Public discourse since 2016 is increasingly characterised by heightened polarisation and an emotively divided political landscape. The right in the Western world struggles to grapple with rampant populism that degrades the political process with nativist sentiment whilst a concurrent fracturous identity discourse sees the left increasingly searching for traitors over converts. Where in the current fraught climate is a space for free dialogue held in good faith?
For several public intellectuals and pundits forged together in a new digital network of podcasts and talkshows, the ‘safe space’ for dialogue is to be found not in the universities or mainstream news media but online. Coined by Eric Weinstein , director ofThiel capital and economist (not linked to Harvey), the term ‘intellectual dark web’ refers to this emergent space. A veritable Mos Eisley cantina of disaffected leftists, conservatives and liberals is found here conducting their own political discourse. Creating their own podcasts and crowd-funding with supporters through tools like Patreon, these thinkers are subject to no authority but themselves.
Figures of all stripes may be found, one of the more eminent podcast hosts Joe Rogan comes from the word of MMA fighting, self- described as “the bridge between the meatheads and potheads”. You certainly would not guess by his appearance that Rogan was pulling views in excess of 5 million on his most popular content and regularly exceeding a million views. Symptomatic of shifts from traditional media gateholders to independent platforms, shows like Rogan’s represent a clear rejection of the trend towards soundbyte sized analysis. His discussions with guests ranging typically from 2–4 hours long and this is common to many of the major content producers in this area.
Similarly Dave Rubin, defector from the leftist independent media ‘The Young Turks’, has set himself up as a talkshow host for the discussions not held anywhere else. A disciple of the elder interviewer Larry King, Rubin believes that his role is to have conversations with people and allow them to reveal themselves to his audience fully for better or worse. For this, he is subject to substantial attack from the left. For the most part Rubin is attacked not for what he says but who he talks to-a willingness to speak to the right or give a platform to someone deemed beyond the pale is today a crime by association. The much criticised no-platforming policies seen on university and college campuses are replicated in the intellectual sphere. Well intentioned and ill-thought out, the effect is to prevent the one real corrective mechanism we have for a left-right politics which increasingly not only talk past one another but occupy different realities-that is dialogue.
In many instances the thinkers being hosted by Rogan and Rubin are in fact driven directly out of the universities. Bret Weinstein, brother of Eric, was until very recently an eminent professor of biology at Evergreen State College. Like so many others, Weinstein has a strong track record of progressivism; a Bernie Sanders supporter and supporter of Occupy he was in his college years subject to immense pressure for whistleblowing on sexual exploitation in a jewish fraternity he was joining. In 2017 Weinstein was subject to a large mob of charged up leftist students occupying his classroom, swiftly thereafter he was unjustly fired ultimately leading to a substantial financial settlement for Weinstein. His crime? refusing to participate in a ‘white’s stay away’ day at Evergreen. A strong progressive tradition on the campus since the 1970s, ‘days of absence’ had seen students from black and minority backgrounds elect to not attend for one day and meet off campus. In 2017 the student activists determined to flip this on its head and white staff, students and faculty were ‘invited’-or rather coerced on threat of character assassination- to make themselves absent. For recognising the total decay in principle that this new leftism represented Weinstein was excommunicated in a manner reminiscent of students in the cultural revolution. It doesn’t take much thought to see that the increasing intolerance on several ‘liberal’ college campuses is in fact the canary in the coal mine for a left that is eating itself.
Ben Shapiro, arguably the most right leaning conservative in the space garnered a reputation for advocating stiff traditional conservative positions on issues like abortion and attacking identity politics-in particular that of the Trans activist movement. Shapiro when invited to speak at UC Berkeley this past year expected much the same event he had spoken for the year prior, advocating largely conservative positions in his fast-paced combatitive rhetorical style. It arrived as a shock then when, following the appearance there of the altogether reprehensible so called ‘provocateur’ troll Milo Yiannopoulos, his speech to college republicans was threatened by antifa activists. UC Berkeley, the historic home of the free speech movement, had to spend $600,000 on police and security in order for his speech to proceed. In all likelihood were it not for the increasing pressure on Berkeley and attention following previous outbreaks of violence, they would have elected for the cheaper, easier option of cancelling his speech.
It would be amiss to not give mention lastly to the two members of what, for many of their listeners, constitutes a triumvirate; Shapiro, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. Harris, an altogether unlikely icon, is a neuroscientist by training and gained fame as the young leading figure in the ‘new atheist’ movement following in the tracks of the elder Richard Dawkins and late Christopher Hitchens. Harris too hosts a podcast but is far more a thought leader than a interviewer like Rogan and Rubin. In 2 hour long conversations with a substantial following Harris engages figures of note from every field. Few and far between are the thinkers who can move seamlessly from in depth technical discussion of AI and blockchain to radical economic policies and advocacy of a new mindfulness movement. Far from the counter-culture days of Timothy Leary, Harris and today’s proponents of a psychedelic revival are seemingly of the elite-working in silicon valley and holding advanced degrees. Harris’ championing of rationalism is matched with outspoken criticism of Islam over other systems,characterising it as ‘the motherload of bad ideas’ in a high profile debate with Ben Affleck and Bill Maher. Therein, and rather entertainingly, Harris, backed by Maher, lays out his critique in a calm manner to a visibly unhinged, red faced Ben Affleck who throws accusations of racism in retort. The apparent calm collectedness of figures like Harris allows them to continually claim the high ground over so-called ‘triggered’ opponents merely on the basis of a cool head and a willingness to debate.
Of all the figures of note to emerge from the current crucible is the edifying and some say dangerously charismatic Jordan Peterson. Like Weinstein, Peterson was cast within a year from relative anonymity into public fame. As a professor of psychology at University of Toronto Peterson vociferously rejected the imposition of Canada’s Bill C-16 which would criminalise mis-gendering someone. However, the controversy grew into to a far larger and altogether unexpected attack from Peterson on what he calls the post-modernist, neo-marxist left. Depicted as alt-right by his opponents, Peterson describes himself as a classical liberal but his impassioned and penetrating rhetorical style feels more alike to a secular evangelical preacher. Straddling the public and personal spheres, he calls in his lectures for a revival of foundational truths at the roots of Western civilisation that are under threat by post-modernism. Further lending to the apparent evangelism, is the devotion and praise from his fans. Followers who are pre-dominantly young men regularly write to Peterson and lavish thanks on him for radically turning around their lives with his message of personal responsibility, truth and go-get it attitude characterised by his well known proclamation ‘clean up your room’. In one instance both heart-warming and shocking a Peterson fan lavishes tearful thanks on Peterson at the end of a lecture before proposing to his girlfriend as Peterson watched on like a proud father at a wedding. The magnetism that surrounds Peterson suggests that his meteoric rise will continue still further but it is the apparent hunger for his message that is the most striking. Few would have imagined in 2017 that millions of young men (his first lecture now holds 1.2 million views) would be keenly watching a ‘Biblical lecture series’ on the abstract ‘truths’ of old-testament stories.
What the conglomeration of these incisive, radical and oft-controversial thinkers on the ‘intellectual dark web’ represents is not yet clear but what is certain is that it reflects much more on the decaying health of our wider societal discourse. Only time will tell if, in strange and perilous waters radical dialogue presents the antidote but I for one will be watching and listening closely.