The Yiannopoulos Affair
I was mostly finished with my next post, which is about why a risk’s fright factor matters more than its likelihood or impact, when the Milo Yiannopoulos thing happened.
I wasn’t there. I left the office at five o’clock, picked up Thai food, and headed to our niece’s apartment half a block from campus. Our niece and her husband were away, and The Fabulous Wife and I were taking care of their cat. I figured we would have a pleasant dinner, then I would stroll over to Sproul Plaza, arrive well before Yiannopoulos began to speak, and casually observe. We turned on our niece’s ginormous television and WHOA WHAT THE HELL SPROUL PLAZA IS ON FIRE!!!
Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided I would observe from the couch.
The texts and emails started coming in. I mean really coming in. Friends and family from as far as New York were asking “are you okay?” I was also exchanging messages with co-workers. One of us followed Twitter while two of us channel-surfed the local news. At daybreak the next morning we assessed the damage and reported out. By mid-day we were pretty much back to normal, even if the shrieking pundits were still arguing over what it all meant.
Four days after the big confrontation, my thoughts keep going back to a couple of persistent problems that have little to do with Yiannopoulos, whom I perceive as just another media hustler. Please keep in mind that what follows is my personal opinion and that I am not in any way speaking for the University of California.
First, our slipshod media. Their main job is to get the facts right, yet so often they fail, which means the shrieking pundits on TV and in your bigoted uncle’s house commonly base their opinions on misinformation. One glaring example: the editorial board of the college newspaper thought campus administration invited Yiannopoulos to speak (“But by inviting Yiannopoulos, they invited chaos”). The Berkeley College Republicans (BCR), a student group, extended the invitation. Registered Student Organizations like the BCR are autonomous entities legally separate from the University of California. Registration with the campus gives them the right to hold events in campus buildings — a right the BCR exercised. The BCR brought Yiannopoulos to campus. The BCR chose where and when he would speak.
Because the University of California is a public entity, it is subject to well-established First Amendment law that allows it to set rules on a content-neutral basis regarding the time, place, and manner of public speech. Such rules are necessary. Otherwise anyone could barge into a class, shout whatever, then sue for violation of free speech rights when arrested for disruption. The BCR’s invitation to Yiannopoulos complied with the campus’s time, place, and manner rules. Also, prior restraint — prohibiting someone from speaking for fear of what they might say — went out with the Supreme Court’s Near v. Minnesota ruling of 1931. So whenever I hear people argue that the campus administration should have stopped Yiannopoulos from speaking, I can only conclude that they desperately need a civics class.
The media’s casual attitude toward facts — a consequence of short deadlines, intellectual laziness, and a bias toward sensationalism — undermines their credibility. Huge swaths of the public don’t like facts to begin with and have flocked to media outlets that foster their delusions; when serious media get a story wrong, it reinforces that partisan distrust. And people like me, who think of journalism as the first draft of history and consider facts essential to both short- and long-term understanding of the human condition, lose faith when they see facts distorted or ignored.
The second larger issue the Yiannopoulos Case raises is the struggle for the soul of the American left. Back in the 1930s the struggle was between communists and New Dealers. In the 1960s the struggle was between that Old Left from the 1930s and a New Left driven by civil rights and resistance to the Vietnam War. Now the struggle is between a left that holds civil liberties paramount and a left that feels civil liberties must be compromised for the sake of harm reduction.
I like harm reduction. But I love civil liberties — and I believe harm reduction is best achieved through civil liberties. Safe spaces in America were invented by white racists who made every lunch counter, water fountain, and bus in the South a safe space. Civil liberties like freedom of speech allowed Martin Luther King, Jr. and others to make the case against segregation and largely win it despite intense opposition from established powers. If you detest what Milo Yiannopoulos has to say, fine, shout it to the heavens! But please don’t bring Jim Crow to freedom of speech, assembly, and religion. It will hurt us far more than it hurts Yiannopoulos.
And are we old people the only ones who remember that childhood rejoinder “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me?” As Free Speech Movement veteran Jack Radey told the New York Times, “There are racists, sexists, piggery of various kinds who will say really terrible things. And that is part of the world. Learn how to fight back. Don’t say, ‘Oh, no. We can’t allow someone to speak because someone might be offended.’”
The demonstrators against Yiannopoulos got that. But then the Black Bloc crowd showed up.
They are the ones who made Yiannopoulos’s speech impossible. And they were as disciplined as advertised. Their acts of destruction Wednesday night were targeted almost exclusively at big corporations. Virtually all the damage on campus, including the burning generator, was within a tight radius of the student union building’s Amazon store. Then they marched to downtown Berkeley and vandalized four banks and a Starbucks.
And just in case those on the left opposed to Black Bloc’s tactics had any doubt, Black Bloc scrawled its mutual contempt on the campus art museum wall:
As The Fabulous Wife put it, the political spectrum isn’t a line, it’s a circle, with the extreme right and the extreme left the point at which it meets. So Milo, meet Black Bloc. You have so much in common.