This fourth Mythinformation Con was fascinating, and overall quite excellent, even when it was disturbingly bizarre (video here). Most readers might want to know my take on the strange hour and a half of anti-feminist cult leader Sargon of Akkad battling feminist podcaster Thomas Smith. The only part of this convention that really got any attention. But you can’t understand that out of the context of the rest of the conference. So I’m going to cover that one event last.
Part One, I’ll describe the whole conference in retrospect. Part Two, I’ll describe the first notable contrast of the day, that between two very different kinds of anti-feminists. Part Three, that between two very different kinds of debates. I am writing this article for atheist outreach directors and community organizers. And anyone else who wants the movement to be better informed and more successful at growing the movement and its effectiveness. Each part will focus on what you need to learn from this conference. Because you won’t succeed at any of your goals in the skeptic, humanist, or atheist movements—not as a participant, activist, or organizer—if you don’t learn those lessons.
Before I break into those three analyses, I’ll summarize the conference in concept, what its organizers attempted to produce.
MythCon IV in Concept
This conference attempted to build bridges of communication and progress between two divided factions within the atheist community: the new left and the new right. I call it the new right here, because after reflection, I realize it looks much more like European conservatism, not American. Confusingly, it embraces many views of liberalism in the U.S., but that’s precisely what makes it the new conservatism: a conservatism that is finally catching up with its cousins in the rest of the Western world. Americans just didn’t notice, because they don’t pay attention to the rest of the world.
Part of what commands the divide is conflicting opinions on the value and merits of feminism and “social justice” as a mission. Accordingly, half those speaking were pro-social-justice feminists (Thomas Smith, Melissa Chen, and Asra Nomani), and half anti-feminists (Shoe0nHead, Armoured Skeptic, and Sargon of Akkad); and a few others were speaking who certainly lean toward the former, not the latter, in their expressed views (Ron Miscavige, who spoke out against Scientology; Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, who debated Asra Nomani on whether Islam can be reformed; and Jozef K. Richards, through his film Batman & Jesus that capped the evening).
In other words, a pretty balanced line-up. And balanced in more ways than one. Represented among the speakers were several women, races, nations, and social and political positions. Even within camps: Chen, Smith, and Nomani is each a different kind of feminist; and Shoe & Armoured together considerably differed in their anti-feminism from Sargon. If you wanted to get a peak at the real diversity actually defining atheism today, and that will only continue to define it more and more in future (organizers and outreach directors take note), this was the conference you should have attended.
Part One: How It Went
This conference was superbly planned, run, and managed. Security and safety were well handled. Two lengthy evening parties were kept well in control and fun for all, despite an attendance of nearly six hundred and bounteous alcohol even at the venue. The talks and debates were none of them boring. Everything ran pretty much on schedule. Accommodations, facilities, staff, all functioned well. On technical and professional matters, there wasn’t anything all that major to complain about. Just a few minor imperfections in tech and sound, which you’ll see happen at nearly any conference.
This is all impressive, considering the event was bringing two different audiences together who often hate each other. Most of the more volatile I think didn’t stick around. The liberal extremists who threatened violence and harassment and protests and the active outing of anyone who attended, never showed up. And the most extreme conservatives mostly just showed up to cheer Sargon, hover around him afterward like cultists fawning their guru, and left. Many of whom were not in fact even atheists, but rather Christian Trump supporters—judging from a few conversations I had with them, and from their overt regalia (worn crosses, carried bibles; I counted somewhere between twenty and forty signature red Make America Great Again ballcaps in the booksigning room).
And the only event that was disturbing was that very Sargon-Smith exchange. Everything else was comfortable and entertaining conference fare, although all of it would have challenged many in the audience to think differently on some matter or another. Although I count that an asset. And I found plenty of good, safe company. And not just people of my own socio-political alignment—scores of feminists and social justice warriors of all brands; gay, straight, trans, women, men, black, white, Asian, Hispanic. I found most even of my socio-political “enemies” were polite and safe company (unlike the rowdy hooligans and creepy conspiracy nuts that dominated the Sargon event).
