I have been meaning to comment on the sound and fury about Bari Weiss’ New York Times piece on the “Intellectual Dark Web,” an informal network of “heretics” and “renegades” who dissent from various progressive orthodoxies and are often sidelined by the academic and media establishment. (The term, coined by mathematician and Thiel Capital managing director Eric Weinstein, is semi-facetious.)
I don’t know if I should consider myself a Dark Webizen. I’ve written for Quillette, mentioned in Weiss’ article as part of the IDW — a smart publication committed to genuine intellectual pluralism. I’ve also been a guest on the IDW-identified Dave Rubin show on YouTube, of which I take a considerably dimmer view these days. I share the IDW’s distaste for identity politics, “political correction,” and the “Oppression Olympics.” But I’m wary of cliques and intellectual ghettos, and I don’t consider myself exiled or self-exiled from the mainstream, even if my views on many issues consign me to its margins. On some things, I’m a probably fellow traveler of the IDW; on other things, a critic.
As for Weiss’ article, I have some quibbles with it; I’m not sure, for instance, that Ben Shapiro, who is not so much a “renegade” as a straight-up conservative pundit, belongs with the others. Also, the accompanying photo shoot, where Weiss’ subjects appear lurking in semi-darkness, often next to dramatic vegetation, is ridiculous. (The only visuals I can think of that are worse were in the Times’ 2014 “Planet Hillary” piece.)
However, as often happens, Weiss has been getting savaged for an imaginary article that has very little to do with the one she actually wrote. Many of her detractors, for instance, seem to think that her article depicts the “dark webbers” as victims of oppression.
Until now, I didn't realize how oppressed I am. I mean, sure, I get to write for the Times, am very well paid, and am invited to speak to audiences all over the world. But sometimes people criticize me and my ideas. Why, it's positively Stalinist! https://t.co/zj9yBuZ0WI
— Paul Krugman (@paulkrugman) May 8, 2018
But Weiss’ piece says nothing about oppression.
Yes, she says that some of the denizens of the “dark web” have been “purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought,” but only to add that they have “found receptive audiences elsewhere.”
A bit later, Weiss notes that many of these people are doing extremely well financially. (Most notably, Jordan Peterson pulls in $80,000 a month in Patreon donations.) One of her main points is that “new media” platforms, such as YouTube and podcasts, have allowed people ostracized by intellectual “polite society” to find a large audience and make a good living while bypassing traditional outlets.
Weiss’ detractors also seemed to assume her piece was an unqualified paean to the “IDW.” Far from it. A good portion of the article, especially near the end, was dedicated to examining its problems and pitfalls: the fact that IDWers like Rubin tend to pander to their fans and focus on the evils of “political correctness” while largely giving Donald Trump and Republicans a pass; the fact that the lack of gatekeepers lets in some genuinely bad people, from bigots to grifters and conspiracy kooks. (Which, as Weiss points out, is an especially thorny problem when these unsavory characters are given a platform by more respectable Dark Webizens. We’re looking at you, Dave Rubin.) Ultimately, Weiss is not cheering for the IDW to have more power; she wants more openness in the mainstream.
The real point of Weiss’ piece, it seems to me, is not that the Dark Webizens are persecuted or victimized (though a few, notably former Evergreen College professors Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, have had pretty scary brushes with intolerance). It’s that the establishment is dominated by an increasingly narrow groupthink, and that’s not good for anyone.
My Reason colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown argues that this is not as new a situation as Weiss claims, and to some extent she’s correct. Sommers was controversial in the 1990s (though she didn’t get shouted down at campus events). In 2006, more than a decade before James Damore got fired from Google over his memo discussing biology as a possible factor in gender disparities in science and technology jobs, Harvard President Lawrence Summers had to step down partly because of a backlash against a talk he gave making similar points.
But I think it’s incontrovertible that the pervasiveness of far-left cultural politics in the mainstream media has increased dramatically in the 2010s, especially in the last five years or so. Witness the mainstreaming of terms like “rape culture,” “white privilege,” or “cultural appropriation,” and the rise of taboos related to these issues.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy, herself a leftist, noted in her 2017 book, The Perils of Privilege, that it’s virtually impossible today to discuss art and entertainment in the liberal press without framing it in terms of racial and sexual politics. Likewise, the recent leftward shift of the already left-leaning academy is not really in dispute.
