Australia’s welcome mat for right-wing trolls
In so many ways, Milo Yiannopoulos is unremarkable. He is just one of a long line of conservative grifters making hay in Australia.
In 1943, a time when the devil had the best poems, if not the best tunes, George Orwell could write: “By and large the best writers of our time have been reactionary in tendency.” Sadly, the West just can’t field the calibre of fascist it once did. He was talking about W. B. Yeats, and could have also called upon Ezra Pound, Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Knut Hamsun from the far right. After that lot, Milo Yiannopoulos feels like a real climb-down.
A right-wing troll and professional attention seeker who scores novelty points for being gay, Milo was fast on his way to assisted career suicide in the rest of the world, dumped by his publisher and even his own website. But here he swung interviews on morning TV and FM radio to promote a series of Australian appearances later in the year, following a hallowed local tradition of taking the world’s worst commentators seriously. Elsewhere these people barely qualify as hecklers; here, they’re ushered onto centrestage.
Milo’s year-ending whistlestop is called the Troll Academy Tour, a sequel to his Dangerous Faggot Tour, and the baffled reaction of the Sunrise hosts recalled a more innocent time, when alt-right figures weren’t the warm-up act for the Cash Cow. You can chart the change in mood just through the nastier tabloids. Five years ago The Daily Telegraph launched a front-page campaign to “Stop the Trolls”. Minor celebrities were press-ganged into signing a misguided online petition, stating: “Our goal is to push for Twitter to be obligated to work with authorities when these cowards have broken the law, bullied and abused others simply because they can, hidden by their anonymity.”
They didn’t beat them, so they joined them. Sure, “Stop the Trolls” was mainly confused hypocrisy, but now Mr Troll Academy himself – kicked off Twitter for spearheading mob abuse of a black actress – has the paper’s blessing. Not even a career-threatening series of pro-paedophilia comments, in which Yiannopoulos called abused children “predators”, could sway News Corp’s support. “He didn’t give up,” the columnist Tim Blair wrote, as if overcoming your own comments praising child molesters was an I Can Jump Puddles feel-good story. “Good for him.”
Blair could overlook what he called “extremely ill-judged (to say the very least) comments about children having consensual sex with adults”. And why not? His publisher has had plenty of practice. News Corp conservatives have spent years making partial defences of child sexual abuse on Manus or in Northern Territory detention centres or by the Catholic Church, so what’s one more special occasion? As long as the comments were pro-paedophile and not anti-Anzac, they could be dealt with.
Just before the Sunrise appearance, BuzzFeed published an 8000-word story meticulously detailing how Milo colluded with and laundered the views of white supremacists in his editorial role at Breitbart.com. His password was even “LongKnives1290”, referencing a purge of Nazi leaders by Adolf Hitler and the year the Jews were expelled from England. But so what? In the current environment that is not a mistake, it’s a business model, even a possible path to the White House.
It is, I think, noteworthy that Milo chose to make his comeback with media appearances in Australia. So, too, is his choice of antipodean agent: Max Markson, who ordinarily reps former reality show contestants, former infomercial knife-salesmen and Warwick Capper. Even Sunrise’s David Koch got the gist when he asked Yiannopoulos, “Do you actually believe in what you’re saying, or are you just trying to stir the pot?” And yet, somehow, this transparently disingenuous attention seeker – a “real-life Borat”, Kochie called him – was already inside the TV.
Par for the course in many ways, and when Sunrise has its crimes read at The Hague tribunal, soft-balling Milo won’t rank with building the profile of Kevin Rudd or rehabilitating the career of Pauline Hanson. Besides, the show is hardly alone. The rest of the Australian media is large, right-wing heavy, thin on talent, and has a long history of suffering fools gladly. If the past is any guide, Milo will probably have an honorary think-tank fellowship at the Institute of Public Affairs by the time he skips town.
Part of this is a wider national tendency to coo over any outsider who can stomach 22 hours on a plane. We scramble to take photos of them with koalas and ask what they think of Australia after they’ve been in it for three hours. We want to adopt them, or disown them, but above all to seek endorsement, or at least attention. This small-time attitude was nailed perfectly by one ungrateful visitor, the comedian Jamie Kennedy. “Sydney thinks it’s Paris,” he said, “but it is really Nebraska.”
