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15 February 2017

Milo Yiannopoulos: the chameleon who enthralled the alt right

How a former tech blogger broke America – and became a hero to angry young white men.

By Helen Lewis

Who is Milo Yiannopoulos? This is both a journalistic and a philosophical question. The first answer is that he is an editor of the fringe right-wing website Breitbart – formerly led by Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon – who was banned from Twitter for his involvement in the harassment of an actor in the Ghostbusters reboot. When he was booked to speak at the University of California, Berkeley, on 1 February, a demonstration against him led to smashed windows and to Donald Trump tweeting: “If UC Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence [sic] on innocent people with a different point of view – NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

Publicity such as this is nectar to Yiannopoulos. His forthcoming book, Dangerous, has done brisk business as a result of the tweet and is now at the top of Amazon’s political humour chart.

Yiannopoulos has emerged as the “alt-right” movement’s thirstiest self-promoter, carefully flirting with bigotry for clicks. When “Gamergate” began, he appointed himself the king of an online vigilante army, defending video games from feminists who wanted plausible storylines and better underwiring for female characters. This was despite his frank admission that he didn’t play them himself. There was, however, some mysterious quality that made him more of a “gamer” than women who had spent their whole career in the industry. (My mistake: it wasn’t a mysterious quality. It was the ownership of a penis.)

Getting the attention of Trump – to whom he refers as “Daddy” – was probably the highlight of Yiannopoulos’s life. The Gamergate episode shows just how well adapted he is for success in our media ecosystem. To paraphrase the US journalist Matt Taibbi, he is a vampire squid, relentlessly jamming his blood-funnel into anything that smells of notoriety.

He is also unhindered by principles, shame or the desire to be consistent. He has said almost uncountable appalling things, then insisted either that he did not mean them or that some aspect of his identity made them OK. For example, he once wrote about how “preening poofs in public life” made it harder for “regular young gay people”. But he is gay, so what’s the harm?

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Similarly, when a blogger suggested that he was anti-Semitic, he referred to being Jewish himself. (He has also claimed to be Catholic.) He has been the subject of magazine profiles mixing the ostensible condemnation of his views with the titillation of being so close to a “bad boy”. He’s the easiest baddie that a journalist will ever nail because he plays up to it, revelling in his pantomime villain persona. Before it was suspended, his Twitter handle was @nero (he also maintained a secret account, @caligula). And why not? All this calculated offensiveness brings in more money, more fame, more armies of fans. Critics get wrapped up in whether he means what he says, when it doesn’t matter: the effect does.

However, there is a reason why Yiannopoulos – educated at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, Kent until he was expelled – is now plying his trade in the US. A large number of British journalists remember his previous incarnation. Before he was a “provocateur”, he was a failed tech blogger with a vindictive streak and a poor record with money.

Yiannopoulos got his first break as Bianca Jagger’s speechwriter and was part of the Telegraph blogs squad put together by Damian Thompson, now the editorial director of the Catholic Herald, which also included James Delingpole and Dan Hodges.

He is an adept chameleon and has had three names already. Born Milo Hanrahan, he briefly traded under “Milo Andreas Wagner” before settling on a surname taken from his Greek grandmother. (As Wagner, he wrote a 2007 book of poetry called Eskimo Papoose, featuring lines such as “I shall not be your passive victim/Buggering my way to freedom/On white linen wings”. He now describes it as a work of satire. Of what, it’s hard to say.)

His reputation in Britain was sustained by pettiness. When the tech site that he founded, the Kernel, racked up thousands of pounds in unpaid bills, he told one contributor that she was “behaving like a common prostitute” in wanting to be paid. Another, Jason Hesse, won a high court order for unpaid wages in 2013. (After the Kernel was sold to German investors, others were also paid.) And when the Guardian’s Charles Arthur complained that the Kernel was using his photo without permission, Yiannopoulos sent over an intern with £60 in pennies.

After that incident, James Ball – now at BuzzFeed – wrote, “People in both tech and the media are frightened of Milo: he’s a man they discuss in DMs [direct messages], not open Twitter (or open anything).” That is still true. Everyone who criticises him knows that they risk a backlash from his fans, and that oh-so-postmodern ironic harassment feels just like the real thing.

So perhaps it’s time to say: sorry, America. We gave you the Beatles, but not all of our exports can work out. 

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine

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