Is Milo Yiannopoulos the New Christopher Hitchens?
On a recent February episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, the eponymous host compared Milo Yiannopolous to a “young, gay Christopher Hitchens”. A week later, as Milo’s soaring popularity approached its zenith, the young alt-right provocateur was an opening guest on Maher’s show. Milo—a now mononymous name in its own right—has enflamed liberals and moderates alike. Their shared disdain has become common ground across an ever-widening political chasm. Milo continues to reign in some corners, though; he’s the Caesar leading a staunch and often churlish claque of alt-righters. A man, after all, is only as good as his minions.
Milo’s newfound infamy, which isn’t necessarily a black mark in this age of rabble-rousers, has become well-known. The media began devoting much of its attention to him and his curious eccentricities after the Berkeley fiasco. At that time, a bunch of privileged but puerile pupils—students who find differing opinions and expressions inimical to their peace, held demonstrations to hamper his first Amendment right to speak. This unsettling trend of “de-platforming” is one that hasn’t yet gone away.
Being that Milo is a paradoxical personality (he’s both gay and conservative, Trumpian and Epicurean, a sybarite from the roughened alt-right), he’s forced pundits to try to place him in the mold of another. Choosing from a trove of earlier contrarians is no easy task. Perhaps, so far as the contrarian is concerned, that’s the whole point. Nevertheless, I was shocked to hear such a comparison slip through Bill Maher’s teeth—a fellow contrarian, for better or for worse, in his own right. Maher compared Milo to the late Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was the author, journalist, and polemicist best known for his publications in The Nation and Vanity Fair. Inherently flawed as these comparisons tend to be, this one was especially so.
In comparing the two, Maher not only errs, but sullies Hitchens’ memory. The comparisons between them are tough to find, but when they are, they can be tersely listed. Among them are a British birth and upbringing, an incendiary ideology, and an unabashed affinity for their adopted America. Sandwiched in between the first and last commonalities is the only point worth fleshing out. Both men can and did stir otherwise subdued interlocutors into furors and apoplexy. This is the only converging point, but it’s not wholly what it seems.
We must parse it more fully. Maher can’t claim these two were equally effective fingers poking and prodding society’s large and somnolent cultural-correctness bear. Their provocations were brought with different means and motivations, each eliciting very different results. Although Milo is eloquent and often better able than his adversary to articulate a point with polished parlance, he seems to provoke merely for provocation’s sake. His substance is sometimes lost, although you’ll always feel his punch. The problem is, you won’t know from whence it came or where or if it will leave a bruise.
Hitchens, on the other hand, approached disagreements much differently. He was earth and fire, if Milo is wind and air. After reading an article or hearing a debate, a tremor could often be felt beneath an audience’s feet. I for one was forever moved, and even the most recalcitrant Richter scale would have to agree. His wit and insight still reverberate to this day.
Hitchens was nothing if not unadulterated. He never brandished some faux bohemianism as a front, in the way Milo does. He was stubbornly opposed to niceties and style; seldom if ever did he appear in public with a necktie. The focus was always on his message rather than his image, and that was his ultimate appeal. Milo, on the contrary, feels compelled first and foremost to flaunt his pampered pompadour on one day and his gaudy accoutrements on the next. The more dressed up he is, it seems, the more denuded his points become. Hitchens was bohemian with his syntax rather than his style; with his philosophy rather than his flamboyance. He was at once both regal and unkempt, and would’ve scoffed at Milo’s showmanship.
While on the air, Hitchens was stolid, though contemptuous might be the better word. He approached each conversation or contest (the lines delineating the two were always unclear) with a Spartan-like severity from beginning to end. He rarely allowed an insouciant smile to sneak in, even when his point was the better made. No visible joy came from a “win”. Clarity and persuasion were their own rewards. Milo, on the other hand, wears his grin on his sleeve. It’s devious and distracting, and serves only to increase an opponent’s ire. This inevitably shifts a person’s anger from his ideas to him, and to ad hominems to come. In this sense, Milo is perhaps effective, but not useful. His flippancy weakens an argument that might’ve been strong.
Moving from appearance to substance, there’s no competition. Hitchens was a polemicist par excellence. He was not only sharp but pointed. He punctured with entry wounds and hemorrhaged positions upon his exit. He left those with whom he conversed tired, foolish, and enfeebled and consoled only with the knowledge that they were felled by a wiser man. Milo is more of a blunt instrument. He might leave a mark, or a bruise as I alluded to earlier, but it’s one that will soon vanish and will never change a mind. This is where the two split most drastically. Milo’s modus operandi is to incite an enraged response at any cost. Hitchens’ was to convince otherwise incorrigible opinions and break down dogmatic thought.
Because of this, when Milo’s fifteen minutes are up, he’ll be forgotten. Like an Icarus of sorts, he’ll likely fall from this spotlight he’s found. It’s not the sun in this case, as it was for poor Icarus, but rather the incandescent flame of fame that pulls Milo ever closer toward a fall. Hitchens’ was himself a light, and a fiery one at that. His mystique won’t leave us so quickly. At the end of the day, Milo stands to be the provocateur du jour, but Hitchens was the dissident of a decade—perhaps even more. As such, there’s no comparison to be made.