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Brain Scams

The Anti-Woke Grifters Get Their Tithe

A festival for “dangerous” ideas in Brooklyn was instead an unprovocative and expensive congregation of elite “wrongthinkers” and their earnest followers.

Winston Marshall in 2019
Jo Hale/Redferns
Winston Marshall in 2019, when he was still a member of Mumford & Sons and not an organizer of poorly attended anti-woke festivals

It was just past 1 p.m. on the first Friday in May, and a two-day festival of “dangerous ideas” was about to begin in a glassy warehouse on the Brooklyn waterfront. Winston Marshall, former lead guitarist of the once enormously popular folk rock band Mumford & Sons and the conference’s lead organizer, bounded onstage. About a minute into his spiel about why he’d created the event, he momentarily lost his train of thought. “The important thing is … I’m drawing a blank,” he said, laughing lightly. Then, getting back on track: “The ‘why’ is community; the ‘why’ is to engage in difficult conversations.” You’re going to see “lots of random, weird things,” he added, gesturing vaguely around the room, and it would all become clear if we’d “dig in, look around, and explore.”

Dissident Dialogues took place last weekend at the Duggal Greenhouse, the Brooklyn Navy Yard event space where Hillary Clinton celebrated her presidential primary victory in 2016. According to Marshall, around 800 people were there. (It looked more like 400 to me, but the crowd was dwarfed by the venue, a onetime shipbuilding facility with 70-foot ceilings and a 35,000-square-foot interior that can hold up to 3,000 people.) The scale was more rave or rock fest than lecture series, and more Texan than Brooklyn. Fog machines bookended the stage. Swedish pop star Robyn’s 2010 hit “Dancing On My Own” was playing when I walked in, followed by Kanye’s 2022 song “Eazy” (“No more counselin’, I don’t negotiate with therapists”). There was a podcasting booth for the many speakers with podcasts; a table hosted by Pitchstone Publishing, a North Carolina–based press the reps described as “traditional liberal” (sample book title: Liberal Bullies: What Psychology Teaches Us About the Left’s Authoritarian Problem—and How to Fix It); and an exhibit on “Disrupting Uyghur Genocide,” which urged attendees to “contact brands whose supply chains are tainted” and “avoid companies with close ties to the Xinjiang government.” The audience was mostly white and over 35, with lots of women and few people of color. Sartorial choices ranged from jeans, T-shirts, and athleisure to business casual to full-on Fox News power babe—think Jay Roach’s 2019 movie Bombshell.

Marshall began his journey from rock star to festival organizer when he quit Mumford & Sons in 2021 after a Twitter backlash occasioned by a congratulatory tweet he sent to right-wing influencer Andy Ngo, author of Unmasked: Inside Antifa’s Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy. The criticism wounded Marshall, who has said he left the band to avoid tarnishing his bandmates. Three years later, he’s still not over it, and I can see why: Most people, apparently including Marshall, would rather be a rock star with a massively successful band than the guy who quit the band to write pointless op-eds condemning the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. He clearly misses being onstage, and it’s easy to wonder if he organized Dissident Dialogues to stay in the limelight.

Marshall’s father, Sir Paul Marshall, is a hedge fund manager with an estimated net worth of 680 million pounds, or roughly $850 million. The elder Marshall has a long history of criticizing Islam and funding right-wing and/or Christian causes; Winston is a self-described Christian Zionist. Father and son seem to have joined forces to bring bold ideas to Brooklyn; the website lists UnHerd, a U.K. media venture launched in 2017 to widespread ridicule, as an event partner. (Sir Paul is the founder and publisher of UnHerd, which now boasts a readership larger than that of the New Statesman; more than half of its readers are in the United States and Canada.) The conference’s “major sponsor” was Ground News, a news aggregator service devoted to “breaking” media bias; minor sponsors include the free-speech advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, and an organization called ThirdRail.

The younger Marshall insists that he is not a conservative and claims to be equally repulsed by “political extremism” on the left and the right. Yet despite his hatred of extremes, he personifies what historian Tariq Ali calls “the extreme Centre”: He holds a hodgepodge of often contradictory right- and left-wing views, which in his mind make him a free-thinking radical and in practice help uphold the status quo. His self-conception as a bold purveyor of “dissident” ideas and victim of “cancel culture” is difficult to reconcile with his actual identity as the multimillionaire scion of a right-wing plutocrat poised to become the most powerful figure in U.K. media since Rupert Murdoch.

In December, Marshall announced he was marrying Melissa Chen, a journalist at a conservative magazine—The Spectator—that his father was, as of June 2023, thinking of buying. “One day,” Chen tweeted this year, “I hope [Marshall] will no longer be defined by or asked about his cancelation from his band; and that the experience of leaving something he loved so much in order to be free, would be the least interesting thing about him.” The most interesting thing his “cancelation” has yielded so far is Dissident Dialogues: 18 hours of talks, panel discussions, historical raps, and standup comedy by speakers such as Steven Pinker, John McWhorter, Thomas Chatterton Williams, and Kathleen Stock, on such confused and disparate topics as, “Why Civilised People Undermine Civilisation,” “The Uyghur Story,” “What is the Future of Feminism?” “Lucretius,” “Are We Past Peak Woke?” “The End of ‘Gender Medicine,’” and “Debate: Israel’s War on Hamas is a Just War.” Several of the attendees, most of whom had paid between $299 and $2,999 to be there, told me they wished there had been more of the “debate, discussion, disagreement and discovery” the organizers had promised. Others enjoyed it for what it was: an opportunity to meet their favorite “anti-woke” podcasters, YouTubers, and social media influencers in person. It was, a young woman named Vita told me, “Twitter come to life.”

It was an apt description. The very first talk, “Why Civilised People Undermine Civilisation,” was delivered by Michael Shellenberger, the author of San Fran-sicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, who has racked up a million followers on X by relentlessly owning the libs. His presentation—which featured a bizarre series of slides documenting the opioid crisis, the proportion of college students who are “disciplined or threatened with discipline” for “expression,” the frequency with which the establishment press writes about “racists” and “racism,” the “Seven Pillars of Civilization,” and how “police are almost exclusively presented as the bad guys in Hollywood films” (they are?)—was meandering, disjointed, and mercifully brief. Shellenberger’s comment that “it’s, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ not ‘We Shall Remain Victims Forever’” drew scattered laughs.

The debate over whether Israel’s “War on Hamas” is “just” was one of only two discussions I attended where there was substantive disagreement among the panelists. An online poll revealed that 71 percent of the audience saw Israel’s war as just before the debate began. As the only participant clearly aligned with the contemporary U.S. left, commentator and lawyer Briahna Joy Gray, who served as Bernie Sanders’s national press secretary in 2020, was jeered by the audience throughout. Having unwittingly chosen a seat near a vocally pro-war group of women, I heard them mock Gray’s voice, manner, and appearance (“She’s a clown with clown makeup!”) and shout at her while she was speaking. At one point, podcaster and journalist Michael Moynihan sneered at Gray’s suggestion that Palestinians be granted the right of return: “It’s not as if seven million Danes would be coming in,” he said. When Gray suggested the comment was racist and asked what he meant by it, he said that Danes had never vowed to destroy Israel.

Few left the Israel debate feeling optimistic or enlightened. Another poll showed that by the end of the debate, the share of the audience who believed Israel’s war is just had risen by three percentage points. (It’s unclear whether that means people changed their minds after listening to the arguments or that more figured out how to log into the app and record their opinion.) As soon as it was over, Gray strode off the stage, tossed her mic to the moderator, podcaster Konstantin Kisin, and left as quickly as she could, pausing only to whip off her heels and throw on some flats. “This is the most Islamophobic, racist audience I’ve ever seen,” she told Kisin, her voice shaking. “It’s disgusting. I hope someone drops a bomb on this entire building.” As the audience streamed out of the venue, I heard an older woman grouse to the young man walking beside her, “My feet hurt; my ass hurts; those chairs are hard.” Then, with heavy sarcasm, “What’s on the agenda for tomorrow? ‘Do Jews have the right to exist?’”

When I cornered Marshall as he was walking offstage on the second day, he said his three main goals for the conference were to increase diversity of opinion, foster community, and—he flashed a rakish grin—“fun.” But it’s tough to expand ideological diversity when the majority of speakers and large swaths of the self-selected audience hold similar or identical views. To the extent that Dissident Dialogues had a unifying theme, it was, “I have the right to say silly, false, and/or hateful things without alienating friends and colleagues or being mocked online.” (As Chen recently tweeted, “It’s a lot harder to speak truth to friends than truth to power.”) “Worldviews should be challenged, not coddled,” declared a sign brought to us by Ground News. It was an odd sentiment to encounter at an event dominated by people with careers, large public platforms, and/or ownership stakes in powerful media companies who believe they are the ones being persecuted and silenced. Equally strange was spending two days at an event meant to defend free speech and hearing next to nothing about the ongoing violent crackdown on student protesters around the country. (Two speakers characterized the student protesters as “terrorists,” idiots, or Hamas supporters; only journalist Lee Fang, formerly of The Intercept, noted during a panel on censorship that the vast majority of people fired for controversial speech in the last seven months have been critics of Israel.)

