Ben Mathis-Lilley: Hello, Amanda. Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos has allegedly been given a $250,000 contract to write a book about “free speech” for Simon & Schuster. I think this is bad and that Simon & Schuster should feel bad. You basically disagree. Let’s discuss!
Amanda Katz: Hi, Ben! Well, I’m not going to argue that this is good, per se. Yiannopoulos, an attention-seeking far-right “provocateur” who exults in whipping up mob fury against women, people of color, and trans folks, would not be my first choice as an author to publish in the fraught world of 2017.
But what has felt surprising to me is the number of people (including many I respect) calling for an all-out boycott of Simon & Schuster in the wake of this book deal. The book was acquired by S&S’s conservative imprint Threshold Editions, which has published plenty of other authors and books that lefty readers might find offensive to their values. Yiannopoulos has a big audience. Why shouldn’t they put out his book?
BML: I’m glad you asked! As a news blogger and, long ago, a research assistant who worked on Al Franken’s 2003 book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, I have some familiarity with the Ann Coulters and Rush Limbaughs of the world—the self-consciously outrageous right-wingers whose work is disseminated by major New York publishing houses under the aegis of the various conservative imprints described in this Vox article.
I also, thanks to Donald Trump, have some familiarity with the “alt-right”—the loosely affiliated online movement of white nationalists, white supremacists, and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists from whence Yiannopoulos emerged. And I believe there’s a difference between the alt-right and the Limbaugh right, not just in degree (in the sense that Yiannopoulos is even more willing than other right-wingers to goad the P.C. police by using words like faggot) but also in kind. While right-wing mass-market books of past decades have certainly been racially crude, Yiannopoulos and the alt-right have bigger goals than just making racist jokes: They’re out to re-introduce the 19th-century idea of white racial superiority into mainstream society. (You can click here to see Yiannopoulos praise various pseudo-intellectuals who believe in “scientific race differences” and the “natural” imperative toward racial segregation.) Yiannopoulos’ beliefs are significantly further right than those of your Jonah Goldbergs and Tucker Carlsons, and his project of mainstreaming white nationalism is one that Simon & Schuster should be embarrassed to lend its reputation to.
AK: I don’t know, really? What about the Bell Curves of the world? What about the fact that Hitler’s Mein Kampf is still in print, admittedly with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt donating proceeds to Holocaust survivors? In this election cycle, Ann Coulter tweeted a tweet that seemed to pine for a world in which only Americans with four U.S.-born grandparents could vote. I just think there are lots of reprehensible sentiments coming out from mainstream publishers all the time. As a former book editor myself, I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one paying that advance or (even worse) promoting Yiannopoulos and his views. But I get that a conservative imprint—one that finds these views to be somewhat sympathetic or at least provocative—might find them worth publishing.
I also don’t think you could hold Yiannopoulos (sorry, I am not calling him Milo, he is not Madonna) back. If no one had bought his book, he would have self-published and still probably sold thousands of copies. And no one is going after Amazon, that I’m aware of, for the book being available to preorder there. (It is currently No. 42 on the site.) It will make money off this too. I don’t really think what S&S is doing is that much worse, honestly.
That said, if people want to send a message to Simon & Schuster by refusing to buy its books, that’s absolutely their prerogative. It’s just not where I would put my energy.
BML: I’m glad you brought up The Bell Curve, because it points to another distinction I should have made earlier: Yiannopoulos and his followers aren’t just kicking around Bell Curve–esque ideas as an intellectual exercise—they also fetishize Nazism, i.e., the movement that put those ideas into practice. Yiannopoulos has posted photos of himself wearing an Iron Cross and holding books about Hitler, while his fans are notorious for their use of Holocaust imagery. “Provocative” beliefs about genetics are one thing; affection for the party that used those beliefs to justify the worst genocide in the history of civilization is another. Say what you will about the intellectual tenets of the Goldwater/Reagan conservative movement, dude, but at least they were not literally National Socialism.
When Yiannopoulos’ book comes out, Simon & Schuster is going to be putting its promotional apparatus behind someone who has written approvingly about the idea that “some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved.” If publishing someone who not only holds that view but has acted on it by encouraging the harassment and hacking of black actress Leslie Jones doesn’t deserve a boycott and professional freeze-out, I’m not sure what would.
AK: I hear that, completely. And where I do absolutely think S&S has responsibility is in the editing of this book. If they allow him to target or encourage targeting particular individuals, like Leslie Jones (bless her for all she has put up with this last year) or that trans student he went after in December, then there should absolutely be hell to pay.
But I think there is some queasy free-speech value in allowing an airing of the general principles this person is promoting, even though they make me extraordinarily uncomfortable. And then we, as consumers, are all free to act—to not buy this book, to not buy any Simon & Schuster books or Amazon products, whatever you think will help. Still, the most effective defense against the views Yiannopoulos is promoting is to push back as voters and as community members, to protect and fight for the rights and safety of the people being targeted by this kind of speech. I’m much more interested than that than in punishing a book publisher.
BML: You’re of course correct that political opposition to the white supremacist/nationalist agenda is going to be more important in the long term than whether S&S publishes this particular book, because you’re right that Yiannopoulos’ views are going to get aired in book form somewhere regardless of what S&S does. But I keep going back to the publisher’s defense of the decision, in which it writes that “we do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form” and boasts that “at Simon & Schuster we have always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions.” The statement attempts to put Yiannopoulos’ work into the tradition of publishing books by pundits such as Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. And there’s a usefulness in airing those individuals’ views, I guess; for better or worse, we live in a country in which tens of millions of people do think that contemporary black American culture has created “poor work habits” and that Islam predisposes its followers to terrorism. Those are mainstream views.
But the kinds of ideas that Yiannopoulos promotes—that women, blacks, and Latinos are genetically inferior to white men; that Nazi homages are acceptable in political discourse; that public figures should be able to target individuals for systematic harassment because that’s “free speech”—aren’t, yet. And if I worked at Simon & Schuster I would really have to ask myself how I felt about maybe being involved in changing that.
AK: Agreed. The editors who chose this project have evidently decided that they’re comfortable with that role. But if there’s a publicity assistant out there considering quitting her job rather than sending out dozens of press releases promoting this book and its presumed message: I get it. I would quit, too.