Frisco, Texas — “Am I just dropping a garbage bag full of dead dogs into outer space?”
Okay, so that question is going to need some context . . .
And the context, here at the Embassy Suites Hotel Convention Center and Spa on the dreary Cracker Barrel–pocked exurban northern fringe of Dallas, is the Flat Earth International Convention, which — and this is the first thing you need to know and will be enthusiastically reminded of every seven minutes — has absolutely no relationship of any kind whatsoever with the Flat Earth Society, those heretical, weak-tea, milk-and-water, pansified, considerably less respectable flat-Earth enthusiasts, who, unlike our rambunctious gang here at the Embassy Suites, have basically nothing at all to say about the finer points of Hebrew cosmology, laser-beam experiments disproving the curvature of the Earth, nighttime infrared photography, autographed Illuminati cards, sundry NASA hoaxes (“‘NASA’ stands for ‘Not Always Telling Truths,’” insists one conference-goer as his fellow conferees scratch their heads in pained acronymic perplexation), or any of the other Very High Weirdness on chiropteran display for those willing to fork over the $250 entry fee (cash only at the door, please, because that’s not shady-seeming in any way, and here’s your hand-scribbled receipt from the harried wife of the guy who runs this show — “Sorry, we’re Canadian!” she explains) and enjoy the rich terroir of Embassy Suites coffee and take unselfconscious selfies with a parade of honest-to-God flat-Earth celebrities after a couple of intensely awkward audience Q-’n’-A sessions (heavy on the Q, if you know what I mean and I know that you do!) during which a very wide range of semi-debilitating social-anxiety pathologies is on excruciating display.
From the stage, Mark Sargent smiles down over it all, beatific and imperturbable. He is a hero in this world, a Very Big Deal, indeed.
And he is trying to wrap his head around those hypothetical canine corpses that may or may not be floating about in space. (Also: “Space Is Fake!” as one seminar title insists.) The guy in the audience wants to know how deep he could dig a dog-burying hole in the purely hypothetical case in which he might find himself obliged to bury a garbage bag full of dead dogs, which he very much has on the brain, for some reason. He is concerned about the possibility of falling through into whatever is on the other side, floating there in space like Major Tom with a Hefty Steel Sak full of dead dog. Sargent, who unquestionably has the mien of a man who knows that he is participating in a scam, takes a second. “There is no consensus about how thick the Earth is,” he responds. In fact, there is no general agreement here among the flat-Earthers about what the Earth actually looks like, which of several competing maps and models of it might be accurate or even whether drawing up such a thing is epistemically possible. Being a bunch of guys who have organized a two-day international conference about the shape of the Earth, they strangely do not seem to give a furry crack of a rat’s patootie what the Earth is shaped like. It’s kind of weird.
“All we can do is agree that it’s not a globe,” Sargent says.
That’s one of the funny things about these flat-Earth guys: They not only don’t know a goddamned thing, they don’t claim to know or want to know a goddamned thing beyond the one thing that brings them together, i.e. the thing about the Earth’s being shaped like a ball, a claim they sneer at as an obvious fraud and superstition and hoax put forward by “globalists” to snooker vulnerable believers on behalf of Satan, who has a thing for balls, apparently.
And there is no evading Satan’s great swinging balls here. The flatness of the Earth is the big topic on the main stage, but the hot topic on the sidelines is Satanic ritual abuse, the fixation du jour of the Q-Anon conspiracy nuts who believe that Donald Trump is just right on the verge of leading a massive national purge of Satanic pedophiles, who, as everybody knows, secretly run the world. (Also: Jews! Jews! Jews!) As flat-Earth writer Noel Hadley tells me, “Satan runs everything: music, Hollywood, media, Republicans, Democrats, Washington, Israel, Zionism. . . .” They know Satan when they see him. But they don’t know what the Earth looks like — only that it is not round. And that if people only understood that, then they would . . . change their diets, and vaccine companies would go out of business, as one speaker insisted.
