Massachusetts Ren Faire In Chaos Over Flat Earthers, the Far Right, and Owen Benjamin
The organization's co-owner has spiraled into extremism stemming from his rejection of heliocentrism and the spherical Earth
The shape of the Earth may be settled scientific fact in the 21st century, but it’s still an open question at the Massachusetts Renaissance Faire.
Paul Dabkowski, one of the Faire’s owners, has become radicalized to the far right as a result of flat Earth conspiracy theories, leading the organization’s administrative staff to quit en masse last week. A number of cast members have also announced they won’t be returning.
It was a hard decision, cast-member Lyndsey Luther told the Hampshire Gazette, but a necessary one.
“I did not trust that my Faire family would be safe around these people,” Luther said.
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Dabkowski’s affiliation with the fringe group the Unbearables, acolytes of far-right former comic Owen Benjamin, was the final straw. When staffers found out that Dabkowski was allowing the group to hold meetings on the Faire’s grounds, it was a step too far.
Benjamin, a former aspiring comic, has drifted into the extreme fringe of the far-right in recent years.
As Will Sommer reported in June:
After moving to the right, he appeared on podcasts hosted by Joe Rogan, Steven Crowder, and Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire.
As his following among conservatives grew, however, Benjamin became increasingly racist and antisemitic. He repeatedly used the n-word at a February 2018 comedy show, and embraced conspiracy theories about the Holocaust, claiming that Adolf Hitler was only trying to “clean [Germany] of the parasites.” Benjamin’s broadcasts to his fans grew more erratic, seeing the one-time comedian embrace flat-Earth theory and recommend drinking turpentine as a medicinal cure.
Over the last year or so, Benjamin and his followers have begun exploring alternative community plans—in a compound in Idaho—and have become further isolated from mainstream society.
Michael Lavery, a former volunteer staff member, told me that’s why he left the organization after seeing that Dabkowski would not reject Benjamin and his views.
“I followed suit, since Paul refused to disavow Owen Benjamin and his views—instead calling them bad jokes,” Lavery said.
Seana Lamothe, a cast-member, discovered the connection almost by accident, according to the Hampshire Gazette:
Lamothe said that earlier this year she went to Tolgy Wood, the campground owned by the same ownership group as the Renaissance Faire, where she met a man who asked her if she was there for the Bear Potluck and asked for assistance.
Lamothe thought that meant it was a potluck associated with a gay male subculture, something she said she didn’t find unusual as a person who grew up in Northampton, but then the man left without accepting her help when it was clear that she wasn’t part of the group.
Lamothe didn’t think much of this interaction, but then information began trickling in about the Unbearables, and Dabkowski’s association with them, and she learned that the Bear Potluck was a meeting of Unbearables.
After that, Lamothe and a number of cast-members decided to leave.
“I used to teach Astronomy”
Dabkowski’s radicalization appears to have begun with his shift in thinking of the Earth as flat, rather than a sphere. In a long, rambling letter posted to the Ren Faire’s website, Dabkowski said that the change in how he viewed the world (flat) led him to question other ideas.
“I discovered Owen Benjamin Smith some weeks after I used simple geometry to discover that the model of the Earth and solar system that is taught in school is not accurate (I used to teach Astronomy, so I am very familiar with this model),” Dabkowski wrote. “After learning this and considering the endless lies and distractions required to support that narrative, there were suddenly very few news sources that were useful to me. Owen's podcast was one of these few.”
That’s not the way the conspiracy theory pipeline usually works, according to Brandon Sutton, host of The Discourse podcast and an amateur flat Earth expert. Sutton sees flat Eartherism as “sort of the bottom of the conspiracy barrel.”
“Usually, they always get there after being into every other conspiracy,” he told me. “It's not really a gateway conspiracy theory for most people, so you get a lot of anti vaxxer stuff, chemtrails, basically everything.”
Most people who fall into the flat Earth conspiracy theory start their journey by making fun of it. They “memed themselves into it,” Sutton said.
“I've heard a lot of flat Earthers, regardless of whether they started out believing conspiracies or not, talk about how they first got into it by going to groups to laugh or whatever at the ideas and memes, only to be taken in by the social elements,” he said. “Eventually the propaganda just becomes easier to believe.”
“He is offering an entire Bitcoin”
Dabkowski is all in. His wife recently posted on Facebook that her husband is offering one Bitcoin to anyone who can prove the Earth is round.
When I reached Dabkowski via email Saturday, he said he’d entertain written questions but that he was unsure if he’d be able to get back to me by deadline.
“It may take me a very long time to answer them,” Dabkowski wrote. “I am currently busier than I have ever been in my life.”
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