Late Saturday afternoon, police ordered the evacuation of the historic Pabst Theater in downtown Milwaukee because of a bomb threat. Along with hundreds of other MythCon attendees, I filed out in orderly fashion. While most of the crowd milled around City Hall, I went up to my hotel room at the neighbouring Intercontinental. But that building, too, was evacuated by police, because it sits adjacent to the Pabst. Across the street, a bride in white shuffled around nervously with her family. Her wedding reception was scheduled to begin shortly in the Intercontinental ballroom. These are the ordinary people who suffer when idiots phone in bomb threats.
Eventually, we were all let back into the Pabst, and our conference resumed, amidst much gossip about what had motivated the bomb hoax. It says a lot about the ideologically heterodox nature of MythCon—a secular humanist and atheist meet-up organized by self-described “mythicists” seeking “to promote dialogue about culture, religion and freedom of thought”—that no one could be quite sure. The headliner was a popular YouTuber named Sargon of Akkad who’s often described as a radical conservative. But Sargon (known to the world of flesh as Carl Benjamin) disdains the alt-right label, and his most implacable online enemies tend to be hard-right trolls. MythCon itself (more formally known as the Mythinformation Conference) originated five years ago as a rally for atheists and skeptics; and so the hoaxer could theoretically have been a Christian conservative. Or it could have been a radical feminist who opposed the panel on transgenderism—or a trans activist opposed to the oddball politics of the trans trio that appeared as panelists. Or the whole thing might have been rooted in some fantastically obscure feud that played out on a comment thread. As I learned on Saturday, MythCon is in large part a meet-up for YouTube devotees, with the celebrity value of panelists casually measured in the currency of views and “subs.”
I’d come to MythCon out of professional interest. Two of the speakers at the one-day conference were my Quillette teammates—Editor-in-Chief Claire Lehmann (who spoke about the future of media) and columnist Clay Routledge (who heroically managed to keep his composure amidst a panel on intersectionalism that almost immediately devolved into testiness, bickering and audience pandering). But even before the first panel was done, I’d already become fascinated by the proceedings, as they played out both on stage and among the vocal audience members surrounding me. From out of this strangely coherent melange of exasperated heretics and hipster autodidacts, I caught a glimpse of that once-endangered political animal called radical centrism.
The idea of radical centrism is not new. The label was claimed by a variety of theorists and politicians in the late 20th century, including Anthony Giddens, an advisor to then-British prime minister Tony Blair who championed a so-called “Third Way.” In 2010, comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert capitalized on public exasperation with polarization by staging a “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” The well-attended Washington, D.C. event was supposedly aimed at skewering both sides of the political divide. But having covered that rally for a Canadian newspaper, I can attest that, hilarious as the satirical signs on display may have been (“I may not agree with you, but I’m sure you’re not Hitler”), these weren’t true centrists. They were bemused upper-middle class college-educated leftists who loved watching late night news comedy. The demographic I saw at MythCon was poorer, angrier and more ideologically disenfranchised.
Over 20 years of covering conferences of all political flavours, I’ve gotten pretty good at reading a movement based on the people who attend the meet-ups. I’ve seen everything from traditional conservative think-tank gabfests populated by Alex P. Keaton types to Israeli Apartheid Week events organized by white people who wear kufiyahs.
But the attendees at MythCon didn’t look like any of these crowds. In appearance, they seemed more like the apolitical introverts and subculturalists I see at the board-game conferences I attend in my spare time, or the nouveau-hippie seekers and spiritualists I find manning kiosques at new-age medicine and Truther conventions.
Except that, in the way they actually think, the folks I met at MythCon are the very opposite of conspiracy theorists. They have as much contempt for conservatives who dismiss evidence of anthropogenic global warming as they do for raw-food locavores who insist GMOs will turn you into Frankenstein’s monster. From what I could tell through casual conversation, many of MythCon’s radical centrists work in the tech field and inhabit online worlds completely saturated by the passing idioms of social media. Inside jokes about favourite YouTube stars often blur quickly into conversations about ideology, information technology and digital privacy. Having lived through a period when new digital platforms have repeatedly destroyed and remade the fabric of public discourse, they observe no boundary between the domains of thought and tech. A typical specimen was a white-hat hacker from the Boston area whom I met at the after party. He had trouble even articulating any one reason why he’d come to the conference, except to offer, “Let’s just say I have a lot of cultural interests.”
