Milo Yiannopoulos, the self-proclaimed “most fabulous supervillain on the internet” and technology editor at Breitbart, was to, as Columbia alumnus Daniel Garisto put it, “descend upon Columbia to teach you progressive heathens about your regressive ways and the evils of feminism, tolerance and empathy,” like an anti-messiah ushering in the new age of Trump, with his host, the Columbia University College Republicans (CUCR), heralding in the controversial figure to discuss conservative politics with Columbia’s students.
Controversy isn’t new for CUCR. It was only last year that they invited far-right, anti-Islamic activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, or Tommy Robinson, to speak over Skype to an assembled audience in Hamilton 503. There, attendees listened to an hour-long lecture filled with assertions like Islam “promotes violence” and “cannot assimilate” into British and presumably American culture. When Bwog wrote a story on that event, the various tags read, “What does CUCR hope to learn from this guy, you wild CUCR but wyd [what you doing?] like really what the fuck are you doing, are you trying to become white nationalists? [sic]”
CUCR had refuted this claim multiple times. Margaret O’Neill, the organization’s communications director, said in a statement last fall “if we were to exclude certain prominent strains within the conservative movement because they don't reflect what we might believe the Republican Party has and should stand for, then we are delusionally ignoring the realities of modern political factions.” In the mind of CUCR, they were doing everything in their power to make sure the event wouldn’t become a public relations disaster. They paid for their own security. They limited outside guests. They even, according to Aristotle Boosalis, the organization’s executive director, reserved, “about 50 tickets for student political groups like the Roosevelt Institute, the Columbia University Democrats, and the International Socialist Organization at Columbia.”
However, with each passing month and the election of Donald Trump, there was an underlying question that plagued the event: Was it possible to have a productive conversation with Yiannopoulos? Since September, the answer from CUCR was always yes.
On the 29th of January, that answer changed.
For the majority of students outside CUCR, the answer would always be no. Yiannopoulos’ brand of conservatism was built on what many, including Co-Director for the Columbia University Roosevelt Institute Human Rights Center, Alison Fraerman, who defined Yiannopoulos’ comments as hate speech. She contended that Yiannopoulos shouldn’t have been “invited by a political group in the guise of expressing a political ideology on this campus” because “bigotry is not a political ideology.” O’Neill would say in response that he “has a vast following and they are Republican voters and they are part of the conversation about what it means to be conservative.”
This raises a question posed by Journalism Professor, Alisa Solomon, during an University Forum on Freedom of Speech hosted November 29th: “What are we actually talking about when we say conservative?” The deeper we get into the Trump presidency, the harder that question is to answer. For O’Neill, a self-identified moderate Republican, it means viewing Trump’s more populist tendencies “with a lot of skepticism,” and “using moderation in terms of the magnitude of our policies.” For Yiannopoulos, it means resisting “the fainting-couch feminism and race-baiting of the Left.”
For marginalized students, O’Neill’s response ignored, as Fraerman put it, “the psychological impact that Milo Yiannopoulos’ comments could have.” But more important is what sociology professor, Shamus Khan, referred to as “the material consequences of positions,” during the University Forum, where the consequences of Yiannopoulos’ positions on Muslims and Islam, for example, become a continuation of the surveillance state against them. If taken up by the Trump administration, Yiannopoulos’ views then have real potential to do harm to these communities, as demonstrated by the refugee ban in January.
When it comes to psychological harm, Yiannopoulos has not been one to hold back until provoked. On the national stage, he gained notoriety when his Twitter account was suspended after a prolonged period of abuse directed at comedian Leslie Jones. But his brazenness extends to the college realm as well, where he has a penchant for calling out individuals during his talks.
