Friday 17 February 2017

Don't feed the trolls

Dick Simon and Max Schuster met in New York in 1921. Simon, the eldest of five siblings born to immigrant parents, was selling pianos. Schuster, with a background in journalism, was editing a car magazine. In 1924 they formed their own publishing house, which made its mark popularising high culture. The early success of The Story of Philosophy led to their commissioning Will and Ariel Durrant to write The Story of Civilization, which eventually ran to eleven volumes. They chose Millet’s The Sower as their logo to represent the dissemination of knowledge. Schuster died in 1970, outliving his partner by ten years, but their company continues to thrive.  

In December Simon & Schuster offered $250,000 to Milo Yiannopoulos for an autobiographical work called Dangerous. Whatever the publishers expect to disseminate with this book, it is unlikely to be anything one could call knowledge. Notoriously unreliable when it comes to facts, Yiannopoulos takes gleeful delight in attaching himself to whatever opinions are most likely to cause offence. He promotes the kind of ugly cyber-theatre known as trolling and has allegedly orchestrated campaigns of internet bullying, including the racist and misogynist attacks on Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones for which he has been banned from Twitter. 

News of the Dangerous deal has upset a lot of people. Publisher’s Weekly reports that 160 of Simon & Schuster’s own children’s authors and illustrators, including Arun Gandhi, have signed a letter to the CEO, objecting that it tends to make “fascism… mainstream”. More controversially, the Chicago Review of Books has promised not to review any Simon & Schuster publications in 2017, a decision which will mainly damage individual authors whose books happen to come out during this year. While distancing itself from Yiannopoulos’s views, the company has defended publication on the grounds of free speech, though its UK counterpart has announced that it has no plans to bring out a British edition.

The free speech argument is hard to sustain. As an editor at Breitbart News, which promotes the opinions of white nationalists and other extremists, Yiannopoulos championed Trump’s presidential campaign. With Trump’s election and the appointment of Breitbart’s former director Steve Bannon as his senior advisor, attitudes that until recently could be dismissed as marginal are now at the heart of government. There are abundant outlets for Yiannopoulos’s offensive opinions. There is no obligation on Simon & Schuster to lend those opinions legitimacy. 

Undoubtedly, now the deal has been made, any complaints and any obstacles put in its path will feed the perverse victim narrative of the far right, the myth that throughout American society white men are being silenced and oppressed. Trump himself, the most powerful individual in the world, continues to play the victim in an attempt to intimidate and weaken the press. This is a game 32-year-old Yiannopoulos has mastered. 

Perhaps, like a naughty child clamouring for attention, he is best ignored. If so, I have already given him 500 words more than he deserves. I promise not to make this mistake again.