Milo, Virtue and the Corruption of the Conservative Movement

Have we forgotten that it's possible to gain the whole world, and yet lose one's soul?

Milo Yiannopoulos speaks during a news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in New York, announcing his resignation from Breitbart Tech after coming under fire from other conservatives over comments on sexual relationships between boys and older men. The adoption of Yiannopoulos as a champion by many conservatives reflects the moral collapse of the conservative movement.

By Joshua Charles Published on February 22, 2017

Some of us have seen the gradual moral collapse of the “conservative movement” for a long time. I have personally been writing about it since 2014. The recent events surrounding Milo Yiannopolous would seem to confirm at least some of those fears.

Many good, wonderful, and amazing people remain. But critical problems also remain. I am heartened by CPAC disinviting Milo Yiannopoulos, as I am encouraged that Simon & Schuster (and their conservative politics imprint Threshold Editions) have cancelled Milo’s book contract. But the truth is he should have never been invited in the first place. Conservatism without virtue is not conservatism.

The Adoption of Conservatism Without Virtue

Milo, on occasion, has very valid points to make. I am as pro-free speech as one can get. So long as it does not incite violence, I welcome the speech of anyone in public forums, such as publicly-funded universities and colleges. There is also no doubt that the Left has become increasingly authoritarian in its attempt to maintain its intellectual monopoly over the secular temple, the university.

To the extent Milo has been Samson-like in his attempt to topple this Leftist temple, I can support him and many others — in theory. But those attempts have often been so mixed with error and vice as to amount to little more than a grotesque caricature of conservatism. It is true that he never claimed to be a conservative. It is also true that on occasion what he has said has been very much misconstrued and lied about. There is little room to doubt that in the age of Twitter and 24/7 media, lies are quite capable of circumnavigating the globe before the truth can even get dressed.

Too many conservatives welcomed Milo as one of their champions, and thus in some ways made his brand their own.

However, this fundamental truth remains: Too many conservatives welcomed this confused and lost soul as one of their champions, and thus in some ways made his brand their own. This was unacceptable. Free speech and “free expression” as absolutes are not virtues. While they should be as absolute as possible legally, the conservative philosophy has always asserted that regardless of the legal limits of our actions, the moral content of them is just as, if not more important to the maintenance of a free society.

No conservative, if they intend to remain a conservative, can claim that any exercise of a legal right is as equal as any other with respect to its effect on a free society. We believe a free society allows flag burning, but that a society of flag burners is headed toward destruction.

To Be Free, A Society Must Be Good

For centuries, even millennia, conservatives and their forebears have defended the classical and Judeo-Christian tradition that holds that true happiness, and thus true freedom, is found in virtue; not doing as we want, but as we ought — and while the law should allow the vast majority of what can be comprehended under the former, conservatives believe that the destiny of any society intent on being free ultimately depends upon its citizens’ commitment to the latter.

This tradition runs deep, and includes votaries such as Aristotle, Cicero, St. Thomas Aquinas and many within the Anglo-American tradition. This is the true meaning of the “happiness” referred to in our Declaration of Independence.

Classical and Judeo-Christian traditions hold that true happiness, and thus true freedom, is not doing as we want, but as we ought.

Thus, offending because you can, and engaging in puerile, prurient bombast because you can is not liberty, and no amount of vile Leftist reaction, and no panegyric in favor of “free expression” can make up for that fact. The noxious abuse of liberty only teaches people to view genuine liberty with suspicion, and confuses a free society’s conception of itself.

Our Founders, and many in the Judeo-Christian tradition from which they came, knew that a free society at the end of the day must be a fundamentally good society, for they knew that the most absolute enemy of freedom is freedom that is absolute. Narcissistic, nihilistic notions of limitless, solipsistic “free expression,” though entitled to legal protection in the vast majority of instances, are therefore completely incompatible with this fundamentally conservative vision of a free society.

Edmund Burke provided perhaps the best summary of the conservative position on the role of virtue in a free society in a letter he wrote to a member of the French National Assembly during their Revolution:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites — in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity — in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption — in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

Virtue Isn’t Optional

Conservatism that abandons, explicitly or implicitly, the idea that virtue is necessary, not optional, for a free society, is conservatism that has lost its way and ceased to be conservative. Conservatives who maintain that “moral chains” are not all that important so long as they get in the way of temporary “winning” are not conservatives, but anti-conservatives. They know not what they do. They have forgotten that one can gain the whole world, and yet lose one’s soul.

