What Was the Intellectual Dark Web?
Reviving Contrarianism’s Good Name
That’s what Lena Dunham said about Jesse Singal’s July 2018 Atlantic article on de-transitioning. She wasn’t the only one upset either, as a seeming legion of readers judged the article, and Singal by extension, as trans-phobic. Many others viewed it as a reasonable exploration of the multifaceted issue of transitioning, and saw the characterization Dunham leveled as uncharitable, to put it mildly.
This is a typical dynamic nowadays. Writer writes something, offended readers wail, defenders scoff at the idea that anything offensive occurred. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the order is usually: article/quote → offended liberal/leftist → scoffing centrist/conservative.
It’s impossible to adjudicate in the abstract. Sometimes people say genuinely offensive things, and sometimes people overreact. Suffice it to say that in our current political moment, the warm glow of being offended — thereby gaining the right to chasten the offender — is all the rage, so much so that a counter-balancing movement seems warranted. As it turns out, this niche is already well-filled, and then some, not only by disingenuous conservatives downplaying legitimate cases of offensive behavior, but by a movement called the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW). The group’s admirers mostly consider themselves centrist, or better yet, apolitical, as in, above or beside tribal political affiliations. The aforementioned Singal, along with a few others including Phoebe Maltz-Bovy, Katie Herzog, and Kat Rosenfield, are on the front lines of pushing back against the excesses of our culture of chastening, but I’ll argue that they fit into an overlapping, yet different, category than the Intellectual Dark Web.
Bari Weiss introduced the IDW to a mass audience in a 2018 New York Times article, explaining how the group’s concerns got a boost from Joe Rogan’s podcast, giving a microphone to complaints about, among other things, controversial centrist or conservative speakers getting “no-platformed” or even shouted down by leftist students on college campuses. In what’s been covered in roughly all corners of the media, biology professor Bret Weinstein refused to play along with a strongly suggested ‘no whites’ day of absence on the campus where he taught, Evergreen State College, and the consequent student outcry eventually resulted in Weinstein’s acrimonious separation from the college. The list goes on, and can’t possibly include the countless reprimands in everyday interactions, online, and on college campuses.
According to Weiss, the ideological make-up of the thinkers in and around the IDW ranges from the leftist Bret Weinstein to the pop right-wing figure Candace Owens. Members include the already-famous Joe Rogan and the newly famous Jordan Peterson. The religious traditionalist Ben Shapiro is in the club, as is the anti-theist Sam Harris. What members of the IDW have in common is a fierce refusal to toe the PC line, and in some cases a tendency to relish in crossing it. Every civilized modern (or postmodern) subject should be prepared to properly adhere to certain shibboleths, but the IDW thumbs its nose at this kind of group-think.
The political and rhetorical world we inhabit provides plenty of fodder for IDW types. We can argue over just how pervasive the absurd “call-out culture” is in segments of the left, or how big a problem it is compared to the right, but in terms of raw frequency, if you wanted to criticize a particular type of left-wing call-out culture, you’d always have fresh material. One prominent IDW figure who got fed up with this culture is Dave Rubin, formerly with The Young Turks, a leftist media outfit. Exhausted with the purity tests and overwrought protests for seemingly innocent behavior, he started his own show on You Tube — The Rubin Report — and rather than sneering at the left’s targets for enmity, he invited them on.
Rubin speaks in an even, professional tone, not uncommonly declaring agnosticism on underlying topics, often only issuing a mildly exacerbated plea for mature discussion. His guests usually jettison the agnosticism, but they frequently share in his exhaustion with the left. The show’s set is calming. It roughly resembles a West Elm furniture arrangement, and Rubin’s attire sets a business casual atmosphere, combining to create a kind of sensible chic. On Rubin’s show, you can watch Bret Weinstein walk you through his admittedly horrible experiences at Evergreen State. More controversially, Dilbert creator Scott Adams explains how Donald Trump has “improved the Republican Party,” and pushing sympathy past its limit, Alex Jones sidekick Paul Joseph Watson bemoans SJWs (short for Social Justice Warriors, a derisive term for frenzied leftist critics). A pattern emerges.
