A year of dan­ger­ous think­ing

In Au­gust, two far-right provo­ca­teurs brought the freespeech cir­cus to Auck­land. Metro in­ves­ti­gates how a hand­ful of ex­trem­ists and “pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als” are mak­ing money from man­u­fac­tured moral out­rage, and how the ar­rival of the Cana­dian pair in New Ze

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — AN­THONY BYRT / ILLUSTRATIONS — LISA BAUDRY

After the re­cent up­roar over free speech, Metro in­ves­ti­gates how a hand­ful of ex­trem­ists and “pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als” are mak­ing money from man­u­fac­tured moral out­rage and how the ar­rival here of two far-right Cana­di­ans gal­vanised a grow­ing ac­tivist move­ment.

It was one of those late-win­ter Satur­days so clear and sharp you could have heard the sky squeak, but for the fact that “Poi E” was blast­ing from a sound-sys­tem on the edge of Aotea Square. It was pointed to­wards the Auck­land Town Hall, where 20 or so peo­ple — al­most all men — clus­tered be­neath the clock tower, hold­ing their plac­ards up — a flimsy card­board bar­rier against the wall of mu­sic bom­bard­ing them.

The night be­fore — Fri­day, Au­gust 3 — Ste­fan Molyneux and Lau­ren South­ern’s Auck­land event had been can­celled at the last minute. Most of the men’s signs riffed on the far right’s side of the “free speech” ar­gu­ment. There were pic­tures of the Bri­tish far-right ag­i­ta­tor Tommy Robin­son with his mouth taped over, ac­com­pa­nied by the global catch-cry “Free Tommy”. (Robin­son had ac­tu­ally been freed from a con­tempt-of-court sen­tence a cou­ple of days ear­lier, but let’s not quib­ble over such de­tails.) And there were posters in sup­port of South­ern and Molyneux. There’d been ru­mours South­ern might show up. For the sec­ond time in 24 hours, she left her fans dis­ap­pointed.

The sound-sys­tem be­longed to the “Love Aotearoa, Hate Racism” cam­paign, which had joined the “Rally Against Racism”, or­gan­ised by Tā­maki Anti-Fas­cist Ac­tion (TAFA), the night be­fore in Aotea Square. The Satur­day counter-protest against the “Free Tommy” crew had the vibe of an af­ter­party — 60 or so peo­ple still go­ing from Fri­day night, crank­ing the stereo up, not ready to go home yet.

Two young women wear­ing head­scarves and fly­ing Pales­tine flags danced to a Pub­lic En­emy track un­der a Free Tommy sign. There was Led Zep­pelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”; Herbs’ “Sen­si­tive to a Smile”; Bob Mar­ley’s “Get Up, Stand Up”; Whit­ney Hous­ton’s “The Great­est Love of All”; Band Aid’s “We Are the World”; bhangra mu­sic, which a young Māori woman with a tem­po­rary moko kauae blew along to on a conch shell; and a rous­ing “YMCA” that all the counter-pro­test­ers joined in with, ac­tions and all. Even the Free Tommy guys grinned at that.

They weren’t skin­heads; mostly, they looked like slightly con­fused dads. I thought back to 2005, when I was liv­ing in London, and the Fa­thers 4 Jus­tice move­ment, which briefly cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion when one of its mem­bers scaled the Houses of Par­lia­ment to protest against their per­ceived lack of cus­to­dial ac­cess to chil­dren.

I won­dered whether any of th­ese blokes would be game enough to do the same to the clock tower. They weren’t, and in­stead, drowned out and out­num­bered, they were hemmed in by an af­ter­noon dance party. Heated ex­changes broke out, mostly as iso­lated ar­gu­ments be­tween in­di­vid­u­als. In the end, their own white van pulled up, they packed their signs into it, and most of them drifted away — to Fred­die Mer­cury belt­ing out “We Are the Cham­pi­ons” as the counter-pro­test­ers claimed the space be­neath the clock.

The Fri­day Rally Against Racism had brought about 500 Auck­lan­ders to­gether, and the Satur­day events mus­tered maybe 100 in to­tal. Th­ese were small­gath­er­ings, sure. But they were also the tail-end of a much larger clus­ter­fuck that briefly held Auck­land on the edge of a po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous mo­ment.

It started with the an­nounce­ment that Cana­dian far-right speak­ers Molyneux and South­ern were plan­ning to speak at the coun­cil-owned Bruce Ma­son Cen­tre. Auck­land Live — a divi­sion of the coun­cil’s Re­gional Fa­cil­i­ties Auck­land — can­celled it on pub­lic safety grounds. Then, after Auck­land Live’s de­ci­sion, Mayor Phil Goff de­cided to tweet that coun­cil-owned venues wouldn’t be used to stir up eth­nic and re­li­gious ten­sions.

Many lauded Goff for his stance. But by fram­ing Molyneux and South­ern’s ex­clu­sion from coun­cil-owned venues on moral grounds rather than pub­lic safety, he lit a match. And the hastily as­sem­bled Free Speech Coali­tion that in­cluded for­mer Na­tional and Act Party leader Don Brash, for­mer Act MP Ste-

phen Franks, left-in­clined com­men­ta­tor Chris Trot­ter, his­to­rian and au­thor Paul Moon, for­mer Labour Cab­i­net min­is­ter Michael Bas­sett and Tax­pay­ers’ Union founder Jor­dan Wil­liams, among oth­ers — brought along the petrol. Both sides were as naive as each other, fail­ing to un­der­stand the ways in which the con­cept of free speech is be­ing weaponised by con­ser­va­tive and far-right groups on­line, and by the fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests that drive them.

