We live during an epistemological emergency, a post-facts hellscape where there are no longer any established truths. Any institution capable of adjudicating fact from fiction is automatically suspect, and owing to reality’s well-known liberal bias, conspiracy theories and outright lies are treated with respect. Donald Trump exploited this state of affairs to become president. And now Milo Yiannopoulos has a book out.
In case you’re unfamiliar, Yiannopoulos is the openly gay racist troll and darling of Breitbart who fancies himself a bad-boy provocateur, refers to Trump as “Daddy,” and who got permanently banned from Twitter for unleashing his flying monkeys on Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones because she had the audacity to be a woman of color. The 31-year-old has a large following on Reddit and on Twitter, where supporters rallied under the hashtag #JeSuitMilo (although even on that notoriously hands-off platform, they failed to get his account reactivated). Meanwhile, Yiannopoulos’ book goes by the laughably self-aggrandizing title Dangerous, he was paid $250,000 to write it, and pre-orders went straight to no. 1 on Amazon (before falling).
Notwithstanding our culture’s love of excessive superlatives, Milo Yiannopoulos really is the worst.
But Simon & Schuster, in releasing Dangerous, really stepped in it. There was a campaign to stop the venerable publishing house from issuing it at all, and the Chicago Review of Books has sworn not to review any S&S titles for the foreseeable future. Rather than boycott the firm, however, S.F.’s own indie shop The Booksmith chose another route.
Via Facebook yesterday, the store announced that
While we at Booksmith value free speech and democratizing information at our bookstores, we also believe that this author crosses a line by promoting hate speech & bullying (the statement on our website contains links for further clarification) and feel compelled to take action. We want to send a message; we also believe that our family of S&S writers should not be harmed by a boycott. So, over the past week, we’ve discussed with our staff and community the pros and cons of various responses at length, and we’re proud to announce our decision.
Booksmith is committed to the following, effective immediately:
– We will not be stocking or special ordering Dangerous or anything else from Threshold Editions. No royalty revenue will come from Booksmith.
– Booksmith will reduce our orders with Threshold’s parent company Simon & Schuster by 50% in order to communicate pressure to the corporation as a whole. While we respect Simon’s decision to publish any book, we reserve the right to allocate our discretionary inventory dollars with publishers who act with ethical & moral standards consistent with our own.
– While we are not enacting a sweeping boycott of all S&S titles, for the foreseeable future, 40% of all S&S sales (which is to say all of our profit) will be turned right around and donated to the ACLU.
We encourage you to join us by making a donation to the ACLU, and by sending your concerns to Simon & Schuster.
Amy Stephenson, The Booksmith’s manager and events director, told SF Weekly that, “We knew we needed to do something … We carry a lot of writers from Simon & Schuster who are local, like David Talbot and Julia Scheeres. It just became a conversation we tossed around for about a week, where we thought about the best ways that we could take some kind of action, make a statement, without hurting people who are the most vulnerable, basically.”
“Because of the importance of democracy of information, a lot of people were really against a knee-jerk boycott, which makes total sense being in the industry that we’re in,” Stephenson added. “The reason we chose the route that we chose was specifically because it’s not censorship. What a lot of people don’t understand is, in a way this decision is the same decision we make every single day, 100 times a day, about what books we’re going to put on our shelves and how we’re going to allocate the limited resources we have to buying books. We’re making the same decision we always make, just making it louder — and hoping that other people hear what we’re saying.”
It’s amazing how effective trolling can be when you inhabit in a media universe in which attention begets attention and clicks are all that matter. Out magazine devoted a cover story to Yiannopoulos in September, complete with a photo shoot that made the insidious neo-Nazi look like an adorable little scamp who’s just out to get Establishment liberals to clutch their pearls. (They later half-apologized, in a mealymouthed editor’s note.) LGBT Nation named Yiannopoulos its 2016 Person of the Year — or its readers did, anyway. If you want to compare that to the equivalent honor that Time bestowed on Donald Trump, citing his influence on world affairs and not any actual positive trait, also know that The Advocate handled things a little more tactfully when dishing out commemorative plaques for 2016, choosing to acknowledge the victims of the Pulse massacre in Orlando instead of someone who calls himself a hero for holding up a poster of Caitlyn Jenner saying, “Trannies Are Gay.”
But Yiannopoulos still got a signal boost from Out and LGBT Nation for his “I’m just doing it for the lulz” message, which is the defense every troll keeps closest to hand. They’re always just kidding, and they can always retreat into their insincerity and their veneer of unflappability whenever they’re called out. (And why can’t you liberal snowflakes just have a sense of humor about the death threats their Twitter-egg followers administer en masse because your very existence is an affront to them?)
It’d be fascinating to see how Yiannopoulos might respond to this. When criticized for saying insanely racist shit, he often wraps himself in the mantle of free speech, playing the victim. In the way that intentionally offensive people often do, he confuses the right of free expression with the First Amendment prohibition on government censorship, the better to make himself look persecuted for speaking his mind. But even when his speeches on college campuses do get shut down, it serves his underlying purpose: getting attention. So The Booksmith’s move was shrewd. In spite of denying him precious media oxygen, you can’t really call a neighborhood bookstore a powerful enemy.
And like every bully, alt-right trolls are also giant crybabies. So while the Booksmith may be asking for a lot of trolls to descend on its social media channels — “there’s definitely some folks who want to tell us how we’re being hypocritical and censoring ideas,” Stephenson said — they did the right thing. Let’s see what happens when Yiannopoulos’ “Dangerous Faggot” tour stops by UC Berkeley on Feb. 1.
And of course, if the world truly goes to hell, Yiannopoulos will be in the camps right alongside the rest of us. It’s not because he’s gay, but because he’s partly of Jewish descent. True white supremacists don’t look kindly on that.