Like any category, the boundaries of the IDW are debatable. My not-so-unusual take is that Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro are just straight-forward conservatives, and Joe Rogan is more of a facilitator who entertains myriad ideas and in any case, is more well-known for hosting Fear Factor and his high-level involvement in Mixed Martial Arts and Ultimate Fighting. What makes the category of the IDW noteworthy is that people who aren’t everyday conservatives are devoting the bulk of their public capital to confronting the call-out culture of the left, to exposing the outcries that take place on college campuses when a milquetoast centrist or conservative is invited to speak, or when heretics on social media fail to demonstrate that they’re sufficiently woke.
The term Intellectual Dark Web was coined by Bret Weinstein’s brother Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Peter Theil’s investment firm. The IDW partially originated from social media, where most contemporary political heresies are shut down, or more literally, shamed. In real life, the Dark Web is a seedy online resource for illegal transactions such as buying drugs and weapons. The IDW then is a metaphor for a kind of rebel outlier. The irony is that what makes the IDW rebellious is a simple refusal to kowtow to the culture’s newly hypersensitive demands, making everyday sensibility controversial, which the name suggests. Yet the defiance is real, and has grown into a revolutionary aura.
Not every intellectual selected for the IDW wants in. The historian Alice Dreger’s refusal to toe the line has earned her the reputation of “a professional pain in the ass.” Dreger left a faculty position at Northwestern University Medical School because “I can’t work at a medical school where my dean is allowed to censor the work of his faculty in the name of the hospital brand’s welfare.” The censured work in question included reference to a consensual blow job by a nurse in 1978. In her book Galileo’s Middle Finger, Dreger examines how scientific research often bumps up against the concerns of social justice activism. She decries the denial of inconvenient facts and warns us that “the pursuit of evidence is the most important ethical imperative of our time.” Yet when it came time to be featured in Weiss’s NYT’s article, Dreger passed it up, citing, among other things, the tension between the individual’s humble search for truth and the rah-rah feels of group identification.
But many people find the IDW’s defiance refreshing, and I confess that I do too. At last, a group willing to call it like it is and help us escape from the strictures of contemporary discourse. That’s how it strikes me, at least. Meghan Daum delved into it all in a widely-read essay, “Nuance: A Love Story,” with the ultra-catchy subtitle “My Affair with the Intellectual Dark Web.” It’s a tribute to the movement, and it’s hard to deny that the IDW has a real seductive side.
Daum’s exposure to the IDW space started with The Glenn Show, a regular show on the video blog and podcast, Bloggingheads.tv, hosted by the economist Glenn Loury, and often joined by the linguist John McWhorter. Loury and McWhorter dub themselves, “The Black Guys at Bloggingheads.” They often push back on the identity politics of the left, taking on topics that most won’t, including even the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is sure to get you in hot water with significant portions of the liberal intelligentsia (though McWhorter occasionally intervenes for liberal insights in the face of Loury’s formidable protests). From there, Daum tells us that YouTube’s algorithms took her from place to place on the IDW map. From Christina Hoff Summers, to Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast, and of course, to Dave Rubin and to Jordan Peterson. Peterson, while attacking both the left and the right “reserved special disdain for postmodernism, which he believed was eroding rational thought on campuses and elsewhere.”
The cumulative effect was to make Daum feel less alone. She had recently split with her husband, and had to adjust not only to the loss experienced in divorce, but to her and her former husband’s now missing cultural diet. That’s when she wandered onto the Intellectual Dark Web. There, she found content that didn’t fit with the opinions she and her husband surveyed, stepping out into new areas, hence the “affair” metaphor. She had recently been on the receiving end of several liberal scoldings meted out by friends, when ironically she’s a lifelong liberal herself. This is happening more and more in people’s experiences. The path to purity is narrowing.
The IDW burst on the scene and declared that it’s okay to be… what? Normal? Find yourself on the bad end of five or ten of these scoldings, search for balm in a constituency or movement that reinforces what you thought were anodyne instincts, and you could come up empty. Or find a home only among conservatives. At least before the IDW, that is. Now, if you wish, you can immerse yourself in hours of mockery of the leftist nanny network, and not just from the right. There are less and more responsible spots on this web, but in any case now there’s no chance the tsk-tsk group-think of the left will get off scot-free, and the IDW deserves some credit for that.
Alas, as I had to face after some time consuming their content, there’s a fatal flaw, and that’s that the IDW is itself also painfully goofy. I hinted at it above, but as a general matter, no movement which purports to be uniquely suited to uphold the public’s intellectual integrity should have to be granted so many allowances for, among other things, musing with Donald Trump Jr. on the potential harm of the birth control pill which gives women “control over the reproductive function” (Peterson), appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show to complain about “the current state of the left” (Bret Weinstein), and polemically declaring that “progressivism is the new racism” (again, Rubin). From other locales on the IDW landscape, Ayaan Hirsi Ali offered, “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars,” and in what’s often thought of as the online magazine of the IDW, Quillette, Sumantra Maitra not only criticized postmodernism and the like but warned that it “poisons” Western Society. There’s that pattern again.
