A Response to Quillette’s Uri Harris
One of the most common criticisms of the Intellectual Dark Web from the mainstream progressive left is that they are merely a group of anti-Social Justice reactionaries, posing as intellectual liberals, who flirt with the political right. But it came as a shock to many regular Quillette readers when Uri Harris levied this criticism against Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson for regularly and uncritically associating with members of Turning Point USA. Harris uses Rubin and Peterson as examples of how the IDW functions as a whole, and juxtaposes these examples with the defense of their political diversity laid out by Daniel Miessler, who insists that detractors of the IDW have been misled in their interpretation of the group’s politics.
A couple excerpts from Harris’ first article sum up his basic argument:
A “new” right has indeed been forming online, especially on YouTube, and it includes many people who don’t think of themselves as being on the right, but who nevertheless find common ground with conservatives in opposition to the “new” left, with its focus on identity and structural oppression.
agreement on issues that previously divided liberals and conservatives (such as gay marriage and abortion) is no longer a requirement for being on the right, even on the mainstream, offline right.
Harris concludes that the IDW can only “foster political bridge-building and across-the-aisle debate” if “issues such as abortion and gay marriage are the main points of contention between liberals and conservatives today.” However, if the main point of contention is “the acceptance or rejection of the new left and its focus on identity and structural oppression,” then the IDW does not accomplish any bridge-building.
This is an entirely reasonable impression of the IDW that anyone might form who doesn’t regularly interact with the content and activity of all its members. However, this poses a false dilemma at group level, since most of the IDW do not function at all like the Rubin Report—they discuss a variety of topics, in different proportions. Also, the only ones Harris explicitly criticizes are Rubin and Peterson. Even if I were to grant the validity of his critiques of those two members, this begs the question of whether the criticisms also apply to the rest of the IDW. Sam Harris, Eric and Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer don’t interact with the likes of Turning Point USA—and many of them have spoken quite critically of them.
For example, see Eric and Bret Weinstein’s responses to Candace Owens:
Patriotism transcends race, sex and gender.
A love of country is the one thing that can unite all Americans based upon a philosophy.
The Left wants to pervert patriotism because the left seeks to destroy America.
Class and racial warfare is their ultimate goal.
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) April 20, 2019
The idea that the Right is patriotic and the Left is not, is nonsense and offensive nonsense at that. Cut the divisive crap.
Visit any national cemetery @RealCandaceO. It’s not filled with Republicans only.
None of them are. But, you know this. So…..Why say it? https://t.co/fV7VY9XsZF
— Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) April 20, 2019
How is this confusing? She begins by invoking love of country as a unifying force, then lobs a grenade into the peace talks she has called for.
“…the left seeks to destroy America.”
— Bret Weinstein (@BretWeinstein) April 20, 2019
Is the IDW’s Primary Focus the Acceptance or Rejection of the New Left?
The IDW is not a group of people who willingly thrust themselves into the limelight out of the blue. Nor is it a group who knowingly and intentionally joined forces to form a united front, under a confession of faith. They were conducting business as usual, maintaining their own benign principles within their own respective professional spaces, when they were confronted by the new more dogmatic and intolerant left, members of whom forcibly opposed them—from within their professional spaces.
If you trace their backstories, you will find that they all tried to reason with their opponents before going public. This group of people came together as the result of environmental pressures alone. Their kin selection, to put in evolutionary terms, was a mutual willingness to conduct good faith conversations, extend others the benefit of the doubt, steelman their opponents and submit to robustly supported evidence no matter how inconvenient it might prove for their politics.
While all the members of the IDW have made a handful of anti-PC statements in opposition to the new left, these statements have taken up only a fraction of their time and activity.
Jordan Peterson doesn’t only spend his time condemning white privilege and postmodern neo-Marxists, but has spent the past year and a half on tour, talking about purpose, meaning, value, personal responsibility and how to make a real difference in the world. Sam Harris doesn’t only talk about the threat Islam poses to the western world, but spends most of his time talking about moral philosophy, neuroscience and technology. Bret Weinstein doesn’t only talk about his falling out with Evergreen College, but mainly about biology and evolutionary science. I could not even find an obvious example of Eric Weinstein opposing the left—he spends most of his time talking about economics. Christina Hoff Sommers doesn’t only talk about third-wave feminism: her podcast The Femsplainers covers a wide variety of issues. Michael Shermer’s Skeptic Magazine and podcast hardly ever touch on the new left. On his Sunday Special, Ben Shapiro hosts many people with radically differing views, and constantly discusses typical core differences between left and right—with minimal focus on the new left.