The reason this all worked so well owes a lot to the superb experience and professionalism of Mythicist Milwaukee, who has put on over half a dozen large-scale events like this, and gotten better and more savvy every time. I’d trust any future event they run to be as good if not better. There is a lot to learn from this. But I’ll leave that to backchannel queries: if you’re an event organizer and want to benefit from MM’s experience and expertise by seeking their advice, by all means contact them, and if you find them admirably helpful, reward them for it with a commensurate donation toward their next endeavor.
Part Two: The Many Divides
The feminists were represented by far left Thomas Smith, middle left Melissa Chen, and odd left Asra Nomani (who is actually pretty far left, yet voted Trump for bizarre reasons she tries to explain in her debate with Faisal). Their perspectives were all interesting even when I disagreed with them (and I’d say I’m somewhere between Smith and Chen). But the only thing you need know about all that (and Shoe0nHead even commented on her discovering the same phenomenon in the course of her own growth as a YouTuber), especially if you are doing community outreach and organizing, is that feminism is not a monolith. Not all feminists agree on all the same things, and some divisions are quite rancorous; e.g. trans-exclusive vs. trans-inclusive feminism. Notably there were no TERFS at this con. In fact the feminists that spoke were all closer to each other ideologically than to any feminist extremes like trans-exclusive or sex-negative or androphobic or “ironically misandrist” feminism.
The anti-feminists had two notably different camps represented at MythCon. And you need to understand even better the differences between them and the different motivations and foundations commanding them, because together, they represent literally millions of atheists today, especially among the youngest generations. So once again, if you are an outreach director or organizer and lamenting the aging of your membership and mystified at where the youth are and how to get them integrated into your community, you absolutely need to understand the new socio-political landscape driving youth activism, interests, and ideology today. It’s not just the varieties of feminism and how they feel about each other that you need to be prepared for.
Of the two factions of anti-feminism that spoke, the worst faction is represented by Sargon of Akkad (Carl Benjamin), who is in numerous ways akin to the Rush Limbaugh of the “new conservative” atheism, complete with his own Dittoheads. They tend to be scary weirdos. They trend immature. They overlap considerably with Gamergate culture. And their numbers skew even more white straight male than atheism does generally (which is not to say they don’t have plenty of women and queer and nonwhite folks in their ranks). And there are a lot of them (by rough counts from my experience, and compared to what little telltale data I’ve seen, in the U.S. they outnumber traditional conservatives in the atheist population; indeed by maybe as much as 2:1). Many may simply be misled, like a flock to a preacher (whom for this reason you might still be able to reach). But many are truly aligned with his beliefs and values.
They aren’t members of the alt-right, however. In fact, they despise and laugh at the whole alt-right ideology (and you’ll understand why if you watch this video by none other than Sargon of Akkad, a rare instance of a Sargon video actually worth watching). They aren’t “neoconservatives,” either. Because that was an ill-timed word that really just means “traditional conservative” now, and they are an even bigger joke to the new right. Neocons are pro-corporate-lobby war hawks and advocates of endorsing religion to mollify and control the populace, all things the new right considers hypocritical.
No, the new right is more like the moderate right in Canada, Australia, the UK and EU. They hold many liberal views. They differ among each other but will often support some kinds of social welfare (although their audience still includes many radical capitalists and fiscal-conservative absurdists); they all champion secularism and the separation of church and state; they are socially libertarian, e.g. they are genuinely pro-legalization on drugs and sex work and abortion and non-traditional marriage; they oppose any effort to return society to old conservative norms on gender or sexuality; and they are actually legitimately anti-fascist, because they are typically in fact anti-violence, and against any suppression of liberties, including freedom of thought and free speech; and they are especially against ever empowering the state to suppress liberties (indeed, they take their defense of personal liberty to such extremes as to be the direct enemy of any fascist political programme…whether it’s conservative or liberal fascism). So the new right are the very antithesis of actual fascists, who by definition support both of those things (the use of violence to effect one’s will, and the empowering of state violence to that end).
However, what the new right still suffers from are a few defects it does nevertheless share with the fascists, alt-righters, and neocons.