Many of Quillette’s writers and readers describe themselves as “classical liberals.” And that label does seem to fit to some extent at MythCon. Out in the lobby, a group of men representing something called the Liberalist International Association—one of the event sponsors—were handing out leaflets celebrating individual rights, economic freedom, freedom of speech, “blind justice” and secularism. Like many classical liberals, they champion small government in a way that can shade into libertarianism. But MythCon isn’t about reducing taxes or getting rid of public-sector unions. The attendees were mostly young adults in their 20s and 30s who’d grown up during a time of stagnating wages and growing income inequality, trends that make nonsense of the idea that hard work and grit are all you need to get ahead. Amid all the passionate arguments I heard at the Pabst, none were directed at the welfare state.
Even when it came to free speech and freedom of conscience—core issues for the attendees—it was interesting to note that there was little ire directed at government per se. The panel on media—populated by Lehmann; Tim Pool, Jeremy Hambly, AKA The Quartering; and Stephen Knight, AKA Godless Spellchecker—focused almost entirely on the role of oligopolistic corporations such as PayPal, Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter in throttling the ability of small media companies and entrepreneurs to get their message out. After receiving congratulations for effectively using Patreon as a Quillette fundraising tool, Lehmann sobered up the room by reminding the attendees that these private companies can cut you off with little notice, and so smart entrepreneurs always need to have a “backup plan.”
This was a room full of people passionately engaged in the world of ideas. Yet in their panelist remarks and Q&A comments, few of the speakers and audience members invoked the name of any actual party, politician or even broad political movement. That’s because this new breed of centrist radicalism doesn’t originate in reaction to any particular government policy. Rather, it’s expressed in reaction to the dynamics that adherents experience within the online communities that define their sense of collective belonging—and, in the case of the more popular YouTubers and podcasters, their source of status and livelihood.
During a morning panel—“How has the political climate divided the atheist community?”—comedian David Smalley observed that many outspoken atheists had grown up in religious families, and poured themselves into online activism because they were looking for a new kind of community to replace the church. This dynamic, he argued, made it especially painful when, thanks to ideological purists, there was “fighting within your second family.” Expanding on this same theme, YouTuber Jaclyn Glenn decried the absolutism of the “atheism-plus” sub-subculture, which she described as a social-justice cadre that requires atheists to obey feminist mantras unrelated to actual atheism. To which Smalley added: “Atheists started out as insurgents demanding to be heard. Now we’re silencing each other.”
Like all the panels, this one had at least one dissenter—in this case, YouTuber Vadim Newquist, AKA Creationist Cat—to push back along social-justice lines. Newquist argued that atheism isn’t an intellectually rigorous posture unless it is rooted in the broader evidence-seeking tradition of skepticism. And since, according to Newquist’s view, “reality really does have a left-wing bias,” intellectually rigorous atheists should be expected to shun incorrect views such as trickle-down economics.
At wonky conferences of this type, one usually hears, near the end, a call for attendees to put ideas into action by writing letters to legislators, or voting a certain way. There was little of that here. During the feminism debate, for instance, which pitted executive-turned-author Karen Garst (AKA Faithless Feminist) against Canadian men’s rights firebrand Karen Straughan, the brief foray into politics came by way of Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Brett Kavanaugh. But even on this point, there was little discussion of the enormous political stakes at play, and a tight focus on the cut and thrust of debate about #MeToo and the larger issues of due process.
There was also a somewhat granular discussion of criminal statistics, with Straughan going into detail about what she suggested were official efforts to suppress evidence of female domestic assaults on men. And there was some discussion of the bias against fathers embedded in family law. But the largest audience reactions—during this and other panels—generally were reserved for broad statements of principle that gave voice to audience members’ frustration with the hypocrisies, fallacies, tone-policing and censorship-by-mob that these speakers described, such as when Straughan declared “It is true that [women] are less equal—[but only] because they are held less responsible for their actions.” Or when Derrick Blackman declared, while debating Marissa Janea Johnson on the effect of social-justice activism on the black community, “everyone just needs to be chill,” and “I enjoy being a black man in America.” There were dozens of moments such as these, with the sudden eruption of applause indicating that the speaker had tapped into some truth that, however obvious to this crowd, is found to be maddeningly unsayable on many parts of the internet.