Dave Rubin doesn’t only platform conservatives. He openly invites progressives onto his show all the time, though most are unwilling to accept his invitation. Also, anyone who regularly watches his show will know that he does discuss political differences with his conservative guests pretty much every time they’re on—he doesn’t kowtow to them. Instead, they just agree to disagree with much more ease than conservatives and liberals have in the past. Dave shows sympathy and respect for their positions (on gay marriage, abortion, the second amendment, etc.) and greatly appreciates their ability to engage in good faith dialogue. Though, interestingly, the positive significance of the new right’s diminished focus on primary differences between right and left is completely overlooked by Harris in his analysis.
Harris’ first Quillette article was widely criticized by Bret Weinstein and Dave Rubin for referencing a debunked “alternative influence network” report put out by Data & Society, shared by Vox’s Ezra Klein, which commits a classic guilt-by-association fallacy. To Harris’ credit, he later acknowledged that this criticism was probably justified, because YouTube’s algorithm actually pushes associative content suggestions that take one further left rather than further right. However, the Vox article reference still remains Harris’ main justification for his birdseye view of the group. The entire premise of his argument is built upon the presupposition that Ezra Klein’s interpretation of the report is correct.
Discussing the Right
While I agree with Klein that “what constitutes left and right changes over time,” his simplistic characterization of the IDW seems insufficient to describe a group who are clearly shifting leftwards. The new right is becoming increasingly tolerant of political middle ground positions and less vocally dogmatic about their personal moral positions, while the new left is becoming increasingly intolerant of political middle ground positions and more vocally dogmatic about their personal moral positions—a strangely conservative move for a group of people who call themselves progressives. Just because someone with classical liberal ideals can find some common ground with the much more libertarian new right doesn’t mean that that liberal is becoming more conservative—it means that the conservatives are becoming more liberal.
The IDW is not homogeneous. Every member discusses traditional left/right differences and rejects certain aspects of both the new left and the new right to varying degrees. Granted, some members are more focused on critiquing the new left than others (i.e. Dave Rubin, Gad Saad and Christina Hoff Sommers), but their rejection of the new left is not the sum total of what they do. It doesn’t necessarily make them part of the new right—and no member can serve as an exemplar of the entire group.
Discussing the Left
After receiving criticism that reaffirmed Miessler’s argument, Harris elaborates further in his second article: a response to Libby Emmons’ essay in the Federalist, which argues that the IDW are a group of classical liberals who are beholden to no political ideology. “This is a contradiction,” Harris argues, “because classical liberalism is an ideology. You can’t have it both ways; if you’re a classical liberal you are not beholden to no ideology.” Harris concludes, “Modern progressivism, with its emphasis on identity and structural oppression, has replaced classical liberalism.” I could agree with this if progressivism and classical liberalism were mutually exclusive and if classical liberalism alone encompassed the full extent of what the members of the IDW believe. But is this true?
Valuing freedom of speech; making a commitment to science; appealing to logic and reason over pure emotion; and being willing to fearlessly dissent from popular opinion—these things do not necessarily restrict you to one side of the political aisle. That depends on how you prioritize those values in different contexts. It’s possible to believe in systemic oppression without necessarily believing that systemic oppression is the cause of every problem. It’s possible to find value in group identity without necessarily denying individual responsibility. It’s possible to be pro-trans rights while also holding to a binary view of gender and differentiating between biological and trans sex. It’s also possible to be a free speech advocate, while retaining an awareness of people’s sensitivities in certain contexts. It’s not black and white.
Rubin and Peterson do seem to embrace the classical liberal title more than most of the IDW, but—as Eric Weinstein recently pointed out—the more left-leaning members of the IDW rarely even use the term. Eric Weinstein, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying all call themselves progressives.
Harris believes that the IDW opposes a caricature of the new left without truly grappling with the validity of progressivism. He suggests that most progressives are reasonable, many academics are progressive, and that the new right is focusing on a fringe group which incorporates only the worst examples of progressive lunacy:
This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of examples where these ideas have been taken too far, to the kind of absurdity Emmons describes, but they shouldn’t detract from the bigger picture: the gradual adoption of an ideology that in many ways provides many people with a more coherent way of understanding society and addressing its problems than classical liberalism does.
