The latest drama coming out of higher education is at the University of British Columbia, and it’s pitted a popular YouTuber against the very audience that made her a star.
ContraPoints, as Natalie Parrott is known online, is a 29-year-old lefty trans woman (she calls herself a "pessimistic Socialist") from Baltimore. Her videos—several of which have over 100,000 views—subvert a genre of homespun, DIY, political commentary that is dominated by the right. In a profile of Contra for New York Magazine, contributing writer Jesse Singal explained that YouTube hosts a massive right-wing demographic that is largely invisible to casual YouTube viewers, who think of it more as a platform for cute cat and how-to videos than for the militant right.
“Like talk radio,” Singal wrote, “YouTube hosts voices from across the political spectrum. But also like talk radio, most of the biggest and most successful ones are conservative—and not William Weld conservatives, but Steve Bannon conservatives.” The Steve Bannon conservatives of YouTube have created huge archives of videos—videos of white men mocking “mainstream media,” videos of white men spewing conspiracy theories straight out of InfoWars, videos of white men explaining that the the real oppressed population is… white men. Contra uses the same form and imagery, but she subverts the message.
Contra is funny and self-aware, and her storylines and staging rival that of any film school graduate. She plays different characters, foils who aid in her ultimately progressive arguments. In one video, Decrypting the Alt-Right: How to Recognize a F@scist, she deconstructs beliefs in the supremacy of the white race.
“Good news, boys,” she says after showing a Richard Spencer recruiting video glorifying European heritage. “...the sun hath risen on the day wherein you take your father’s claymore in hand and defend Voltaire and adorable blonde children against black civil rights, like, you know, the Vikings did.” All of this is said with a swell of violins playing in the background, and it’s funny—or it would be if an increasing number of people didn’t actually believe the dawn of the glorious white nation-state is upon us.
Contra, who currently earns over $5,000 per video from her 1,500 Patreon subscribers, takes on plenty of other hot button issues, from free speech to gender, and she has emerged as a darling of lefty Twitter. That, however, started to change after Singal’s profile came out: Singal has frequently been accused of transphobia for critically reporting on trans issues like the firing of Ken Zucker, a prominent and highly controversial sex researcher in Toronto, and even speaking to Singal was seen by some of Contra’s fans as a betrayal.
"Social justice Twitter has responded with extreme fury at the fact that a progressive trans YouTuber was favorably profiled in a major media outlet," Singal told me, "and since that happened some of its members have been attempting to harass her off Twitter and enthusiastically dragging her name through the mud. I have some questions about this approach as a strategy for increasing social justice in the world."
And then, last week, after it was announced that Contra agreed to participate in a conversation sponsored by the University of British Columbia Free Speech Club, along with prominent conservative trans YouTubers Blaire White and Theryn Meyer, shit really blew up.
As Contra detailed in a long Twitter thread, her fans quickly turned against her, alleging that she agreed to “participate in a fundraiser for an anti-Semitic organization,” that she is throwing trans people under the bus, and that she was being used by the UBC Free Speech Club and was too dumb to even see it. Others accused her of being too new to the trans community to represent it—she came out as a trans woman earlier this year—although the planned discussion in Vancouver is not specifically about gender, but about left versus right.
Contra did not respond to my request for comment, but she explained on Twitter that the root of the outrage seems to be comments left on the UBC Free Speech Club’s Facebook page: specifically, a post from last January, in a which a UBC member questioned the number of dead in the Holocaust and said, essentially, that Hitler wasn’t so bad. A screenshot of the post was widely shared, and the club’s critics say it indicates that the club must be full of Nazi sympathizers, too.
The club, which claims to be nonpartisan, has clashed with antifa and other progressive groups. Its members were lambasted in the student newspaper for giving out “Make Canada Great Again” hats on election day last November, which the club called a “performance piece.” Angelo Isidorou, a UBC student and creative director of the Free Speech Club, told me that while the club is apolitical, their members, many of whom are queer, Jewish, or people of color, lean libertarian and anti-authoritarian, and are seeking to "foster an open dialogue on campus." He says 60 percent may be conservative, though not socially so.
Posts in the Facebook group, which the club's moderators don’t actually moderate, range from discussions of Christianity versus Islam to dogs versus cats. It’s a wide-ranging, not particularly enlightening group read, but isn’t particularly inflammatory either.
Isidorou insists that the screenshot from the January Facebook discussion misrepresents what the group stands for. “We let anyone on the Facebook group,” he said. “But if you're going to post, expect it to be challenged. Once in a while, a white supremacist will say something in the group and the student newspaper will screencap that comment or that post and attribute it to the entire group. But they leave out the hundred comments criticizing the guy.”
And that’s what happened, he says, with the post from the Holocaust denier. “He was in the group for like three weeks and he kept spamming us with this Nazi BS. We laughed at him until he became bewildered and left. This guy was totally crazy.”
