On Twitter, Bari Weiss of the New York Times has written: “[F]ailing to draw distinctions between people like Sam Harris and people like Richard Spencer strips the designation ‘alt-right’ of its power and meaning. That has two main effects, as I see it. First: When that label is used promiscuously, people start to take it less seriously. And we should be taking the actual alt right seriously. Second: When conservatives, classical liberals or libertarians are told by the progressive chattering class that they–or those they read–are alt-right, the very common response is to say: Screw it. They think everyone is alt-right. And then those people move further right.” This second idea was widely mocked. Yet I think, properly understood, it is in part quite plausible, and should provide some insight without giving offense.
Defenses of the idea so far have been inadequate. It is true that the idea bears some similarities to the notion, commonly bandied about a year or two ago, that Donald Trump is “ISIS’s best recruiter.” Conor Friedersdorf wrote a long essay in The Atlantic about Weiss’s remarks, comparing them to Obama-era strictures against referring to “Muslim terrorists” or “Islamic terrorism” meant to prevent further radicalization of those populations. And some responses to Weiss, like that of Vox‘s Jane Coaston (“[I]f you move further right because someone on Twitter said something you don’t like, you were always going to move further right.”), do indeed open themselves up to Friedersdorf’s objection by making their case too general.
But in his rush to defend it, Friedersdorf gets Weiss’s claim backwards. In the situation of “recruiting for” ISIS by referring to e.g. “Muslim terror,” one calls the core, acknowledged “bad guys” by a broader term and in so doing radicalizes people who also fall under this term. This is similar to what Jacobin writer Connor Kilpatrick tweeted a year ago: “getting white kids to think about their whiteness & not their class position has backfired horribly.” This too is a contentious position on the left. But the right analogy for Weiss’s claim would be to a situation in which ordinary Muslims were radicalized by being called terrorists, rather than by terrorists being called Muslims. Of course, it’s believable that many on the left actually do think that the fact that some Americans say that most or all Muslims are terrorists is part of what turns some Muslims into terrorists. However, nothing following that pattern was in Friedersdorf’s article.
Rather than as a general account of the malleability of human nature, of the reverse-psychological idea that we can make people into something by negatively calling them by that thing’s name, Weiss’s comment should be read as an insight into the specific political situation and the unique motivations and concerns of the centrists, classical liberals, and “intellectual dark web” types often covered by Weiss in her own columns. This helps clarify just what the struggle between these figures and the arguably dominant cultural left consists in. It also helps us see the clean divide between culture and politics, so often obscured by those who would hold all culture politically accountable and who would trumpet all politics as a sign of cultural status.
By and large, intellectual dark webbers are not trying to mount a full-scale attack on left-dominated institutions (academia, journalism, Hollywood, etc.). Quite the opposite: These are the places they want to be. (Weiss herself is living the dream, I think.) Often puzzled by the human realities of political struggle, which they attribute to “tribalism” and other “cognitive biases,” these figures want more or less what they claim to want: They want platforms where they can discuss more or less any stance on or idea about more or less any issue, notwithstanding — ideally, without even considering — the political ramifications.
Of course, many will find that dream irresponsible. It’s irresponsible almost by definition, actually: it abdicates political responsibility. But the whole idea here is that political responsibility is not the only kind of responsibility we can recognize, despite how politics has terraformed our discourse on culture, on science and philosophy, on art and literature and beauty and so many other topics. We can and should also recognize responsibilities in the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic realms that have no ultimate source in, or necessary relation to, politics.
The really funny part about the reaction to Weiss’s comments is that she seemed to be trying to talk to the left on their own terms. By this I mean not only making an argument that appealed to their self-interest; I mean specifically by making a practical political argument. But I think the leftists in question are not as different from the dark webbers as they think. Practical political considerations don’t actually carry much weight with them in these conversations. As I wrote last summer, politics is not really “about power” for this crowd, because, as Freddie deBoer has said (in a now-deleted Medium post), it is “forbidden to say ‘I support your goals, but I find your tactics, your strategy, and your messaging counterproductive.'”
The soi-disant “left” that dominates academia, the media, and the entertainment industry feels just as much of what they would call a “political” threat when a Kevin Williamson or Bret Stephens type is hired at a major publication as they do from, for instance, the Republican domination of state legislatures and governorships across the nation. Whereas the intellectual dark web’s number one priority is to gain a foothold in mainstream cultural institutions in order to initiate the sorts of dialogues they want, the cultural left’s number one priority is to retain their hegemonic position in these elite institutions. Neither of these are “political” priorities any more than it would be political for a less than fully pleasant character named Fred to want to come to the movies when you and I go together, and for me to want him not to accompany us.
I think what Weiss and others like her believe is that anybody with such a tunnel-vision focus on “politics” would be interested in building coalitions. But they don’t realize that these leftists already have exactly what they want. In fact, they’ve won so much that they’re “tired of winning,” as Jon Baskin put it in The Point, quoting, of course, President Donald Trump. Further, they are quick to root out any dissent in their ranks and purge people from the group. There is no aspiration to a broad base or a big tent.
What exists instead is an emergent dynamic built out of thousands of individual interests – tons and tons of academics, writers, journalists, pundits, artists, and everyday social media users for whom leftism is part of a brand that increases in value the more unique it is. I am always worried about the fragile prestige of my leftism, and so am always eager to distinguish it from your leftism. Weiss’s appeal to the situation of “conservatives, classical liberals or libertarians” would make sense if the exclusionary dynamics evaporated once one was safely “inside” the left. But actually the demands for conformity, and the social penalties for transgressing some organic consensus, increase instead. We should feel sorrier for people on the inside than on the outside!
To have open and interesting discourse in which one’s own arguments and assumptions are constantly challenged requires a diverse set of intelligent interlocutors. This is why one of the most successful groups adjacent to the “intellectual dark web” has been Heterodox Academy, Jonathan Haidt’s organization, whose mission is “increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement on campus.” It is intrinsically important to these people to have an ideologically varied group of conversation partners, and when these partners can be drawn from elite institutions it further legitimizes the dialogue. Leftists at these institutions, if they act en masse, can derail the project simply by refusing to talk to the disagreement-mongers, or by engaging, as intellectual dark webber Bret Weinstein would put it, in “debate” rather than “dialectic.”
Weiss’s critics are correct that there is not really a “very common response . . . to say: Screw it . . . [a]nd . . . move further right.” Rather, there is a deep felt need for challenging conversation partners which must be satisfied, and if leftists and their powerful institutions refuse to satisfy it, which is of course their absolute right, various kinds of unaffiliated parties will go elsewhere. This is consistent with practically every stated claim of the classical liberals, the intellectual dark webbers, and so on. There is a reason that the famous “sealioning” comic is so often cited in these contexts: It dramatizes a situation in which someone is trying to talk to you and you just don’t want to talk to them because you find people like them intrinsically distasteful and unpleasant. And it’s fine to feel that way about us. But we all have to go somewhere eventually.