I agree, most progressives are not lunatics. The Blaze’s Allie Stuckey recently told Ben Shapiro on his Sunday Special that most liberal democrats who approach her are respectful and reasonable. Heterodox Academy founder Jonathan Haidt has also stated on several occasions that radical SJW activism is only occurring on a small number of American University campuses. In a response video, Tim Pool suggests that the entire premise of Harris’ argument—the distinction between the reasonable majority of the left and the fringe radical left—is false. Most of his liberal friends, Pool argues, are clueless about progressive issues like gender fluidity. Most people on the left are not as progressive as Harris’s piece suggests. In my experience, this is accurate. The problem is that moderates rarely bring up the issue of the lunatic fringe or want to debate them, so they unfortunately remain a silent majority.
However, as Harris points out, “commercial incentives encourage conservative media to seek out and publish the most absurd examples of progressive-ideas-gone-crazy, presented with sufficient outrage, thus making them seem far more pervasive than they are.” This is true of almost every mainstream media platform on both left and right, and seems to be particularly true of Harris’ perception of the new right—as depicted by mainstream media. If he thinks the new right are “characterized first and foremost by their opposition to the left,” then he’s fallen into the same trap. Most people from the left, center and right are entirely reasonable and not primarily reactionary—but that is not what sells.
True Points of Contention
While I agree with Harris that radical progressives are a minority among the left, the loony fringe is not a caricature that can be easily dismissed.
Shortly after Harris’ second article, Eric Weinstein asked Twitter for suggestions of reasonable progressives:
A lot of @davidpakmanshow seems reasonable. Some of @ggreenwald & @ezraklein as well. I can be a bit of a sucker for @monaeltahawy. But, the glee of SJWs trying to ruin people is what keeps me away.
I mean, IDW has a pretty reasonable progressive wing. It’s just short the SJWs.
— Eric Weinstein (@EricRWeinstein) April 28, 2019
To which Sam Harris responded succinctly:
This isn't best analyzed by "portions." *Most* of what they believe might be reasonable—or, at least, defensible. The problem is that they are happy to mislead their audiences, and smear good people, if it serves their politics. They are activists posing as journalists.
— Sam Harris (@SamHarrisOrg) April 28, 2019
Some Reasonable Progressives Rationalize Taking Their Ideas to Unreasonable Lengths.
Eric Weinstein suggested Ezra Klein as a possible example of a reasonable progressive—and Uri Harris leans upon him for the premise of his entire argument. Therefore, we should also consider what Klein had to say about the slogan #KillAllMen: “They didn’t want me put to death. They didn’t want any men put to death. They didn’t hate me, and they didn’t hate men. ‘#KillAllMen’ was another way of saying ‘it would be nice if the world sucked less for women.’ It was an expression of frustration with pervasive sexism.”
It was obvious to many, when this hashtag was trending, why this rationale leads to such unreasonable conclusions (and hence why Klein felt compelled to defend the hashtag). This is connected to the idea of punching up vs. punching down—a concept I have some sympathy with since varying power dynamics do exist in some contexts. #KillAllMen can seem reasonable because women are viewed as historically oppressed, and men as their historical oppressors. Because men are in a position of privilege, ridiculously offensive hyperbole at their expense is justified. Clearly, no one thinks that the women who use #KillAllMen literally want to kill all men. What’s offensive, however, is the broad assumption that a majority of men are still oppressors—and that it’s perfectly reasonable to banter about mass murder.
There is an interesting comparison to be made here with Carl Sargon of Akkad Benjamin’s I wouldn’t even rape you tweet in response to UK Labour MP Jess Phillips, who, he felt, had laughed at the idea of discussing male suicide rates in parliament. Given that Carl has a male family member who committed suicide, his sensitivity on the subject led him to reason that if she was going to laugh at one of the worst problems facing men, he might as well direct a joke at her about one of the worst problems facing women. However, most European mainstream media today still view Benjamin’s tweet as punching down because he’s a man and Jess Phillips is a woman, although, in his view, he was punching up because she is a member of parliament — with the power to effect public policy—while he is just a political entertainer on YouTube. He is following the same logic as Klein regarding directions of punching, but he doesn’t enjoy the same social approval. This is a good example of why intersectional generalizations don’t always work. (I would argue that both Benjamin and Klein go too far.)
Reasonable Progressives Who Don’t Take Their Ideas to Unreasonable Lengths Seem Unwilling to Vocally Differentiate Themselves from Those Who Do.
Many ridiculous narratives published in the Washington Post, New York Times, New York Post, Huffington Post, Guardian, Vox, BuzzFeed, MSNBC, CNN, etc. have gone unchallenged. There have been op-eds against white men, white women, white feminist women, testosterone and even interracial marriage. Both the Washington Post and the New York Post just ran op-eds arguing that the men running for Democratic presidential nominations should just drop out of the race if they are truly advocates for women.
