At the end of a 1940 essay on Charles Dickens, George Orwell described his subject as
a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened … a man who is generously angry … a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.
A year ago, the words dark web made most people think of a seedy online den of drug dealers and hackers. But, ever since Eric Weinstein tacked intellectual onto the term, it has assumed a more noble (if contentious) meaning. Sure, to some people, the intellectual dark web remains a dirty and disreputable place, full of charlatans who are doing their best to inject the toxic ideas of the alt right into the mainstream. To others, the intellectual dark web is a fearless, generously angry celebration of free intelligence—a repudiation of many of “the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”
The intellectual dark web is built around first principles instead of rigid ideological dogmas, and these principles—free expression, open scientific inquiry, and a politics that transcends tribal identities—need defenders in the year 2018.
When careful scholars like Christina Hoff Sommers are being shouted down as fascists at American colleges and universities, we clearly have a problem with free expression. When the mere mention of biological differences between the sexes can make you a pariah and destroy your career, we have a problem with open scientific inquiry. When cynical inflamers of racial animosity are embraced as cultural heroes, while people who suggest that we should value character over color are decried as racist instigators, we have a problem with identity politics.
The intellectual dark web has no statement of purpose or platform—it’s just a community of individuals, who share certain values and want to instantiate them as widely as possible. And those values have more to do with the promotion and protection of civil discourse, than any specific political or ideological agenda. You’re not going to find much political alignment between Ben Shapiro (who hosts one of the most popular conservative podcasts in the country) and Bret Weinstein (who supported Bernie Sanders in 2016), but they can agree on which types of dialogue help us get at the truth and which are corrosive and dysfunctional.
To some extent, this loose affiliation protects members of the intellectual dark web from being grouped together with less scrupulous people, who are associated with the label. But if the vicious, dishonest criticisms that have already been deployed against people like Sam Harris (anti-Muslim bigot, genocidal maniac) and Jordan Peterson (belle of the alt right, pseudo-intellectual bigot) are any indication, many opponents of this movement aren’t interested in nuance or basic fairness. Just recall the torrent of stupidity and bad faith that accompanied an out-of-context quote from Steven Pinker earlier this year.
Faced with howling critics like these, it’s tempting to say, well, screw them. In all the aforementioned cases, fair enough. There should be no tolerance for gross misrepresentations or hysterical attacks by people who won’t even take the time to watch the videos they’re incensed about. But here’s the problem: this constant barrage of unfair attacks has given some members of the intellectual dark web a warped perception of people who actually deserve harsh criticism. Instead of upholding their principles by denouncing real charlatans and peddlers of divisive nonsense, they see all the usual suspects saying all the usual things—alt-right! fascist! bigot!—and assume it’s yet another mindless smear-fest.
This enemy-of-my-enemy attitude leads to one set of standards for people who are sympathetic to the intellectual dark web, and a different set of standards for those who aren’t. For example, Dave Rubin has rightly made free speech one of his core issues, hosting segments of the Rubin Report with titles like “The Free Speech Wars Have Begun” and challenging college students around the country for attempting to de-platform, interrupt and intimidate speakers. But his commitment to free speech looks a lot shakier when it comes to his support for Candace Owens, who only shares his hostility toward censorship when it’s coming from the left.
In January, Owens called for the imprisonment of Hillary and Bill Clinton, James Comey, Robert Mueller, Loretta Lynch, George Soros, Jeff Bezos and “ALL compliant members of the fake news media.” Then she listed Jake Tapper, Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper and Jim Acosta, as if the secret police had asked her for a good place to start. It’s difficult to think of a more direct assault on free speech than a demand for journalists to be thrown in prison for criticizing the president. But instead of admonishing Owens for expressing near-total contempt for one of his most cherished principles, Rubin has defended her at every available opportunity.
Rubin frequently has Owens on his show, he joins her onstage at events hosted by Turning Point USA (where she’s the communications director), and he says they have a close personal relationship: “I know Candace. She has been on my show, we’ve had dinner at my house, we’ve traveled and done gigs together, we’ve spent hours talking and debating.” It isn’t hard to see why Rubin ignores Owens’s most egregious comments—nobody likes to criticize a friend—but the hypocrisy is conspicuous. Imagine if a prominent left-wing commentator said a group of journalists at the Daily Wire or Fox News should be imprisoned for violating a few too many progressive taboos. Rubin would surely waste no time citing this as a prime example of the regressive left trampling the Constitution and trying to silence dissent.
