As soon as the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) appeared in the culture wars, so did accusations that its members are all closed-minded and politically partisan. Recently, in Quillette, Uri Harris provoked an escalation of this controversy. Harris sees the IDW’s opposition to the new left’s concerns about “identity, structural oppression and privilege” as evidence that they are ideologically sequestered from and politically reactionary to progressivism. Libby Emmons retorted in the Federalist that political homelessness and classical liberal principles unify the IDW, not politics or ideology.
Harris points out in a follow-up essay that classical liberalism is an ideology—albeit one that tolerates pluralistic, radically unpopular views and is generally reticent to prioritize the liberty of institutions over individuals. Those principles often conflict with progressive policy goals to, in Harris’ words, “regulate speech, to ensure more diversity, and to prioritize structural changes” (emphasis added). Harris ends his second essay with a call for figures in the IDW to choose between rigidly adhering to classical liberal principles and building “bridges across the political divide”—two aims that may not be mutually exclusive, as Blaine Bowden argues in this magazine.
A subtler point of contention has arisen from Harris and Emmons’ strikingly different uses of the term IDW. Uri Harris’ essays—like Daniel Miessler’s graph showing the political positions of prominent members of the IDW—are owlishly focused on just a few individuals. Emmons’ essay employs the term more liberally. She uses IDW as an adjective describing media sources: “IDW outlets like Quillette.” She rarely implies that the IDW is just a small group of famous public intellectuals, depicting it instead as an “intellectual movement” or “milieu.” I believe Emmons’ usage maps better onto reality, but whatever the IDW is, it’s in its adolescence and still finding itself. Don’t be shocked if it sits down at the dinner table with neon green hair.
Even under the most narrow definition of the IDW as a motley crew of public intellectuals and comedians-turned-talk-show-hosts, Harris’ essays and Daniel Miessler’s graph leave out two prominent names: Jonathan Haidt, a founder of Heterodox Academy, and Claire Lehmann, founder and editor-in-chief of Quillette. Considering that they established the two organizations most representative of the IDW’s ideas, their omission from any discussion of the IDW’s political and ideological character seems glaring.
The Curators of the IDW
Much of what makes Jonathan Haidt and Claire Lehmann prominent members of the IDW is not their individual views but the platforms they’ve built—platforms that host myriad voices with divergent messages on a broad range of issues. Lehmann and Haidt can ensure that the voices they host are civil and that their messages are intellectually rigorous, but it’s impossible to coalesce every view on their platforms into a consistent ideological or political stance. Lehmann has even said that she will publish ideas she “does not agree with, politically.” If the work of Quillette and Heterodox Academy’s founders is included in a political or ideological assessment of the IDW, it becomes a much thornier task to neatly sum up its political or ideological character.
Jonathan Haidt certainly complicates the discussion. He is not a darling of the right wing in the manner of Jordan Peterson or Dave Rubin—and he has even condemned right-wing media as more acrimonious than the left’s. An accomplished research psychologist, he not only agrees with progressives about the powerful social and institutional forces influencing individuals’ chances of success and moral norms, but he’s contributed original research to the field. The mission of Haidt’s Heterodox Academy is to “support viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding, and constructive disagreement” in higher education—an aim that seems to echo Harris’ call for the IDW to remain open to progressive ideas and policy proposals and build bridges across political and ideological divides.
Claire Lehmann deeply complicates the discussion surrounding the political and ideological character of the IDW. To call her the elephant in the room may be an understatement—considering that she owns the room hosting Uri Harris’ critiques. Like Haidt, Lehmann is a writer, speaker and founder of her own platform. Quillette’s total number of visitors likely compares with or perhaps exceeds the number of people who have purchased the books authored by the most famous IDWer, Jordan Peterson. But—unlike Peterson and the entire IDW sans Haidt—a large part of Lehmann’s IDWness depends on her role as a curator of content representing a plurality of views. Haidt and Lehmann’s platforms aren’t scrubbed clean of ideological or political leanings, but they actively work to include diverse voices that many other academics or media outlets work to silence.
The output of IDW organizations like Quillette and Heterodox Academy presents a composite view of the Intellectual Dark Web’s political and ideological character. It paints a more complete portrait than we can obtain from examining any single IDW celebrity—even one of the most prolific and successful, such as Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris or Joe Rogan. Since Uri Harris’ three (and counting) critiques of the IDW as politically partisan and ideologically cloistered have all been featured in Quillette, it’s natural to consider them part of the IDW milieu—they are at once a call for the IDW to build more bridges as well as a case of the IDW building these bridges.