But that’s not the story that spread on Twitter, which claimed that the UBC Free Speech Club is a group of right-wing Nazi sympathizers. When Contra agreed to participate in the club's event with White and Meyer, she quickly became a villain. “Once the outrage is up and running,” she tweeted, “the empirical facts of the case are lost to the overwhelming sentiment that I am a traitor. And once that feeling takes hold, evidence must be constructed to justify it.”
This drama seems to have deeply affected Contra’s life. She writes about feelings of betrayal, depression, and the sense that her life online has spun out of control.
“My falling out with a significant portion of my audience in the last month, & especially the last week, has broken my heart,” she tweeted. “I'm not being melodramatic here: we're talking crying in bed, unable to think about anything else, the whole thing.”
For his part, Isidorou is surprised it was Contra’s fans who abandoned her for agreeing to appear at the event with her political opponents (he thought it would be Blaire White’s fans). But he also kind of gets it. “To a degree, I don’t blame them,” he says. “They have a limited understanding of what is happening, and unfortunately the free speech movement has been invaded by these radicals on the right who do want to manipulate it.”
This is an understatement, particularly in the U.S., where conservative agitators have co-opted the “free speech movement,” if such a thing exists, to antagonize the left. The Berkeley Patriot—a student-run conservative site at the University of California, Berkeley—sponsored “Free Speech Week” this fall, an event that promised to bring Milo Yiannopoulos, Steven Bannon, Ann Coulter, and Lucian Wintrich to campus—had it not ultimately been canceled. There is some speculation that the event was never going to happen in the first place, that it was either a giant ruse designed to troll liberals or, alternately, it was just really poorly planned. (Apparently the Berkeley Patriot failed to reserve space for the event.) Regardless of the intent, while Free Speech Week was sponsored by The Patriot, it was, according to the Daily Californian, actually funded by Yiannopoulos, who reportedly paid $250,000 to hold the event, making it clear that right wing agitators are using campus free speech groups to further their own agenda. But UBC’s Free Speech Club, Isidorou says, is not a thinly veiled front for the right and the event was never meant to manipulate ContraPoints or anyone else in the name of “free speech.”
Rather, he says, the group wants to start dialog between political opposites; to get progressive, social justice warrior ContraPoints on the same stage as Blaire White, who is perhaps best known for attacking feminists, trans activists, and what she calls "cultural Marxism," and Theryn Meyer, who thinks that transgender people should be banned from the military. They wanted to see what would happen when these opposing view points met on stage instead of just online. The title of the event is “Bridging the Divide.” And that, it seems, is the problem: These days, any attempt to bridge the divide only seems to make the divide more pronounced.
We see this more and more often. Take, for instance, last spring, when former Evergreen professor Bret Weinstein was involved in a heated battle after students accused him of racism for opposing the college’s “equity action plan,” and writing that “On a college campus, one’s right to speak—or to be—must never be based on skin color.” Weinstein’s words sparked protests on campus, which subsequently closed for three days, but it was his appearance on Fox News, where he explained the controversy to conservative talking head Tucker Carlson, that prompted many of his own colleagues to call for his resignation, saying he endangered the campus by appearing on the network. (His op-ed in the Wall Street Journal didn't help either.) Both Weinstein and his wife, professor Heather Heying, did eventually resign, and in July, the couple filed a $3.85 million lawsuit alleging that Evergreen failed to “protect its employees from repeated provocative and corrosive verbal and written hostility based on race, as well as threats of physical violence.” They later settled for $500,000.
Now, there is no doubt that Fox News has been dangerous for the republic: It’s long been a propaganda machine for the Republican Party, and this has only intensified with Trump in office. As anyone with a parent or grandparent who watches Fox News can attest, it has a vast influence over individual politics. (As I wrote last month, “when Fox News enters a new market, Republican politicians are more likely to get elected. A 2006 study found ‘a significant effect of the introduction of Fox News on the vote share in Presidential elections between 1996 and 2000,’ as well as an increase in Republican vote share in the Senate.”) But should merely engaging with a network—or with a college club—whose politics you despise constitute a criminal offense? Apparently so. At this point in history, if you engage with the enemy, you will be marked as the enemy too.
Contra, who still plans on attending the UBC Free Speech event, ends her Twitter thread with advice to aspiring YouTube stars: “Your audience are not your friends,” she writes. “They are spectators. Their love is highly contingent. The moment you fuck up you're dead to them. They do not love you. They love an idea of you.” And then, in her usual, self-aware Contra fashion, she follows it up: “This is the wise woman speaking who wised up 12 seconds ago.”
This newly wise woman will be appearing in conversation with the UBC Free Speech Club and her political opponents in Vancouver on January 12. You can also catch her on Twitter, YouTube, and all over the Internet, where she hasn't been driven away... at least not yet.