Milo Comes to Liberal UC Davis
Prior to the arrival of Milo Yiannopoulos there was a sequence of events that demonstrated in a microcosm why we were here – not just why we were at the UC Davis campus on a Saturday afternoon of a three-day weekend, but why we are where we are in our nation’s history.
On Friday night a large group of protesters had blocked access to the venue where Mr. Yiannopoulos was going to speak. University officials became concerned that it would not be feasible to conduct the event safely and, according to accounts from Milo, the College Republicans had cancelled the speech but that was because “they were told by police that they would be responsible for property damage.”
There are those who believe that this was hate speech (Milo’s speech) and it needed to be shut down. As one person told me, “Free speech doesn’t mean a platform for violent hate speech, and it will be shut down every time.”
But shutting down the event allowed Milo and his supporters to seize the high ground. As he told the Vanguard, “I want the university to admit that they intimidated those students into cancelling the event in violation of their First Amendment responsibilities.”
He would quip about the left, “They like diversity, except diversity of opinion.” Not that I think, after listening to attacks from the right on President Obama for eight years, they have any moral high ground to stand on here.
But to me, the essence of this event happened before Milo even arrived on the UC Davis campus. There was a small contingent of protesters who stood to the side with signs. That drew attention from the larger crowd.
Entering the fray was a young man who might embody the contradictions of the so-called alt-right. He told the media that he was a student at Sac State. He wore a suit, a close haircut, and a relatively unkempt beard. He walked up to the protesters and flipped them off, posing for cell phone cameras.
As the media descended on him and interviewed him, another young man in a beanie got between him and cameras and they flipped each other off in their faces. They squared off for some time before disengaging.
In a way this represented the divide between the left and the right – not just in this small space on campus but in the nation as a whole. The inability to find common ground, common decency, common civility. This week saw the President-elect attack the iconic civil rights figure, John Lewis, and the response by many Democrats who will boycott his inauguration.
This small moment in a much larger struggle reflects the broader reality, not just of the Milo Yiannopoulos event but in our nation. Each side points the finger – in this case quite literally – to the other side, believing that the other side is worse.
Milo Yiannopoulos, coming to what he called liberal UC Davis, in a way embodies the reverse of California itself in a sea of a much more conservative United States. California heavily voted for Hillary Clinton, but take out California and the rest of the nation narrowly voted for Trump.
Milo may have been flanked by 200 supporters on Saturday, but he knew he was in the belly of the beast – outnumbered, these students say they feel vulnerable as well in the broader community.
He would tell the crowd that they were going to have a march and show the university that they would not be able to shut people up “because you have the wrong opinions.” He would call UC Davis the most liberal university, only to back off slightly to say that UC itself is a bastion of liberalism. Only his words were more colorful and he used some f-words along the way.
He explained that he came to UC Davis and other universities like it, to challenge this very establishment. In a way he was the fish out of water in a broader sea of liberalism, but he mentioned to the students a reminder that they had won. That in a few days, Donald Trump will become president and the supporters were fondly counting down the days until their nightmare ends, and the left’s nightmare begins.
The idea of safety is a theme that bears exploring in this divided political world. While the US has traditionally thought of the notion of political violence as reserved for third world dictatorships and emerging democracies – this year has brought home the reality that we are no longer, if we ever had been, immune to violence and the creation of unsafe spaces for public discourse.
For his part, Mr. Yiannopoulos bluntly rejected the notion that his presence is a safety issue.
“This new language of student safety – the idea that someone’s physical safety could be endangered by some sassy gay brit with the wrong the opinions – ridiculous. They use the language of physical safety to try to scare you into not speaking up for your values,” he told the crowd. “There is no threat to student safety from someone with the wrong political opinions.”
But in this political divide, there is a very different view on the other side. With the election of Trump, many groups – especially the LGBT community, immigrants and Muslims – fear what the future will bring. The feel exposed, vulnerable, and without the safety of protections that may have existed previously.
Moreover, this is not a fear of words or views, but of the actions behind those words and views.
As BeeBee Buchanan put it, people like Milo, “are quite literally profiting off of our bodies and our pain. When we say that these words, and these speakers, are dangerous, we don’t mean ideologically or in the abstract. We don’t mean in a battle or contest of ideas. We’re talking about our lives.”
For many on the left, they see Milo “as a prominent representative of white nationalism and ‘men’s rights,’” as well as “a champion of hate speech against people of color and women.”
At a time of anxiety about what a new Trump administration will bring, populations of vulnerable citizens are wary about institutionalizing and legitimizing these views. As the students wrote in December, “The invitation to host Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Davis is particularly harmful given the current sociopolitical climate in the United States. Milo Yiannopoulos is a popular spokesman for the ‘alt-right,’ a movement dominated by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, Christian Identity groups, and racist skinheads whose white supremacist, misogynist, anti-immigrant agenda has been bolstered by public figures such as Donald Trump and Steven Bannon.”
Of course, Milo sees himself as a “sassy gay brit with the wrong opinions.” And, while he acknowledges his views are expressed in “an outrageous way,” he believes that “I don’t have opinions that are particularly outrageous.”
The irony is that while the right rejects the notion that people of color and people with non-traditional gender identity should feel unsafe, the expression I see from conservatives in this community, from the marchers on campus yesterday, suggests that they do not feel physically safe – on the UC Davis campus or in the Davis community – to express their views.
So why should the LGBT community, the Muslim community, the Hispanic community feel safe in Trump’s America?
This is the world that we continue to live in with a dramatic and ever-increasing divide between the left and the right in this country. For eight years, the right rejected Barack Obama as illegitimate – they challenged his policies for sure, but also his right to be president, his place of birth and his faith.
Now we enter the Trump era and we have already seen the same on the part on the left. This is the political world we live in, and things are not going to change any time soon.
—David M. Greenwald reporting