South Jersey progressives and their allies have sought to silence what’s billed as a freewheeling public conversation about ending racism, violence, and authoritarianism, a description critics believe is camouflage for what in fact will be a racist, fascist hatefest featuring people who may have alt-right white supremacist sympathies.
But rather than allowing the rest of us to evaluate the participants and decide for ourselves whether to plunk down as much as $150 for the daylong series of panel discussions originally scheduled for Aug. 31 in Pitman, Gloucester County, opponents insist the gathering has a sinister purpose and should be shut down and run out of town at all costs.
Organizers announced Friday that the event will be held on the same date at a venue in Philly instead, with details to be announced. Headlined primarily but far from exclusively by white and right-wing YouTube celebrities, alterna-journalists, and all-purpose provocateurs, the gathering was booked for downtown Pitman’s lovely Broadway Theatre several months ago until management announced last week that the restored 1,000-seat vaudeville house would not be hosting it.
“We did not invite white supremacists," said organizer Tim Pool, 33, a founder of Vice News who describes himself as having Korean heritage. His company is sponsoring the conference along with the Minds.com and Mythinformed.org platforms.
Given that the stated purpose is to have folks with differing views talk to each other in a civil fashion, the irony of the progressive reaction is not lost on Pool. “I have white progressives and anti-racists and anti-fascists trying to shut us down with a harassment campaign,” he said. “I will not let that stop me from challenging racism and authoritarianism.”
Apparently we have arrived at a point in America where shutting down panel discussions about subjects such as Changing Minds: How to Admit When You’re Wrong and The Effects of Political Violence can be regarded as a necessary and heroic act that will ... change minds? Prevent political violence?
Could it be that we got here by overreacting to gatherings of people whose opinions we dislike, or by only paying attention to the tweets of those with whom we already agree?
Many of the scheduled speakers, except for Count Dankula, a comedian whose obituary will surely note that he once trained a dog to do a Nazi salute, seem worth at least a listen. Among them are Andy Ngo, an out gay writer and antifa target recently anointed by the progressive website Jacobin as the “most dangerous grifter in America,” and free-speech entrepreneur Bill Ottman, whose Minds.com platform promotes itself as an open-source alternative to Facebook.
The conservative Republican transwoman/YouTube diva Blaire White, lately engaged in a fierce video feud with the controversial Canadian transpersonality Jessica Yaniv, also is set to appear; Yaniv, saints be praised, is not. White told me she’s appalled that “a group of people can’t get together and have a conversation across differences without getting threats of violence, that the [theater] will be burned down.”
This threat was contained in a tweet that a progressive activist and even Pool both told me was quite possibly made in jest. Nevertheless, it is being taken seriously and remains under investigation by the Pitman police, according to Chief Daniel J. McAteer.
I’m glad that a new venue has been found and certainly don’t fault the Broadway Theatre for wanting out. As Pitman Mayor Russ Johnson noted, the event as described several months ago seemed far more innocuous and less potentially contentious than the program now being promoted. The temporary takeover of the Broadway’s website by hackers after social media erupted in protest, along with that threatening tweet, attracted the attention of Breitbart News, which published a story showcasing antifa’s reaction.
The progressives I know have no use for the costumed thuggery of antifa. But I’m troubled that many comments on social media seem to regard the Pitman event as so inherently dangerous that suspending freedoms of speech and assembly is justified.
It’s as if a few hours of potentially lively, or quite possibly tedious, talk by a savvy (if self-involved) group of people with lots of opinions (some obnoxious) and an assortment of ideas (some dubious) is inevitably a slippery slide into Gilead (see: The Handmaid’s Tale).
“One of the reasons we are able to have free speech is that we have fought these people in the past when they try to deny it to everyone,” said Daryle Lamont Jenkins, executive director of the One People’s Project in New Brunswick.
Said Collingswood resident Bill Lutz, an adjunct professor of writing at Camden County College: "I don’t think this event should happen, period. But if they wanted to have a discussion about race, why not have it in Camden, a place where people have suffered from racial injustice, and have a real dialogue?”
Good question. And on Aug. 31 in Philly, the public ought to get a chance to ask Pool or other panelists for answers. They can expect many other questions as well.