who gather on most college campuses, it would take an impractical — if not Orwellian — effort for administrators and faculty to anticipate their students’ every need. And given the inevitable contradictions between those needs and desires, it would be impossible to accommodate every single one of them. Hoping for a world free of economic precariousness, myriad forms of discrimination and the unkindnesses of youth may be impractical, given present political conditions and university politics. The solutions that the left and liberal college students propose may even be downright undesirable. But as forms of callowness go, wanting to improve the world is hardly the worst.
Contrast the wide-eyed earnestness of progressive college students, for which they’ve earned so much criticism, with the gullibility of their conservative peers, whose weakness for Yiannopoulos’s shtick was what inspired the American Conservative Union to say yes when Yiannopoulos asked to speak at CPAC.
In keeping with the broader themes of our political moment, Yiannopoulos is less a conservative than a fellow traveler who vexes liberals for profit.
Yiannopoulos’s embrace of the Gamergate backlash against the diversity movement in video games helped make him a media figure in the United States, but it seemed like a canny calculation rather than a genuine commitment. His outrageous statements about everything from Jewish control of the media to the Black Lives Matter movement to transgender people have long seemed less the product of a genuine worldview than a search for buttons to press, accompanying the jabs with naughty snickers. To regard him as genuinely politically conservative requires ignorance of conservative principles. To see his act as outrageous rather than derivative requires an unfamiliarity with subjects including art and gay history.
And yet, conservative college students were willing to keep booking Yiannopoulos, since demonstrating “that we are not these special snowflakes who need safe spaces,” as the organizer of one such event at Yale put it, apparently counts as high principle.
The tour stops themselves may not have been particularly profitable for Yiannopoulos. The production was deliberately over-the-top in a fashion intended to make a splash in an upcoming documentary. And Yiannopoulos on at least one occasion personally picked up the security fee a college was charging to maintain order at his appearance.
The real currency of Yiannopoulos’s tour wasn’t speaking fees. It was ginning up the protests that would make for flashy documentary footage and stoking the controversy that has made someone like Ann Coulter a right-wing publishing mainstay. If the entire case for your importance is that you make a certain class of people angry, then you have to keep making those people angry, upping the rhetorical ante all the way, to preserve the sense that you are “dangerous” and thus capable of moving books and movie tickets. Conservative college students proved more than willing to provide Yiannopoulos with the forums to do that, in some cases paying for extra security at the events in question. Yiannopoulos’s college tour wasn’t merely about ginning up the incidents he needed to survive as a going concern; it was a rather nifty way to get other people to pick up at least some of the tab.
So the next time conservatives feel tempted to decry the callowness of campus liberals, they might take a pause to consider why so many college conservatives allowed themselves to be taken in by a dubious huckster with little to offer the long-term development of right-leaning ideas and institutions on college campuses. It’s a statement of conservative pride in the movement’s supposed clear thinking to paraphrase Irving Kristol and suggest that liberals, once “mugged by reality,” will come to their senses. Anyone who went into business, however temporarily, with Milo Yiannopoulos should come to terms with the fact that they’ve just been swindled, period.