For another example, back to poor Dave Rubin, he somehow can’t stop entertaining the idea that the right-wing authoritarian president of Brazil might be onto something good. In a live-feed Q&A, when asked about the newly elected Brazilian leader, Rubin replied that Jair Bolsonaro is getting rid of some of the SJW stuff in schools, and he really hates Marxism, so that’s a good thing. But in truth the Bolsonaro regime is attacking “SJW stuff” by using the power of the state to clamp down on politically dissident expression in colleges and universities, something the IDW is supposed to hold as sacrosanct.
Jair Bolsonaro is Donald Trump on steroids. He speaks wistfully about the good old days of a murderous military dictatorship in the country (his only criticism is that it “didn’t go far enough”), he’s already laying the groundwork to reverse protections for LGBT citizens, and, referring to a Brazilian congresswoman, he said that she’s, “not worth raping; she’s very ugly.”
In response to a too-gentle rebuke from Eric Weinstein for the Bolsonaro praise, Rubin glibly lashed out at the criticism he’d received, complaining that he was living in the head of “losers” rent-free who hadn’t fully appreciated that he prefaced his statement with “I don’t know enough about him.” His defense was that he expressed the requisite amount of agnosticism beforehand. But the desire to crush “SJWs” seems to have led the IDW astray here, and in any case wouldn’t one be more concerned with immediately correcting the mistake of praising an aspiring dictator, rather than one-upping critics who pointed out the misplaced praise (the losers)?
The offending statement was made in a live-action environment, so I’d like to believe it was a simple mistake. But Rubin also took the time to go on a far-right, pro-Bolsonaro Brazilian TV station to commiserate about “biased media.” It’s a problem he claims we have in the U.S. as well as in Brazil. But of course, the current problem of media in Brazil is actually the age-old problem of journalists fearing for their safety for reporting the facts on a corrupt political leadership, which is anathema to any liberal project, classical or otherwise. Donald Trump toys with this approach by repeatedly characterizing the media as “the enemy of the people” (Fox News excepted), something he’s made almost commonplace. If a U.S. president said this in normal times it’s all we’d talk about.
As for Jordan Peterson, he’s evolved into a self-help guru, and likewise his celebrity has grown way beyond the IDW. Peterson’s Patreon account registered somewhere in the neighborhood of $80,000 a month at its peak. He lectures widely, and unironically tells young men, among other things “clean your room.” They do, they feel a bit better and then they’re mesmerized for some reason. Peterson hits hard against the allegedly rampant “postmodern” tendencies in our culture for lacking intellectual rigor, but he shoots the bull quite comfortably with Jungian-infused folk wisdom that’s led him to the insight that “the masculine” tracks order and femininity represents chaos. When pressed in a Vice interview, he suggested that women must want sexual attention at work else they wouldn’t wear make-up. A fan provided a video comparing the edited and unedited interviews, apparently in the belief that it helps Peterson’s case, but it’s all still just very bizarre.
So as to that pattern I keep mentioning, it’s clear that the IDW’s target for criticism is the left more so than the right, and they’ve received plenty of push-back for this. But that’s not actually where I’m coming from. Everyone who reports and comments on the culture has a certain beat or emphasis and that’s fine, I say. My critique is instead that they allow and commit more than their fair share of nonsense, and this is ironic coming from a group founded on no-nonsense. Further, they seem to have a reticence to acknowledge the size of the cultural problems caused and stoked by the right-wing. As if when we fully admit the truth of right’s pathologies, we’ve somehow lost the plot of how bad the left is, or something.
Again, I’m not expecting anyone to re-orient their whole focus, but isn’t it just a little unlucky (or lucky, from another angle) that a well-known contrarian movement sprung up to critique the left around the same time that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States? Per nonsense, there’s plenty to report from the right wing, now more than ever, so a full admission every once in a while of the relative size of our problems would be nice, without an immediate and somewhat dismissive attention-grabbing move back to focusing on the left. In other words, the IDW could relax a little. Sure there are disturbing patterns on the left and we can even focus on them if we like, but every once in a while we need an infusion of perspective as well.
