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What Connects the “Intellectual Dark Web”?

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.

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8 comments

  1. This entire exercise does feel to a degree like naval gazing. IDW was by and large a throw away comment, and now it’s being cast a ‘movement’ to be critiqued as such. I would imagine almost all those involved would take the view that their ideas need to be listened to and treated on their own merits, something those that attack them constantly refuse to do. U Harris argument about partisanship is laughable and misses the point. To talk of the people he criticises needing to build bridge is a joke. Would S Harris, Peterson, the Weinsteins happily share a platform with an intersectional feminist or critical race theorist? Yes, of course they would. Is the reverse true? Like hell it is, and there’s the crux of the problem. You have a group of people so fixed in their self righteous dogma they would literally refuse to share a room with people who would calmly, reasonably criticise their world view using good faith arguments.
    U Harris’s time would be more productively spent worrying about the people who think blowing up bridge is striking a note for social justice, and everyone’s time would be better spent engaging with arguments rather than nitpicking of the boxes people get shoved in for the media’s convenience.

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    1. Of course you’re right that the central problem for us all is all the “intersectional feminists” and “critical race theorists” who want to shut down voices as reasonable as the IDWs’. You’re endorsing Rubin’s and Eric’s response, ‘they’re all crazy’. I think it’s a mistake. We can’t find 3 or 4 tenured PhDs in those fields willing to boost their visibility by talking to an Eric Weinstein or a Dave Rubin on a much-watched YouTube vid or podcast? Even if they turn out to be batshit crazy, so much more good would be done seeing someone actually *endorse* the thoughts we keep hearing Dave and Eric ‘characterizing’ (Uri: caricaturing) that hearing those again.

      One of two things is true. There’s some actual *reason*, however thin it turns out to be, behind those views. Or the path to understanding the popularity of these views (“ideologies”) is by grasping the pathological psychology of those drawn to them.

      But either way, we need to talk to them. We’ll either uncover that perhaps thin thread of reason behind them and find a place for it, or get a better picture of the type of soul we’re dealing with.

      That said, you’re right (esp. ur 2nd sentence) that we’re getting lost in abstractions, and it’s distracting us from getting on with distinguishing the true from the false, and working up the system. But there is an important issue in this debate. I’m of the view that the *turning* Uri urges is one the IDW needs to recognize as necessary.

  2. Great article Garrett. Here’s my 2 cents.

    Don’t start by worrying about Uri generalizing his claim about Rubin to the IDW as a whole (also central to Blaine Bowden’s article). There’s first a dispute to resolve on the case of Rubin himself.

    Rubin: I’m classically liberal. I cross the main political isle when I debate my buddy Ben Shapiro on gay marriage and abortion.
    Uri: You’re ‘new right,’ i.e., anti-Social Justice, ergo no Dave, you’re *not* liberal.

    Synthesis: Reject Uri’s claim that these ‘new right’/’new left’ categories negate the old categories, ‘liberal,’ ‘progressive,’ ‘conservative’. Now we’ve conceptual space for ‘new right liberal’ (Peterson, Rubin) and even, if it doesn’t make your head explode, ‘new right progressive’ (the Weinsteins). Be specific about what kind of definition (stipulative? precising?) is meant by these “new” categories and this shouldn’t be a problem.

    Now I agree with Uri that the “new” categories mark a division *more* fundamental today than the old ones. Uri’s central conclusions thus hold: (1) IDW is not truly politically diverse, and (2) IDW ought to engage thinkers of the new left.

    I think you’re right, Garrett, that Claire and Jon Haidt are willing to engage a larger subset of the new left than Rubin’s going in for. But I don’t follow you in thinking that negates (1). Claire and Jon Haidt and both ‘new right’: they both thinks there are big problems with the social justice left (as does Uri Harris: see the rest of his Quillette corpus, which includes some great genealogical critiques of the Critical Theory underlying SJ).

    To be clear: I’m definitely new right. I think it’s the correct political view. But I’m with Uri is recognizing the need to engage more new leftists. Rubin, and it seems Eric too, think there’s no one worth talking to amongst the “upgraded” progressives.

    That can’t be right: Uri’s ‘sanity check’ is in order here. Not all these professors are crazy. (Cartman: But most of them are. And all it takes is most of them.)

    I think Uri’s envisaging a new center (new new center?), i.e. a synthesis of new left and new right. But I don’t need to agree with that to agree with (1) and (2): maybe we new righters (inc. the IDW) will find things in the new left to sublate/synthesis with, or maybe we’ll just show them (or the polity) the force of our better reason. For those of them that run off like Meno, Euthyphro, etc., the polity will see them for the non-rational souls they are.

    Endorsing (1) and (2), then, is even consistent with JBP’s view of the thoroughgoing corruption of the humanities. Let YouTube & podcasts bring the corruption to light.

    My paradigm case of who the IDW (preferably Eric) should talk to, to answer Uri’s call, is Kate Klonick. Her Harvard Law Review article, “The New Governors,” argues that the *problem* for online speech is the foundation of content moderation in the marketplace-of-ideas interpretation of free speech. That has to go, she argues. She takes Anita Sarkeesian’s advice on how to fix Twitter. She’s new left – yet, I claim, eminently rational, and will respond to the force of the better reason, perhaps teaching us a thing or two about law and social media in the meantime.

    Furthermore, more good than harm would come from talking to the influential crazy ones now and then. Add Jordan Peterson vs. Michelle Goldberg & Michael Eric Dyson to Sam Harris vs. Ezra. Perhaps here, though, the strategy of the Socratic elenchus is in order. If Sam had done that to Ezra I think it would’ve gone better.

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    1. Are we really willing to concede the whole left wing of the political spectrum on the basis of whether or not you swallow intersectional identity politics? My analysis is that there are the large majority of people who reject identity politics that sit in the middle of the political spectrum on both sides of the isle. Then, on the right and left, out at the extremes, sit a small number of dedicated identitarians who base their politics on group membership and victimhood. White supremacists that dedicate their time to outlining the ‘destruction’ of the white race and the ever increasing ‘persecution’ of Christians. Does that type of group based grievance narrative sound familiar? Oh yes, because on the other side, we have intersectional feminists that find sexism and racism in every glance they get from a white man. It just so happens that establishment politics is attempting to leverage the energy of these identitarians on their own side for their gain. The IDW, whatever the hell that is, is just a group of thinkers who are staunchly opposed to identity politics, group think, and also happen to not be establishment thinkers (not one of them is favoured by mainstream media). The reason the IDW sits outside the establishment is because they are by and large freethinkers who are not willing to commit to a hyper partisan political ‘team’. Ben Shapiro is the most clearly partisan, but he spends plenty of time lamenting the failures and ineptitude of the likes of Trump, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and other Republican mainstream politicians. He is also willing to have a civil conversation with someone like Andrew Yang.

  3. exile. they have nothing in common except having been cast out of mainstream intellectualism as ideological heretics. an island of misfit intellectuals, if you will.

    scratch that, they have one thing in common: an enemy. no, make that two: an enemy and intellect. if I were that enemy, I might be very nervous about the implications of that.

    1. Anonymous, you have keen observation on many essays. Regarding part of your statement: “…an enemy and intellect”…No! Drop the too kind “intellect” and replace with ego-bag pseudo intellectual bias.

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