Intellectual Freedom—A Bridge Too Far?
Bridges of communication in liberal democracies like mine require as much maintenance as our actual crumbling bridges. The IDW must protect existing avenues of communication from collapsing under the pressure of stronger and more frequent calls for censorship—which Uri Harris concedes is an explicit policy goal of the new left. In their wish to protect evolutionary psychologists’ ability to publish on the greater male variability hypothesis or on the need to improve pedagogy in the humanities, the IDW’s concerns may partly overlap with those of conservatives or classical liberals—but such labels don’t exactly characterize them.
Uri Harris claims that, “The shift in the political landscape is not so much about individual policy positions as it is about [classical liberal] ideology,” which is a plausible explanation for the schism forming between the moderate left and progressives in liberal democracies around the world. Yet, if there is one thread which connects all the members of the Intellectual Dark Web, it is an individual policy position.
The IDW’s defining position is not defense of free speech or opposition to identity politics. Eric Weinstein says as much in a recent interview, in response to Uri Harris, “I’m not a free speech absolutist … I’m not necessarily anti-tribal, I’m not necessarily anti-progressive or pro-progressive.” What binds the IDW is more local: it’s their home front in the culture war, and it’s even stated in their name. The Intellectual Dark Web stands united in defense of intellectual freedom.
Protecting intellectual freedom is not only the IDW’s raison d’être: it’s the origin story of most of the IDW’s superheroes. Bret Weinstein took a stand in order to protect academic discourse at Evergreen College. Jordan Peterson took a stand against the regulation of speech on the campus of the University of Toronto. Claire Lehmann’s origins as a graduate student of psychology were quieter, but the story Lehmann tells Dave Rubin about “what lead [her] to create Quillette” also focuses on the chilling of free academic discourse. Jonathan Haidt founded Heterodox Academy to protect and promote viewpoint diversity in higher education. Unlike them, Sam Harris achieved renown as a public intellectual many years before the IDW was formed. Yet it wasn’t until Harris presented taboo research he’d done on the Islamic world, and Ben Affleck and Cenk Uygur publically judged him guilty of wrongthink, that he achieved celebrity with a lay audience. However, the guests Sam Harris hosts on his platform are almost invariably intellectuals—researchers, academics and other experts in their fields.
Sam Harris’ position on taboo research triggered a perpetual stalemate during a podcast with Vox-founder Ezra Klein, who originally leveled the accusation that the IDW was not just politically partisan but a “reactionary” movement, in response to the new left. Klein and Harris’ discussion was the result of a previous podcast Sam Harris had with Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, and the scathing hit piece Vox published in response, which denounces Murray and Harris for “peddling junk science.” Klein and Harris’ conversation was predictably strained. Yet it charted the impasse between progressive ideology and the IDW’s position on intellectual freedom that not only characterizes the IDW but will likely be the most difficult divide for them to bridge with the new left.
Klein and Harris, tellingly, never disagree on the existence of structural racism or on the social and historical forces that unjustly and disproportionately affect the outcomes of African-Americans. The orbit of their perpetual disagreements always revolves around identity issues and the political correctness of Murray’s research. The latter conflict is especially relevant. Klein avoids directly critiquing Murray’s data or methods, but nonetheless sees Murray’s research as socially irresponsible, if not dangerous: therefore he feels it was socially irresponsible, if not dangerous, for Harris to give Murray a platform. Like Uri Harris with the IDW, Klein challenges Sam Harris to open his podcast up to more progressive viewpoints, which he subsequently does, by featuring guests like Masha Gessen and Rebecca Traister. But The Ezra Klein Show does not extend Charles Murray the same courtesy—that is clearly a bridge too far.
The terms classically liberal or politically partisan may accurately describe a few IDW celebrities, such as Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro—but not Sam Harris, and definitely not IDW organizations like Heterodox Academy and Quillette. Eric Weinstein describes Uri Harris’ concern that the IDW caricatures the new left as itself a caricature: “a critique made of a wing of the IDW as if it was the totality of the IDW.” Uri Harris’ claim that “virtually all of the IDW members” can be “pigeonholed” by their antipathy toward progressivism may be overstated. However, Harris’ persistent fears that some of the IDW categorically reject progressive ideas about identity and structural oppression warrant serious consideration by anyone who wants the open-minded, intellectually rigorous, heterodox nature of the IDW protected. Perhaps that’s why Claire Lehmann has published so many negative reviews of her own movement.