“We don’t believe in a flying pancake in space,” says exasperated conference organizer Robbie Davidson, a Canadian conspiracy hobbyist, “and we don’t believe you can fall off the edge of it.” But what does the Earth actually look like? That, apparently, needs “more investigation,” in the inevitable dodge uttered from the stage. Right outside the door, a guy who looks exactly like a Lord of the Rings elf who retired to be an Uber driver in Colorado Springs is nonetheless selling models of the Earth that look an awful lot like a pancake in space — or, really, a dinner plate, since this sad folk art appears to be made of repurposed kitchenware and electric clock motors, with the sun and moon circling the sky on the minute hand in decidedly non-heliocentric fashion. There’s a big version up on the stage, too. But just because the world is a dinner plate sitting on top of a battery-operated quartz clock motor doesn’t mean that you can fall off the edge — the general consensus here is that Antarctica is actually a giant wall of ice surrounding the flat Earth, making exit impossible.
A bearded man in quasi-clerical garb walks by. Another Lord of the Rings elf in a nametag reading “Angel” confers with Elf No. 1. There’s a guy on a crutch with a ballcap emblazoned “Level-Headed” and a T-shirt reading “Flat Outta Hell!” arguing with a bouncer, who thinks Crutch Guy may have faked his credentials. The bouncer wants to see some government-issued identification: Funny how these guys suddenly trust The Man when there’s conference-goer revenue on the line. Someone across the room denounces the United Nations.
Noel Hadley tells me he is interested in Hellenistic mystery religions, and he has written a book on the subject, an extract from which reveals it to be exactly the illiterate effluence you would expect of a self-published flat-Earth tract written by a man whose Amazon page identifies him as “a former career wedding photographer.” (It’s the word career that really gets it done, there, in that particular sentence.) The hilarious part, the wonderful irony, is that for all his sincere interest in mystery cults and his “research” on the subject, he does not quite seem to understand that he has joined a mystery cult, that the joy and fulfillment he derives from the secret knowledge (never mind that it is not knowledge) of his flat-Earth cult is nothing more or less than the makarismos enjoyed by initiates into the ancient mysteries. It is all around him: A young mother says that she wishes the people she loves “could feel what I feel” when she meditates upon the truth of the flatness of the Earth.
Everybody is after that feeling: the flat-Earthers, the Q-Anon dopes who have got themselves so torqued up that the feebs are worried about them as a terrorism threat, the Bernie Sanders partisans whispering darkly about the “rigged” economy and the shadowy billionaires acting behind the scenes, who control the media, the corporations, the government . . . The social exclusion and isolation that comes from joining a mystery cult isn’t a terrible price to pay but one of the main benefits, the mechanism by which the cult imbues its members with a sense of new identity. They speak about flat-Earth belief as something that follows a conversion experience and sadly note the apostasy of one high-profile social-media advocate who recently left their community.
Which is to say: One conspiracy theory is very like another. The people out in the pews are in a cult, but the men on the stage and hawking books and DVDs and such do not have the faces and souls and elocutions of cult leaders — no, they are exactly like the guys who want to sell you a vacation time-share in Belize, “official” President Donald J. Trump memorial gold coins, miracle cures for baldness or fatness or arthritis or diabetes. And they know what their product is. It isn’t geography lessons.
“His name was ‘Adolf,’” says an older man standing in the lobby. “He was the first politician to figure out the lie.” (Spoiler alert: Yes, he meant that Adolf.) In front of him is a small knot of dumpy flushed anxious Tammys with forearm tattoos, pale wan broken men in Australian bush hats, older guys in denim overalls, and younger men with beards and beanie hats, trying to figure out how to get $5 off their Embassy Suites Hotel Convention Center and Spa parking bill, scanning their tickets and punching buttons on a machine with a label offering in big 72-point type: Validation.
This article appears as “Satan’s Balls” in the December 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.