Dads’ rights, men’s rights, Gamer­gate, Is­lam­o­pho­bia, Jor­dan Peter­son’s 12 Rules, Free Tommy, The Red Pill, Proud Boys, the alt-right, the Dark En­light­en­ment, Ne­o­re­ac­tion, In­fowars, Bre­it­bart, Rebel Me­dia. The list goes on (and on, and on), and the sub­scribers to each “news” ser­vice or world view will ar­gue their dif­fer­ences and nu­ances un­til they turn very, very pink in the face, es­pe­cially against what they per­ceive to be mis­un­der­stand­ings and mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions. There are, though, two clear threads that link them all: their au­di­ences are over­whelm­ingly white men; and they’ve turned out­rage into a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar busi­ness.

The right’s cur­rent favourite straw man is the con­cept of free speech. Po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and iden­tity pol­i­tics shut down open de­bate, they claim. Con­ser­va­tive aca­demics are be­ing si­lenced on univer­sity cam­puses. (That Niall Fer­gu­son, one of the loud­est and most suc­cess­fully pub­lished aca­demics in the world, is push­ing this idea is re­mark­able and hi­lar­i­ous.) And most im­por­tantly in terms of the im­pact on pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal dis­course, the main­stream me­dia are shut­ting out con­ser­va­tive voices and opin­ions.

Cenk Uygur is head of the left-lean­ing Amer­i­can on­line news plat­form The Young Turks. “I’m an enormous be­liever in the in­ter­net,” he tells me. “I be­lieve in its open­ness, its free­dom and its lack of gate­keep­ers.” Although he finds much to be of­fended by in the con­ser­va­tive and far-right me­dia he shares the in­ter­net with, and finds their hi­jack­ing of the free-speech de­bate ridicu­lous, he sup­ports their right to say what they want on their plat­forms.

“Try­ing to reim­pose gate­keep­ers on the in­ter­net is per­ilous,” he con­tin­ues. “And, by the way, it comes with an agenda. It’s not just peo­ple who are gen­uinely con­cerned about fake news and con­spir­acy the­o­ries. Those peo­ple ex­ist; they’re real. But it’s also driven by peo­ple with an agenda to fight back against in­de­pen­dent me­dia on the in­ter­net be­cause it’s de­stroy­ing their busi­ness model, and that is tra­di­tional me­dia. So they over­hype the fake-news an­gle — it’s real, but it’s over­hyped — partly driven by that eco­nomic agenda.”

He’s talk­ing, of course, about ad­ver­tis­ing. When it comes to news, the true revo­lu­tion of Face­book, YouTube and Google isn’t the spread of fake stuff.

It’s their ad mod­els — all those ban­ners you’re in­vited to click but mostly ig­nore, which have si­mul­ta­ne­ously dec­i­mated tra­di­tional print me­dia’s in­come-rais­ing ca­pac­ity and pro­vided a steady in­come stream to voices pre­vi­ously marginalised or fil­tered through ed­i­to­rial con­trol.

The con­ser­va­tive right has been ex­cep­tion­ally good at us­ing the in­ter­net to find its global read­er­ship, whip it into a free-speech frenzy and make se­ri­ous money from the fall­out: In­fowars, Bre­it­bart and The Daily Wire are just a few of the ob­vi­ous ex­am­ples. Many also utilise “spon­sored con­tent”, ad­ver­to­ri­als that can eas­ily be mis­taken for “news” in search en­gines; or are backed by spon­sors who pay out­fits like In­fowars millions for ac­cess to their ever-grow­ing base.

The way we con­sume news has shifted from some­thing com­mu­nal and rel­a­tively fixed — we sit down to read the same news­pa­per that hits the news­stands or our front steps at a fixed time, each day — to some­thing soli­tary. We might read

and share some of the same sto­ries, but the way we get to them is unique, as a con­se­quence of how we’ve put to­gether our Twit­ter streams and Face­book pages. And we read it how, and when, we want, usu­ally alone and in front of a screen.

Then there are the hy­per-speci­fici­ties of search: read some­thing out­ra­geous on Bre­it­bart about Is­lamic State, say, then hit Google up for more by tap­ping in the key­words “Isis fem­i­nism Obama con­spir­acy”, and down and down the rab­bit hole you tum­ble.

In search­ing for news on­line we look for the frag­ments that af­firm our tastes and val­ues and prej­u­dices. Yes, fake news is part of the picture, but con­fir­ma­tion bias — seek­ing the in­for­ma­tion that con­firms our bi­ases while ig­nor­ing con­tra­dic­tory ev­i­dence — is the larger is­sue. This is what’s caus­ing a de­cline in crit­i­cal think­ing. And it’s what makes the new me­di­as­cape such a dan­ger­ous place — where ex­treme ideas go vi­ral, and earn their pro­mul­ga­tors se­ri­ous money along the way.

South­ern and Molyneux are part of this: de­lib­er­ately in­cen­di­ary shock-jocks who pump out dan­ger­ous in­ac­cu­ra­cies about in­dige­nous peo­ple, eth­nic mi­nori­ties, race sci­ence and “white geno­cide” in the ser­vice of a hate­ful, race-based pop­ulism — and their bank bal­ances. But the is­sue isn’t that they’re say­ing it. The is­sue is that they’re find­ing an au­di­ence at all.