Re-enter Phoebe Maltz-Bovy, Kat Rosenfield, Katie Herzog, and Jesse Singal. Like Daum, I made my discovery watching Bloggingheads (which is not necessarily a contrarian space as much as one that brings in many different viewpoints). Executive editor Aryeh Cohen-Wade played in the adjacent-to-the-movement Joe Rogan role by providing a platform along with some sympathy for their insights. This is a group of liberals who don’t mind expressing serious reservations about liberal and leftist group-think — an “Intellectual Lite Web,” if you will (that’s ILW for short, thank you very much). There’s significant overlap with the IDW’s concerns, but I’ll argue the ILW is a much more sobered-up version of contrarianism. If any of you have flirted with or otherwise had “affairs” with the stances of Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, the Weinstein’s, etc., then the Intellectual Lite Web offers the thinking you might want to settle down with.
Starting with Jesse Singal, Cohen-Wade had him on Bloggingheads in February 2016 to discuss his article, “How the Fight Over Transgender Kids Got a Leading Sex Researcher Fired.” It’s hard to discuss the article without instead discussing the controversy surrounding it, which continues literally up to the time of this writing. Up front, I should tell you that, unsurprisingly, I am not an expert on this topic, and it’s a topic Singal has covered extensively. I submit that one important question isn’t so much whether Singal’s work is right or wrong, but whether it’s warranted and credible on the one hand, or beyond the pale, on the other. Singal’s detractors assert that he’s not only wrong, but trans-phobic. Again whether Singal’s work meets the standards of experts in the field is not my area, but it’s certainly engaging work, and it’s at least not inarguably trans-phobic.
An obstacle to mutual understanding is that Singal’s accusers typically seem unprepared to justify their accusation of trans-phobia, as opposed condemning anyone who doesn't already find it obvious, and I plead guilty to not already finding it obvious. It’s important here to separate any possible 1st order disagreement on the quality of Singal’s work, a level on which there can be intense disagreement without getting personal, and 2nd order disagreement on whether or not Singal’s work is so egregiously wrong or otherwise malicious so as to count as out-of-bounds for serious people. The latter is a much higher bar for detractors to clear.
In the Bloggingheads conversation, Singal delved into the reaction his article garnered, acknowledging the daze and perhaps even downright trauma of a not uncommon occurrence in today’s climate, and that’s being on the receiving end of continuous condemnations by seemingly hundreds of people, day after day, sometimes including attempts to get people fired, and sometimes even more. But he quickly added perspective, saying “The one thing I want to say is, as I’m whining and bitching to you, I’m eating an M&M cookie and drinking a beer, in my office at my job that I love. I want people to imagine, the shit that happens to me happens to people who are much less able to take it. I’ll totally be fine. I’m over it, other than being a little bit pissed off. Often this stuff targets people who are much more vulnerable and marginalized” (per the beer and cookie, conversations on Bloggingheads often occur in a very informal setting, sometimes including house pets walking by the screen).
In an earlier part of the conversation, the topic of science denialism on the left was broached, and Singal again clarified “I should be clear that … right-leaning science denialism does a great deal more damage. Climate denialism could eventually kill us all. You have Republicans aggressively lobbying to prevent the CDC from studying gun violence. You have all kinds of stuff like that.” That sounds fair. You can read a defense of his work Signal wrote, along with a collection of articles advancing serious objections.
Katie Herzog is up next. She writes for The Stranger, a Seattle based alt weekly. Herzog has been heavily involved in many tug-of-war disputes on the proper boundaries of political conversation as well, but in particular her take on Jordan Peterson is instructive here. She discussed it on Bloggingheads on Cohen-Wade’s show Culturally Determined, defending Peterson for at least being misinterpreted at times. “The reason that I’ve become sort of a defender of Jordan Peterson is because of the outsized reaction to him.” It’s not uncommon to hear him accused of white supremacy, rape culture, etc. She also stated bluntly, “I find him pretty boring” and referred to his speculations as “bullshit.” So does Herzog like Peterson, or doesn’t she? Nuance is hard, but suffice it to say, Herzog’s reporting invites us to hold multiple thoughts in our heads at once — multiple thoughts, or short of that, stepping back and surveying the situation.
