The Future of the Intellectual Dark Web

The Intellectual Dark Web—loosely defined as the group of public intellectuals coalescing around issues of freedom of speech in the context of left-wing political correctness on American campuses—is one of the most fascinating political developments of the Trump era.

The core members of this group appear to be Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Heather Heying and Bret and Eric Weinstein. Rubin is perhaps the most curious case of them all—a former Young Turks host, who completely switched his political worldview from progressive to classical liberal, which Rubin uses as a synonym for libertarian.

Rubin’s personal development mirrors a major online trend of the past three years, in that social justice, or political correctness on the left has become the central wedge issue for deciding what side of politics one is on. Culture war is the central focus of the online landscape, and if one is opposed to political correctness and the excesses of the left, one finds oneself gradually moving rightward.

But what does an excess of political correctness have to do with issues of economics, war, climate and public policy? Marxist scholars such as Adolph Reed have skewered identity politics as a scam for dividing the working class and transforming representation into some false notion of class power. The socialist writer Chris Hedges has condemned Antifa, calling political violence from the left a poison. Angela Nagle, the author of Kill All Normies and a budding star of the left, has chronicled the rise of the online right with a critical eye toward the Tumblr ideology on her own side.

Figures on the left have no problem critiquing political correctness on the left. In fact, the idea that political correctness is a left-wing phenomenon is itself deeply contestable. During the 2016 election, the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders was himself the target of dogmatic politically correct attacks. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and feminist icon Gloria Steinem each declared that women must support other women in electoral politics, and in Steinem’s case, that young women were only supporting Sanders because “the boys are with Bernie.” Rather than a weapon of the left, in electoral politics identity politics is consistently used by the political center to fend off challengers from the left.

In conversation with Bret Weinstein, Dave Rubin asks Bret if his experiences being ostracized by progressives have made him rethink his progressive views. Bret responds that the center right has become a kind of oasis for heterodox thinkers, but that the dark side of political correctness has in no way made him reconsider his allegiances. Rubin presses the question, asking if any progressives have invited Bret to speak, as those on the right, including the Ayn Rand Institute, have.

Rubin’s questions are deeply telling—the feeling that you have been ostracized from progressivism, and the tendency to therefore see the left as a monolithic entity reflect what Bret refers to as political PTSD. When your own political tribe rejects you, you become in many ways a prisoner of your own antipathy toward that group. This leads disaffected leftists frustrated with PC culture to vote for Trump, or to become classical liberals. This tendency merits deeper examination.

Political correctness is posed as a yes or no proposition. If you say no to PC, invariably, you are cast as right wing. Rubin saw this happening and decided to leave the left entirely. But this is a social phenomenon, not an intellectual one. To leave the left for these reasons is to allow the tides of social opinion to change every tenet of your political worldview, turning you—in Rubin’s case—from a progressive who believes in regulating business to a libertarian with limitless faith in markets alone.

Jordan Peterson, perhaps the most famous member of the Intellectual Dark Web, has repeatedly been challenged on his notion that the far left presents the greatest contemporary threat to Western nations. He tends to reply to this critique either by claiming that the far left is the biggest problem on college campuses, or by pointing out that the left has gone after him, so he therefore chooses to focus more squarely on the left. But this reflects the sheer inadequacy of making one’s opposition to political correctness the main tenant of one’s political worldview.

Peterson has a highly refined mode of thinking designed for the campus environment and the orthodoxies present there—but viewing him in the context of the world at large reveals how narrow his vision has become. In his GQ interview with Helen lewis, Peterson defined “identity politics” as a phenomenon started by the postmodern left in the 1970s, in order to dodge Lewis’ claim that the United States was founded on identity politics. This just seems pedantic of Peterson – his recourse to ‘English common law” or Enlightenment values cannot muddy the fact that the United States was founded on the exclusion of particular people on the basis of identity. For an intellectual concerned with storytelling, mythologies, and shared cultural rituals, it does seem that he is actively trying to focus as little on identity as possible, reflecting his concerns with excesses on the left more than the full scope of history.

The entire Intellectual Dark Web, coalescing around left-wing political correctness, must begin to make serious decisions about its future as a political movement. On the one hand, they desire an apolitical discussion of scientific and empirical issues. And yet, one cannot ignore the presence of Ben Shapiro in the group, who is a megaphone for conservative political ideas.

The Intellectual Dark Web has been criticized for being too right wing—a fair critique. Eric Weinstein, who presents himself as “a Bernie guy,” recently told Dave Rubin that Bernie was “economically confused.” How so? Rubin did not ask Weinstein to elaborate in any way. This is frustrating. Does Weinstein agree with Ben Shapiro’s views on universal healthcare? Is Bernie wrong about Wall Street regulation? What, exactly, does Weinstein mean?

Political discussions which focus on broad swathes of the left and classical liberals tend to avoid real and messy questions of public policy. But the Intellectual Dark Web cannot hide behind the idea of being apolitical so long as Ben Shapiro remains a core member. The group includes Peterson, Rubin and Shapiro—outspoken political messengers, almost all of whose opinions invariably favor the right.

