Free Speech Fundamentals: The Most Dangerous Game

The verdict is in. Simon & Schuster are wrong--courting danger!--to have offered Milo a book deal, even under their conservative Threshold Editions imprint.

"YUCK AND BOO AND GROSS," tweeted comedienne Sarah Silverman on the day the book was announced. "This guy has freedom of speech but to fund him & give him a platform tells me a LOT about @simonschuster."

"Simon & Schuster should be ashamed of giving vile Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos $250K to publish book," echoed Jeff Stein.

"Problem with just shrugging at Milo book as free speech is that not everyone has the same level of access to platforms for speech," tweeted Murtaza Hussain--who, like Silverman and Stein has a blue verification checkmark, which I think means he has a higher level of access on Twitter than say, I do, but never mind. Twitter is free.

Kyle Bella (no blue checkmark) commented: "Editors @simonschuster could have said, 'No, Milo [sic missing comma] we refuse to publish your book because you're racist and transphobic.' But they didn't."

And this was just the opening Tweets! (All citations courtesy of Milo's Facebook feed--yes, he knows what they're saying about him.)

That same day, The Chicago Review of Books vowed, again through a Tweet: "In response to this disgusting validation of hate, we will not cover a single @simonschuster book in 2017."

Perez Hilton opined: "Unfortunately, Simon & Schuster decided they'd rather take a chance on sizable profits opposed to human decency by providing Milo with a mainstream platform to spew his hate."

Meanwhile, pre-orders on Amazon shot the book to #1 the day after its announcement. Since then, things have gotten really interesting.

Simon & Schuster tweeted out a defense: "We do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form. At Simon & Schuster we have always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions, and appealing to many different audiences of readers. While we are cognizant that many may disagree vehemently with the books we publish we note that the opinions expressed therein belong to our authors, and do not reflect either a corporate viewpoint or the views of our employees."

To little avail--but continued sales.

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, professor of history and Italian studies at New York University, argues that Milo himself "is a barometer for the far rightward shift and expansion of the conservative movement in America to elevate figures that traffic in violent speech"--despite the fact that Milo has never called for violence against anybody; quite the reverse, it is he who has been regularly threatened, including by self-defined members of the Alt-Right.

Constance Grady, writing for Vox, sees a similarly dire future for publishing: "Milo Yiannopoulos is a hateful person who has built a career on bigotry, but it is not hard to see why an editor at a right-wing publishing imprint might think it would be a good idea to sign him. He is loud, he has a loyal army of followers, and he knows how to get people's attention. He has that all-important built-in platform. All of that equals press attention--such as the flurry of articles the book deal prompted, including this one--and press attention usually means increased book sales. In Yiannopoulos's case, it seems to have worked. Dangerous is currently a best-seller on Amazon...  Having brought in one Milo Yiannopoulos, it will be increasingly easy to bring in another, and then another, until all of the hatred and all of the rage of the white supremacists and misogynists and bigots on the alt-right is considered a valid part of cultural discourse, and just another strain of thought, as legitimate as any other. It will become normal."

Sady Doyle, writing for Elle, concurs: "Milo Yiannopoulos has an army of trolls who will do whatever he asks, and presumably, 'buy this book' is not a hard command to obey. Then again, neither is 'dox this movie star.' The very thing that makes Yiannopoulos marketable makes it irresponsible to publish him. If there were ever a man whose book should to be treated as a weapon, it's Milo Yiannopoulos. The book will presumably name another target--or, more likely, several--and people's lives will go up in flames as the result. The harassment that follows a brush with Milo isn't light teasing; it's violent assault."

And Adam Morgan, as editor of The Chicago Review of Books, has reiterated his decision not to review any Simon & Schuster books thanks to their decision to publish Milo's: "I remain convinced that to protect the victims of discrimination from its traumatic and sometimes deadly consequences, the literary community must stand against anyone--author or publisher--who peddles hate speech for profit."

Who knew publishing a book could be so dangerous? Especially a book that, thus far, no one has read. What, exactly, is it that makes this book so dangerous before it is even in print?

To judge from the outrage: because it promises to make Simon & Schuster, the publishers, and most likely Milo himself, a profit.

Think about it. Milo is already famous, much much more famous than he would have been simply by publishing a book. (Trust me on this.) And how did he become so famous? For starters, although I wasn't paying attention then, it would seem through his Tweets--which he published for free. Then, when he was banned from Twitter for chivvying Leslie Jones about playing the victim over Ghostbusters' bad reviews, through his Facebook page, which at the time I joined in September 2016 had about 200,000 followers, but which now counts over 1,000,000--which, again, he publishes for free. But most of all through his writing for, which, again, readers can access for free. (Try the link, I'll wait.) And, of course, through his Dangerous Faggot Tour of college campuses, videos of which...wait for it...he posts on YouTube...for free. Nor does he charge the student audiences to whom he is speaking fees; the only fees they incur are those set by their schools for security, lest the protestors to Milo's talks get out of hand.

And now we are supposed to believe that a book deal with Simon & Schuster is going to make him more accessible to the audiences he already has? How, exactly? They can already get Milo 24/7 (with repeats) as long as they have an Internet connection. If Milo is dangerous--as his critics insist that he is--he is dangerous not because he has written a book--which, again, nobody has yet read--but because he knows how to use the Internet, through which, stop me if you'd heard this already, his fans can access all of his previous content for free. It is true: many of his fans were more than willing last Thursday as soon as he posted the announcement for his book to go buy it. But the reason they were so willing was because they have been reading his columns and watching his talks--do I need to say it again?--for free. This book, this book that Simon & Schuster has signed with him for, is quite literally the first thing he has ever asked them to pay for, other than the t-shirts and mugs that he sells through his store to help raise money for his college scholarship fund (now accepting applications). If Milo wanted to, he could publish his book on his website for free, and it would more than likely get just as many readers as it will through Simon & Schuster's edition. He could even publish it through his store and charge money for it. This is the age of the Internet, after all. And, as even his critics concede, Milo is a master at trolling the Internet for attention.

It is true, as Murtaza Hussain noted in his Tweet, "not everyone has the same level of access to platforms for speech." But--here's the irony--neither would Milo if he hadn't built them himself. Twitter and Facebook and Youtube and, yes, Blogger are just as accessible as platforms to me or you or Hussain as they are to Milo. With a camera and better make-up, I could be making videos. Sure, Milo is employed by, but started exactly the same way: through Andrew Breitbart's own ingenuity in harnessing the Internet. (Here's Breitbart's own book about it, if you want the full story.) And has millions upon millions of readers, far more than Milo has fans. If the fear, as Grady puts it, is that publishing Milo's book will normalize the kinds of things he says, I have news for her: they are already normal to a large portion of our population. Even if Simon & Schuster never publishes another book, the things that Milo says are already "considered a valid part of cultural discourse, and just another strain of thought, as legitimate as any other." Newsflash: That's why so many people voted for Trump. (Whether Grady has characterized Milo's speech accurately is another matter. In my view, she hasn't.)

Which leaves only the money. We all want to get paid for our writing. I would love to get paid for my writing, although, of course, indirectly as a professor I do. But I don't make money as such off my writing, certainly not $250,000, although I have made enough over the years to buy a few foils. But I would--and I know this is the case--if I knew how to build an audience as well as Milo has. So, in fact, it isn't really the money. It's the attention. And nobody gives their attention for free.

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