Conservatives must not let that happen.

I pray for Milo, that he would have a genuine encounter with the Lord and find healing. I also pray that all the advocates of virtuous liberty will act with greater wisdom and discernment going forward. Slow but solid growth of a movement is always better than a flash in the pan that arouses great activity only to collapse into its hollow and self-induced vacuum.

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  • Charles Burge

    I think much of this could have also been written about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Both he and Mr. Yiannopolous became champions for many on the right because of their willingness to poke their fingers in the eyes of the elite cultural gatekeepers. But, as you say, conservatism needs to be more than just opposition to leftist dogma. We need to lead by highlighting things that are good, true, and wholesome, and by showing how those things contribute to human flourishing. THAT, in my opinion, is what true conservatism is.

  • Anna Thomas

    While I certainly agree that Milo has been displaying a lot of very public sin, and that he should not do so, I do not agree with you that “the noxious abuse of liberty only teaches people to view genuine liberty with suspicion, and confuses a free society’s conception of itself.”

    We cannot claim to defend free speech without specifically defending speech that we do not like. If you ask someone on the Left, they will say they are free speech. Tell them that you think gays cannot marry, or that Islam is responsible for terrorism, and they will tell you that your speech should be illegal. I think the same is true of the religious right – we need to specifically defend Milo’s (legal) right to speak as he wishes *because* it is offensive to us, too. Otherwise we’re not pro free speech, we are pro conservative speech. Should we argue with him? Denounce his sexual sins? Refuse to go to his events? Sure. But let him speak.

    Perhaps we could argue that freedom of speech should not actually be protected – or freedom of religion, for that matter – and go for a Theocracy of some sort, but I do not think that is what you are intending to argue, and practically it would not work in the world we live in now. The religious right is not winning in this society. The strategy now must be to vote for those who would allow us to exist – those like Trump, and Milo, who defend free speech and freedom of religion, and take tax dollars away from the likes of Planned Parenthood. I do think that Milo is defending conservatism, in his own very non-conservative way. He is at least arguing for our right to exist. He is even very bluntly pro-life. If the Lord could use Constantine to do his will, he can use Trump and Milo.

    • Josh Charles

      You fail to make a crucial distinction, namely that there is an immense difference between ALLOWING someone to speak (which I fully agree with), and INVITING them to do so on YOUR platform. They are not the same, and cannot be treated as such. I specifically said in the article that I am fine with any speech being allowed (legally), even if I don’t like it, so long as it is not inciting to violence. One questions whether you even read the article when you omit something that was so prominently featured in it.

      • Anna Thomas

        Perhaps I should have made myself more clear – I am not a particularly good writer or even a particularly clear thinker – but I think you miss my point, as well, and I think we agree more than disagree, I just wanted to make the one point. Yes, you defend their legal right to speak, but you also imply pretty heavily that we should not be championing Milo or letting Milo champion us. You say, “Too many conservatives welcomed this confused and lost soul as one of their champions, and thus in some ways made his brand their own. This was unacceptable.” I disagree. No, we cannot condone his sexual sin, but that much can be made clear in an introduction to any talk he gives, just as any theatre or University would do in inviting him to speak. No, we should not have him speak in our churches, but I do think he ought to be made welcome in the political arena. In short, while I do not think we want to fully hitch our little red wagons to Milo’s and go where he leads, I do think that Milo’s actions and Milo’s speech help us a lot more than they harm us. You do not need to determine that a man is a saint before determining that he is an ally.

        • Josh Charles

          Fair enough. But I don’t think basic standards of decency should be equated with sainthood. That’s a huge leap, and one which I don’t subscribe to. No one is making sainthood the standard.

          • Anna Thomas

            True, but I believe that Milo actually does achieve “basic standards of decency”. Yes, he says a lot of crazy things, and yes, I suspect that he actually does commit many of the sins he jokes about. But he also displays tremendous courage in defending liberty and Christian ethics in this country, even those that he himself admits he does not always obey. No, the man’s not perfect, but he *is* an ally and he is very much under attack. Yes, I find it very strange to be defending such a mixed and, as you say, “confused” figure, but while we need to be very careful to make clear what we are and are not condoning, I do think we are in the position of needing to defend him. I think doing so is a product of the crazy messed up world we’re living in, and not a breach of Christian ethics.