Members of the intellectual dark web often lament the mindless demonization that has become so common on the left, but this is another area in which Owens sounds like a right-wing version of the shrillest social justice warriors she deplores. She constantly accuses the left of enslaving black Americans and claims to have escaped the plantation run by the Democratic Party. She says liberals are brainwashed and demented. She even claims that Planned Parenthood is a genocidal organization bent on killing as many black babies as possible.
Just take a look at a tweet she posted earlier this month: “Great news, liberals! The plan you hatched to exterminate blacks via Planned Parenthood is going well. 61% of us never made it out the womb. Bad news: I did make it out and I plan to be the loudest voice against the MURDERS you have committed.” During an interview with Rubin, Owens said Planned Parenthood was “literally built for the purpose—and it served its purpose, you know?—to decrease the black population by a lot.” A follow-up question would’ve been helpful here—e.g. “So you believe Planned Parenthood is a genocidal, racist organization?”—but Rubin just moved on.
Sommers describes Owens as the “pseudo-left’s worst nightmare: a formidable young black woman saying the emperor has no clothes.” Douglas Murray thinks she’s a “seriously smart and sassy young American conservative, whose campus and media appearances have seen her begin to gain the audience she deserves.” Eric Weinstein (who coined the term intellectual dark web) says she’s “building bridges,” “learning the values of developing a bipartisanship against orthodoxy” and “reaching across the aisle effectively.” When Weinstein says, “Almost all of us now want out of fake division, other than those who sew and profit from it,” it’s astonishing that he sees Owens as the solution to this problem rather than the cause. Nearly everything she says is calculated to generate as much hatred and division as possible.
Owens’s tactics mirror those of the hard left—particularly her incessant use of imagery designed to maximize disgust and outrage (genocide, slavery). This is why opportunistic ideologues on the left use the word fascist every chance they get. Unfortunately, some members of the intellectual dark web have seen the utility in this tactic as well, but instead of seeing petty führers everywhere, they see mini Stalins.
Just listen to this conversation between Sommers and Camille Paglia (both of whom have been described as members of the intellectual dark web) at the American Enterprise Institute. In the first few minutes, Sommers mentions Paglia’s observation that there’s a “Kremlin-like environment” in modern feminism. She also says there has been a “purge” of “dissidents.” After Paglia attacks the “institutionally entrenched commissars” in the movement, she comes right out with it: “It’s truly Stalinist.” A minute later, she says the efforts to infantilize women on college campuses (by, say, policing sexual activity) are “deeply Stalinist.”
This is the sort of politicized history and elastic language Sommers and Paglia would know how to ridicule if it came from a screeching undergraduate and involved the word Hitler. Why, then, do both of them think it’s acceptable to carelessly label university administrators and gender studies professors Stalinist apparatchiks? They seem to be saying: third-wave feminists may not have massacred anyone or established another Gulag just yet, but who knows how bad things could get at Oberlin and Swarthmore? When student groups at Lewis & Clark Law School described Sommers as a “known fascist” before a talk earlier this year, they made fools of themselves. Why would Sommers and Paglia want to adopt the same tactic?
In a 1944 essay (“What is Fascism?”), Orwell explains that the word fascism had become “almost entirely meaningless.” He has seen it used to describe everything from fox hunting to Gandhi to homosexuality, so he asks readers to use it “with a certain amount of circumspection and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swear word.” In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell again points out how fascism had been instrumentalized: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” This is a point many people seem intent on missing—just recall the endless Holocaust references after the Trump administration’s border separation policy was exposed earlier this summer.
Like fascism, Stalinism isn’t a swear word. One of the strengths of the intellectual dark web is supposed to be its advocacy of a saner and less censorious brand of politics—with more charitable interpretations of your opponents’ motives, fewer comparisons to the mass murderers of the twentieth century. It’s long past time to establish (or reestablish) basic norms of discourse that will help us reshape a rancorous political culture that privileges high-decibel moral opprobrium over rational conversation. That’s why the intellectual dark web is such a necessary corrective in an era of hyperbolic, shallow and demonstrative politics. And that’s why people like Sommers and Paglia shouldn’t play the same rhetorical game as their most mendacious political adversaries.
