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The fall of Milo Yiannopoulos, explained

The controversy shows racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry are fine in conservative circles, but pedophilia crosses the line.

Milo Yiannopoulos attends the Young British Heritage Society launch event in the UK shortly after he was banned from Twitter.
Milo Yiannopoulos attends the Young British Heritage Society launch event in the UK shortly after he was banned from Twitter.
Darragh Field/Barcroft Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Milo Yiannopoulos finally went too far for conservatives. On Monday, he lost his book deal, and his speech at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was canceled. And on Tuesday, he resigned from the ultra-conservative website Breitbart.

But it wasn’t his racism, sexism, transphobia, or other kinds of bigotry that led to Yiannopoulos’s fall. Nope. After all that, it’s comments apparently supporting child molestation that did Yiannopoulos in.

Here’s the backstory: Over the weekend, it was revealed that Yiannopoulos was invited to give a speech at CPAC, the biggest mainstream conservative conference in America. That sparked a lot of outrage — particularly among the left, which pointed out that Yiannopoulos has a long history of making all sorts of bigoted comments.

But liberal outrage wasn’t what got CPAC to pull the plug or Yiannopoulos to resign from Breitbart. Instead, the final straw was a video resurfaced by the conservative website Reagan Battalion — in which Yiannopoulos defended the idea of “13 year olds” having sex with “older men,” referencing his own story that he benefited from a priest molesting him when he was a teenager.

“In the homosexual world, particularly, some of those relationships between younger boys and older men — the sort of ‘coming of age’ relationships — the relationships in which those older men help those young boys to discover who they are and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable sort of rock,” Yiannopoulos said.

That, apparently, was the tipping point for CPAC. In a statement, CPAC organizers said they originally invited Yiannopoulos, whose speaking event at a college campus had to be canceled because it literally caused riots, to stand up for free speech — but that Yiannopoulos’s comments on child molestation went too far.

“Due to the revelation of an offensive video in the past 24 hours condoning pedophilia, the American Conservative Union has decided to rescind the invitation of Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference,” American Conservative Union Chair Matt Schlapp said in a statement.

Yiannopoulos has since apologized. In a Facebook post, he clarified that he doesn’t believe pedophilia and child molestation are okay: “I would like to restate my utter disgust at adults who sexually abuse minors. I am horrified by pedophilia and I have devoted large portions of my career as a journalist to exposing child abusers.”

As for his actual remarks, he explained, “As to some of the specific claims being made, sometimes things tumble out of your mouth on these long, late-night live-streams, when everyone is spit-balling, that are incompletely expressed or not what you intended. Nonetheless, I've reviewed the tapes that appeared last night in their proper full context and I don't believe they say what is being reported.” (Who among us hasn’t accidentally defended child molestation on a late-night live stream?)

But the apology didn’t stop the enormous backlash. Later in the afternoon, Simon & Schuster and Threshold Editions announced that they have canceled their book deal with Yiannopoulos. And under apparent pressure from Breitbart staff who demanded Yiannopoulos’s resignation, he quit on Tuesday.

For many people, the whole controversy has raised more questions than answers. Why was it that it took something as low and awful as support for child molestation to finally get conservatives to disown Yiannopoulos? What about all the bigotry he has pushed in the past? Why were those other remarks not enough?

What’s remarkable about this whole affair is how unsurprising it is. The video that the Reagan Battalion resurfaced has been around since July 2016. And Yiannopoulos has a long history of making offensive, provocative remarks; it’s what he’s known for. It was totally predictable that a mainstream conservative group’s attempt to reach out to someone who’s basically an internet troll would blow up in some way — yet the fact CPAC and other conservatives even felt compelled to reach out to someone like Yiannopoulos says a lot about conservatism today.

Yiannopoulos is a troll — and this is far from his first offensive remark

As journalist Nicole Hemmer explained, none of this should be surprising to anyone: “As someone who’s been on this beat for a while: everything you’re learning about Milo has been public for ages. CPAC made its choice.”

Yiannopoulos, after all, has a long history of offensive remarks. Here are a few examples:

  • He claimed he “went gay” so he “didn’t have to deal with nutty broads.”
  • He was banned on Twitter after he launched a racist, sexist harassment campaign against black actress Leslie Jones, whom he described as “barely literate” and “a man.”
  • He often mentions that he only dates nonwhite men — in a way that deliberately exoticizes and stereotypes black men. In one column, he asked, “am I racist for not dating white dudes?” He later added, “These days, I wouldn’t actually write ‘no whites’ on my profile. Some people would find that offensive. But I would come up with a formulation to achieve the same effect, like, say, ‘9 inches and over, and don’t contact me if you can name more than four hockey players.’”
  • He named and showed the picture of a transgender student previously at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee during a speech at the school — effectively doxxing a nonpublic figure and opening her up to harassment because he didn’t like her feminist activism.
  • He repeatedly argued on Real Time With Bill Maher last week that trans people are “disordered,” and even suggested that gay people might be as well. (Major medical groups, like the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association, say being transgender or gay is not a mental disorder.)
  • He hired a black porn star, Jovan Jordan, as a bodyguard when attending a meetup for video gamers. “My most ardent haters are feminists, and their fear of penises is well-known,” he argued. “It was vital, therefore, that I sought the services of a man believed to have the biggest dick in the porn industry.”
  • He said that men shouldn’t be kicked out from universities for groping women.
  • He declared his birthday “World Patriarchy Day.”
  • He created the “Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant,” a college scholarship available only to white men to put them “on equal footing with their female, queer and ethnic minority classmates.”

This is who Yiannopoulos is: As my colleague Zack Beauchamp explained, his entire shtick is to say something inflammatory, anger a whole lot of people, get widespread media attention, refuse to back down, and say he did it all to stand up for free speech — because no one can control what he says. Yiannopoulos pushes the boundaries just enough to force this chain of events, which conveniently prop him up as a hero.