“Wages have flat­lined for 40 to 50 years,” Uygur says. “So there are a lot of frus­trated peo­ple [in Amer­ica]. In­stead of telling them, hey, it’s ac­tu­ally the peo­ple up the top with all the power who rigged the sys­tem to their ben­e­fit and against you, what they say in­stead is ‘don’t look up! Look down! It was women who took your jobs, it was the Lati­nos, it was im­mi­grants, it was black peo­ple who have an un­fair ad­van­tage and get gov­ern­ment hand­outs.’”

Uygur is de­scrib­ing the fact that the on­line au­di­ence for the far right is over­whelm­ingly young white men, who are be­ing pro­grammed through one of the most toxic as­pects of on­line life right now: “The Red Pill.”

If you’ve seen The Ma­trix, you know the ref­er­ence: Mor­pheus (Lau­rence Fish­burne) of­fers Neo (Keanu Reeves) the choice of two pills. The blue one will re­turn him to his obliv­i­ous life as a cog in the gi­ant sim­u­la­tion de­signed by Earth’s ma­chine over­lords. But the red pill — well, then Neo will see the true na­ture of the Ma­trix and get flushed out of that gloopy en­ergy-pod thing that’s turned him into a hu­man battery. “Re­mem­ber,” Mor­pheus says as Neo reaches for the red pill, “all I’m of­fer­ing is the truth, noth­ing else.” Lib­er­a­tion!

The Red Pill has be­come sub­cul­tural in­ter­net short­hand for rev­e­la­tions of struc­tural truths, and its most suc­cess­ful ped­dlers are those who claim to ex­pose the cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic forces that keep us paci­fied. The star- tling thing is that, hav­ing red-pilled, what white men ap­par­ently dis­cover isn’t that the tech­no­log­i­cal and cap­i­tal­ist forces of the past 40 years that have out­sourced labour, sup­pressed wages, de­stroyed work­ers’ pro­tec­tions and cor­rupted demo­cratic pro­cesses in favour of cor­po­rate in­ter­ests might have some­thing to do with their predica­ment.

Ap­par­ently, it’s the op­po­site: their loss of au­ton­omy and power is be­cause of the stran­gle­hold of iden­tity pol­i­tics and po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness — fem­i­nism, mi­grants, af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, Black

Lives Mat­ter, LGBTQ+, an­tifa (an­tifas­cists), and the right’s favourite bo­gey­man since 9/11, Is­lam. Their le­git­i­mate frus­tra­tion with the eco­nomic sys­tem, Uygur ar­gues, is be­ing “redi­rected to­wards racism, big­otry and misog­yny”.

The Red Pill, then, far from be­ing a mind-clar­i­fy­ing stim­u­lant, is a big­otryen­hanc­ing hal­lu­cino­gen with a dis­tinct- ly far-right come­down: Molyneux and South­ern, Milo Yiannopou­los and Steve Ban­non, and even fur­ther right still (yes, that’s pos­si­ble) into Nick Land’s Dark En­light­en­ment and the out­right fas­cism of Alek­sandr Du­gin.

It is dan­ger­ous shit. It is not, though, an ex­clu­sively far-right phe­nom­e­non. Some of the most slip­pery fig­ures in the cur­rent Red Pill me­di­as­cape are (al­legedly) closer to the cen­tre, and are in­creas­ingly framed as main­stream “pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als”.

The night be­fore Auck­land’s Rally Against Racism — when the Molyneux/South­ern event was still go­ing ahead and ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing the tick­ethold­ers, was wait­ing to dis­cover the venue —TAFA met for a fi­nal strat­egy meet­ing in a build­ing on Great North Rd.

When I ar­rived just be­fore 7pm, mu­sic played as young peo­ple painted plac­ards and ban­ners, qui­etly hum­ming along. There was, though, a faint edge in the air. Va­lerie Morse of Auck­land Peace Ac­tion was set to chair the meet­ing. When I in­tro­duced my­self to her, she asked if I had ID with me. I did. She apol­o­gised for “the para­noia”, but ex­plained that there’d been enough threats and weird­ness and mis­di­rec­tion against the group so far to jus­tify it. Morse her­self had been threat­ened with vi­o­lence by on­line trolls.

TAFA is a col­lec­tive of left-wing or­gan­i­sa­tions: Auck­land Peace Ac­tion, Pride Against Pris­ons Aotearoa, the In­dian Work­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, Chris­tian or­gan­i­sa­tions, an­ar­chists, so­cial­ists, stu­dent groups and oth­ers. They had been united by the fact that two os­ten­si­bly racist speak­ers had rolled into town. But, it seemed to me, there was some­thing else sig­nif­i­cant about their gath­er­ing. This was a gal­vanis­ing mo­ment for groups who, sep­a­rately, rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent, of­ten poor or marginalised mi­nori­ties within the city: LGBTQ+, Māori, Pasi­fika, mi­grant work­ers, Asian and In­dian com­mu­ni­ties, Mus­lims, man­ual work­ers. Statistics show that even­tu­ally some of th­ese mi­nor­ity groups will to­gether form the ma­jor­ity in Auck­land.

And that was pre­cisely the anx­i­ety and an­i­mus Molyneux and South­ern were here to try to stir up amongst whites. This was a bat­tle line be­tween reac-

The sub­scribers to each ‘news’ ser­vice or world view will ar­gue their dif­fer­ences and nu­ances un­til they turn very, very pink in the face.

tionary val­ues — try­ing to keep power struc­tures as they have been — and pro­gres­sive in­evitabil­i­ties: this is how things will be.