Because the intellectual dark web has no well-defined set of political objectives, its natural role is to facilitate open dialogue on difficult subjects. This can’t be done when you assume the people who disagree with you are Nazis or Stalinists—it’s vital to take the risk of arguing in good faith as often as possible. This is a point members of the intellectual dark web make all the time—from Harris explaining that it’s absurd to vilify people for views they don’t hold (the empty allegations of bigotry against him come to mind) to Douglas Murray’s observation that there are “competing virtues” on both sides of many major political debates (such as immigration).
Peterson makes a similar point about different virtues, though he argues that they’re often compatible. For example, the conscientiousness commonly found on the right is complemented by the openness that generally predominates on the left. He also says the left has a responsibility to ensure that social and economic hierarchies don’t become too oppressive or unequal—another acknowledgment of the symbiosis between left and right. As he puts it in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos: “I have some beliefs that might be regarded as left-leaning. I think, for example, that the tendency for valuable goods to distribute themselves with pronounced inequality constitutes an ever-present threat to the stability of society.”
But, whenever Peterson discusses the “radical postmodern neo-Marxist” wing of the left, this conciliatory language immediately gives way to talk of murderous collapse, the Gulag, and the bloody chaos that awaits us if the collectivists and postmodern types gain too much power.
If you’ve heard Peterson talk about the radical postmodern neo-Marxists—who have already infiltrated the universities and other major institutions—you could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that he regards them as the gravest threat western civilization faces. For example, during a conversation with Joe Rogan earlier this year, Peterson said the ideology espoused by people who want everyone to use gender-neutral pronouns is “reprehensibly murderous. So guess what? I’m not going to say their words, period. Because I know what they’re like—I know where that leads.” In 12 Rules for Life, he leaves no doubt about where it leads: to the killing fields of Cambodia, the mass graves of Mao’s China, the Gulag.
In the penultimate chapter of 12 Rules for Life, Peterson explains this view in two sections: “Postmodernism and the Long Arm of Marx” and “Lest We Forget: Ideas Have Consequences.” He points out that “Marxist ideas were very attractive to intellectual utopians” like Jacques Derrida, Jean-Paul Sartre and Max Horkheimer—as well as “one of the primary architects of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Samphan.” He goes on: “Samphan’s ideas were favorably looked upon by the French intellectuals who granted him his Ph.D. Back in Cambodia, he was provided with the opportunity to put his theories into practice.” Peterson wasn’t just talking about agricultural management: “A quarter of the Cambodian population were worked to death in the countryside, in the killing fields.”
In the next section, Peterson extends his argument to the atrocities of the Soviet Union. He emphasizes the plight of the kulaks—relatively wealthy peasants who were massacred, raped and forcibly relocated by the Soviet authorities. “From the communist viewpoint,” Peterson writes, “these kulaks had gathered their wealth by plundering those around them, and deserved their fate.” He then explains that the kulaks were “in general, the most skillful and hardworking farmers,” who often “met their fate at the hands of their most jealous, resentful and unproductive neighbors, who used the high ideals of communist collectivization to mask their murderous intent.”
It’s no surprise that Peterson describes postmodern neo-Marxism as a murderous ideology—he traces its intellectual lineage directly to Leninism and Stalinism through the conduit of the “French intellectuals.” As he puts it in 12 Rules for Life, even after the savagery of the Soviet system had been exposed by dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “This did not mean that the fascination Marxist ideas had for intellectuals—particularly French intellectuals—disappeared. It merely transformed.” How did it transform? “Society was no longer repression of the poor by the rich. It was oppression of everyone by the powerful.” And there you have it: the foundation of postmodern neo-Marxist thought.
Peterson ends the section with an ominous discussion of the retraining programs postmodern neo-Marxists want to impose on those who don’t agree with them: “What might such retraining look like? Where might its limits lie? Such things are often pushed past any reasonable limit before they are discontinued. Mao’s murderous Cultural Revolution should have taught us that.” Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot—the triple crown of revolutionary murderers in just eleven pages.
