Several men's rights activists and high-profile speakers, including controversial YouTuber Markus Meechan, recently came together in Chicago, revealing as much about their various movements as they obscure.
Carl Benjamin, internet provocateur, looked unsure of himself. We were sitting across from each other in the crowded atrium of the Sheraton Suites Chicago O’Hare, host of the International Conference on Men’s Issues (ICMI) 2019. Just steps from the well-trafficked bar, our table placed us within selfie distance of numerous internet villains, great and small, from around the world. Among them: Canadian Karen Straughan, leader of the largely female Honey Badger Brigade of men’s rights activists (MRAs), which hosted this year’s ICMI; American Paul Elam, the Dr Phil of MRAs and creator of website A Voice for Men; and Scottish YouTuber Markus Meechan, better known as Count Dankula, whose satirical video of his girlfriend’s pug delivering a Nazi salute netted him an £800 fine that he still refuses to pay.
One of ICMI's marquee presenters, Benjamin had just left the event’s 'VIP Dinner', dark beer in hand. With his twinkling eyes, jaw-defining beard, and slightly elfin features set in a wide, squat frame, Benjamin seems like the physical embodiment of an older internet culture: loud, somewhat pompous, unblushingly, untouchably nerdy. Yet Benjamin, who first attracted attention in the online atheist community before becoming embroiled in Gamergate - many describe it as a sexual harassment campaign within the gaming industry - leavens his loquacious, contrarian intellectualism with reverence for powerful, conquering masculinity. His YouTube handle, Sargon of Akkad, equates him with the world-beating founder of the earliest Mesopotamian empire.
During an earlier panel discussion, Benjamin had said his own “mistakes” on social media meant he would not permit his son to use it until he reaches his mid-teens. Benjamin would not specify any of those errors to me. (In 2016, Benjamin tweeted: “I wouldn’t even rape you.” at female UK Labour Party MP Jess Phillips in response to her complaints of receiving rape threats online). Benjamin did correct the record on one point: contrary to rumours, and as he has often emphasised while deflecting accusations of racism, he is part black.
“My grandfather came from an island called Saint Helena,” he explained.
Benjamin disagreed that the street theatre between the US anti-fascist movement Antifa and the far-right Proud Boys group, a frequent source of content for him, might portend a lurch toward totalitarianism.
“I don’t think that we are actually Weimar Germany. I think it’s Weimar America,” he said, adding that, while he preferred the term 'patriot' to 'nationalist', he considered himself a nationalist rather than an 'internationalist' . While he has previously characterised himself as a liberal by UK standards, he told me he would probably be a Republican if he were American.
Benjamin finally relaxed when I asked him why having a fact-based dialogue about things like healthcare and gun control—issues on which he conceded he would fall to the left of American conservatives—was so challenging.
“That’s an easy question to answer,” he grinned, leaning back in his chair. “It’s because none of this is based in fact. It’s based on principle. It’s based on belief.”
“No one cares,” said Benjamin when I pointed out that US President Donald Trump had lied thousands of times. “He’s not lying about his love of the country, and he’s not lying that he wants to do good things for the country as a whole.”
I suggested he seemed to be arguing Trump was engaged in an inverted version of the big lie, a propaganda technique propagated by Adolf Hitler.
“Small lies, but big truth,” agreed Benjamin.
While it would be unfair to call the ICMI a fact-free event, the facts were selected and arranged to further a particular agenda—or, more accurately, a set of mutually conflicting yet consistently anti-feminist agendas. More ironic given their ties to the atheist movement, the MRAs and fellow travellers like Benjamin often shared similar conversion experiences—and, undergirding those shifting beliefs, something very like emotional needs.
In a later panel conversation, for example, Benjamin credited Straughan’s videos with “pull[ing him] out of the Matrix” of societal expectations around men while he was stuck in a bad romantic relationship. Then, just moments after reinforcing his credentials as a reasonable, middle-of-the-road dissident by recommending that “all of you watch media from the people you disagree with” to avoid radicalisation, Benjamin whipped up the crowd with a stock line about “hordes of screeching feminists".
Brian Martinez, a Honey Badger and member of Chicago’s Puerto-Rican community, shared a personal narrative reminiscent of Benjamin’s. In art school, his attempt to create a comic book about a ‘Good Guy’ (as opposed to a stereotypical ‘Nice Guy’) met with opposition because the character was a heterosexual male.
“Art that’s being produced today seems to be more about what the message is than what the medium is,” said Martinez. During a previous panel discussion, Martinez said that problems faced by the Puerto Rican community in Chicago were attributable to “the destruction of the family unit” rather than institutional racism, which he believes does not exist.
One attendee characterised himself as a closet conservative in a very liberal college town. Another attendee, though hesitant to call himself “red-pilled” paraphrased a poem about a character “looking behind the veil”.
“And when she [the character] looks behind that veil and everyone else is only seeing the veil, [she’s] called crazy,” he added.
