Readers can be forgiven – indeed, should bless the Lord – for not knowing ‘Tana Mongeau’ and ‘Fousey’ but on the strange alternative universe that is YouTube they have 3.7 million and 10 million subscribers respectively. Young people have flocked to hear their crazed, interminable ramblings about fashion, music and ‘drama’. This year, both decided to take their newfound fame into the outside world and hold festivals where they could meet and entertain their fans. Both of their events were catastrophic. Mongeau’s resulted in gigantic queues after she overlooked the elementary task of selling tickets according to the venues capacity. Ambulances were called after her fans suffered from dehydration in the summer heat. ‘Fousey’ promised that his festival would feature a performance from the megastar Drake, who not only had had no intention of attending but had no idea who he was. Disappointed fans were then evacuated after a bomb threat.
Blogging platforms and YouTube have made writing and broadcasting infinitely easier for people without access to traditional means of journalism and entertainment. The ease with which one can address audiences, though, obscures the difficulty of creating formal institutions and live events. The emergence of what has been called the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ inspired an enormous demand for content that exceeded the capacity of its existing infrastructure. Its leading figures were independent academics and authors who had no means of collective organization. How, for example, would they hold events? Enter Travis Pangburn.
Travis Pangburn and his organization ‘Pangburn Philosophy’ were mysterious. A Canadian with a background in event production, he appeared almost out of nowhere and began to organize live debates and talks. Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and other popular figures in the broad milieu that is the ‘IDW’ appear to have been grateful to have found someone with the ability and tenacity to pull of large-scale logistical feats.
Still, there was something off about Pangburn. To take a small example, his Facebook page had tens of thousands of ‘likes’ and yet his posts had minimal engagement. His ‘ideas’, such as they were, were bland and incoherent to the point of seeming insincere. He trumpeted that his philosophy was, ‘Let art and science inspire.’ Inspire what? This is not philosophy. As a slogan, it is not even fit for a fridge magnet. A certain kind of skeptic uses words like ‘science’ and ‘reason’ in quasi-intellectual mantra. Whether Pangburn did it out of true conviction or marketing savvy is anyone’s guess.
Still, his events were successful. It appears that this had less to do with him than with his team. A member of his staff appeared on a podcast this week and alleged that he and his colleagues constantly struggled against Pangburn’s ignorance, incompetence and apparent indifference to his legal responsibilities. They presented their concerns to him and were promptly fired.
Pangburn organized conferences in Australia and New Zealand. An event in Auckland was cancelled and the Internet was soon abuzz with ticket-buyers who were trying and failing to obtain refunds. ‘It’s hard not to see these events as anything else than a cash grab at this point,’ said one person on Reddit. ‘Fuck Pangburn,’ icily commented another.
A large event pompously named ‘A Day of Reflection’ was scheduled to be held in New York this month. Ticket prices were set at a jaw-dropping five hundred dollars. Many people paid for them, as well as for flights and accommodation. Then the speakers started dropping out. Harris, Maajid Nawaz, Bari Weiss and others stated that they were canceling their appearances because of unpaid refunds and speaker fees. Pangburn, who had been recording awful podcasts rather than trying to refund his disappointed clients, scrambled to find replacements. His offerings, to ticket buyers, were like a music festival replacing The Rolling Stones with a tribute band. The clamor for refunds grew loud.
What course of action might a sensible promoter take? Apologize? Attempt to offer refunds? Declare bankruptcy? Pangburn had a curious alternative. He cheerfully announced that he was cancelling the conference, closing his company and attempting to ‘open a new chapter in Pangburn Philosophy’s journey’ in which he would produce ‘documentary-style videos.’ ‘Off Twitter for awhile,’ he posted on November 13, ‘I’ll be focusing on the book I’ve been writing about my experiences…There is much to say.’ There was much to say, not in a book, though, but to the dozens of people he had left without hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
Pangburn’s last ally – an evangelical anti theist named Armin Navabi who is best known for such curious pronouncements as that Jewish circumcision rituals have been more damaging than Nazism and incest is morally acceptable behavior – abandoned him on Thursday with the ambiguous claim that he was ‘seeking legal consultation regarding next steps’ against his former employer. Pangburn has not spoken publicly again. Perhaps he is indeed ensconced in some corner of Canada, scribbling away about how it is everybody else’s fault and all he ever wanted was to let science and art inspire.
Members of the Intellectual Dark Web have been somewhat reticent about the affair. Eric Weinstein has conducted Skype calls with disappointed customers, which is kind, and Sam Harris released a statement denouncing Pangburn and saying he would be ‘much wiser when working with promoters in the future.’ What was missing, though, was any introspection regarding how an inexperienced and obviously dubious character was entrusted with such responsibility. Of course, this is not an enormous scandal. No one died. No one was hurt. If I had paid hundreds of dollars for nothing, though, I would be furious, and the affair should be a lesson to people in the alternative media that constructing institutions is as difficult as it is important. Until one had tried to do it, one will always underestimate the bureaucratic, logistical and diplomatic headaches that large-scale organization demands. It should also be a lesson, which skeptics should have learned long ago, that charismatic, charming people can be the biggest conmen.