          • Anna Thomas

            True, but I think that Milo does, in fact, make the “basic standards of decency”, if anyone in our current age does. While certainly homosexual acts are very sinful, and the public nature of Milo’s sin makes it worse, his courage in defending free speech and Christian ethics – even those that he freely admits he does not obey – makes him to my eyes far more virtuous than many that dedicated Christians in our times work with on a daily basis. Most people’s sin these days is of the boring, bland, cowardly sort. The very courage and willingness to offend that is exhibited in Milo’s sin is also exhibited in his virtue.

            Yes, in the matter of sexual ethics he disagrees with us and makes that plain. Yes, he dresses in inappropriate clothing and makes sexually explicit remarks. No, we should not condone this. But that is not the battle we are currently fighting. That one is lost, and was lost long ago. Milo is not being attacked for his homosexuality, or even really for a misconstrued comment he made a year ago. He is not even being attacked for what he *did* say, which is that he thought that the current legal age of consent in the United States was “about right”. His events were being disrupted and his supporters beat up by their fellow students under the lazy eyes of public university “security personnel” long before this came out. The very sins we condemn in him are what the mainstream media and those who follow it would consider virtues. They hate him because he defends (among other things) the positions that Christians should not have to cater at gay weddings, that being overweight actually is unhealthy, and that Islam really is responsible for a lot of terrorism.

            As you can probably tell, I feel strongly about this. Milo deserves our defense – not our blanket approval, but our defense. We stand for truth, and the media is lying about him. We condemn violence, and his supporters are under physical threat. Jesus himself stood between the woman caught in adultery and those who would stone her – not because adultery is right but because stoning is wrong. I think that puts us in the – admittedly strange – position of actively defending Milo.

          • Autrey Windle

            The battle you say we are not fighting and you say is already lost long ago indicates to me that you may believe homosexuality is kind of o.k. since we can’t REALLY eradicate it. Milo can say whatever he likes, but until he deals with his perversions, he has no moral high ground and must deal with whatever slings and arrows he draws to himself by his flagrant insistence on making his sexuality more important to his persona than any ideas or politics he espouses. Yes, Jesus said to the woman go and sin no more, but the important part isn’t necessarily that he spared her but that he directed her to change. Why do so many bible quoters overlook such an important part of some of these verses?! I do not think Milo needs our defense. I think he needs to be confronted with what a waste such a brilliant mind is trapped in the body of a moral despot.

          • Anna Thomas

            No. I do not believe that homosexual sex is ‘okay’ at all. My points are threefold. One is that Milo’s sexual sin – though grave – is irrelevant to the political battles we are currently fighting. They are not what got him into trouble with the media and therefore from a purely strategic perspective they are not relevant. We do not have the option of choosing only saints to fight alongside in the political arena. What I mean when I say that that battle is lost is that culturally, he cannot make America more pro-gay and pro-fornication than it already is. That ship has sailed long ago and Milo’s sexual behavior won’t change anything. What he *can* do is make it possible for *us* to speak out for what we believe in without fear of being fired, fined, or jailed – which is his stated goal and which in the long run could open up the possibility for the culture to change in other ways.

            The second point is that *any* sin – no matter how grave – does not make the way Milo and his followers are being treated by the Left at all acceptable. Once again, Jesus did not condone the woman’s sin – in fact, as you point out, he actively opposed it and told her to ‘sin no more’. But he defended her from the crowd anyway. And I mean physically defended *her*, not defended her actions.

            My third point is that in looking at a man, we must never see only his sin. We are all sinners, and the public and for lack of a better word ‘yucky’ nature of his sin does not make his just as evident courage any less real. Milo does not just tick off the Left, he says things that are unpopular with his own followers – things like “Abortion is murder. Don’t do it.” (That’s a paraphrase – I didn’t bother to look up the exact quote again though I heard him say it in pretty much those words.)