But Yiannopoulos’s child molestation remarks crossed the line. For one, condoning child molestation goes too far for just about everyone, regardless of political party.

But the remarks also may have crossed the line because they played into longstanding conservative fears about gay men — specifically, the myth that there’s a link between homosexuality and pedophilia.

The Family Research Council, a conservative anti-LGBTQ group, still promotes this myth on its website. And it was used in the past to demonize gay men and block the advancement of gay rights — such as, retired UC Davis professor Gregory Herek explained, “in 1977, when Anita Bryant campaigned successfully to repeal a Dade County (FL) ordinance prohibiting anti-gay discrimination, she named her organization ‘Save Our Children,’ and warned that ‘a particularly deviant-minded [gay] teacher could sexually molest children.’” (The empirical research shows there is no scientific basis to this myth.)

In this context, Yiannopoulos’s support of child molestation as a gay man played into preexisting conservative fears about homosexuality, making him a particularly alarming figure. That, coupled with society’s total rejection of pedophilia, may have contributed to Yiannopoulos’s fall — leading not just to a lost book deal and canceled speech, but to him quitting from Breitbart, the media outlet where he made so many of his past offensive remarks.

Yiannopoulos claims he’s just defending free speech

In the past, Yiannopoulos has explained away his offensive remarks by arguing that he’s simply standing up for free speech. This was the tack he took when he appeared on Bill Maher’s show over the weekend.

“All I care about is free speech and free expression,” he said. “I want people to be able to be, do, and say anything.”

To this end, he points to college campuses as evidence of liberal “political correctness” running amok in a way that’s stifled free speech. He can claim some personal experience here, like the time anti-fascists rioted at UC Berkeley when he was scheduled to give a speech there and forced him to cancel his event. But this is part of a broader conservative talking point about “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and other examples of left-leaning students on college campuses doing things that, according to critics, stifle free speech.

This isn’t something that’s exclusive to conservatives. Maher, who identifies as liberal, appeared to invite Yiannopoulos to his show at least in part because he agrees that liberals are too sensitive to speech that they disagree with. “You make liberals crazy for that part of liberalism that has gone off the deep end,” Maher told Yiannopoulos.

But other liberals have argued that this supposed defense of free speech is really just a ruse to say all sorts of racist, sexist, and bigoted things.

ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum pointed out, for example, that despite CPAC’s claim that it invited Yiannopoulos to defend his free speech rights, they disinvited him when his speech went too far for them. The racism, sexism, and other offensive remarks were apparently fine, but it was the support for child molestation that apparently crossed a line.

After all, CPAC knew of Yiannopoulos’s past offensive remarks. It’s one of the reasons people rioted in Berkeley, decried Yiannopoulos’s invitation to Maher’s show, and told CPAC not to invite Yiannopoulos in the first place.

Yet CPAC invited him, publishers signed book deals with him, and Breitbart employed him anyway — at least until his pro-pedophilia comments surfaced.

Modern conservatism has a problem with bigotry

The entire debacle, however, shows a broader issue: Modern conservatism has a huge problem with bigotry in its ranks.

Consider Donald Trump. He called Mexican immigrants “rapists” who are “bringing crime” and “bringing drugs” to the US during his campaign launch event. He proposed banning Muslims, an entire religious group, from entering the US. He argued that a federal judge overseeing the Trump University lawsuit should be disqualified because of his Mexican heritage. And at campaign events and as president, he has spoken of black people through coded language that suggests all black people live in jobless, crime-ridden “inner cities” and all may even work for the Congressional Black Caucus.

What’s more, racism and xenophobia appeared to predict support for Trump. One telling study, conducted by researchers at UC Santa Barbara and Stanford shortly before the election, found that if people who strongly identified as white were told that nonwhite groups will outnumber white people in 2042, they became more likely to support Trump — suggesting there’s a significant racial element to his support.

And this doesn’t even get into the other offensive remarks Trump has made, including about sexual assault — like when he said he can grab women by the genitals and get away with it because he’s a celebrity.

Yet Trump won the Republican primary and, ultimately, the 2016 general election. He’s not only continued to get the backing of the Republican Party but is also scheduled to talk at CPAC this week.

Or consider Yiannopoulos’s resignation from Breitbart — one of the most read news outlets on the right, based on online traffic numbers. Breitbart is a news outlet that has run all sorts of explicitly racist, sexist, and bigoted articles. That was, apparently, fine under the website’s editorial standards. But once Yiannopoulos’s pro-pedophilia remarks surfaced, only then did he apparently go too far for Breitbart.

Some conservatives have looked at all of this in shock and horror. Conservative pundit Glenn Beck, for one, has become a top critic on the right of the Trump administration. In one instance, after Trump appointed former Breitbart head and alt-right champion Steve Bannon in November as his chief strategist, Beck suggested that Americans are racist if they let Trump keep Bannon in charge.

“When people really understand what the alt-right is, this neo-nationalist, neo-Nazi, white supremacy idea that Bannon is pushing hard,” Beck said, “I hope they wake up because, if not, we are racist. If that’s what we accept and we know it, then we are racist. I contend people don’t know what the alt-right is yet.”

But Beck seems to represent a minority on the right, given Trump’s ascendance to the White House and his continued support from Republicans.

Conservatives’ apathy to such racism, misogyny, and other offensive remarks is how CPAC and other conservatives could overlook Yiannopoulos’s racism, sexism, and other kinds of bigotry when they touted him as a free speech champion — only to consider his child molestation comments beyond the boundaries of accepted free speech.

Watch: It’s now on America’s institutions — and Republicans — to check Donald Trump