by Chris R. Morgan
One of the funniest stories in American history was when William Cobbett robbed Thomas Paine’s grave in 1819. Paine had been a hero to the man and, perhaps in light of earlier (untrue) rumors of Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s neighboring Pantheon caskets being raided by reactionaries, Cobbett hatched a plan to dig up Paine’s grave in New Rochelle, New York, take the remains with him to England, and give him a triumphant burial befitting that of a forgotten Founding Father. Cobbett obtained the bones and made it across the Atlantic, and stopped there. When Cobbett died in 1835, Paine’s remains were still in his possession. They have been lost ever since.
The humor of this incident works on two levels. One is quite obvious, the other more subtle. William Cobbett, like Paine, was a savage polemical scribbler, who wrote about political issues of the day in a ferocious simplicity easily comprehended by the most abject public house wretch. If he remains famous at all today it is for his depictions of rural England, his attacks on the Corn Laws, and support for Catholic emancipation. His prose was of such fury that it landed him in prison for libel and forced him to flee Great Britain several times. But early in his career he was more reliably conservative. William Pitt wished him in his employ, and in post-Revolution America, he toed a pro-British line. He attacked and slandered Paine and other Founders without relent: “How Tom gets a living now, or what brothel he inhabits, I know not,” he wrote in Paine’s later years. When Benjamin Rush sued him for libeling his medical practices, he fled back to England.
For a mind like Cobbett’s, the line between impassioned conversion and overcompensation is spider web-thin. Perhaps that’s not very funny to everyone. Fair enough. Though it is the first thing that comes into my head on those few moments I occasion myself to think about Milo Yiannopoulos.
I make it a general rule not pay much mind to someone like Yiannopoulos. This is not so much out of pseudo-patrician detachment, some notion that he as a subject is beneath me (though I can see where one might get that idea), but mostly out of futility. What is worth saying about Yiannopoulos that hasn’t already been said by anyone else, let alone by Yiannopoulos himself? He is a political commentator of remarkable exposure. Highly sought after despite and because of his bombastic style and personal contradictions. I feel bad for the editors trying to hold back an inbox deluge of pitches from hungry freelancers, both nascent and seasoned, convinced that their words alone could ANNIHILATE Yiannopoulos with Sub Zero spine-ripping finality. Provided, of course, they know that this is his design.
The fact that Yiannopoulos can stir up hysteria in college campuses to a level not seen since The Rites of Spring before he even sets foot on them is indication of legendary status. That, with his support for the 2016 election victor and his total disregard for the peace of anyone he significantly disfavors, has earned him entry into posterity’s ground floor, filling at least a few scholarly papers on rhetoric. But as Cobbett shows, there is still much outdoing to be done. And rather than just spit fumes as others surely will over this or that rank utterance or obscene gesture, I prefer to speculate what his next steps might be. It is a task as daunting as it is fanciful. Yiannopoulos is nothing if not shrewd and may have reams of composition notebooks filled with possible reinventions—escape routes, if you will. These may be modest in comparison. Forgive me.
Reinvention no. 1: 21st Century Swift| Yiannopoulos may not seem like he is willing or able to author a masterful work of literature that volts him to the highest reaches of posterity, but let us not discount him so easily. Though his forthcoming book may be little more than performance art, Yiannopoulos, unlike his troll peers, is more rooted in writing. Like Swift, he has an ear for provocation and getting heard. Like Swift, his work is a mix of the postmodern and the conservative. And like Swift, his poetry was not well received in its time. Sure, the Dean was never quite comfortable in his own skin, his work was in some way morally balanced by the Church of England, and his rage was far more potent, but Yiannopoulos is young yet. He may well find his situation in need of an imaginative lashing out of Gulliver-level proportions that will dazzle children and amuse honors students even has he digs himself deeper and deeper into a miasma of excrement, petty grudge-mongering, and misanthropy.
Reinvention no. 2: Myra Breckinridge| Yiannopoulos’s current trajectory actually makes this the most plausible. Last year, Lauren Southern had her gender legally changed to male in accordance with Canadian gender ID laws. Yiannopoulos, ever enterprising, almost certainly must have considered ways in which this could be outdone. Perhaps this is not feasible in any practical sense, but it would not shock me if Yiannopoulos went into a long, unexpected seclusion, wherein a new blonde contrarian comes on the scene, outpacing Lauren and Tomi in all quantifiable data, becoming the Raquel Welch to Donald Trump’s John Huston.
Reinvention no. 3: Salò-on-Thames| Though Yiannopoulos may have a definite future in American media, America may have use for him yet in his home kingdom. As Trump seeks to carve up the European map he’ll need reliable allies, and if the United Kingdom’s current caretakers can’t cut it, Trump seems like he could finally fulfill that presidential pipe dream of getting his own pet Prime Minister. And why not Yiannopoulos? As a political amateur flogging a similarly eclectic neopopulism, they have much to discuss. And provided Yiannopoulos does not obstruct whatever Trump’s larger vision is, he has free reign to jolt Britannia into the new normal: expelling Scotland, turning Wales into a penal colony, turning Cornwall into a red light district, and turning Ulster into a weapon testing ground.
Reinvention no. 4: your friend| This might not be something Yiannopoulos has in mind per se, but something maybe you yourself have intuited somehow. Maybe you felt you had bitten off more than you could chew with those around you last year. Maybe you asked too much of them. Maybe you gave more than they were able to receive. Maybe your preening psychological vampirism has taken its toll on the people in your life: your friends, family, that dog you definitely weren’t ready to adopt. Maybe in needing a way out they finally found one. Maybe they see some overlap between yours and Yiannopoulos’s iron extroversion and yours and Yiannopoulos’s tireless need to be seen and to exist. Maybe there’s a match worth making. Maybe the two of you together will form a bond of monumentally indissoluble codependence. Maybe you and Yiannopoulos will forsake the demands of daily social life for the digital Grey Gardens of Slack. Maybe mundane niceties of “identity” and “agency” start to slip. Maybe you were never two people to begin with. Maybe you were never real in the first place. HIS NAME WAS ROBERT PAULSON. Anyway, something to think about with your 2017 to-do list.
Reinvention no. 5: New York Times op-ed columnist| The Gray Lady seems like a place that will try anyone at least once. Yiannopoulos will dedicate his platform to restaurant reviews, man-on-the-street hosannas, and how Hamilton fosters communal bonds and civic virtue.
Reinvention no. 6: socially liberal, fiscally conservative| The arc of the ideological universe is long and bends toward maturity. For some it is longer than others, and for Yiannopoulos it may seem unreachable. That is by no means a bad thing for him now. Few have ever encountered someone so well suited for the temper of the present moment. But we’ve also learned never to discount the man even when the temper shifts a certain way, no matter how slight or extreme. Indeed, few if any of us are truly prepared for a time when the sky is an unending blanket of incandescent crimson, the earth is drowned in ash, and the shelters of human life are gnarled rusted husks; where there are no hero’s graves for Yiannopoulos to rob because the graves have robbed themselves, and where there is no one to troll because deathless mutated flesh-eaters have a simplistic politics. Okay, I kind of lost track of where I was going with this one.