The new right can be hypocritical in their opposition to fascism. Especially when attempting to suppress liberties themselves, through expressions of their “radical freedom” in such forms as social harassment and the organized manipulation of online voting systems—tactics now many in the new left endorse as well, so they have now become the pot calling the kettle black on this one. There are few major differences between the new right and the new left here: they are becoming the same in their belief that social power (which they both call “free speech”) can be wielded to suppress human and civil rights. This used to be distinctive of the new right. But now even the new left has gotten into using threats, intimidation, and lies to effect deplatforming.
The new right is also typically anti-corporation but at the same time so pro-capitalism as to be effectively shills for every abuse of capitalism that exists. They are generally anti-war and anti-violence, but occasionally defend abuses of violence and war against other races and abhorred cultures. Like fascists often are, the new right is often racist and sexist and anti-trans, but differs from the fascists in genuinely believing they aren’t any of those things. Unlike modern fascists who affirm and defend it openly, the new right is mostly not aware of and in denial of their bigotry. The new right also holds weird quasi-religious beliefs contrary to logic and reality (like that all feminism is crypto-Marxism), and are highly prone to conspiracy theory logic. They are often rage-driven apologists for white-straight-male privilege. Shaun has composed a pretty good video explaining the worst side of this movement.
But very crucially, this isn’t the bulk of anti-feminism. And lumping all anti-feminists together is a critical mistake if your aim is outreach, organizing, and changing minds. There is a very different group who criticizes feminism and disavows the label—preferring words like “equalitarian,” for example, as does the new right, so it can confuse you when you hear both sides using the same terms and making the same points. But they aren’t at all alike.
YouTubers Armoured Skeptic (Greg Fluhrer) and Shoe0nHead (June Lapine) are a couple, with a combined audience of over a million, who actually represent the majority middle of atheism today—a fact feminists need to face up to. If you want to understand where they are coming from and why they are where they are ideologically and in their activism, their MythCon presentation (dominated mostly by Greg, because June is an introvert; although she collaborated on their presentation and agrees with all of it) is as ideal for understanding that wing of anti-feminism, as the Sargon-Smith exchange is a perfect distillation of Sargon and his like.
Unlike Sargon, these anti-feminists are not new right. They are very definitely leftist liberals. Who have been burned and mistreated so frequently by feminists and social justice advocates that they have become highly critical and skeptical of both. And that’s as much the fault of feminists and social justice advocates. You need to understand why you are losing these people. Because it’s why you are losing. Period.
(And that’s a fact, BTW. No feminist YouTube channel comes anywhere near these anti-feminists in viewership…except Laci Green, whom the new left feminists are now largely condemning as becoming “one of them”; in other words, as soon as a feminist realizes the problem and starts listening to the other side and understanding them in order to try doing something about it, she gets damned as an anti-feminist…which is irrational, but that’s how society works now, take note.)
To understand them, you need to listen to them. And when you do, you need to not allow your bigotry and prejudice to cause you to make assumptions like that they are actually ideologically aligned with Sargon and his minions. They are most definitely not. June, for example, often exhibits charity and compassion, and is committed to becoming a better person, and accordingly able to listen and learn and grow, and change her mind. There is ample evidence of this. This is exactly the opposite of Sargon, for example, who exhibits no empathy for other human beings and is committed to never becoming a better person, and would mock even the suggestion that he wasn’t already perfect and his ideology unassailable and thus no change in himself can ever be warranted. This is why he is unreachable. But it’s also why June and Greg are not. You need to take this into account. It’s an opportunity. You just have to learn how not to be a dick to people you want to persuade. Which should be persuasion 101. But the left sucks at persuasion 101.
Greg and June both made honest pleas for open and polite dialogue at MythCon. They took the conference’s goals seriously, and lived up to them. They both conceded they always have things to learn and are open to learning them. And want to hear what their opponents say and think about them. And at the same time they also tell demonstrably true stories of their horrible treatment at the hands of other leftists on the internet.
When Greg had literally just left Christianity, a newly minted atheist, he ventured onto what were then the “Atheism Plus” forums because he liked the idea of a pro-humanist movement within atheism. But rather than treat him like a newbie, who isn’t going to get a lot right or even know why he’s wrong about anything, he was attacked and vilified merely for having wrong views and still being as ignorant on many things as his Christian background had left him. In other words, they exhibited no sympathy for his position, did nothing to help him, and acted with total bigotry by simply “assuming” he was just like the worst of anyone, merely because he was uninformed or disagreed on some similar points as trolls often pick on. But trolls pick on those points for a reason. Not everyone still stuck on them is a troll. Believing they are, is folly.
