Milo Yiannopoulos discovers the art of (losing) the deal

Jessica Goldstein

Jessica Goldstein Culture Editor, ThinkProgress

Milo Yiannopoulos, a notorious hatemonger who has, in his rise to fame, spewed vitriolic garbage about every marginalized group that exists and sicced his millions of followers on celebrities and civilians alike, had a book deal with Simon & Schuster. That is, until yesterday.

Before yesterday, Yiannopoulos had used his formidable celebrity to rage about — and instigate harassment campaigns against — women, Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and LGBT individuals. Before yesterday, Yiannopoulos, writer and senior editor at Breitbart, still enjoyed the support of Simon & Schuster, which defended its decision to publish the autobiography Dangerous and to pay its author a $250,000 advance.

But yesterday saw the publication of a video that showed Yiannopoulos, ardent spokesman for the so-called alt-right, endorse pedophilia. The conservative group Reagan Battalion leaked the tape, in which Yiannopoulos tells the radio host, “You’re misunderstanding what pedophilia means. Pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13-years-old who is sexually mature. Pedophilia is attraction to children who have not reached puberty.”

In a Facebook post, Yiannopoulos insisted he did not condone pedophilia. “I find those crimes to be absolutely disgusting. I find those people to be disgusting.” He chalked up the misunderstanding to “sloppy editing” and his “usual blend of British sarcasm, provocation and gallows humour.”

The tape — which also got Yiannopoulos booted from the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he was slated to speak this week — appeared to be the one thing Simon & Schuster couldn’t abide: On Monday, S&S announced it would be canceling the publication of Dangerous.

Yiannopoulos responded on Facebook: “I’ve gone through worse. This will not defeat me.” Perhaps he would have responded on Twitter, but the platform banned him last year for inciting hate speech. (More on that in a minute.)

It hardly seems likely that the decision-makers at Simon & Schuster — or within the conservative Threshold imprint, under which Dangerous was to be published — had a moral awakening and decided they could no longer stand with Yiannopoulos.

Though sales soared in the wake of protests against Yiannopoulos earlier this month — not a surprise that sales of a conservative book rise in direct proportion to liberal anger — the release of the tape lost Yiannopoulos support from his own team. Rejection from CPAC, an annual, massive, right-wing conference hosted by the American Conservative Union, is tantamount to a stamp of disapproval from the conservative movement: The very people to whom Threshold caters, and who the publisher expected would buy Dangerous. So much for all that.

Simon & Schuster can say, as it did back in December, that “the opinions therein belong to our authors, and do not reflect either a corporate viewpoint or the views of our employees.” But there is a tremendous difference between believing Yiannopoulos has a right to be published and ponying up a quarter of a million dollars so he publishes his book under your banner and, in turn, generates profits for your company. It is the difference between agreeing Nazis have a right to march through Skokie and volunteering to host a swastika-stitching party so all the participants can have snazzy new armbands for the occasion.

If Simon & Schuster wants to the public to believe this decision came from a place of “careful consideration,” that only makes the call to cancel just as — if not more — infuriating than the call to publish the book in the first place. Now Simon & Schuster thinks Yiannopoulos has gone too far? This is what they were waiting for? This is the only uncrossable line, the only unassailable point of view? Nothing else gave the publisher pause?

Not Yiannopoulos’ open mockery and identifying of a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (just one of the many thrilling stops on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour of United States college campuses)? Not his assertion that a BuzzFeed reporter was “a typical example of a sort of thick-as-pig shit media Jew”? Not his claim in Breitbart that “gay rights have made us dumber”? (Here’s the link for attribution, but really, why click?) Not his work to legitimize Gamergate, the misogynistic movement against women in the tech and video game industries that, at its worst forced its victims to flee their homes in the wake of rape and death threats?

Leslie Jones attends the American Museum of Natural History’s Museum Gala on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, in New York. CREDIT: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP

Not his followers’ targeting of Saturday Night Live’s Leslie Jones, star of last summer’s Ghostbusters remake, for an online harassment campaign so viciously racist and sexist in tone and disgusting in duration that Jones left Twitter until the platform permanently banned Yiannopoulos? Think about that: Even Twitter, which is famous for doing next-to-nothing in the event of hate speech and abuse, banned Yiannopoulos. (Yiannopoulos’ response to the ban: “With the cowardly suspension of my account, Twitter has confirmed itself as a safe space for Muslim terrorists and Black Lives Matter extremists, but a no-go zone for conservatives.”)

Apparently none of that was despicable enough for Simon & Schuster, which defended the Dangerous deal through it all, pleading with readers to “withhold judgment until they have had a chance to read the actual contents of the book” and insisting that, for whatever it’s worth, “We do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form.”

Long before this tape leaked, Yiannopoulos provided Simon & Schuster with an avalanche of incendiary hate speech. Plenty of disqualifying material, were one weighing whether or not to provide a platform for this person’s ideas. And if the issue is that the targets of his contempt were all adults, it is worth noting (though one would think this is obvious) that the world is full of children who are black, who are Latinx, who are Muslim, who are Jewish, who are immigrants, who are LGBT, all of whom are harmed by the proliferation of the toxic ideology Yiannopoulos loves to spout.

People protest the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in Berkeley, Calif. CREDIT: AP Photo/Ben Margot

Maybe Simon & Schuster hopes to be applauded for this gesture, one for which they’ll likely suffer at least some financial fallout. Praise seems slow in coming. Roxanne Gay, who pulled her upcoming book How to Be Heard from Simon & Schuster over the Dangerous deal last month, wrote on Tumblr that the cancellation of Yiannopoulos’ contract was “a business decision” that deserves no plaudits:

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. They were fine with his racist and xenophobic and sexist ideologies. They were fine with his transphobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. They were fine with how he encourages his followers to harass women and people of color and transgender people online. Let me assure you, as someone who endured a bit of that harassment, it is breathtaking in its scope, intensity, and cruelty but hey, we must protect the freedom of speech. Certainly, 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.

In other words, if Yiannopoulos had only been a troll extraordinaire, if he had only egged on his followers to harass the targets of his choice to smithereens, if he had only done exactly what he has always done his entire public life, that would have been enough. And it should have been enough.

What’s really telling, in all of this, is not what Simon & Schuster did but when and why they did it: After CPAC kicked Yiannopoulos off the agenda. Simon & Schuster isn’t reacting to the tape; they’re reacting to CPAC reacting to the tape. Which is to say: What is undoing Yiannopoulos — at least, a little bit — is not criticism from without but reflection from within. It is the conservative establishment saying: This person does not represent us. In these increasingly polarized times, when so many are only willing to listen to people who share their political views, the call has to be coming from inside the house or no one will bother to answer it.

UPDATE: Milo Yiannopoulos resigned from his position as a senior editor at right-wing site Breitbart News on Tuesday afternoon, writing in a statement that “I would be wrong to allow my poor choice of words to detract from my colleagues’ important reporting.” On Monday, Fox Business Network’s Charles Gasparino reported that Breitbart was “weighing” firing Yiannopoulos over concerns that advertisers would pull their support from the website.