The last catch
This time Milo had gone too far.
—Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Yesterday, the Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos finally lost his book deal. The turning point was a video that surfaced over the weekend of Yiannopoulos appearing to condone the sexual abuse of young boys—which, for future reference, is a useful data point for establishing what the conservative movement considers excessive. Shortly after Yiannopoulos was dropped from his speaking slot at an upcoming conference sponsored by the American Conservative Union, Simon & Schuster, which had awarded him a lucrative contract to write his memoirs, decided to cut him loose, too. As far as the merits of that action are concerned, the author Roxane Gay, who put her money where her mouth was last month by withdrawing her own book from the publisher, sees it for what it is:
In canceling Milo’s book contract, Simon & Schuster made a business decision the same way they made a business decision when they decided to publish that man in the first place. When his comments about pedophilia/pederasty came to light, Simon & Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them. They did not finally “do the right thing” and now we know where their threshold, pun intended, lies…Simon & Schuster was not alone in what they were willing to tolerate. A great many people were perfectly comfortable with the targets of Milo’s hateful attention until that attention hit too close to home.
But the sequence of events is enlightening in itself. The video, which was taped on January 4, 2016, was leaked by the Reagan Battalion, a conservative outlet active mostly on Twitter and Facebook, on Sunday morning. It took the ACU one full day to rescind their invitation, and Simon & Schuster tweeted out their decision four hours later. I don’t have any way of knowing when the internal conversation about the video at the publisher began, and they might well have been discussing it intensively ever since the comments became public knowledge. Perhaps the fact that the announcement was made soon after the conference cut its ties with Yiannopoulos was just an accident of timing. But that isn’t how it looks. It feels a lot more like Simon & Schuster—the company as a whole, that is, not the imprint Threshold Editions—had been angling to get rid of Yiannopoulos as soon as he became a bigger headache than he was worth, but was unwilling or reluctant to move until it got the signal that it was fine to proceed. The response from the Conservative Political Action Conference gave the publisher the cover that it needed. If Yiannopoulos is too offensive even for mainstream conservatives, the reasoning must have gone, then we can’t be blamed for canceling his book, too. The video alone wasn’t enough. It also had to lead to action on the right. And as soon as it did, the publisher acted with suspicious quickness. Nothing ever happens that fast in publishing, which implies that Simon & Schuster was eager to act for a long time, but was afraid to do so until now.
Which, in a way, is the most frightening thing of all. Simon & Schuster—which, let’s not forget, is also the publisher of the novel Catch-22—found itself caught in a similar bind. It seems fairly clear that an internal understanding had been reached long ago that publishing Yiannopoulos’s book was a bad idea, for reasons of branding, if not ethics. No matter how well it sold, it had already tarnished the publisher’s reputation in ways that couldn’t be easily erased. Yet it seemed better to endure whatever attacks from the left it received, rather than to incite a similar reaction from the right by doing the reasonable thing and pulling the book. Maybe it’s because Simon & Schuster calculated that the protests from the left would be noisy but ineffectual, as they all too often are, or, more likely, that it felt that liberal outrage was already baked into the cake, and drawing the ire of the right would push them into unexplored territory. Whatever the reason, the result was that the parent company was effectively held hostage by one of its imprints. (In retrospect, the statement in which Simon & Schuster blandly reiterated its opposition to hate speech, while defending its decision to publish authors with “frequently controversial opinions,” seems to have been all but dictated at gunpoint.) I have a feeling that the decision by the ACU was greeted by many at the publisher with a sigh of relief. But it also means that they allowed the terms of the conversation to be set by the conservative movement, not by their own editorial standards. And it says a lot about the times in which we live that a formerly respected New York publishing house is relying on the right to police itself.
Yet it also gets at a more important point, which is that change will have to be driven by reasonable voices on the right. I don’t know much about the Reagan Battalion, which appears to have emerged last year as part of the Never Trump movement, but there’s no question that the video gained much of its impact from its source. If a liberal blog had released it, it might not have made so much as a ripple. And it’s clear now, if it wasn’t before, that any attempt to deal with all that Yiannopoulos represents will have to come from conservatives. This isn’t meant to understate the importance of protest on the left, which forms the kind of indispensable backdrop—or power source—necessary to motivate those who are in a position to effect real change. But it’s revealing that Yiannopoulos imploded just a few days after none other than Bill Maher bent over backwards in an attempt to normalize him. A lot of Republicans seem like “the treacherous old man” whom Joseph Heller describes in his novel:
I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American…When the Germans marched into the city, I danced in the streets like a youthful ballerina and shouted, “Heil Hitler!” until my lungs were hoarse. I even waved a small Nazi flag that I had snatched away from a beautiful little girl while her mother was looking the other way.
But the funny thing is that the old man isn’t even wrong. He’s just looking out for his own survival, and when another character calls him “a shameful, unscrupulous opportunist,” he smugly replies: “I am a hundred and seven years old.” It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic. The conservative movement tolerates Yiannopoulos or Trump only because it thinks that it’s better off than it would be without them. And it won’t be the left that convinces it otherwise.