Milo Yiannopoulos - it's not a matter of free speech

Nicholas Clee
Opinion - Books 16 February 2017

Agent Thomas Flannery's defence of his author fails to convince

Thomas Flannery, literary agent for controversial alt-right star Milo Yiannopoulos, has written for Publishers Weekly in defence of his author's book deal. Simon & Schuster's signing of Yiannopoulos has drawn a huge amount of controversy, particularly as a result of his banning by Twitter after the actress Leslie Jones was subjected to racist and misogynist abuse that he is alleged to have incited.

I am not convinced by Flannery's argument.

First, this is not a matter of denial of free speech. The question is whether Simon & Schuster, albeit through a specialist conservative imprint called Threshold Editions, should be the publisher of Yiannopoulos' book.

If I had been the publisher at S&S, I would have turned it down. But, to put the issue in a UK context (though there is no deal for the book here), if I were the publisher at Biteback or at John Blake Publishing, I might consider it - as long as it contained no "hate speech". Part of my publishing philosophy would be to give airings to controversial and even outrageous views. A publishing house's acquisition policy is based on what is appropriate and desirable for its list, not on what it wishes to disseminate or repress.

Flannery writes: "Milo never made racist statements about actress Leslie Jones and never asked his Twitter followers to do so." I have been re-reading Philip Roth's great counterfactual novel The Plot Against America, which portrays an America in which the Nazi sympathiser Charles Lindbergh secures the US presidency in 1940. Once president, Lindbergh makes no anti-Semitic pronouncements: he does not need to. His presence in the White House and known sympathies give licence to the FBI to clamp down on "subversives", and to racist thugs to intimidate, wound and even kill their Jewish neighbours. Likewise, Yiannopoulos's writings and tweets attacking the new version of Ghostbusters, and Jones in particular, were enough to set off the racist trolls.

"Milo condemned these tweets," Flannery writes. Perhaps he did. But my search for "Milo Yiannopoulos condemns tweets Leslie Jones" threw up no relevant results; while I did find his tweet, in response to Jones's protests: "If at first you don't succeed (because your work is terrible), play the victim", as well as a quote to Heat Street: "No, of course, I don't have any regrets."

The regrets may be at Simon & Schuster. Who knows, maybe Yiannopoulos will deliver a thoughtful and nuanced book - though that will barely dampen the controversy. One can see how a publisher might be tempted to take on such an attention-grabbing figure, particularly when he represents a body of opinion that has such prominence at the moment. But the acquisition has looked like a mistake ever since it was reported - by which time, of course, it was too late to back out. That really would have come across as an act of censorship.

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