Likewise when June and Greg engaged with feminists in a group thought-summit, countless other feminists vilified them, often in the most sexist and disgusting of terms. One prominent feminist YouTuber literally said in response to that that he wouldn’t even piss on them if they were on fire (after conflating them with Sargon, evidently not even knowing they are radically different). Another called June Greg’s “cum bucket”; yes, a feminist said that, of a woman…and even tried defending it (but has since apologized). Feminism has plenty of villains, and most of their fellow feminists don’t condemn them, which hypocrisy is not lost on these leftist anti-feminists. It’s one of the reasons they’re anti-feminists.
This irrational behavior on the left is fucking over feminism and social justice. And more than one feminist has commented on this problem already. You need to pay attention. Frances Lee’s Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice nails the point. And it’s worth noting the eerie similarity between his account in that article, and Greg’s account in his speech at MythCon (which due to all the harassment and threats the left threw at this conference, he and June had to rewrite to be all about that). I can’t count the number of dedicated feminists I’ve spoken to by now who are just as worried as Lee about what’s become of the feminism and social justice movement. The behavior arising from it has reached the point of being outright intolerable.
You can’t correct a perspective you don’t understand. And you can’t understand a perspective if you never listen to anyone living it. This used to be a fundamental doctrine in the social justice community. But they’ve long since forgotten it. Now, not only do they refuse to listen to another human being, to learn and understand anything about them and why they see things the way they do, but now they vilify and attack anyone who tries to do that. Often ignorantly. Sometimes even with lies. They have become essentially the same weird psychic collective in the film Zardoz that punishes anyone who even voices a word of disagreement with anything they say, or even so much as befriends them
Armoured and Shoe might not have been right about everything in their presentation, but they did make a valid point: moderates are being alienated by the left. Armored and Shoe are not against social justice, they support it—but criticize it; yet the left keeps conflating the two as being the same thing, confusing a disagreement over goals, with a disagreement over methods, which insulates the left from acknowledging its own sins and thus from doing anything about them. Likewise, ignorance, disagreement, and error are constantly being misread on the left as bigotry and hate, thwarting any possibility the left may have had of correcting ignorance or error, or resolving or reducing disagreement. The left wants to change minds. But is doing everything in its power to make that impossible. This is a serious failure. And the left needs to fix it. Now.
For all the reasons I’ve outlined and more, understanding the difference between the new right extremism of Sargon, and the very differently-motivated left-wing anti-feminism of Armoured and Shoe, is absolutely crucial to any advocate of social justice who doesn’t want to lose the battle for majority support in our future society. Sargon is just the incarnation of collective white-straight-male narcissism. But the others are not. You can reach them. You can change their minds. But to do that, you have to actually listen to them, with the intent of actually understanding them. And you have to be ready to admit you, too, are wrong about some stuff; you, too, are fucking up; you, too, need to learn something and change. You, too, need to be committed to becoming a better person.
That’s a lesson you can learn from this part of the MythCon video stream when it becomes available (I’ll link to it at the top of this article when it does). Note the contrast between the demeanor, the honesty, the sincerity, the empathy, the goals, the stories, and the reasoning, of Sargon, and of June and Greg. Disagree with them you may. But think they are the same as him, and you’re delusional. So learn from that stark difference. Do something with that information.
Part Three: Two Different Debates
The Sargon-Smith debate was also a radical study in contrasts not just with the presentation of Armoured Skeptic and Shoe0nHead, but also with the debate that followed it, between Asra Nomani and Faisal Saeed Al Mutar. It illustrates the difference between actually caring about and pursuing the goal set forth explicitly by MythCon, and shitting all over it, as Sargon did.
The contrast was indeed extreme, between the bizarre carnival show of the Sargon debate, and the actually civil, rational, fact-based debate between Faisal and Asra later the same day and venue. Honestly. Watching both, back to back, is practically a training film on the difference between what rational and respectful disagreement and debate looks like…and not even remotely looks like.