            Finally, Milo is under no illusions about the attitude the Christian right have about his sin. He knows that. He is very aware that his relationship with the Church is a pretty messed-up one. I don’t know how he reconciles that, but the man was molested by a Catholic priest, so I think we can all be a bit understanding of his somewhat complicated relationship with God and especially the Church. No, it’s not an excuse for his actions, but despite that I do believe his faith is real. I pray, as Josh Charles said, that he will come to conversion, repentance, and healing. But he could be happily and publicly murdering three-year-olds and the answer would not be to stone him in the public square or to allow others to do so in front of us. (Or, less dramatically, to allow lies about him to stand or allow those who go to his events to be beaten with poles.) Once again, I’m not arguing that we need to follow the man off a cliff, but I do think we can acknowledge those areas where he *is* an ally and stand against sin – both his and that of those who attack him.

          • Jayne

            Well put. Great arguement that captures, in a clearly written way, the unfocused thoughts I have too.

            I support the man Milo is for the risks he takes on behalf of the freedom of speech which we, less bellicose conservatives, have been losing little by little.

    • Oliveoil3

      Hear hear!
      I never liked Milo’s blatant homosexual anecdotes, but I think he speaks truth. He is fearless in the face of the status quo that suppresses free speech. I do not accept his way of life and I believe he himself is struggling with his sexuality. But, I am a sinner too, so I don’t judge him. I love Milo. Our loss is their gain.

  • Howard Rosenbaum

    Well, we’ve seen the gradual moral collapse of western culture gaining traction, particularly over the last 8 years of the prior administration. The ideologies that shape a nations character are typically reflections of that nations attitude towards the immutable truth of God’s revelation practically applied to all w/which we have to do. Therein lies the real issue. An issue that cannot be discounted nor one that can be legislated from the bench. Not to say that laws aren’t influenced by a sense of moral sensibility or the lack thereof. Depends on who’s making the laws. We’ve seen both sides of that equation at play. As far as the idea of conservatism goes, its the closest thing we have at present to a representation of Judeo-Christian ethics & morality. However, it will not & cannot substitute for the distinctive unimpeachable veracity of scripture. So, is Milo a credible spokesperson for the conservative cause? To the degree that his ideas agree w/the basic political tenants of conservatism in the 21st century, well then yes. Does that qualify him for leadership in the movement ? Well, in regard to Mr. Charles appropriate inclusion of virtue in the recipe for contemporary conservatism, clearly not. Milo is something of an anomaly in todays political culture. Probably the reason he’s been both loved & hated. Do we welcome such an anomaly to represent those of us who have embraced the values conservatives espouse. Well, yes & no. Yes to his presentation of the political virtues his diatribes represent. No to the implication his lifestyle imputes to those who are repulsed by it. Though that does not preclude him from being an active voice. Not a “true” conservative perhaps, but rather an antithesis of conservative moral values to some degree w/a conservative viewpoint politically, to some degree. So it would seem …

  • Paul

    Never had heard of Milo before a few weeks back when he was protested at some college. Doesn’t sound like I was missing anything.

    • Oliveoil3

      You missed out on one guy single handedly effectively fighting the left wing extremists that call anyone that doesn’t agree with their preposterous lies; bigots, homophobes, xenophobes, racist, misogynist, etc….

      • Jayne

        Yes. Milo has been out on a limb battling the left where it lives. I give him a lot of credit. In fact, it seemed odd to think if him speaking at CPAC. Can’t imagine him before a non-hostile audience!

  • BTP

    This is who the American people are now, and it doesn’t do any good to wish things were different.

    I think, for example, one might observe that Clovis was extremely stabby with potential rivals, but the idea that a Christian ruler should be less prone to government through violence completely misses the point about the society he lived in. In 6th century Gaul, there simply could not be any kings who were not also violent in the extreme. Such creatures could not exist because the culture could not allow them to exist. It’s too bad, but there it is.

    But there is a similar thing going on now in American culture. Articles like this one seem to misunderstand the cause and effect of people like Milo. In fact, Milo is only a response to a culture that insists on him, and any talk about how conservatives must demand better or how the standards should be higher is missing the point: the culture doesn’t allow it.

    The culture war has been lost. If we wanted to win it, we should have been insisting on killing the government schools. But we didn’t, so here we are.

    • Jayne

      I never thought of it that way, BTP, but you put it simply and to the point. We have lost. And subconsciously in some way, I was aware of that. But best to have open eyes about it. And I recognize, too, that there is something about Milo’s work that gets the job done for rattling loose the left thst tradtional conservatism has been unable to do.

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