If political correctness on the left is the glue keeping this group together, then the Intellectual Dark Web will be a limited movement that will exploit a weak spot of the left for a brief time, but fail to branch out into the political world at large. Like Jordan Peterson, the group will remain trapped on campus, while the world’s problems vastly eclipse the scope of academic self-censorship.

The Intellectual Dark Web is caught in the trap of its own fame—as a movement, it has garnered an enormous audience. Between Shapiro’s daily show, Sam Harris’ podcast, Peterson’s appearances and Dave Rubin’s interviews, millions of people have encountered their output. But what do they stand for? Are they simply concerned with rejecting left-wing identity politics in academia and the media, or do they also hope to create a new paradigm for thinking about politics?

If the latter, then the quality of political discussion must be raised beyond the issues on campus. Ben Shapiro is the most political and most vocal member of the group. Dave Rubin—with his libertarian views and intellectual U-turn—tends to be coddled or go unchallenged, while the focus of every conversation quickly moves to the shared enemy. A group formed on the basis of heterodoxy cannot remain interesting for long when major chasms of disagreement go publicly unexplored.

Bret Weinstein, in conversation with Robert Wright, presents a fascinating theory about the Intellectual Dark Web. Weinstein argues, as an evolutionary biologist, that the function of the IDW is to develop a toolkit for transitional historical times. As our sense-making apparatuses break down, as Bret’s brother Eric Weinstein has said, new aspects of our evolutionary toolkit must emerge to navigate chaotic times, and a possible transition from an era of material abundance to an era of austerity. A group of individuals dedicated to making evolutionary tools work in our favor might provide us with the ultimate trump card, a bulwark against the chaos of our contemporary political world. But if these evolutionary tools cannot be discovered and spotlighted, then the Intellectual Dark Web will remain a movement narrowly focused on purported far-left dogmas, whose most vocal and ideological members promote a firmly right-wing libertarian politics of markets and individuals, with little role for the protest and regulation expected within a healthy democratic polity.

From #WalkAway to the Jobs not Mobs slogan used by President Trump leading up to the midterms, the political right has been rebranding itself as the force of opposition to PC culture and Antifa. Whether they can respond to these global trends thoughtfully will prove the major test of the IDW as a worthwhile political movement, in this age of campus issues gone global, and political partisans seeking to exploit the far left to peddle old narratives as new.

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17 comments

  1. This entire article is a man telling people he doesn’t like that they must follow his instructions about how he thinks they must evolve.

    It’s a false premise. Disappointed to see this on Areo.

  2. The comments to this article cut to the quick, although the premise of the article is well founded; the author seems to have missed the point. The author has attempted to ascribe a political motivation to a group which he describes as apolitical. The irony is that if there is anything that the members of the IDW agree on it is the sovereignty of the individual and the dangers of identity politics. So the author proceeds to attempt to play identity politics with the group itself, glossing over the fact that they are a group in a descriptive sense only (as opposed to prescriptive).
    The reason that the premise of the article is strong is that, without unifying on a platform, the IDW are running on the spot. There is only so much catastrophising about ID politics that remains interesting. Rather than make that point strongly, the author has engaged in some ID politics of his own.

  3. I stopped reading when I got to the part that said, “cannot muddy the fact that the United States was founded on the exclusion of particular people on the basis of identity.” WRONG… The United States was NOT founded on that. That is a lie.

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  4. The intellectual dark web isn’t a movement so there aren’t ‘members’ as such.

    It is less about specific ideas than the freedom to express them.

    So long as you think it is a movement you are always going struggle with fitting them into a left-right x-axis.

    It’s the y-axis that matters now.

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  5. This is a ve;ry odd piece. A group of people with a very different background and checks can very different political views are supposed to be forming a political movement, because the media have given them a label and lumped them together.
    There’s a reason the only consistent thing between them is a an opposition to the Identifarians and their moral and cultural relativism xand a defence of free speech, it’s because politically that covers most of what they agree on. A generation ago Weinstein andr Sharpiro would have spent their time attacking each other, as the insane notion they shouldn’t be allowed to speak would have been inconceivable in the mainstream.
    I think it’s great Shapiro will defend free speech and civil discourse is great, I also think he’s wrong about virtually everything. The idea that because I think he should be free to express his views means I could be part of a political movement with him evidences how crazy things have got and little about the political views of either of us.
    Also onc again the notion of what identity polxitics is and what is being criticised seems utterly confused.

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    1. Actually Eric Weinstein provided the label for himself and his ilk, it wasn’t the media.

      I agree. The IDW is a kind of single issue intellectual constituency, and that issue is free speech. The threats to it have become big enough to bring people together under only that banner. They have no larger political program because they don’t need it. The issue of free speech is upstream from all of that and more existential. You’re right this would have been largely inconceivable 20 years ago.

