“A Day of Reflection”1 was how the event was billed by Pangburn Philosophy, the erstwhile promoter. Scheduled for November 17, speakers included Fareed Zakaria, Jordan Peterson, Masha Gessen, Sam Harris, Maajid Nawaz, Dave Rubin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Bret and Eric Weinstein, and others. Originally set for the Koch Center in Manhattan, tickets went on sale for about $500 over the summer. Masha Gessen canceled almost immediately, and then Fareed Zakaria. In September, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Maajid Nawaz pulled out. Dave Rubin announced that he would no longer participate, but offered ticketholders time-limited free admission to his standup gigs. Behind the scenes, other speakers were also withdrawing. The Pangburn website noted that speakers could be replaced, and that there would be “No Refunds and No Exchanges. All Sales Are Final.”
Mysteriously, the venue changed to the Manhattan Center and the ticket price dropped to $299. More speakers were added as others pulled out. Rumors flew on online forums about problems; previous events had been canceled and ticketholders were not reimbursed. Speakers from events that did happen had not been paid. Ticketholders who received an email from Pangburn about the change in the lineup for the New York conference were promised a 50% refund. Others received no email. Some who did not receive an email found that Ticketmaster had refunded their credit cards.
On October 27th, Coleman Hughes of Quillette Magazine, along with other speakers endorsed a statement expressing their concern about refunds for ticketholders of past cancelled events, and distress about the changed lineup of speakers, but reiterated their intention to participate. By some accounts, by mid-November, fourteen speakers had pulled out.
People from around the world had created vacations around this event, and were hoping it was still on, but on Tuesday, November 13th, blaming “confirmed speakers [who] decided to back away from their commitment,” Pangburn Philosophy tweeted that the event was canceled. “Effective immediately,” the tweet added, “the Pangburn Philosophy Corporation will be folding as a result of this canceled conference.” The tweet also announced that CEO Travis Pangburn had “plans to reanimate Pangburn Philosophy under a new business model, which will focus on Pangburn Documentaries.”
Incomprehensibly, Travis Pangburn tweeted, “Off Twitter for awhile. I’ll be focusing on the book I’ve been writing about my experiences with @PangburnInspire. There is much to say.”2 Angry ticketholders tweeted back but got no response. Those who had paid Pangburn Philosophy directly were not as lucky as those who had bought through Ticketmaster. Some paid as much as $549, and many purchased non-refundable airfare and hotels.
Sam Harris gave an account of why he had pulled out. “Facing a total lack of transparency, and realizing that Pangburn was using my ongoing association with him to book future speakers, I withdrew from the NYC conference on September 21 (as well as from a Vancouver conference scheduled for March 2019).” He explained that although Pangburn still owed several speakers (including Harris) “an extraordinary amount of money,” speakers were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free if Pangburn had handed the event over to them. “I have been told that this offer was made,” Harris reported, “and [Travis Pangburn] declined it.”3 (You can read a complete account of the Pangburn fiasco compiled by Keiko Kawabe on Twitter.)
It seemed that all was lost. But then something remarkable happened.
In Manhattan, Lenore Skenazy of Let Grow along with Nick Gillespie of Reason Magazine, Melissa Chen of Ideas Beyond Borders, Columbia University students, Serena Killion and Coleman Hughes, and Heterodox Academy’s director, Deb Mashek, sat around a table brainstorming how to provide an alternative event for ticketholders who would be in New York City on the day of the cancelled event. Meanwhile, in Colorado, Ryan Bennett, a Pangburned “customer trying to make the most of it,” was imagining how to create some kind of a meetup for stranded conference-goers. “With or without pangburn,” he tweeted, “we can still have ourselves a day or reflection.”
With what Bennett later described as “amazing luck and incredible cooperation,” he connected with the Manhattan group, and with advice from Heterodox Academy’s director of events, Laura Lalinde, put up an Eventbrite page for “Day of Reflection Refugees” to attend an “UnConference.” At first it was confusing. There was supposed to be a lunch, three breakouts at different locations, multiple other options, and an evening cocktail party. After fielding questions, Bennett sent an email apologizing for the confusion. “That was my fault,” he wrote. And he went on to explain that in order to secure the restaurant, he agreed to put everyone’s lunch on his credit card. He said he trusted everyone (strangers to him) to pay him back.
Approximately thirty people gathered for lunch at the “Rattle and Hum” restaurant on the day of the ill-fated event. Attendees were Australian, Canadian, Mexican, Russian, Swedish, Icelandic, and Americans came from as far away as Texas and California. Most had not been reimbursed for their canceled event tickets. Very little of the lunch conversations revolved around the canceled event, however. The eclectic group shared thoughts, ideas, camaraderie—and lots of fried food. A young woman from Sweden had been given a trip to New York and a ticket to the conference as a graduation gift. At the lunch, she met a couple who were also from Sweden, and had taken time off from work, planned a vacation around the cancelled event, and arranged for both sets of parents to come to their home to take care of their four children (the youngest of whom was 8 months old). Bennett recognized a family as his “seat neighbors” from the Jordan Peterson/Sam Harris conversation moderated by Bret Weinstein in Vancouver. As he later noted, “When the most common thing you’re asked is “how can we all keep in touch?” you know something has gone right.”
From the chaos of the Pangburn implosion, a network of interactions and relationships manifested; a dynamic, self-organized, complex adaptive system with an emergent leader in Ryan Bennett. After more than four hours, the group dispersed, and reconvened that night for cocktails and conversation with dozens more attendees, including a family from Brazil. The venue, which offered a cash bar, required the group to guarantee a drink purchase minimum. An anonymous donor stepped in to provide a personal guarantee. After some time, Deb Mashek of Heterodox Academy introduced and thanked Ryan Bennett—to thunderous applause. Bennett announced that someone on the phone—which was connected to a hastily purchased speaker—wanted to talk to the group.
“Greetings, New York! This is the voice of the Intellectual Dark Web!” a voice familiar to the “Pangburned” boomed, to cheers and laughter. Eric Weinstein told those gathered that he and other speakers had wanted to communicate with ticketholders but couldn’t get access to email addresses. (Weinstein had previously Skyped with people who had not been reimbursed for the canceled Auckland event, and insisted that Pangburn repay ticketholders before paying his speaking fees.) After a brief Q&A from which Weinstein learned that many New York ticketholders had come from across the globe, he invited all those from overseas to his home for Shabbat dinner, should they ever be in San Francisco.
After the “official” party came to a close, a smaller group headed out to a rooftop bar, and other, impromptu events continued into the next day. Filmmaker Jay Shapiro even screened parts of the documentary film, Islam and the Future of Tolerance (starring Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz). Several participants commented that they had such a good time, they couldn’t imagine the original event being any better.
“To attend a stadium show with your favorite speakers is invigorating, but we all know that we don’t just come for the speakers on stage… So if the magic isn’t on stage, where else could it be but with us in the audience?” Bennett reflected, days after the UnConference.
The real magic, he concluded, is when we have the opportunity “to remove ourselves from our isolation, to sit together, and know that we are not alone.” ♦
Pamela Paresky’s opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated.