It got ugly for a while. There was a last minute addition to today’s schedule: a “panel” to discuss the recent events in Missouri, specifically the university resignations in the face of endemic racism, and the efforts by students to exclude journalists from a meeting place on campus. Good idea, I thought: we’re in Missouri, this is a major topic, it is entirely appropriate to discuss the problems in racism and in the efforts to oppose racism.
Only it turned out to be very badly handled. The event was simply an “interview” with a white photojournalist/student, Mark Schierbecker, who was the one who captured that viral video of the students and a faculty member blocking another photojournalist from taking pictures, getting questioned by Danielle Muscato.
Right away, a problem: no black students were on the stage. No one was representing any other side of the story, and there was no plan to let anyone else speak. It was a disaster of a one-sided event.
I tried to listen, but I gave up when Muscato asked a ridiculous question: “Are you a racist?” Apparently, the purpose of this event wasn’t to actually address the issue of racism, but to make sure the white man with a camera got a chance to rehabilitate himself.
I left. I spent some time with a few of the organizers/volunteers, where I learned a few shocking things. They weren’t too happy with this last-minute addition, and only included it to give an important and topical issue an airing. They didn’t realize what a mess it was. All I can say is…vet your speakers more thoroughly!
And then the most disturbing thing: this was not actually any kind of interview. Muscato is Schierbecker’s publicist! WTF? This was purely a PR move.
There was not supposed to be a Q&A, but there was a contingent of black attendees in the front rows, and they did not let that stand. They jumped on the two at the end, and I’m sorry I missed it, but I got echoes of the chaos on Twitter.
The most dramatic fallout is that immediately afterwards, Muscato resigned as his publicist and chewed him out for racist remarks.
I’ll also mention that later that afternoon, Mary Anne Franks, a law professor, gave an absolutely magnificent talk on fundamentalism that specifically called out legalistic fundamentalism: the stuff that fetishizes free speech and gun laws by treating the Constitution as holy scripture, rather than as document that needs to be interpreted as a tool for justice. She ended by highlighting the 14th amendment — too bad the gun and free speech absolutists can’t count above 2. When that becomes available on youtube, I’ll definitely post it here. So far, it was my favorite talk of the conference, and this weekend has been a regular festival of excellent talks.
With one exception.
Schierbecker has posted a video reaction. It’s painful to watch.
Skepticon organizers have made an official apology.