As comedian Bridget Phetasy pointed out during her set, only one of the speakers had ever faced a life-threatening consequence for dissenting: Masih Alinejad, an Iranian who lives in Brooklyn and has been threatened with assassination for criticizing the Iranian government. (In one of several digs at student protesters, Phetasy said, “We may be LARP-ing as dissidents, but at least we’re not LARP-ing as Palestinians in Gaza.”) Perhaps because a sizable number of the speakers were British, there was strikingly little talk of the upcoming U.S. presidential election. At one point, Phetasy likened the conference to “CPAC for people who are voting for Trump on the down-low.” But when she asked how many attendees were voting for Trump, I saw just one hand shoot up. Phetasy looked surprised. “I thought you all were dissidents!” she said, then, “Who’s the dissident candidate?” “RFK Jr.! Woo!” somebody shouted.

The audience members I met were so earnest I began to feel indignant on their behalf. Unlike the speakers, they weren’t there to plug a podcast, a news outlet, or a personal brand, and most couldn’t pay $2,999 to hobnob with Dawkins and the former Mumford son in the VIP lounge. (When I asked Marshall if the speakers were paid, he said, “Yes.” When I asked if he’d mind saying how much, he said, “No, I won’t tell you that. It’s confidential.”) Most audience members were there to discuss ideas with people they didn’t have to worry about offending.

Ahmed Almadlouh, a 36-year-old graduate student at Columbia University, told me he’d heard about the conference from a friend who admires Richard Dawkins. (Almadlouh said his initial thought was, “Isn’t [Dawkins] that old racist atheist?”) He grew up in Saudi Arabia and moved to the U.S. a year and a half ago. The back of his T-shirt read, “BRINGING YOU TO THE LIGHT SINCE 380 BCE,” a reference to Plato’s allegory of the cave. He told me he was there because he wanted to get better at holding two contradictory positions at once and being able to defend both, a skill he thinks is important to his future work as an educator. He quoted Whitman (“I am large, I contain multitudes”) and mentioned that he’d studied with the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, of The Coddling of the American Mind fame. He seemed genuinely interested in being exposed to a variety of perspectives, and was disappointed by the conference’s lack of ideological diversity; he wished it had featured more left-wing speakers.

Sam Speiser, a sweet, shy 19-year-old Lafayette College student whose father drove him to the conference from their home in New Jersey, told me he was given a free ticket after writing an essay about why he wanted to attend. He had two books with him: The God Delusion, Dawkins’s 2006 book arguing against the existence of God, and Norman Finkelstein’s 2000 book The Holocaust Industry, which argues that the pro-Israel American Jewish establishment has exploited the memory of the Holocaust for political and financial gain. Sam described his own views as “pretty middle of the road” and said they hadn’t changed much as a result of the conference. He expressed sympathy for Gray and added that the two “liberals” on the Israel panel had been “eaten alive” (Gray’s only ally in the Israel debate was Joseph “Jake” Klein, a writer who admires Ayn Rand and criticizes what he sees as identity politics).

A tall young Black woman in rectangular glasses, a gold chain necklace, and a black lace maxi dress noticed Sam, who is white, before I did. She began loudly berating him for his choice of reading material. “The God Delusion?” she said disdainfully. “Do you really think we’re animals? Is that what you think we are?” Sam blushed and mumbled something about not knowing. When I introduced myself as a reporter and asked if I could interview them, Sam said sure. The young woman said, “I don’t want to put myself out into the ether unless I choose to put myself out into the ether.” When I promised not to use her name, she agreed that I could quote her answer to my question about what she does: “I’m a student. I’m going to be a student for life. I want to live in a house where I can be pregnant with nothing but ideas and pursue my creative work.” When she walked away, Sam looked visibly relieved.

Unlike many of my fellow attendees, I had only heard of a few of the speakers beforehand. Not being the target audience, I did not leave eager to subscribe to their podcasts or diagnose my own ideological blind spots with the help of Ground News. As I left the Duggal Greenhouse, I thought about people like Sam and our need to belong, our hunger for community and connection—and how easily and often elites exploit that desire to sell us $299 to $2,999 worth of snake oil.