— Andy C. Ngo (@MrAndyNgo) September 22, 2018
This year’s iteration of MythCon was hosted by Mythinformed podcast host Dmitry Krivochenitser, a self-described Russian atheist Jew. His approach as host was self-deprecating and clownish, which was designed to set a light-hearted, anything-goes atmosphere for the rest of the day. Other participants also tried to keep the atmosphere bubbly. During the feminist panel, featuring the two Karens, moderator Melissa Chen gave an angel-halo clip-on tiara to Karen Garst and a devil-horn tiara to Karen Straughan, telling them they would be known as Good Karen and Evil Karen to avoid confusion. This got a big laugh.
But all this good humor couldn’t hide the underlying tension in the room, which originated in the fact that many of the attendees were spending a sunny Milwaukee Saturday indoors precisely because they were fed up with the ideological enforcers who hovered over their online activities every other day of the year. So when some of those same ideological enforcers appeared on MythCon panels as foils—such as Michael Rowlands and Chrisiousity, who spoke about “the impact of intersectionality”—the audience often erupted in boos and catcalls that sometimes threatened to send the room into chaos.
The atmosphere seemed especially tense when Chrisiousity, who behaved very much like someone who knew she was in hostile territory, argued that black babies are dying across America because of the psychological stress (or “allostatic load”) associated with living in a white supremacist society; that denying the theorem of intersectionality was arguably akin to denying the lived experiences (and therefore the humanity) of people of colour; and that many of her naysayers were channeling racist ideas (to which Routledge won much applause by countering that, for someone who focuses on the sacredness of one’s perspective, Chrisiousity was “pretty good at telling other people what they’re thinking”).
When the crowd responded with a loud chorus of laughter at the reference to allostatic load, Chrisiousity turned to them and accused us of finding the death of black children funny—which of course created more pandemonium. It fell to Lauren Chen (AKA Roaming Millennial) to calm everyone down by calmly pointing out the obvious fact that no one was laughing at the underlying tragedy of infant mortality—only at the idea that racism in America is so potent as to constitute a sort of invisible poison gas. Her patient explanation and somewhat thinly veiled exasperation perfectly captured the spirit of radical centrism that filled the room.
Given Jordan Peterson’s self-description as a Christian, one might think that he wouldn’t have much sway in this godless room. And it’s true that his name didn’t come up much (though the moderator of the atheism panel did gamely ask whether it was legitimate for atheists to graze Peterson’s non-religious ideas—“Can we treat this as a buffet?”). But at the very least, the proceedings indirectly helped explain to me how Peterson has managed to create such a mass constituency among young people through the video medium. For these radical centrists, video isn’t just a multimedia tool for amplifying or explaining ideas that are set out in books or academic papers: It is their main spigot for the intake of new information and concepts. Only once during the entire proceedings did I hear anyone give a detailed and specific reference to an actual book, in fact. It was Chrisiousity, who held aloft a volume about intersectionality that she said would make good remedial reading for audience members. She might as well have been explaining the workings of a ham radio.
After the dinner break and some final presentations, the proceedings adjourned to a local hotel lobby for pizza, drinks and a musical presentation. The tense atmosphere that had permeated some of the panels seemed to melt away, and even the foils appeared to be having a good time. Then we all went back to our hotels and set wake-up calls for our morning flights out of Milwaukee. When I landed back in Toronto, I Googled around to see if anyone had written up their impressions of the event. I couldn’t find anything substantial. But then I checked YouTube and the first hit was Sargon of Akkad’s Thoughts on Mythcon V and What’s Next.
It already had more than 100,000 views.
Photos by Andy Ngo
Jonathan Kay is Canadian editor of Quillette. Follow him at @jonkay