It’s no surprise that the New Yorker, a reliably liberal magazine that doesn’t want to offend its fanbase, has been leaning towards Regressive Leftism. While their criticism of Trump is generally good, their osculation of faith is irritating, but of course for the magazine to state outright that there’s no evidence for God would be, well, too strident, and they either shy away from faith or osculate it. (To be fair, they’ve published one online piece by Lawrence Krauss about militant atheism).
But when they tackled the issue of Milo Yiannopoulos and free speech in yesterday’s piece by Jelani Cobb: “The mistake the Berkeley protestors made about Milo Yaiannopoulos“, they wound up implying that Milo is inciting violence, with the implication being that he should just shut up, or at least shouldn’t be invited anywhere. (Cobb, by the way, is identified by the magazine as “a professor of journalism at Columbia University. He won the 2015 Sidney Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, for his columns on race, the police, and injustice.”)
What was the mistake that the protestors made? It was, said Cobb, to turn Yiannopoulos into a victim, therefore deserving of sympathy. And that was supposedly why Trump is so popular as well:
The further fact of Yiannopoulos’s fervent support for President Trump is not, then, surprising. Few figures in American history have better weaponized the imaginary grievances of entitled people who consider themselves oppressed than Trump has. This is precisely the reason the black-clad rioters among the protesters at Berkeley who prevented Yiannopoulos from speaking—the school cancelled the event, citing danger to the public—served his ultimate interests. It was a tactical error that ignored everything 2016 should have taught us. As with Trump, who treats every reasonable criticism of his Presidency as another nail in a crucifixion, and his electorate, which eagerly co-signs that sentiment, Yiannopoulos has emerged from Berkeley as both the putative victim and victor. In the wake of the debacle, his book rocketed to No. 1 on the pre-order list in Amazon’s political-humor section. Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip “Dilbert,” stated that he was ending his support for Berkeley, where he received a master’s degree, because he would not feel “safe” on the campus.
Well, one could make a good argument that Trump’s election had little to do with him seeming to be a victim, and his noises about being “crucified” by the press haven’t won him many supporters since he became President. Likewise, the mistake the Berkeley protestors made was not just to cast Milo as Jesus. True, it did enable some to paint him someone whose free speech was abrogated by irate Leftists—which happens to be true. But I don’t think that was nearly as important as the second reason:as Ryan Holiday argued, the fracas over Yiannopoulos brought him more attention, and hence more supporters. The first mistake isn’t as serious because it didn’t gain Milo many more supporters than he already had: it just gave conservatives another reason to defend him. The second, however, by casting a wider net of attention around Milo, invariably drew in some people who hadn’t heard of him, swelling his ranks. (As for Scott Adams’s claim, well, that’s ridiculous, because Berkeley did all it could to ensure a peaceful talk, and in fact supported Milo’s right to speak while denigrating what he usually says. I’m sure it’s very safe in Sproul Plaza right now.)
Cobb also seems to have bought into the view that everything Milo says is toxic: the political equivalent of alchemy. Well, that’s not true, for some of Milo’s comments, whether on immigration, feminism, or issues like Black Lives Matter, do bear discussion, despite the fact that he often goes off the rails. While it’s important to Cobb to claim that everything that comes out of Milo’s mouth can be rejected forthwith, without discussion, I don’t agree. Even if I disagree with most of Milo’s views, that kind of speech is protected precisely because it stimulates the kind of discussion that, in the end, will promote rationality. Do we really want to claim that Black Lives Matter is a movement without flaws, or that anyone who questions statistics on wage differentials between sexes must be a misogynist? For that is what Cobb is saying:
No chemistry department would extend an invitation to an alchemist; no reputable department of psychology would entertain a lecture espousing phrenology. But amid the student conservatives at Berkeley—and along the lecture circuit where he is a sought-after speaker—Yiannopoulos’s toxic brew of bigotries apparently meets their standard for credibility. And this recognition is as big a problem as anything he has said in his talks or in his erstwhile existence as a Twitter troll.
I’ve listened to a few of Milo’s talks, and I don’t agree that they consist solely of a “toxic brew of bigotries.” But since Cobb sees it this way, it’s easy for him to slide into the trope of “hate speech,” and even into implicitly blaming Milo himself on the violence that ensued before his talk—violence that prevented him from mounting the stage.
Read this excerpt from the last two paragraphs of Cobb’s piece and tell me if you don’t see an implicit exculpation of the protests on the grounds that Milo intended to incite the kind of violence that happened at Berkeley:
Whatever Scott Adams’s hypothetical fears for his safety on Berkeley’s campus, they pale in comparison to the realistic fears that many Muslims have about their places of worship being targeted for arson, as was a mosque in Texas, the day after Trump signed his executive order on immigration, last month, one near Seattle, two weeks earlier, and one in Florida, last September. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented eight hundred and sixty-seven incidents of harassment, many of which involved people specifically invoking Trump’s name, in the ten days following the Presidential election. The largest group of these incidents involved anti-immigrant sentiments, followed by instances of anti-black and anti-Semitic bigotry.
We know or ought to know that, in a hierarchical society, even civil liberties can be used in ways that reinforce those hierarchies. We are witnessing the rebirth of alchemy as a serious endeavor, an undertaking in which we transform abuse into victimhood, billionaires into besieged outsiders, and the vulnerable into vectors of mass danger. It is no more empirically sound than the old mutations of lead into gold—but it is far more marketable. And it is far more dangerous than the inept rogues who showed up on Berkeley’s campus that evening.
I’m sorry, but I haven’t heard Yiannopoulos call for the burning of mosques or illegal harassment. The conclusion that Milo’s talks lead to “mass danger” is ludicrous. It is that claim that’s not “empirically sound”, not Cobb’s view that allowing Milo to speak poses a clear and present danger to society. Banning Yiannopoulos from an invited talk, as the protestors succeeded in doing, is more dangerous than allowing him to talk, because that erodes the First Amendment, and that erosion endangers America as a whole. As for the violence, Cobb needs to be reminded that Milo is not responsible for it. Cobb’s aim, to call out prejudice, is admirable, but along the way he throws out the First Amendment along with the baby of bigotry.