“I was with this whole thing from the beginning,” explained psychologist Annie Feng, who said the online communities she followed began with atheism and wended their way through IQ research before ending up on men’s rights. Asked why she and other women would attend the ICMI, she said: “We care about men as human beings.”
“I’ve become more of a machine person than a human person,” said 'Chuckie', a middle-aged Australian engineer with a disconcertingly youthful-looking ponytail. A virgin, 'Chuckie' identifies as MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way). “I think I’ve missed out a bit, but I’ve heard horror stories of the people who’ve had relationships and have had them end badly.”
Other attendees had backgrounds at which I could only guess. One man spent most of the conference in a MAGA hat, seemingly daring someone to challenge him. As literary scholar Janice Fiamengo read T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which she argued cannot be understood unless one grasps that its main character is suffering under the implicitly female “gaze of society” the man took off his cap and stared into it.
The younger MGTOWs, Incels (so-called involuntary celibates), and assorted socks-with-sandals-wearers were generally more right-wing than old-school MRAs, like intactivist (someone who campaigns against genital mutilation, such as circumcision in children) attorney J. Steven Svoboda and Fred Hayward, creator of Men’s Rights Inc. During his presentation, Svoboda, who said he believes self-mutilation should be legal, cited opposition from Muslims and Jews in the UN and World Health Organization (WHO) as barriers to progress in fighting what he calls male genital mutilation (MGM).
“Those communities need to take up those discussions themselves,” he said. He argued that the emergence of trans issues would add momentum to his anti-circumcision crusade. “If men can be beautiful beings… it just blows the whole thing out of the water.”
“You said you couldn’t comment on Jewish circumcision because you’re not Jewish,” said Hayward during a subsequent Q&A. “I’m Jewish, so I’m going to do that for you… I feel comfortable being a proud, active Jew totally opposed to circumcision.”
“We are out there. There are left-of-centre people who do believe in it,” one liberal American MRA told me. He explained that he became involved in the movement because of “problems in [his] dating life” and a YouTube video about the wage gap. “It’s a civil rights issue that everyone should be equal… Feminists typically seem to want women to be superior and to put their needs ahead of men’s needs.”
While Benjamin is something of a comedic nerd, pale, proudly chunky Meechan is a nerdy comedian with a comedian’s charisma and stage presence. I first spotted him from my car the evening before the ICMI began. Bathed in the light of the setting sun, he, Straughan, and other speakers and attendees were sharing cigarettes beneath the Sheraton’s porte-cochère. It would become a familiar sight over the long weekend. As he zipped in and out of the hotel, grin affixed to his broad face, he looked like Scotland’s answer to Pepe the Frog.
“[People] go, ‘Oh, what if someone watches your video and goes out and commits a violent act against a Jewish person?’ I would say, ‘Well, that person’s a retard because I don’t tell anybody to do that in my video’, and as far as I know, that’s never ever happened,” said Meechan. “That was never my intent. My intent was to make people laugh.”
“Socially, I’m quite Left,” added Meechan, who said that he was in favour of “sensible capitalism—not some of the sketchy shit we’ve got right now.”
Meechan cited a post from alt-right comic Sam Hyde—“Remember, these journalists have addresses”—as an example of edgy humour that does not quite cross the line to incitement to violence.
Radical views of the sort Benjamin and Meechan claim to abjure continually peeped out from the far side of the Overton window. As Jamaican-American presenter Desi-Rae Campbell began her speech, for example, the screen behind her briefly played part of a video from Jean-François Gariépy, a race realist YouTuber who has hosted David Duke and other white nationalists on his channel. Aydin Paladin, whose Twitter bio describes her as a “social science thot” and who spent much of the conference surrounded by a cluster of sympathetic men, got laughs when she said “diversity is our strength” when it comes to major histocompatibility complexes.
ICMI’s official afterparty took place at a Hooters—because, of course (and if you wag your finger, you just prove you don’t get the joke).
“I’ve seen some things online that I felt went too far and I didn’t agree with, but I saw some things that really made a lot of sense and that I could identify with,” said one partygoer, an artist from the United States. “I don’t think demonising women is the answer, and I don’t think I say it.” Later, he shared another major motivation for his views: a former girlfriend terminated her pregnancy without his consent.
The artist was accompanied by a German IT professional who resembled Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of Reformation-era theologian Philip Melanchthon. In our conversation and later emails, “Philip,” an esoteric Christian, told me he was on the side of “people with scars.”
“I feel feminism never tried to break the circle of hatred. [T]hey tried to milk it,” he wrote, appealing to Martin Luther King, Jr’s view that “everyone deserves respect.”
In an increasingly interconnected yet ever more discombobulated world, the booze-drenched, factually-tilted hyperreality of the ICMI still feels like more of a joke or a confidence trick than a threat. Yet its attendees and speakers reveal as much as they obscure. “People with scars” are on the rise throughout the West. One wonders why some choose to divide themselves along the lines of gender.