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Milo Yiannopoulos is a case study in the importance of context

Sometimes, the comedy comes when you least expect it.

On Tuesday afternoon, Milo Yiannopoulos – a professional provocateur whose nastiness knows few limits, whose work for the far-right website Breitbart includes an article declaring "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy," who last summer was permanently banned from Twitter for harassing the comedian Leslie Jones with a vile campaign of online attacks – looked out over a group of reporters aggressively vying for his attention at a news conference in lower Manhattan and said, without a hint of irony, "Could you be respectful of other people, please?"

Respect is a rare bird in Mr. Yiannopoulos's universe, which is one reason he is in such a fix at the moment, after comments surfaced over the weekend in which he appeared to endorse pedophilia.

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Read more: Milo Yiannopoulos resigns as editor of Breitbart Tech

Read more: Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos loses book deal over child abuse comments

Over the past year and a half, Mr. Yiannopoulos's trolling star has risen over America like a toxic cloud, powered by gleefully incendiary speech that has grabbed headlines as well as the attention of the President of the United States: Earlier this month, Mr. Trump threatened on Twitter to pull federal funding from the University of California, Berkeley, after protests prompted administrators there to shut down the local stop of the speaker's Dangerous Faggot tour. (Mr. Yiannopoulos is gay.) His book, Dangerous, was riding high on the pre-order charts of Amazon, months before its June publication by Simon & Schuster.

And Mr. Yiannopoulos had begun the weekend with another confident step toward mainstream acceptance: Warmly welcomed onto Bill Maher's Friday night HBO chat show, Mr. Yiannopoulos smilingly insulted Democrats, gay people, Ms. Jones and other female comics. This week, he was set to deliver the keynote address of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) just outside Washington.

But over the weekend, a little-known organization calling itself the Reagan Battalion, which says it stands for a reassertion of true conservative values, released a video of an online chat in which Mr. Yiannopoulos appeared to endorse sex between men and young boys.

In short order, he was dropped by CPAC and Simon & Schuster. On Tuesday, just before a 3 p.m. news conference and amid rumours that some Breitbart co-workers wanted him fired, he issued a statement saying he had resigned from the site because didn't want his presence to distract from their work.

And then he strutted out in front of the assembled press to declare himself a victim of a "cynical media witch-hunt." He took swipes at "the Establishment" and his publisher, who he said would "get lots of plaudits in New York cocktail parties" for cancelling his book.

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"Let's be clear about what's happening here," he said. His enemies "do not care about children. They care about destroying me and my career and, by extension, my allies."

Who were those enemies? On Monday, Mr. Yiannopoulos had given an interview to the online outlet Right Side Broadcasting suggesting that he was a victim of the internecine war tearing apart the United States' right wing.

"For the conservative media, which is supposedly all about free speech in the face of feminists and social-justice warriors and Black Lives Matters advocates, to say that somebody who has suffered this stuff cannot make jokes about it, cannot talk about it in the way they want to, really just shows them up for the partisans they are."

Soon, he promised, he would be back, bigger than ever, but he would be leaving journalism behind: "I'm now a performer with millions of fans in America and beyond." He would use that platform to help cure the United States of what he called its "colossal free-speech problem."

His comments in the controversial video, he said, had been taken out of context: He contended that he had been a victim of sexual abuse at the age of 13, and he was speaking from personal experience. "I don't see why I can't make a joke about clerical sexual abuse, but a drag queen two blocks away can."

It is jarring to hear Mr. Yiannopoulous speak about the importance of context, because he doesn't seem to understand the role it plays in controversial speech: That, on tour, when he prances out onstage in, as he says, "full drag" and preens for an audience of college kids in "the flyover states," the message he sends is starkly different from that of the New York City drag queen camping it up in a downbeat, downtown bar.

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One is in on the joke; the other is the joke. And not all laughter sounds the same.

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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