Free Speech May Cost You

The case of Milo Yiannopoulos and the missing $250,000

Free Speech May Cost You

An op-ed ran in Publishers Weekly’s Soapbox a couple of weeks ago, written by the literary agent to one Milo Yiannopoulos. It was a retort to an earlier editorial in that magazine criticizing the six-figure deal Simon & Schuster had made with his client.

Not familiar with Milo? Let’s get you caught up. It doesn’t take much to figure him out — just glance at the “tongue-in-cheek” list he once advised his followers to do on his birthday, which he declared World Patriarchy Day:

“Flirt with every female member of retail staff you encounter. They tell you they hate it, but they’d die without it…cat-call at least five women…tell a woman she’s wrong…”

And the list continues in that fashion. He also created a college grant exclusively for white males and, recently, on an appearance on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” falsely declared that transgender people are “disproportionately involved in sex crime.”

(I’m purposefully not providing any links to these articles because those sites thrive on clicks.)

Milo has made a career for himself via this type of commentary, and many people were outraged when Simon & Schuster offered him a six-figure book deal. The deal was harshly criticized until, through a series of circumstances, it came to light that Milo had once jokingly defended pedophilia. After that, he promptly lost his book deal (as well as his job and his opportunity to appear at CPAC).

His agent’s defense, written a few days before Milo’s book was canceled, immediately invoked the First Amendment. The agent bemoaned how those in publishing were denying his client’s right to free speech. Of course, Milo can still publish his book; that right hasn’t been stripped. In all likelihood, he can find another publisher. If not, he can self-publish. Other outlets exist.

As Roxane Gay argued, this has little to do with free speech and everything to do with money. Milo has a rather rabid group of followers and a knack for getting attention. Simon & Schuster understood that, as does Milo and, presumably, his agent. They’re using freedom of speech to make money, not because of some inherent belief in its principle. As in the heyday of the shock-jock, money and principle are happily intertwined, and that principle is hastily, often clumsily, invoked whenever money is threatened.

And that was the oversight Milo’s agent made in his defense. This was all business. As Gay noted, once Milo wasn’t capable of making money, he lost his book deal. If he continues to flounder, he’ll soon no longer have an agent. The business side of publishing, terrifyingly to writers, often lacks sentiment.

Still, it makes sense to claim that the Constitution is on your side, and freedom of speech is always an effective rallying cry. During his interview with Maher, Milo said, “All I care about is free speech and free expression. I want people to be able to be, do, and say anything.”

To simple people, freedom seems like a simple concept. In truth, it’s much more complicated than authoritarianism or totalitarianism. Freedom is messily, necessarily confined by laws, both public and moral.

Milo is aware of that, and revels in the discomfort he creates in those who oppose him. As he said to Maher, “The one thing authoritarians hate is the sound of laughter.” Maher replied, “When people laugh, they know it’s true.”

Bill Maher is a man of startling insight into Bill Maher, but I’d turn instead to James Baldwin (as I often do), who wrote the following about humor: “One’s merely got to listen to their dirty jokes, to what they think is funny, which is also what they think is real.”

That short, brilliant statement explains the discomfort you may feel when someone makes a racist joke and laughs a little too hard. It’s true that humor may contain insight. It doesn’t always. No one should expect to find the answers to life’s questions from Gallagher.

But it is amusing to claim that people who love and work with books are somehow opposed to free speech. I had the recent opportunity to participate in a celebration of banned books at East City Bookshop, and I’ve been to a number of libraries that prominently display books which were previously outlawed. A variety of publishers and booksellers introduced me to the more controversial works of Nabokov, Kingsolver, Bukowski, and many, many others. Free speech is endemic to publishing.

Milo should know this; in all likelihood, his agent does. Their mistake was the assumption that his bigotry was going to be celebrated, or even entertained. But you can’t constantly mock the marginalized and then claim indignation when people finally ask you to stop.

(Guess what? I’m cheap! For a short time, both my books, I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and You’re as Good as Dead, are available on Kindle for $0.99. If you ever loved me, you’ll buy a copy of each.)

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