The meet­ing was largely about the cat-and-mouse lo­gis­tics of co-or­di­nat­ing two events — first the rally, then the protest at the talk — when the venue for the talk wasn’t yet known. TAFA had three buses booked to ferry peo­ple from the rally to the protest. There’d been a sug­ges­tion that it would be held some­where on the North Shore. An­other tip-off had come through Face­book: some­one claim­ing that a re­li­able po­lice source had told them it was go­ing to be at a Par­nell ho­tel. When they looked into it, though, this par­tic­u­lar Deep Throat had only one Face­book friend.

Among the gen­eral mes­sages, at­ten­dees were told to make sure their phones were charged to film any con­fronta­tions for ev­i­dence. One per­son was go­ing to live-tweet the rally; an­other would broad­cast it on Face­book Live. Then there were their peo­ple on the in­side: should they live-tweet the talk, as an Aus­tralian SBS re­porter had dur­ing the pair’s Syd­ney event? No, it was de­cided, be­cause peo­ple in the room might be able to iden­tify and lo­cate the tweeter.

If it all sounds a bit para­noid in ret­ro­spect, it also points to the weird, rhi­zomatic qual­ity of dig­i­tal-era protest­ing by groups adept at us­ing tech­nol­ogy to am­plify their voices.

Uygur had told me that the far right seeks to “yell at peo­ple, in­tim­i­date peo­ple, bully peo­ple, threaten peo­ple. That’s why they make up what ap­pears to be a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of the com­ments and the noise on the in­ter­net. But in terms of the polling, the younger gen­er­a­tion is mas­sively pro­gres­sive.”

Cana­dian Travis Pang­burn is a mil­len­nial en­tre­pre­neur and im­pre­sario who be­lieves in the in­vi­o­la­bil­ity of sci­ence, rea­son, and the in­ter­net as a plat­form to ex­plore big truths about hu­man­ity. He is also the pro­moter be­hind a dis­tinctly new phe­nom­e­non: live con­ver­sa­tions and de­bates be­tween the peo­ple he sees as the new he­roes of pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism. And his head­lin­ers, at the mo­ment, are Jor­dan Peter­son and fel­low freespeech de­fender Sam Har­ris. Pang­burn jokes that he’s “a slave to the in­tel­lec­tu­als”. He wants to “give them the bat­tle­grounds and the are­nas to go to war with dif­fi­cult ideas”.

I spoke to him ear­lier this year after

I’d seen that he had an Auck­land event sched­uled — a $500-a-ticket “Day of Reck­on­ing”. Peter­son wasn’t com­ing but Har­ris was the main act, along­side other fig­ures as­so­ci­ated with the “In­tel­lec­tual Dark Web”, in­clud­ing Dou­glas Mur­ray, the neo­con­ser­va­tive au­thor of The Strange Death of Europe: Im­mi­gra­tion, Iden­tity, Is­lam. Like the Molyneux/South­ern event, it was can­celled; Pang­burn’s team didn’t re­spond when I con­tacted them later to ask why. (At the time of pub­li­ca­tion, Mur­ray was still set to de­bate with the African-Amer­i­can aca­demic Cor­nel West in Auck­land on Au­gust 17.)

Pang­burn has, though, had some suc­cesses with his events. Con­ver­sa­tions be­tween Har­ris and Peter­son, chaired by Mur­ray, in July at­tracted 8,500 to Dublin’s 3Arena, and about 8000 peo­ple to a London show in the O2 Arena.

This pub­lic in­ter­est, Pang­burn thinks, is partly down to the Peter­son ef­fect. “I think Jor­dan is help­ing to make it pop­u­lar to think,” he says, “and not just for the cen­tre left, or the cen­trists, or the in­tel­lec­tual types. It’s be­com­ing pop­u­lar to think for the blue-col­lar worker, the alt-right, the far-right-wing thinkers.

It’s be­com­ing pop­u­lar to want to jus­tify your po­si­tion, as op­posed to just believ­ing some­thing be­cause some­one told you to.”

My own view when it comes to Peter­son — who is slated to speak in Auck­land in Fe­bru­ary 2019 — is the op­po­site: if each gen­er­a­tion gets the pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als it de­serves and Peter­son is it, then man, are we in trou­ble.

Peter­son is the best­selling au­thor of

12 Rules for Life: An An­ti­dote to Chaos

— es­sen­tially a self-help book, of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from par­ent­ing tips (“Rule 11: Do Not Bother Chil­dren When They Are Skate­board­ing”) to ex­pla­na­tions for why dis­af­fected young Amer­i­can men be­come school shoot­ers. It’s a sur­real blast from the past: a book that sees the world through anachro­nis­tic archetypes and posits a nat­u­ral state of things in which or­der is mas­cu­line, chaos is fem­i­nine, and stand­ing up with your shoul­ders back will make all the dif­fer­ence to whether you’re one of life’s losers or win­ners.

But there are two in­dis­putable facts about Peter­son. The first is he’s ev­ery­where on the in­ter­net. The sec­ond is that he has gal­vanised left-wing thinkers like no other con­ser­va­tive in years, pre­cisely be­cause the glar­ing sim­plic­ity of his think­ing, and its run­away suc­cess, poses an ex­is­ten­tial threat to pro­gres­sive in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism. Pankaj Mishra in the New York Re­view of Books wrote that Peter­son is “a dis­turb­ing symp­tom of the malaise to which he prom­ises a cure” who “con­firms his mem­ber­ship of this far-right sect by never iden­ti­fy­ing the evils caused by belief in profit, or Mam­mon: slav­ery, geno­cide, and im­pe­ri­al­ism”. (Peter­son sub­se­quently, and very vis­i­bly, lost his shit on so­cial me­dia about Mishra’s es­say.)

