16 February 2017

'There is no value in "debating" him'

With those words Jeremy Scahill broke his engagement to appear on Bill Maher's HBO talk show this weekend, after learning that Milo Yiannopoulos would be a fellow panelist. Regular readers will recall that Yiannopoulos was prevented from speaking at the University of California Berkeley by violent protesters a few weeks ago. He's the man who was banned from Twitter after he instigated a mass flame war against the comedienne Leslie Jones. Scahill, a credible journalist who did much to expose Blackwater a decade ago, believes that Yiannopoulos can cause worse things than flame war, and worse violence than that employed to silence him. Putting "Milo" (I'll stick to this usage hereafter to save keystrokes) on the Maher show "could also be used to incite violence against immigrants, transgender people and others," Schahill fears, while Milo's public attacks on individuals "could lead to violence or even death." I have not heard of any Milo-inspired violence, unless you count the protests against his appearances, but for some people, I'm sure, his mere words are a form of violence.

So who is this monster, anyway? The self-styled "Dangerous Faggot" and "Supervillain of the Internet" is a homosexual British Catholic conservative. In a way he's Andrew Sullivan 2.0, and perhaps less likely than Sullivan to eventually renounce the political right. Less concerned with Milo's biography than with what he actually thinks, I went to that mouth of Hell, the Breitbart website looking for some of his controversial speeches. I found two of interest. One is a diatribe against abortion that left me understanding why some women might judge him a misogynist, though the charge isn't necessarily fair. There's something patronizing in his attitude toward women and his contempt for a feminism he dismisses as emotional compared to his own superior logic, which he credits to his Catholic heritage.The more interesting speech attempts to explain "Why the Democrats Lost the White Working Class." That class, Milo explains, wants jobs, security and freedom to feed, amuse and express themselves as they please, while the Democrats' constituency consists of "social justice warriors" who work in the service industry --a bad thing, apparently -- if they work at all and are obsessed with identity politics that inevitably denigrate the white working class. "They talk to you like you’re a stupid dog who just pissed the rug for the fifth time this week," he says of Democrats. He claims that the white working class rejects identity politics, while the other side most likely assumes that they are the practitioners par excellence, if not the inventors of identity politics. But that can't be so in Milo's mind, since he really does seem to see those people as the salt of the earth.

Working class Americans are fundamentally decent people. They are work hard, play hard people.  They are very different than me, and frankly very different from most of you [Milo is addressing college students]. No matter what background you come from, you shouldn’t look down on the working class, because they are what America is really about.The difference between conservatives and the new breed of Democrats is that we don’t think the working class is evil, or that they need to be controlled and taught how to think.

Since I didn't really see any hatemongering in Milo's talk (his comments on Islam are fair hits and he makes no policy recommendations) I'll content myself with using the quote above to elaborate on a crucial divide of the moment. Some readers probably will resent his warning against "looking down" on the [white] working class because they believe that class looks down on them. Milo never actually denies that premise in his talk, probably because the charge, to him, is too ludicrous to require refuting. Nevertheless, that is the charge that divides the American left from the white working class right now, and the feeling is certainly mutual. They feel the left (for this purpose, the Democratic party) doesn't respect them, while the left's constituencies feel disrespected by them perpetually. More dangerously, they infer disrespect from every critical statement made about the left or its constituencies, and not just disrespect for their opinions but disrespect for their persons. "We fight outrage culture by being outrageous," says Milo, referring to what's usually called political correctness, but his mocking manner only reinforces, or so I presume, the perception of disrespect. That, more than any real-world consequences of his antics, fuels the anger people like Scahill feel toward him.

Milo stands at the front line of two competing, probably incompatible notions of democracy. One side considers unconditional mutual respect a precondition of democracy. That means, above all, accepting people as they are and letting them be themselves without requiring them to conform to someone else's notion of citizenship or humanity. Milo's insulting style explicitly refuses this respect, while the history of race relations in the U.S. leaves white people, and now the white working class in particular, under suspicion of implicit disrespect, with no real way to prove those suspicions wrong. On the other side, democracy depends on a kind of mutual accountability that makes it absolutely essential to call out people when they screw up, even if they're just being themselves by their own lights. While the left idealizes "speaking truth to power" but denies that it can ever be the "power," the other side insists that accountability and judgment are always two way streets, that the rich can judge the poor, whites can judge blacks, men can judge women, and so on. While these judgments often are harsh and ad hominem, they do not amount, in the minds of the people making the judgments, to the kind of categorical disrespect the left perceives and resents. Think of the difference this way. Someone may judge you by your politics as an idiot and a loser, but that doesn't mean he thinks you incapable of smartening up. In fact, people like this almost invariably punctuate their criticisms by telling the targets to "wake up" or "wise up" in a way they wouldn't if they thought you permanently irredeemable or incapable of doing better. Yet people on the left hear this as "You'll always be a loser because the kind of person you are is inferior to me and my kind." That's because, in stark contrast to an earlier left that celebrated the malleability of man and the right of revolutionaries to mold men, the current left seems stuck in an "accept me as I am" staredown with its critics, while of course it doesn't really accept the white working class as it is because they're the exception that proves the left's rule, the people who can't be accepted as they are because they're presumed guilty of accepting no one else as they are. In reality, unconditional respect shouldn't be incompatible with mutual accountability, so long as respectful accountability is the rule and "accept me as I am" doesn't mean "I never have to change." But because some have been too unconditional in their demand for respect, the likes of Milo rise up to resist them, no doubt believing that accountability must take priority over respect in our urgent times. He should just be careful not to underestimate the vehemence with which people will insist on respect when it seemed within their grasp after a history of oppressive disrespect, but now seems to slip away. This has departed somewhat from the substance of Milo's own views, but we can save the subject of whether he's just another corporate bootlicker for another time.


Anonymous said...

"He's the man who was banned from Twitter after he instigated a mass flame war against the comedienne Leslie Jones."

In all fairness, Twitter also banned a german center/leftist whose youtube channel I follow (kraut and tea) for suggesting that a troll "hang himself", after said troll maliciously and wrongly accused him of anti-semitism. So apparently, Twitter's standards for banning aren't very high.

Anonymous said...

And both sides lie. They care about the votes the working class represent, but both sides DO look down on the working class. Both sides represent the status quo and those who benefit from it. Both sides are threatened by the voters who make up the majority of the working class. And I think that what is presumed to be a "right-wing" backlash that lead to Clinton's humiliating defeat, is actually the working class "waking up". But we'll see in the next couple of elections whether they manage to stay awake.