Was the parochialism always this bad? I don’t think so. After Frank Sinatra called female reporters “hookers” in 1974, no Australian union member would offer him service of any kind until he apologised. They wouldn’t even refuel his plane. Milo will be charging admission for that kind of comment. If you can’t make it anywhere, you can make it here.
This national strain of credulousness has since been politicised and weaponised. The ABC has been cowed into compliance. Fairfax Media has been gutted, and that means the Murdoch press calls the shots. In their world, Nick Cater counts as a formidable intellectual import, and he’s a former laundry van driver who cut his teeth in the University of Exeter sociology department. In comparison, every climate change hoaxer and vape merchant and tax-cutting lightweight from abroad really is a god in the firmament, and is given Olympian treatment accordingly.
Long after the Tories tired of him, “Lord” Christopher Monckton found himself embraced on our shores for his meandering attacks on climate science. The Danish pseudo-environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg hasn’t been flavour of the month for many moons, but the Australian government tried to shovel money at him for a bogus research centre anyway. I used to think that perhaps people might be embarrassed after these episodes, that Monckton’s subsequent embrace of birtherism and disenfranchisement of people on welfare might spark some soul-searching. It turns out there is no soul to search.
Last week, Helen Andrews left Australia, vowing never to return. While I disagree strenuously with most of her beliefs, there’s no doubt she’s one of the most intelligent conservative commentators in the world. There’s also no doubt that there is absolutely no market for that here whatsoever. Someone should have given her Dame Nellie Melba’s advice from a hundred years ago: “Sing ’em muck; it’s all they can understand.” Without “latte-sippers” and “cultural Marxists” and other signposting clichés marking out Andrews’ thoughts, they were unintelligible to a local audience.
Andrews also had the misfortune of not being a liar. Like many alt-right and alt-lite figures, Milo Yiannopoulos learnt the grift before he learnt the politics. There is still footage of him as an earnest tech reporter, who then sophomored in dubious dotcom start-ups. Mike Cernovich, Corrine Barraclough, Daisy Cousens, Tanveer Ahmed, Helen Demidenko, Bettina Arndt, and many, many more have made a similar trajectory, through juice diets, or gossip magazine editing, or dating coaching, father’s rights, cryptocurrency, “resiliency” psychology, literary fraud, television bingo, social media plagiarism, and a host of other, well… scams.
The American commentator Alex Pareene is persuasive on this symptom. In a Splinter article titled “The Long, Lucrative Right-wing Grift Is Blowing Up in the World’s Face”, Pareene outlined how Donald Trump was the natural conclusion of decades of gold-bugging, paranoia, race-baiting and lightening the wallets of retirees. “The conservative movement peddled one set of talking points to the rabble,” he wrote, “while its elites consumed a more grounded and reality-based media.”
The piece continues: “The rubes ... were fed apocalyptic paranoia about threats to their liberty, racial hysteria about the generalised menace posed by various groups of brown people, and hysterical lies about the criminal misdeeds of various Democratic politicians. The people in charge, meanwhile, read The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.”
You can sense the scale of the impact when an ageing audience discarded the mainstream media altogether for cable news and the internet, and “a media apparatus that was built to fleece gullible, generally older people now holds sway over much of Congress and the president himself”. Facebook was the equivalent of a mid-1990s survivalist newsletter being mailed to every crank, every day.
Take away the pearls and frequently stated penchant for black men, and Milo doesn’t sound like an enfant terrible. He sounds like a vieillard terrible, an old man railing against the usual suspects, just like all the other old men, only more gay. His performative homosexuality is really a sign that we’re seeing the decline of the religious right, and now the post-religious right can drop the hypocrisy and concentrate on what it does best: honing hostility to women, migrants and anyone else who can’t defend themselves.
It’s also a sign of how pernicious systems of human domination are. It’s a bit like Brazil, which tried an explicitly “melting pot”-style immigration policy, only to end up with 50 shades of racial discrimination instead, including exotica such as mixed-race Nazi-aligned politicians railing against miscegenation. “Fuck you, I got mine” is one of the abiding mottos of our age, and that counts for liberation as well.
And those old, angry retirees and young, lost men have to be fleeced by someone. It took me a while, seeing Milo again, to clock exactly what he reminds me of. The fire and brimstone, the conspicuous consumption, the liberal enemies, even the sunglasses? I hadn’t seen one in a while, but there it was: a televangelist.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 21, 2017 as "The scum also rises".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.