Wil­liam Davies, writ­ing for the London Re­view of Books, has said of Peter­son that “[h]is ea­ger­ness to call out ‘post­mod­ernists’, a catch-all for any­one who ques­tions the su­pe­ri­or­ity of dom­i­nant Western po­lit­i­cal and sci­en­tific in­sti­tu­tions, is per­fectly geared to­wards those in the younger gen­er­a­tion who feel alien­ated from iden­tity pol­i­tics.” And Kate Manne, writ­ing in the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment, de­scribed Peter­son’s book as “a fast-act­ing, short-term anal­gesic that will make many of his read­ers feel bet­ter tem­po­rar­ily, while fail­ing to ad­dress their un­der­ly­ing prob­lem. On the con­trary, the book of­ten fu­els the very sense of en­ti­tled need which, when it goes un­sat­is­fied, causes such pain and out­rage.”

Sam Har­ris — with whom Pang­burn is close — is an al­to­gether more dif­fi­cult char­ac­ter to pin down in this strange in­tel­lec­tual uni­verse. A neu­ro­sci­en­tist by train­ing, his first book, The End of Faith: Reli­gion, Ter­ror, and the Fu­ture of Rea­son, pub­lished in 2004, saw him lumped to­gether, in the hy­per-politi­cised post-9/11 world, with the other “New Athe­ists”, Richard Dawkins, Christo­pher Hitchens and Daniel Den­nett. But his more con­tem­po­rary break­through came in 2014, when he ap­peared on Bill Ma­her’s HBO talk show Real Time and had an ar­gu­ment with the ac­tor Ben Af­fleck, which sub­se­quently went vi­ral.

Their scrap cen­tred on Har­ris’s defin­ing in­tel­lec­tual sleight of hand: that

crit­i­cis­ing the doc­trine of Is­lam — one of Har­ris’s core themes — is not the same as at­tack­ing Mus­lims. Har­ris has re­peat­edly and for many years as­serted that the Ko­ran it­self is cen­tral to con­tem­po­rary man­i­fes­ta­tions of ji­hadism: sui­cide bombers, car­toon­ist-killers, al-Qaeda and Isis. Af­fleck was vis­i­bly apoplec­tic, but largely out­ma­noeu­vred.

Har­ris’s fans took it as one of his finest mo­ments: with a lit­tle help from Ma­her, he had “owned” a Hol­ly­wood su­per­star. “This was a huge teach­ing op­por­tu­nity that so many peo­ple took ad­van­tage of when talk­ing about the dif­fer­ence be­tween go­ing after an ide­ol­ogy and go­ing after peo­ple,” Pang­burn ar­gues. “There’s a huge dif­fer­ence … And I think this played well for Sam. It was a big mo­ment that put him on a much larger map.”

Uygur has a very dif­fer­ent view. In 2014, he de­bated with Har­ris about Is­lam for three hours on The Young Turks (it’s since been viewed over three mil­lion times on YouTube). “A lot of [Har­ris’s au­di­ence] is prob­a­bly athe­ist,” Uygur says, “which is a grow­ing com­mu­nity, a great, healthy com­mu­nity. And then he, in my opin­ion, mis­di­rects them to­wards right-wing ide­ol­ogy. And [in re­la­tion to Is­lam], he di­rects them to­wards big­otry, which is greatly harm­ful be­cause it’s the one ra­tio­nal com­mu­nity in the world be­ing di­rected to­wards ir­ra­tional­ity.”

The Af­fleck stoush lifted Har­ris out from un­der Dawkins’ New Athe­ist um­brella and into the top ranks of the In­tel­lec­tual Dark Web, a loosely af­fil­i­ated group of thinkers and cul­tural com­men­ta­tors linked not by a sin­gle po­lit­i­cal out­look but by the idea that they “tell it like it is”; deal­ers, in other words, of Red Pills, of­ten po­si­tioned both as vic­tims of the “Re­gres­sive Left” (a term Pang­burn uses in our con­ver­sa­tion) and the he­roes of free speech.

Peter­son is among them; so, too, con­ser­va­tive power-cou­ple Ayaan

Hirsi Ali and Niall Fer­gu­son, Dou­glas Mur­ray, Fox News favourite and ed­i­tor of The Daily Wire Ben Shapiro, and the We­in­stein brothers: Bret, whose de- par­ture from a small Amer­i­can col­lege over a free-speech dust-up has be­come a cor­ner­stone for the new right, and Eric, Peter Thiel’s right-hand man at in­vest­ment firm Thiel Cap­i­tal.

Pang­burn thinks it’s a hor­ri­ble ti­tle for the group. “It’s kind of the an­tithe­sis of what I do,” he says. “This isn’t about group-think, it’s very much that ideas and dis­cus­sions are open to ev­ery­one. There is no club; there is no In­tel­lec­tual Dark Web meet­ing where I walk into a room and we look at the bat­tle­field of the world and fig­ure out how we can push some kind of ide­ol­ogy onto peo­ple.”

Har­ris, though, rev­els in his sta­tus as the kind of neu­tral ac­tor in the pack; his pub­lic iden­tity is built on the idea that he’s ac­tu­ally a left-lean­ing pro­gres­sive. And his ab­so­lute belief in Rea­son (in the Western philo­soph­i­cal sense) and its dis­cur­sive cor­re­late, “civilised con­ver­sa­tion” — the same prin­ci­ples Pang­burn struc­tures his pub­lic events around — cre­ates the for­mat for his wildly suc­cess­ful pod­cast Wak­ing Up.