In December 2016, Yiannopoulos spoke at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he ridiculed out Adelaide Kramer, a trans woman, for trying to access her preferred locker room. In his remarks, Yiannopoulos said Kramer needed to “man up” and ultimately failed as a “tranny” because he would still “do him.” While the university’s Chancellor, Mark Mone, did condemn Yiannopoulos’ belittling in a letter to the community, Kramer, who was personally in the audience when Yiannopoulos made those remarks, was disappointed with the University’s response, explaining, “Free speech does not cover harassment, and that’s exactly what Milo did to me.”
When asked in the fall about the psychological harm Yiannopoulos potentially wages on students O’Neill replied, “I admit my place of privilege—I mean that genuinely—I can’t know personally how that would feel.” But she continued, “We’re not bringing him in to have some type of alt-right rally… It’s a critical political conversation and you don’t have to come if it would make you uncomfortable.”
Air of Suspicion
On his part, it seems Yiannopoulos doesn’t even try to reduce potential tensions. All of this leads Fraerman to believe that “[CUCR is] trying to incite something…he [Milo] is constantly trying to incite something.”
This air of suspicion isn’t new for CUCR. In 2006, they invited a border militia group, the Minutemen, to speak in Roone Arledge Auditorium. That led to a rather famous moment in Columbia history, where students stormed the stage to stop Jim Gilchrist from speaking. While almost eleven years out from that flashpoint, comparisons seem inescapable: the national figure, the media scrutiny, the protests that increasingly seem to end in violence. In fact, in his visit to the University of Washington, a student and Yiannopoulos supporter shot a peaceful protester, leaving him in critical condition.
Downtown, Yiannopoulos was also set to speak at New York University on February 18th. In Greenwich Village, the conversation around whether or not he should come played out along the same lines. Elena Hatib, president of the College Republicans, claimed, “He is not coming here to threaten or hurt anyone, he’s just coming to do a presentation for our members and to discuss current issues.” President of the College Democrats Michael DeLuca argued, “his words and actions have inspired individuals to harass and demean groups” and that “to give the most controversial figure you can find a platform for their vitriolic speech and toxic ideas…is foolish.”
However, the conversation took a left turn when, on October 15, NYU issued a cancellation email to all ticket holders. In the email, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs, Marc Wais, explained that “on other campuses, his events have been accompanied by physical altercations, the need for drastically enlarged security presence, harassment of community members both at the event and beyond, and credible threats involving the presence of firearms or explosives.”
The NYU Republicans group fought to reschedule the event, writing in a statement that it was “extremely prejudiced against conservatives” to claim “this kind of discussion puts students in danger.” However, the decision has some support from members of the Columbia community. Fraerman argued that “there’s room for the university to not accept the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos as long as they do accept conservative views.”
Connor Haseley, Human Rights Co-Center Director at the Roosevelt Institute with Fraerman, contends that “when it comes to these political clubs, they are operating with the full knowledge that they are sanctioned by Columbia and subject to Columbia’s rules. He also said that administrative pushback on the event would not be signalling that “no Columbia student…can agree with what Milo Yiannopoulos says or hear what Milo Yiannopoulos says.”
Haseley added that rescinding the invitation would only prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking in university buildings, not public places like Low Steps. In response, O’Neill would argue that cancelling the talk would not “be consistent with university precedent” and “having someone speak in a venue [does not imply] an endorsement of their views.” But she does admit that “they [the Columbia administration] [could] do it legally…and I would imagine we would host it on Low Steps then, but I don’t see that happening.”
Given Yiannopoulos’ tendency towards harassment and, in Haseley’s words, “manner-based incitement,” it would be right of the university to, indeed, stop Yiannopoulos. But this would mark the start of a slippery slope for Columbia, a university whose president prides himself on being an expert on the First Amendment and freedom of speech.