Following the Christchurch massacre, there were several attempts to blame pretty much anyone to the right of woke for enabling and influencing terrorism. Those accused included Douglas Murray, Bill Maher, Maajid Nawaz, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and even Chelsea Clinton.
The left’s depiction of Brett Kavanaugh, the Covington incident and Jussie Smollett illustrates the normalization of unreasonable progressivism by seemingly reasonable progressives.
It is unreasonable to draw a hard line between progressivism and classical liberalism. If people like Harris are going to make the argument that the Sarah Jeongs of the world are only a caricature of the left, then they have a responsibility—as Jordan Peterson says—to clean their rooms and tell the left when they have gone too far.
What does all this mean for the IDW? Claire Lehmann’s decision to publish Harris’ articles was a good one. It let outside critics know that Quillette is not just an echo chamber. More importantly, it sparked some very useful discussion. The members of the IDW are now more aware of their perceived differences and similarities than before.
However, ultimately Harris’ critique would have better levied against the media than against the IDW. They are politically diverse, they don’t only oppose the left, and whether or not the left is generally reasonable is something that cannot be so easily defined.
However, I still respect Uri Harris. He’s an extremely thoughtful writer, and an invaluable contributor to Quillette. If anyone is going to critique the IDW, he is probably one of the most qualified to do so.
[…] group of intellectuals who were simply pushing back against a dangerous but trendy variant of post-modern leftism. But as 2018 gave way to 2019, the criticisms became fiercer, and the tensions became more […]
[…] group of intellectuals who were simply pushing back against a dangerous but trendy variant of post-modern leftism. But as 2018 gave way to 2019, the criticisms became fiercer, and the tensions became more […]
I don’t think that it’s even remotely controversial that the Left hates America. They tell us all the time. How do you think any of us even got the idea? SlateStarCodex said it best: Every election cycle like clockwork, conservatives accuse liberals of not being sufficiently pro-America. And every election cycle like clockwork, liberals give extremely unconvincing denials of this. “It’s not that we’re, like, against America per se. It’s just that…well, did you know Europe has much better health care than we do? And much lower crime rates? I mean, come on, how did they get so awesome? And we’re just sitting here, can’t even get the gay marriage thing sorted out, seriously, what’s wrong with a country that can’t…sorry, what were we talking about? Oh yeah, America. They’re okay. Cesar Chavez was really neat. So were some other people outside the mainstream who became famous precisely by criticizing… Read more »
Raises the question, not begs the question.
The lunatic fringe are now running the universities that are producing the students who will go into politics and other positions of leadership. It’s not ‘about’ to happen; it’s already happening. Today, it’s affirmative action quotas, women-only groups (men-only groups are considered dangerous), and anti-white bigotry, but tomorrow it could be mass-firings, forced sexual and racial segregation and child-gender surgery.
However, I’m pretty optimistic that things can’t continue as they are. Behind this current crop of SJWs are a new wave of young people who are heartily sick and tired of left-wing proselytizing and domination of academic discourse. I suspect they will swing the pendulum back to the center when they move into the workforce.
First, I think you are overly charitable to Harris. He may well be very reasonable in other contexts, but these Quillette articles were, unfortunately, pretty awful.
Second, as already mentioned, one of the fundamental issues here is that the New Left, even if it is a fringe, has come to totally distinct notions of justice and epistemology, and those notions have largely taken hold of large segments of academia and the political left, even if they haven’t fully agreed with them yet. You did sort of touch on this, I suppose. I see the IDW as being largely united by holding to more traditional epistemology (‘scientism’) and a more traditional notion of justice based on individual responsibility and fairness.
Finally, I really loved this article, despite the two above quibbles!
The thing that Harris missed and you don’t really cover at all, is even if the lunatic fringe really are a fringe it really doesn’t make things ok. The problem that the left has been hijacked by a dogmatic ideology that rejects humanism and universal values remain. They can be as pleasant about it as they like but what underpins Privilege theory, critical race theory, cultural appropriation theory etc etc are terrible ideas both intellectually, ethically, and politically. None of them are genuinely progressive for starters, and that issue is there even if the screaming stops. Until the left is prepared to actually engage critically with ideas they currently hold in the manner of religious dogma nothing will get better You are of course right that most of the people associated with the IDW haven’t moved their positions, and what links then across the spectrum is a commitment to universal… Read more »