Wak­ing Up has had a di­verse list of guests from across the po­lit­i­cal and sci­en­tific spec­trum, and the pod­casts of­ten run for two hours. This ac­com­mo­dates Har­ris’s fond­ness for non se­quiturs, waf­fle, thought ex­per­i­ments and hy­po­thet­i­cals, all de­liv­ered with a mono­tonal som­nam­bu­lance that makes the name of the pod­cast seem ironic. I don’t get it, at all. And yet its pop­u­lar­ity is clear: he has hun­dreds of thou­sands of lis­ten­ers glob­ally, and raises in­come from his au­di­ence through the web­site Pa­treon. Har­ris cur­rently has al­most 9000 pay­ing pa­trons, and though his Pa­treon in­come isn’t ex­actly known, it’s es­ti­mated at be­tween US$20,000 and US$70,000 per pod­cast.

Har­ris and Peter­son will be near the top of the bill for Pang­burn’s most am­bi­tious event to date: “A Day of Re­flec­tion” in New York City in Novem­ber — hosted by the Larry King of the In­tel­lec­tual Dark Web, Dave Ru­bin.

The Rally Against Racism was sched­uled the same day as an AUT grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony. When I ar­rived in Aotea Square around 5pm, just-capped kids were pos­ing for pho­tos with their fel­low grad­u­ates — Asian, In­dian, African, Māori, Pasi­fika and Pākehā — al­most as if they were pre-emp­tively trolling Molyneux and South­ern’s views on the al­leged fail­ures of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.

By the time the rally started just after 5.30pm, a few hun­dred peo­ple had gath­ered, which would swell to about 500 once the Love Aotearoa, Hate Racism crew ar­rived a lit­tle later. Most of us had al­ready found out mid-af­ter­noon that the Molyneux/South­ern talk at the Pow­er­sta­tion was can­celled. When it was an­nounced, a huge cheer went up. This, of course, was the re­sult of a cam­paign that Molyneux and South­ern claimed was like “ter­ror­ism” and had blocked their right to free speech.

If so, th­ese were the first ter­ror­ists

I’d ever come across who distributed love-heart bal­loons. An older woman held a sign that read “I po­litely dis­agree with your views”. There were “Work­ers of the World Unite”, “Alt-Right Delete”, “Use Free Speech Wisely” and “Stop Try­ing to Make Fas­cism Hap­pen”. The most mil­i­tant mes­sages one could find were the catchy rhyme “Catch my Patu,

Far from be­ing naive or ‘play­ing into the alt-right’s hands’, ev­ery speaker had their eyes wide open about what was go­ing on. Yes, this was about racism. But they also knew the Molyneux/South­ern cir­cus was about money, and power, and where the in­ter­ests of both in­ter­sect.

Haere Atu!” and the slightly more di­rect “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”.

There was also a char­ac­ter­is­tic shared by many of the speak­ers that evening: they were brown women. And they were ex­traor­di­nar­ily im­pres­sive. It started with Marama David­son, who re­counted the threats she and other women had been get­ting on­line for their op­po­si­tion to Molyneux and South­ern. “They call us cunts!” she said into the mic. “But cunts are pow­er­ful. Vag­i­nas brought you all here!” This was car­ried on by TAFA’s Sina Brown-Davis, who spoke of her joy that the “Ken and Bar­bie fas­cists” had been run out of town by a rally based on mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and love. She talked about how speak­ers like Molyneux and South­ern en­cour­age white peo­ple to look down at mi­nori­ties rather than up at the pow­er­ful (the same point Uygur had made). An­nette Sykes took the mi­cro­phone to rap­tur­ous ap­plause and called out the Labour Party, put in gov­ern­ment by the re­turn of the Māori seats, for let­ting Molyneux and South­ern into the coun­try in the first place, and for not show­ing up on the night (she wasn’t the only speaker to make this point).

Once the Love Aotearoa, Hate Racism cam­paign­ers ar­rived, they were given the plat­form and the theme con­tin­ued — strong women speak­ing force­fully about the in­ter­sec­tion be­tween racism and class pol­i­tics: SkyCity work­ers’ rep­re­sen­ta­tive Tina Bar­nett; a bril­liant speech from Anu Kaloti of the Mi­grant Work­ers As­so­ci­a­tion about how cap­i­tal­ism causes racism; nurse Danni Wilkin­son, who said that mi­grant nurses were the only thing stop­ping the health sys­tem from be­ing even more shit than it is.

There were rain­bow and tino ran­gati­ratanga flags and cries of Ake, Ake, Ake. And al­most all of it was led by women rep­re­sent­ing mi­nori­ties, tan­gata whenua and the work­ing class. So, yes, it may have been small, but I left it in no doubt that it also rep­re­sented a new mood of ac­tivism in Auck­land, a new mood for col­lec­tive or­gan­i­sa­tion, and a per­fect ex­pres­sion of the free speech the Free Speech Coali­tion had claimed they wanted to up­hold.

And, far from be­ing naive or “play­ing into the alt-right’s hands”, ev­ery speaker had their eyes wide open about what was go­ing on. Yes, this was about racism. But they also knew the Molyneux/South­ern cir­cus was about money, and power, and where the in­ter­ests of both in­ter­sect.