The result is that the space for unfettered debate, especially on issues related to race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality and other “identities,” has shrunk quite noticeably. The speed with which fairly radical views on gender identity have become dogma, for example, is rather astonishing. One of Weiss’ subjects, Toronto-based Deborah Soh, who has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, left academia because she concluded that her view (backed by substantial evidence) that children with gender dysphoria usually outgrow it and should wait to transition would make her persona non grata. (Her concerns were hardly groundless: In 2016, eminent Toronto psychologist Dr. Kenneth Zucker was fired from a major clinic over the same issue.)
This is the real issue raised by Weiss’ article. But instead of addressing it, much of left-wing punditry has responded with predictable attacks that tend to validate Weiss’ point.
Vox ran a piece asserting that the Dark Webizens are simply aggrieved white males threatened by women and minorities invading their turf (ignoring the fact that a third of the people profiled in Weiss’ article are women and several are non-white, including Muslim reformers Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali).
Silicon Valley engineer and anti-sexual harassment advocate Susan Fowler wrote in a letter to the Times that the “dark web’s” ideas are “no longer discussed because we have collectively agreed that they are wrong” — citing as one example atheist podcaster Sam Harris’ defense of airport profiling of Muslims in the 2000s. (Fowler fails to mention that Harris has taken a far more nuanced approach to Islam in recent years — for instance, in a fascinating conversation on Islam and tolerance with Nawaz.)
Writing in these pages, Joshua Stein lists a number of ways in which Weiss might be countered:
“There are a lot of ways to cook a response to Weiss: a case could be made that it is factually inaccurate; that the feeling of exclusion is not sufficient to establish genuine exclusion; that the claim is performatively self-refuting given that it appears in the New York Times; that there are strong economic benefits for these various popular intellectuals; and that these ideas are not all that contrarian, constituting one ideological base of modern conservative politics.”
He then moves beyond mere criticism of Weiss to wondering whether the IDW should be allowed in our society at all — a move that rather confirms Weiss’ worries. Stein applies a criterion for societal inclusion, supplied by Karl Popper, against Jordan Peterson and others. Yet Popper’s criterion, his standard for inclusion in the “open society,” requires that a public figure be open to arguments and reason, and that he or she refrain from calling on followers to engage in violent resistance. To think that any of the figures Weiss profiles violate this ideal is absurd.
But the prize for most noxious responses to Weiss probably goes to Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs. In his first post on the IDW, which made fun of Weiss’ alleged claim that the Dark Webizens are being silenced, he crossed the line of decency (in my view) when he mocked Weinstein and Heying for suing Evergreen after being hounded out of the school by outraged campus activists. “What kind of snowflake files a lawsuit because they can’t handle a little free speech?” Robinson jeered. Sure thing, if you think that a mob invading a professor’s classroom to corner him and shout at him, and then roaming the campus trying to hunt him down and “confront” him again, is “free speech.” Weinstein and Heying quit their posts when the Evergreen administration told them their physical safety could not be ensured; I assume Robinson knows that.
Robinson’s second post on the subject was even more disingenuous. It opened thus:
“I keep noticing something peculiar lately: Even though I seem to hear constantly about the members of the “intellectual dark web” and their war on the Social Justice Identity Politics Regressive Left, I never seem to hear very much from the Social Justice Identity Politics Regressive Left itself. I know that assertion may sound a little dubious: Surely we hear all the time about White Privilege, rape culture, gender as a social construct, etc. And yet: There are dozens of well-known critics of social justice activists: Harris, Shapiro, Peterson, Brooks, Stephens, Hoff Sommers, Weinstein, Weinstein, Murray, Murray, Rogan, Chait, Haidt, Pinker, Rubin, Sullivan, Weiss, Williamson, Yiannopoulos, Dreger, Hirsi Ali. Who are their equivalents among the Social Justice Types? Who has their reach or prominence?”
Apparently, Robison has never heard of National Book Award winner and McArthur Genius Grant recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates; New York Times op-ed contributor Lindy West and columnist Michelle Goldberg; Vox’s Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias; feminist author/columnist Jessica Valenti; best-selling author Roxane Gay; New York magazine columnist Rebecca Traister; The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino; Slate’s Jamelle Bouie; Arthur Chu; video game critic Anita Sarkeesian; and that’s to name just a few.
The “renegades” of the IDW may not be persecuted, but denying the cultural dominance of the left at this point in time is silly and disingenuous.
Let’s, at least, settle that.
This piece first appeared on Arc Digital