Indeed, NYU found itself on such a track after cancelling Yiannopoulos’ appearance. NYU Local reporters Addy Baird and Kyla Bills asserted that “NYU cancels speeches so people don’t protest an event with ‘New York University’ written on the flier. It isn’t about safety or doing the right thing, it’s about trying to avoid a difficult conversation with a student body unafraid to push back against power. In an opinion piece, Akshay Prabhushankar, deputy opinion editor of the Washington Square News, said that though Milo was “a despicable character,” the fact was NYU had “known about the event for weeks, yet failed to plan for adequate security.” Many other comparable schools “including Yale and George Washington University…agreed to increase security.” The Washington Square News piece concluded by referring to reporting in the Wall Street Journal, which pointed to the larger issue of “worrisome anti-inflammatory speech policy becoming popular at American universities.”
Since October, unfortunately, the violence had escalated. But what does it matter to Yiannopoulos? Did he not warn that “the ‘crybullies’ on campus will try to ban [him]?” On February 1st, 150 anarchists disrupted a peaceful protest and by setting fires and attacking students and property, forced the event to stop. As people were treated for wounds, Yiannopoulos painted himself as “silly and harmless and gay” and blamed the progressive movement for the censorious violence. To his supporters, it only proved his point.
The Complicated Boat Scheme
This is how Yiannopoulos games the system. By banning him, he becomes a rallying point for his growing fan base. By letting him speak, he plays havoc by ridiculing the fates of marginalized communities. With the charisma of James Bond and the honesty of a snake-oil salesman, Yiannopoulos has become the Dark Knight’s Joker to many colleges, setting Liberals and Libertarians up to kill each other in a complicated boat scheme.
On Sunday January 29th, the board of CUCR convened to answer the question again: Is it possible to have a productive conversation with Yiannopoulos? But by that Sunday, they had another question to answer: Was that conversation worth having?
After the decision, O’Neill, who had always been uncomfortable with Yiannopoulos, testified that the University of Washington shooting “was very concerning to us and that started the conversation.” The victim survived and the shooter had turned himself in, but they “didn’t want anyone getting hurt” in the first place. And further down the line, O’Neill referred to the case of Adelaide Kramer, calling it “unrefutably definitional bullying.” O’Neill concluded that “To [her] personally, that has no purpose in our discourse,” and the majority of the board ultimately decided the amalgamation of the harassment and the violence made it so that the value of his speech was too expensive for the community. Yiannopoulos would not be coming after all.
Contested Voice of Conservatism
As Columbia moves on from the threat that never came to be, however, the debate over conservatism still looms over the conservative community. After all, the decision against inviting Yiannopoulos was far from unanimous. In the last minutes of the Robinson event, Yaxley-Lennon asserted for the last time that night that the Prophet Muhammad was a “barbarian” in confrontation with a hostile questioner. Members of the audience scattered throughout the room applauded Robinson, presumably rank-and-file members of CUCR and other sympathizers, whereas the front of the room, where “a lot of members of the executive board sat” was silent. For O’Neill, there is a difference between “advocating on behalf of strict immigration laws” and “advocating on behalf of having a Muslim registry,” the latter of which she called “explicit racism.”
But for those who applauded, there are other opportunities. During the last Senate plenary of the fall semester, a University senator from the School of the Arts posed to President Lee Bollinger a hypothetical: If white nationalists like Richard Spencer were invited to Columbia, would Columbia provide them a platform to speak? He said, “If someone invited the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan to speak on campus, we should protect that.”
As a free-speech scholar, Bollinger’s answer wasn’t surprising. But with alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer on his own college tour to revitalize white nationalism in America, the statement makes Columbia a desirable stop. But it also may threaten CUCR. When asked if CUCR would consider inviting David Duke to speak, O’Neill said, “David Duke and what he stands for and the modern KKK is reprehensible and has no serious place in the Republican Party.” But new, shadowy players lurk in the woodwork, and speakers like Spencer and now Yiannopoulos could be enough to bring the rumored Dark Enlightenment club, supposedly an existing underground white nationalist group on campus, out of hiding to advance a white nationalist, anti-globalist form of conservatism.
For Columbia, it seems, the question: “What does it mean to be a conservative,” will loom for years to come.