Dave Ru­bin is a slick op­er­a­tor: a good-look­ing 42-year-old Jewish-Amer­i­can who presents a YouTube show called The Ru­bin Re­port. The show’s mantra is “free speech and big ideas”, and the set is pure ur­ban-mas­cu­line pas­tiche: a fake brick wall in the man­ner of a New York loft, with shelves in front of it hold­ing a few books, a pris­tine Spald­ing basketball, and a big glass vase filled with corks. Be­hind the seat where his in­ter­vie­wees sit is a drinks ta­ble, cov­ered in high-end spirit bot­tles. Then there’s the art: vin­tage maps; a stripped-down graphic of a jet streak­ing across the sky; a semi-ab­stracted view of an ur­ban sky­line.

It’s a pre­pos­ter­ously ob­vi­ous set­ting for Ru­bin’s per­sonal mythol­ogy. Ru­bin pitches him­self as an ex-lefty (he ac­tu­ally got his break with The Young Turks) who’s seen the light, say­ing that the in­her­ent fas­cism of iden­tity pol­i­tics and the “Re­gres­sive Left” brought the sooth­ing warmth of “clas­si­cal lib­er­al­ism” (read, con­tem­po­rary lib­er­tar­i­an­ism) into his frozen so­cial­ist heart.

Ru­bin reg­u­larly thanks his au­di­ence for fund­ing his show through PayPal and Pa­treon. The Pa­treon do­na­tions add up to around $30,000 a month. The PayPal con­tri­bu­tions are un­known. Then there’s the YouTube in­come, which is no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to es­ti­mate. What is known is that The Ru­bin Re­port’s YouTube chan­nel has around 800,000 sub­scribers, and around 170 mil­lion to­tal views of its videos. With about six mil­lion views a month, that could eas­ily run into six-fig­ure rev­enue each year.

Ru­bin’s crit­ics (in­clud­ing his for­mer col­league Uygur) think his trans­for­ma­tion into a “clas­si­cal lib­eral” may be a lit­tle more self-serv­ing, though. In Septem­ber 2016, a sub­sidiary of the In­sti­tute for Hu­mane Stud­ies (IHS), called Learn Lib­erty, an­nounced it was part­ner­ing with The Ru­bin Re­port. Once a month, Ru­bin would in­ter­view a “clas­si­cal lib­eral” to dis­cuss free speech and, al­most al­ways, free mar­kets.

The IHS is a lib­er­tar­ian think tank at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity in Vir­ginia that has re­ceived sub­stan­tial fund­ing over the years from the lib­er­tar­ian bil­lion­aire, anti-en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism ag­i­ta­tor and mega-in­dus­tri­al­ist Charles Koch. The New Yorker jour­nal­ist Jane Mayer has writ­ten that the IHS was orig­i­nally es­tab­lished with the aim “to cul­ti­vate and sub­sidise a farm team of the next gen­er­a­tion’s lib­er­tar­ian schol­ars”. The IHS’s own web­site says its vi­sion is that “higher ed­u­ca­tion be­comes a place where clas­si­cal lib­eral ideas are reg­u­larly taught, dis­cussed, chal­lenged, and de­vel­oped, and where free speech, in­tel­lec­tual di­ver­sity, and open in­quiry flour­ish”.

Ru­bin has also aligned him­self with Turn­ing Point USA, a con­ser­va­tive cam­pus-ac­tivist or­gan­i­sa­tion with links to lib­er­tar­ian think tanks that has spon­sored cam­pus ap­pear­ances by far-right fig­ures like Milo Yiannopou­los. This year, Ru­bin was also on the speaker list at the Ayn Rand In­sti­tute, along­side Jor­dan Peter­son, for a con­fer­ence about Rand’s novel The Foun­tain­head. Ac­cord­ing to Green­peace, the Ayn

Rand In­sti­tute is ac­tively in­volved in cli­mate-change de­nial, and re­ceived around $190,000 from Koch-con­nected foun­da­tions be­tween 2009 and 2015.

And this is where the con­tem­po­rary “clas­si­cal lib­eral” iden­ti­fi­ca­tion starts to get dan­ger­ous: the grow­ing through-line that con­nects a con­ven­tional lib­er­tar­ian belief in free mar­kets to pro­vid­ing plat­forms for white ex­trem­ism, un­der the ban­ners of “in­di­vid­ual lib­erty” and “free speech”.

This is pre­cisely the space Ru­bin oc­cu­pies. If he were just a mouth­piece for

Sprin­kled among Ru­bin’s chats are long­form in­ter­views with some of the nois­i­est fig­ures of the far right.

mod­ern lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, or even for “tell it like it is” In­tel­lec­tual Dark Web fig­ures like Peter­son, Har­ris and Niall Fer­gu­son, there wouldn’t be much to crit­i­cise him for. But sprin­kled among his chats are long­form in­ter­views with some of the nois­i­est fig­ures of the far right: Milo Yiannopou­los, Katie Hop­kins, Di­nesh D’Souza, Tommy (“Free Tommy”) Robin­son, Paul Joseph Wat­son, Mike Cer­novich, and, of course, Lau­ren South­ern and Ste­fan Molyneux.

One take on Molyneux is that he’s a no­body, who should just be ig­nored.

But this has its own risks, be­cause he em­bod­ies a new on­line ver­sion of an­ar­cho-cap­i­tal­ism in which eco­nomic lib­er­tar­i­an­ism, au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, white na­tion­al­ism and a faith in the dis­rup- tive po­ten­tials of new tech­nolo­gies like cryp­tocur­ren­cies are be­ing merged into a sin­gle world view. And Ru­bin’s in­ter­view with Molyneux in Novem­ber 2017 gave him all the time and soft-ball ques­tions he needed to ex­press it.

