The response to Milo Yiannopoulos getting a big-bucks book deal with Simon & Schuster has been nuts. Even by today’s standards. The cry has gone up that S&S — or SS, amirite? — is endangering the wellbeing of women and gays and blacks and other minorities that have felt the sting of Milo’s camp polemics. Please. It’s a book, not a bomb. It’s words, sentences, ideas, not fire and pogroms. Everyone needs to calm down.
Milo is the Breitbart editor turned darling of the agitated, anti-PC right, given to manicured fuming against feminism, Islam, censorious students, ‘Black Lives Matter’ and other things that apparently threaten Western civilisation. When it was revealed that Simon & Schuster would be publishing his first book in March, and that it is called ‘Dangerous’, and that Milo has been remunerated very handsomely indeed for it, Twitter went epileptic; snowflakes melted; literary doyens called for a boycott.
The New Yorker went full haughty, calling on its readers to protest ‘vociferously’ against S&S, ‘in emails, letters, tweets, phone calls — you name it’. The publishing house should be made to ‘answer for the harm it condones through [this] decision’, it said, as if S&S were making landmines rather than bits of paper with words on them. Leslie Jones, the Ghostbusters actress subjected to vile racist abuse by alt-right morons on Twitter, said S&S is helping the alt-right to ‘spread their hate’. S&S-published author Karen Hunter said she was rethinking her relationship with the publishing house.
Most perversely, the Chicago Review of Books said it would not review any S&S books through the whole of 2017, in protest against what its editor, Adam Morgan, calls the ‘deadly consequences’ of Milo-style ‘hate speech’. Morgan says rhetoric like Milo’s, whether on race or transgenderism, has ‘real-world consequences’ — it nurtures violence. ‘It arguably encourages people such as Omar Mateen [the Florida nightclub shooter] and Dylann Roof [the Charleston Church shooter] to think of entire groups of people as less than human,’ he says. In short, publish Milo’s book and people will die. This is bonkers, and indistinguishable from the fuming of pointy-hatted policers of heresy in the past, who likewise feared that certain ideas, certain words, might warp minds and destroy souls.
This heated, fearful response to Milo’s book, this Milophobia as we might justifiably call it, shows how deeply the censorious urge runs today. Especially among the intellectual classes and literary set, people you might expect to defend the freedom to publish and rile and upset. The Milo boycotters, those saying we should bombard S&S with letters and emails, say they aren’t engaging in censorship. ‘We aren’t infringing upon Yiannopoulos’s or Simon & Schuster’s free speech,’ says Adam Morgan. Technically they’re right, in that they aren’t legally blocking S&S from publishing ‘Dangerous’. But their hissy fit, their fear of this book, their dread of its ‘deadly consequences’, has all the ingredients of censorship. All of them.
It’s driven by philistinism, by a view of culture, of argument, as a contagion that might twist minds and form fists and propel people into violence and mayhem. And it’s fuelled by an illiberal determinism, too, by a view of the certain sections of the reading public as automatons, bereft of free will, one sensational book away from becoming a pogrom. Every act of censorship in history has had these two key ingredients, the tendency to blur the lines between words and violence and the snooty, authoritarian view of the public as dim and dangerous, and so does the outburst of Milophobia. When you’re scared of a book — a book! — then you have truly lost your faith in reason and in other people. You have submitted yourself, mind and soul, to the tyrannical logic, if not the practice, of the censor.
The fury over ‘Dangerous’ might not be censorship, but it is unquestionably a stab at cultivating self-censorship. Putting moral and financial pressure on S&S is about telling this publishing house, and others, that they will suffer if they bring out books the right-on don’t like. It’s a kind of blackmail, with the overarching aim of controlling, or at least skewing, what does and doesn’t get published. Remember the words of Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451: ‘There is more than one way to burn a book.’ Some do it with matches, said Bradbury, while others, especially in the literary set, ‘lick [their] guillotine and eye the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme’. The Milo-fearing set might not be lighting matches, but they’re licking their guillotines.