An articulate young scholar, a teller of uncomfortable truths, a provocateur whose rare insight into the new government regime gained the interest an entire nation, and angered just as many. A man who has gained the affinity of the brash leader of the new government. No, I am not talking about Milo Yiannopoulos. I am actually referring to the an entirely different Englishman. The man who practically invented the role of the provocateur. The man I am referring to is John Wilmot. Never heard of him? Hes better known by his title, The Second Earl of Rochester. Still never heard of him? Well… you should.
This past week the English provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos released his long awaited book, Dangerous. Which, let’s be honest, is anything but. Milo has been called many things: racist, sexist, bigot, nazi, troll… the list could go on. Milo himself makes a point to go through this list. In fact, that’s what the majority of the book is. With chapter titles ranging from “Why the progressive left hates me” to “Why feminists hate me” to “Why twitter hates me,” this book is, at least on the surface, simply a self reflexive analysis of why he is pissing everyone off. The part that may, or may not, surprise you is that there is not much of a reason. Despite being the epitome of everything liberal America hates, he has never done anything particularly extreme at all. Milo, of course, knows this, and he makes mention of it almost immediately by saying, “I don’t think there’s anything particularly outrageous in this book” (11). And, he’s right. There is nothing particularly outrageous in any of the things he ever does or says (with the exception to his discussions of past experiences as a prepubescent gay man… but that is not what this blog post is here to discuss, you can read the book for a discussion of all that).
So, how does this not so provocative political “troll” bear any relationship with John Wilmot, the man who was credited with making a lengthy poem about a dildo? First off, he does not. Wilmot actually did some truly outrageous things. He allegedly was never sober for an entire five year period of his life. He kidnapped a famous heiress (yes actually kidnapped her) and then later, after serving some time for the offense, he actually married her! When he fell out of favor of the king, he even posed as a doctor and ran what was essentially a snake oil scam. Most importantly, he wrote what was largely considered at the time to be pornography. But, Wilmot was a genius too. He graduated from Oxford University with his Master’s degree at just the tender age of 14. He was witty and charming, and the king owed his very life to Wilmot’s father helping him to escape the country as a child in the English Civil War. So, Wilmot was also very much a sort of “made man” in the eyes of the king. Nevertheless, the King wanted Wilmot to be the Shakespeare for the new generation, and Wilmot most certainly rebelled against that notion. Instead, his shining literary achievement included the following,
May stinking vapors choke your womb
Such as the men you dote upon
May your depraved appetite,
That could in whiffling fools delight,
Beget such frenzies in your mind
You may go mad for the north wind,
And fixing all your hopes upon’t
To have him bluster in your cunt,
Turn up your longing arse t’ th’ air
And perish in a wild despair!
But cowards shall forget to rant,
Schoolboys to frig, old whores to paint;
The Jesuits’ fraternity
Shall leave the use of buggery;
Crab-louse, inspired with grace divine,
From earthly cod to heaven shall climb;
Physicians shall believe in Jesus,
And disobedience cease to please us,
Ere I desist with all my power
To plague this woman and undo her.
But my revenge will best be timed
When she is married that is limed.
In that most lamentable state
I’ll make her feel my scorn and hate:
Pelt her with scandals, truth or lies,
And her poor cur with jealousied,
Till I have torn him from her breech,
While she whines like a dog-drawn bitch;
Loathed and despised, kicked out o’ th’ Town
Into some dirty hole alone,
To chew the cud of misery
And know she owes it all to me.
And may no woman better thrive
That dares prophane the cunt I swive! (Wilmot 546)
Now that is provocative! Yet, it spoke volumes about the depravity, obsession, and betrayal, all while parodying the gentle and tame promenade poetry that was popular at the time.
So, what is truly common ground for these two provocateurs is the political environment that labelled them as such. During Wilmot’s time, the democratic government of the Puritans was recently overthrown by the reformation regime of Charles II. But, while the Puritans were gone from power as the leaders of government, they still held quite a bit of influence in the predominantly protestant nation. This is what Wilmot exposed to the people, by his seemingly strange choice to repeatedly ridicule and question the court of King Charles II. You see, Wilmot wrote satire, but not just any satire. There are two distinct brands of satire. There is the witty and subtle style, and there is the bold in your face style (think William Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch), which is exactly where Wilmot excelled. He wrote wonderfully elegant poems about depravity, such as the poem above, “A Ramble in St. James’s Park,” where he turned a nice stroll through the park into an adventure in debauchery. His criticism of King Charles is actually a call for the truth to become public. The nation was done with the PC culture of the Puritans and it was time, in Wilmot’s eyes, for the King to stop hiding his true feelings on the matter.
This brings us back to Milo. He also excels at the “in your face” aspect of satire. Yet, in the most important section of the book, “Why the progressive left hates me,” he pointed out an important distinction, “If you stray too far into… social justice circles, trolling and political disagreement are one and the same” (15). Think about that statement. This is the single most important truth of his writing and public speeches. It is all about the audience. The “racist” or “bigoted” things he says are usually just statistics that he cites. Only in an environment where the audience is unwilling to hear political disagreement, would his words be anything provocative. He furthers this point by quoting George Orwell, “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” (qtd 18). That is essentially the crux of this entire controversy. “Conservatives are no longer the social elite, censoring dissident leftist media. Leftists are the cultural elites, censoring dissident conservatives” (19). Being modest has become a rebellion in certain circles. Milo is a satirist (I use this term loosely here, as he is not a writer of fiction at all) in the same vein as John Wilmot, but only now the tides have turned. Where Wilmot used his social status as a young lord and an accomplished scholar to flip the script and talk about depravity, Milo uses his social status as a homosexual immigrant to position himself as the defender of conservative American values.
The fact that the political left in America are the ones promoting a certain brand of depravity, does not change the fact that they are oppressive in the same manner as the Puritans of Wilmot’s time. The cause championed by both of these provocateurs has always been free speech. The fact that so many people have worked to silence Milo’s political arguments shows that America may be more puritanical than we like to believe.
Wilmot, John. “A Ramble in St. James’s Park.” 1680. Seventeenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology. Ed. Robert Cummings. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001. 542-546. Print.
Yiannopoulos, Milo. Dangerous. Dangerous Books. 2017 Print.