“Your ideology is murderous.” “Your attitude is deeply Stalinist.” “You’re committing genocide against black babies.” Comments like these automatically extinguish any hope of a productive conversation—something that should distress people who regard the open exchange of ideas as the master value in a free society. During a recent conversation with Robert Wright, Bret Weinstein explained what he sees as the purpose of the intellectual dark web: “To engage in dialogue with people with whom you fundamentally disagree … I would argue that this is actually the reason that something like the intellectual dark web must exist.” He’s right, which is why it’s a shame to see members of the intellectual dark web working so hard to shut down the possibility of dialogue with people who would benefit from it the most.
There’s a reason why Orwell has made several appearances in this article—members of the intellectual dark web should revisit his work. While there’s a long (often ignoble) history of people trying to invoke Orwell for their own political purposes, that’s not what I’m doing here. This isn’t an argument that Orwell would endorse this or that position held by members of the intellectual dark web—it’s an argument that they have an opportunity to restore Orwellian virtues to our public conversation, and they shouldn’t squander it.
In an era of effortless calumny and hysteria, Orwell’s example of sober, fair-minded criticism has never been more valuable. At a time when many students want to ban speakers and texts they regard as offensive, they should recall Orwell’s argument about the pernicious influence of “voluntary” censorship (which he put forward in his original introduction to Animal Farm): “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” As our political culture becomes increasingly Balkanized, Orwell’s refusal to uncritically accept the dogmas of his own side should remind intellectuals that they sometimes have to abandon mindless tribalism to maintain their integrity.
Although Orwell remained a man of the left until the end of his life, much of his best-known work was a scathing rebuke of people who were ostensibly his political allies. He exposed the fact that much of the British left allowed its support for Stalin to override its commitment to free speech and human rights. He despised the “left-wing intellectuals who are so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions,” such as the feeling that made his heart leap “at the sight of a Union Jack.” And he criticized “renegade liberals” whose radicalism led them to abandon any sense of proportionality or fairness: “If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means.”
Like Orwell, members of the intellectual dark web spend much of their time attacking the excesses of the left. But Orwell was assiduously careful about who he aligned himself with and what he said in pursuit of this cause. For example, when the Duchess of Atholl wrote to him, asking if he would speak to the League for European Freedom about the spreading threat of communism, he refused to compromise one principle in the service of another: “I cannot associate myself with an essentially Conservative body which claims to defend democracy in Europe but has nothing to say about British imperialism … I belong to the Left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country.”
Orwell’s unflagging honesty wouldn’t even allow him to misrepresent Stalin. In the original version of Animal Farm, Orwell wrote, “All the animals, including Napoleon, flung themselves flat on their bellies and hid their faces” during the Battle of the Windmill. But, right before the book went to press, he decided to change the sentence: “All the animals, except Napoleon…” (italics added). He told his publisher this would be “fair to Stalin, as he did stay in Moscow during the German advance.”
What would this man have to say about someone like Candace Owens, who relentlessly slanders her political opponents and demands their imprisonment? What would this man—whose friends were betrayed and murdered by Stalin’s operatives during the Spanish Civil War—have to say about the claim that there’s an outbreak of Stalinism at American colleges and universities? Orwell witnessed British imperialism firsthand, received a fascist bullet through the neck in Spain, and spent years resisting communism at a time when doing so made many of his compatriots revile him. He had plenty of experience with “murderous ideologies,” in other words, and I doubt transgender activists would have terrified him all that much.
While politics can never be divorced from history, the trials of Orwell’s life remind us that movements like postmodern neo-Marxism are only tremors after the great ideological convulsions of the twentieth century. Despite the daily warnings of imminent social and political catastrophe, western countries won’t be seeing show trials, summary executions or bloody purges anytime soon. What we will see are more and more eruptions of political hatred, often fueled by people who want you to think your political opponents are fascists, racists, baby killers, brutal collectivists or whatever smear suits their purposes for the day. Instead of dragging us even deeper into this black hole of hatred and invective, the intellectual dark web should help us find a way out.