Many were worried that’s what would happen with the Sargon interview. That he wouldn’t take seriously any of the goals of the conference and wouldn’t engage in any civil discussion at all. The excellent thing, is that this now decisively proves it. Even when Sargon was asked to attempt a civil and respectful debate, to try and dialogue and understand each other, he did the opposite. And his bizarre ideology and basic failings at logical reasoning and empathy, and his constant rage and disgust and contempt (emotions that drove everything he said, rather than evidence or reason), are so clearly and efficiently on display in this encounter, when it goes online, you’ll never have to point anyone to any other video to explain why Sargon is an awful person with whom no rational dialogue is possible.
Indeed, that video will be a perfect litmus test to employ: anyone who isn’t repulsed by the person in that video, is probably someone you need to be worried about. At the very least, they will be as lost in delusion as an ultra-conservative fundamentalist: you’ll have a lot of years of patient work ahead of you getting them out of that scary maze of lies and into being less of a danger to human happiness. Everyone else will be repulsed. And you can then take safe comfort in their humanity.
The whole Sargon showing was like watching a weird cult guru and his fanatics ignore logic and civility and human compassion. They acted like children. It was essentially an episode of the Jerry Springer show. Smith was ill-prepared to handle this, and lost his cool repeatedly, albeit understandably. He did his personal best, but he erred in coming into the event already angry and emotional, rather than as a scientist aiming to achieve specific goals. I’d have engaged that debate entirely differently. But I won’t play Monday Morning Quarterback here. The more important message is what we learn from comparing the Smith-Sargon event, with the Al Mutar-Nomani event (moderated by Matt Dillahunty).
The audience consisted of better people, the debaters were better people, and the exchange involved some deep divides and disagreements, yet was never disrespectful, dishonest, or disingenuous, but always rational, honest, and respectful. They endeavored to correctly understand each other’s reasoning and never lied their way out of it. They treated each other with respect and civility. Nomani is in fact a Trump supporter and even engaged in pro-Trump apologetics in the debate, crediting him with bizarre accomplishments like Saudi Arabia’s recent legalization of female drivers (as if Trump had anything to do with that). And still the debate didn’t degenerate into a shouting match or exchange of insults or whooping crowd-monkeys. Because Faisal is not a sociopath. He believes in human values and endeavors to embody empathy and sympathy, and that was on display. Asra likewise.
And only part of the difference between those two events was due to the fact that there was an influx of Sargon fans who came only for that and then left. As I noted already, a significant number of his audience were actually Christian conservatives, not atheists. Even with that influx the audience was actually pretty evenly split during the Sargon interview (I made notes from the back and observed everything occurring, and spoke to dozens of attendees). His supporters were the loudest and rudest of people, as you might imagine, which may have scared Smith into thinking that’s all who were out there. But actually there were hundreds of supporters of Smith in the audience, too. It’s just that, being adults, they were neither disrespectful nor loud. So he couldn’t “see” them.
Nevertheless, there wasn’t any Nazi or KKK rally going on, as many on the left claimed in their irrational moral panic over this conference. There were no Nazis, fascists, or KKK members present at all by any indication. If you think the Kekistani flag, merely one of which two Sargon fans waved (as his fans often do wherever he appears in public), indicates they are Nazis or support the KKK, you need to go back and re-read Part Two of my analysis above, and actually get informed about the actual history and meaning of that flag (this video will get you an insider perspective; see also Know Your Meme). It represents their mockery of all identity politics, including Nazis and the KKK, and it symbolizes their free speech extremism. The fact that you think it’s a Nazi flag and should be banned or damned, validates their worldview that you are ignorant and the actual fascist in this equation, further fueling their self-righteousness. So don’t go around making that mistake. Remaining so stalwartly ignorant only guarantees you will lose this culture war.
That flag does represent, however, a stalwart defense of straight-white-male privilege and the “right” to be a horrid person without consequence; so by all means read it as such and criticize it as such. It signals someone you probably won’t want to be around or trust. But that’s not the same thing as saying it symbolizes Nazism or the KKK or the alt-right. It doesn’t. And even when fascists co-opt it for that use (and some now have), its original users (primarily in fact Sargon fans) are actually laughing at them when they do.