      1. Fair point re Weinstein coining the term, but I do wonder if he regrets it given where the media have run with it.
        I guess they’ll keep their profile as a collective of sorts whilst free speech and identity politics remains a major issue, but quite what political programme they’re supposed to rally round is anyone’s guess.

  6. “If you say no to PC, invariably, you are cast as right wing.” That is the finger on the problem. Many 1960s-style lefties have separated from the Left but without embracing the libertarian “classical liberal” pole. We have kept to our 60s values but the spectrum has moved away from us. Our democratic socialist preferences (a la Bernie) have never been and still aren’t conservative. But our cultural values are opposite of today’s Left (we favored universal rights over tribal rights, universal standards of rational/empirical truth over tribal definitions of truth, viewing people first in terms of individual integrity and shared humanity rather than skin color, gender, or orientation, fighting the cultural police rather than being the cultural police, etc.; today’s Left reverses and rejects these 1960s values as insidious pillars of white supremacist patriarchy.) We were eager to push beyond good guy/bad guy demographics, while the New Left uses those binaries as a drumbeat to keep the based riled up. In a word, saying no to PC might mean you’ve gone libertarian or it might mean you’ve kept to a 1960s liberalism that is now equidistant from all points on the spectrum.

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    1. I embrace the libertarian pole… but provisionally so, and in the hopes that the left will come to it’s senses in time, and I can return once again to my tribe. I think libertarian free-market, anti-regulation absolutism is pure fantasy. there’s more than a few kernels of truth in there (for example I believe free market capitalism and globalism has, on balance, reduced mass poverty, famine, suffering and war the world over, and remains a crucial answer to that which remains), but I recognize that those principles are fundamentally amoral, and as such can be both positive and negative in the context of human life, at times creating poverty, suffering, famine and war if allowed to go unchecked and unregulated. and moreover, for all the bemoaning of government bureaucracy, inefficiency and control over our lives, corporate entities can be just as bureaucratic, inefficient, and controlling of our lives, especially if left unchecked. and more importantly, the people affected by their machinations (both noble and ignoble) have no say in it as they do in the case of governance in a democracy.

      I find solace in the libertarian camp in these times not because I think they’re really on-the-ball in their economic philosophies, but because it appears to have fallen on them to be the keepers of the flame of freedom of speech and expression, and civil liberties writ large. as a liberal, I believe that there can be no such thing as liberalism without these values. liberals who abandon them, in my view, are fundamentally not liberal. they may be heavily allied with groups, ideas and policies traditionally associated with liberalism, but unmoored from such core values such allegiances exist only insofar as they are convenient to the cause.

      libertarianism is, in my view, preserving liberalism as the left has abandoned it. and they do this not for the sake of liberals like me, not out of mocking spite for same, and not out of a sense to strategic opportunity, but simply out of principle and an understanding that the alternatives to these values have never worked in securing the liberties of the common, or even uncommon individual.

      1. I find the same things attractive about the libertarian pole (indeed, in the 1960s, with the emphasis on freedom from all conventions in speech, dress, and lifestyle, the ballot box fear was that libertarians would pull votes from liberals; with today’s emphasis on gun rights, small government, tax cuts that favor the top and reduce benefits at the bottom, etc., libertarians split the conservative vote). But whenever I look at an actual libertarian on the ballot, I find the negatives outweigh the positives. E.g., our libertarian candidate in Louisiana was very pro-life, pro-church, all for “getting government meddling out of health care” (and I assume out of environmental regulations, though I have no quote on that). So you and I probably agree on what’s good and what’s bad about the libertarian platform, but for me, the bad still outweighs the good by a fairly large margin when I look at actual races.

        1. well it’s long been known that running as a libertarian is a way for a conservative republican who realizes he has no chance relying solely on republican votes to… well, apparently shrink his chances even further from what they otherwise would have been. it’s one of those wonderful tactics that’s both dishonest AND largely ineffective. so I’m not keying into political candidates here. my view is based more on the libertarian press and thinking.

  7. “The entire Intellectual Dark Web, coalescing around left-wing political correctness, must begin to make serious decisions about its future as a political movement.”

    I’m a little confused as to why, after ten paragraphs, the text suddenly introduces the need for the IDW to evolve into a “political movement”, and questions whether it has what it takes to get there. Why should the IDW take this step at all? This proposition felt like quite the leap, as if something was left unexplained there. This is not meant as a snide remark, but I’m genuinely curious as to the train of thought there. Is it because the IDW probably wants their ideas to spread more widely and have more influence, which means they inevitably have to think of their work as the foundation for a more active movement, which at the moment cannot come to be with the current ideological contradictions within the group?

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    1. I thought so too, so it may be worth further considering. I learned a lot from Blum and liked the article, but I thought the whole point of the IDW was to blast away the pc policing you get with “movements” on both sides and open the floor for a messy, chaotic pluralism of ideas. (I don’t know how well they are doing that — maybe not at all — but I thought that was the idea anyway.)

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