The South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter (SPLC), an ac­tivist group that mon­i­tors hate speech and the ex­treme-right in Amer­ica, are scathing of Molyneux. In their “Ex­trem­ist” file on him, they write that he “in­tel­lec­tu­alises his big­otry and in­su­lar­ity by ap­peal­ing to the false au­thor­ity of sci­en­tific racists and eu­geni­cists. He has en­deav­ored to spread this to his fol­low­ers by in­ter­view­ing a ver­i­ta­ble ‘who’s who’ of the dis­graced and dis­cred­ited race sci­ence com­mu­nity, many of whom are di­rectly as­so­ci­ated with, apol­o­gists for, or funded by, the Pi­o­neer Fund [which has been fund­ing race sci­ence and eu­gen­ics re­search since the 1930s]. In all of th­ese videos, Molyneux of­fers no crit­i­cism of the views of the in­ter­vie­wee, which amounts to a tacit en­dorse­ment of their bo­gus race re­al­ism.”

The videos they’re talk­ing about are not his in­ter­view with Ru­bin, but rather the vast col­lec­tion on Molyneux’s own on­line plat­form, Free­do­main Ra­dio. Which has been ac­cused, reg­u­larly over the past 10 years, of be­ing a cult.

One of Molyneux’s most con­tro­ver­sial mes­sages is en­cour­ag­ing his au­di­ence to con­sider “deFOO” — to cut them­selves off from their “Fam­i­lies of Ori­gin” — as an act of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity. All adult re­la­tion­ships, he ar­gues, should be vol­un­tary. So if your par­ents are ar- se­holes, why keep in touch with them? This has re­sulted in cases of teenagers dis­ap­pear­ing, leav­ing notes ask­ing their par­ents never to con­tact them again. Molyneux ar­gues he’s not forc­ing peo­ple to do any­thing, merely point­ing out that they should be able to choose healthy re­la­tion­ships.

Then there’s the money. Like Har­ris and Ru­bin, Molyneux in­sists his op­er­a­tion is funded by his on­line com­mu­nity. Rather than us­ing Pa­treon, he fundraises di­rectly through his web­site, us­ing a tiered scheme of do­na­tions. “The more they do­nate,” the SPLC writes, “the more ac­cess they are granted to their guru and his works.” The Ste­fan Molyneux YouTube Chan­nel has 800,000 sub­scribers and 250 mil­lion views.

Each video comes with an in­vi­ta­tion to do­nate to Free­do­main Ra­dio.

Free­do­mainRa­dio.com also ac­cepts cryp­tocur­rency do­na­tions. Its Bit­coin ac­count has re­ceived a to­tal of more than 680 Bit­coin over the past five years. Most of th­ese do­na­tions are in tiny frac­tions of the cryp­tocur­rency. The ac­count’s cur­rent bal­ance is only around six — roughly US$42,000 worth — of the to­tal Bit­coin re­ceived. The ac­count’s records be­gin in 2013, around the time, the SPLC says, that Molyneux’s views shifted “from the

Ayn Rand lib­er­tar­ian right (and from sup­port­ing Ron Paul in 2008) to the ethno-na­tion­al­ist far right, sup­port­ing Don­ald Trump, Geert Wilders, Ma­rine Le Pen and other far-right politi­cians in their elec­toral bids through­out 2016 and 2017.”

The ex­tent to which th­ese peo­ple ac­tu­ally be­lieve any of this — that the fem­i­nine is chaos, that iden­tity pol­i­tics is the big­gest threat to democ­racy, that the wel­fare state gives too much sup­port to crim­i­nals, that black peo­ple are thicker than white peo­ple, that the doc­tri­nal core of Is­lam is mur­der­ous ji­had, that your bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily may be the great­est dan­ger to your in­de­pen­dence — is im­pos­si­ble to re­ally know, be­cause there is so much money in­volved, both trans­par­ent and hid­den. There are the book sales, the pub­lic talks, the back-chan­nel con­ser­va­tive think-tank fund­ing, the YouTube in­come, the so­cial-me­dia spon­sor­ships and the cryp­tocur­rency.

And most of all, the cross-mar­ket­ing. There’s a rea­son they all host each other on their pod­casts, all fol­low a “long­form” for­mat, and all serve each other up patsy ques­tions so they can ram­ble at length, un­chal­lenged. And it isn’t be­cause of a faith in the virtues of civilised, rea­son­able con­ver­sa­tion. It’s to lever­age each other’s au­di­ences; to find new fans in an age when clicks equal coin. The re­sult, amongst their fan base, isn’t en­light­en­ment but ever-in­creas­ing credulity; in­ter­net atom­i­sa­tion has be­come an in­tel­lec­tual Dooms­day de­vice.

This is why the pos­si­bil­ity some of them are huck­sters or con artists doesn’t ac­tu­ally mat­ter, and why hav­ing groups that will protest against them when they show up here does.

The strength of that re­sponse seems likely to be tested again when for­mer

The ex­tent to which th­ese guys ac­tu­ally be­lieve any of this — that the fem­i­nine is chaos ... black peo­ple are thicker than white peo­ple ... fam­ily may be the great­est dan­ger to your in­de­pen­dence — is im­pos­si­ble to re­ally know, be­cause there is so much money in­volved.

ABOVE— Cana­dian far-right speak­ers Lau­ren South­ern and Ste­fan Molyneux had their Auck­land event can­celled at the last minute.

LEFT— Dave Ru­bin, who pitches him­self as an ex-lefty, has a YouTube show with 800,000 sub­scribers.

LEFT— Sam Har­ris, whose Wak­ing Up pod­cast has a global fol­low­ing, had his pro­file boosted by a clash with ac­tor Ben Af­fleck.

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