If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand this culture. A culture larger and more influential than the alt-right. Just as you probably wouldn’t have understood the punk-cooption of Nazi symbolism in the 1970s (by such as Siouxsie Sioux and even David Bowie), specifically to mock it and the people who panic at it (in other words, mocking you). See this wonderful analysis of that very point by Philip Moriarty. There are plenty of things you can validly criticize about their having done that; that “they are therefore Nazis,” is not one of them.
Likewise, Sargon’s rage, rhetoric, and dishonest, disingenuous, and populist carnival barker tactics on stage, rightly communicate what sort of person he really is, and what sort of people those cheering him are. Sargon was consistently dishonest and disrespectful of Smith and the whole goal of the exchange, a goal stated explicitly by its announcer—and by the organizers, everywhere, for weeks. This was Sargon’s chance to redeem himself. He failed.
Sargon never accurately represented anything Smith said, showing no respect for him or the truth. Or for anyone, really. His fundamental disrespect of Smith and other people he abuses displays a complete lack of empathy or concern for human feelings or the truth. And he frequently derailed any attempt to get at anything meaningful in the exchange, with all manner of stock fallacies, from tu quoque (“you” do it too, therefore it’s okay; doubly fallacious as rarely was it true Smith did any of the things Sargon alleged: he conflated Smith with random other leftists, hypocritically doing the very thing Sargon accuses the left of doing) to begging the question (such as when he defined intersectional feminism as Marxism, conflating a definition with a consequence, a newb error in philosophy; and that’s even before we get to the fact that it isn’t even true).
Sargon lacks any real respect for truth or logic or people. And this exchange with Smith, demonstrates all three points rather clearly. Which only becomes even more starkly clear when you compare how Sargon behaved, with how Faisal and Asra behaved, in their debate later that same day. I highly recommend watching both, so you understand this difference, and from understanding that difference, understanding in turn what to be concerned about when encountering new right atheists in your outreach and organizing.
You should read both David Silverman’s response to the single event featuring Sargon, and Melissa Chen’s response on the whole conference. Both are correct. Sargon was given a chance to prove he wasn’t the vile person Silverman rightly pegs him as (and I gave plenty of evidence already even before the con, in my previous articles on this). And Sargon proved instead he was exactly that person. But the others aren’t Sargon and shouldn’t be treated as such. The tactics and abuse and harassment from the left is also unconscionable and has to stop.
In addition to all I’ve written about above, community and group organizers and outreach directors need to know that problems will face you on both sides of the political divide within the freethought community. There are many feminists and social justice advocates on the left that engage in threats of and calls for violence, who run campaigns of harassment and disruption that will be divisive and toxic to any organization or community. Just as there are on the atheist right. I wrote about this twice already, with links and examples. You can follow that up here and here.
As an organizer and outreach director, you are going to have to deal not just with (1) harassment and bigotry from the new right, and (2) error and ignorance from the anti-feminist left (neither of which are the same thing, itself an important distinction you must maintain for your activism and outreach to be effective), but you are also going to have to deal with people on the new left, feminists and social justice advocates, who likewise behave in toxic, disruptive, and dishonest ways, spreading misinformation and misunderstanding, deploying horrible, sexist, and inhuman insults, conflating disagreement with bigotry, and treating anyone who criticizes or disagrees with anything they assert, as if they are literally members of the Nazi party, deserving of even physical assault, and any other form of threat available.
It’s sad that there is now this vile behavior from both sides of the political spectrum. And not just that, but a growing commitment from both sides to never even attempt to do anything about it or to understand any disagreement that is growing increasingly common within the atheist, humanist, and skeptic communities. If you want to do something about that, if you want to change minds for the better, if you want to have any success organizing and growing the freethought movement, particularly within the younger generations, you need to decide to oppose this vitriolic and unproductive behavior from every side, and promote civil discourse and sincere efforts at mutual understanding and dialogue. You can write off those who then demonstrate they won’t do that (and you’ll find plenty who won’t, on both the right and the left). But you will be destroying the future you care about, if you write off everyone else along with them, as if they were the same people. They aren’t. And this conference proved that.