That’s what Herzog recently recommended (on Nightline) on the latest cultural and political battle that took over our devices and conversations, the incident involving the Covington High School or “MAGA boys” and their hostile interaction with a drum-beating elderly Native American man at the Lincoln Memorial. To advise “caution” on that topic on national television, this soon after the incident, is to really put your head in the wood chipper, something Herzog’s perfectly willing to do if need be. Of course none of this is an obstacle to keeping track of the relative harm caused by each side of the aisle, as Herzog does in this piece trying to get through to Dave Rubin.
It’s not all gloom and doom with these thinkers. Herzog is also, how should I say it while doing it justice, quite interested in the marijuana beat. A run-down includes, “Crafting Ideas for People Who Smoke a Lot of Pot,” “Most Regrettable Mistakes in the Pot Industry in 2018,” “Instagram Shuts Down a Popular Cannabis Account — Repeatedly,” and “Mexico’s Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Cannabis Legalization.” Of course, she’s in the Pacific Northwest. I’m in Texas, so that all still absurdly counts as subversive.
The next two thinkers are Phoebe Maltz-Bovy and Kat Rosenfield. Mentioning them together fits, as after appearing on Bloggingheads several times as guests, they started a regular show of their own called Feminine Chaos, a light jab at Peterson’s blather. Maltz-Bovy and Rosenfield cover general issues — everything from the all-beef diet of Jordan Peterson’s daughter Mikhaila Peterson, to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, with a myriad of subjects in between. Recently, they looked under the rock of the ambiguities of affirmative consent on college campuses. Another incredibly fraught area.
Rosenfield and Maltz-Bovy provide a 1–2 punch, but each are convincing enough on their own (and incidentally, they probably have the highest rate of unscripted pet appearances on all of Bloggingheads). Rosenfield is a freelance journalist, pop culture reporter and author of two Young Adult (YA) novels. She’s been “mobbed” for her ideas enough to know the inhospitable terrain. One such occasion was when she broke down a controversy in the YA fiction genre surrounding The Black Witch, a fantasy novel accused of racism.
The backlash was over her article “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” which defended the book (Laurie Forest’s debut novel), at least from tactics that sought to lower its rating by heading over to Goodreads en masse and giving it 1-star reviews, of course without ever having read it. In fact, Rosenfield tells us, people took to tweeting out, “If you plan on reading The Black Witch, unfollow me.” Maybe it sounds quaint, but I would think that determining the merits of each side’s case would involve reading the book and the objections, but of course you can’t do that if you can’t, you know, read the book?
The form of the objections are helpful to situating them. Even the most blistering review stated that the book was intended as anti-racist, it just failed so horribly that it turned out to be “the most dangerous, offensive, book I’ve ever read.” A more grounded critical review (the main editorial review on the book’s Amazon page) stated “In a particularly rough, tone-deaf scene, mean girl Fallon berates Effrey, a purple-skinned enslaved Urisk girl. Elloren eventually comes to the rescue, and Sparrow, another enslaved girl, approves of her actions with a smile — just one of the many white savior — like moments throughout.” The critiques are in line with Rosenfield’s take that the book was called-out for centering “the wrong kind of person,” not that it presented the wrong macro lessons on racism.
It seems completely fair to have conversations about the patterns in books, movies, etc., which repeatedly place white characters in central roles even when the main context is one of racial discrimination against people of color. What’s more, these white characters are usually the most crucial in achieving a positive outcome for the marginalized races, i.e. the “white savior.” But Rosenfield explains that this was a new author who lacked the fan-base to defend against this kind of online pile-on. The tactics of the pile-on made reading the book irrelevant, except if you had, in which case you failed as an ally. Again, we can hold multiple thoughts at once, which in cases like this would likely involve putting the book’s (hypothetically!) facile treatment of race in its proper context, which likely wouldn’t include it being “the most dangerous thing” anyone has ever read. And again, that assumes that the claim of a weaker racism is true, which is undetermined.
The enlightened left wants us to see dust-ups like this as marginal, a few college students being dumb here and there, which is nothing newsworthy. It’s hard to do that when there are tangible consequences, and in any case when you have enough examples like these, and everyone knows something like this happens pretty frequently, it seems, well, newsworthy.
Rosenfield’s most recent work was on “performative male allies” in the piece “Birth of the Cool Guy,” which examines a familiar person we all know: the too preening, ready-to-pounce and demonstrate that he’s a wokebro ally, or in this case, the Cool Guy. Whether he’s “disavowing masculinity entirely or only distancing himself from it — the Cool Guy’s performance inches him incrementally closer to the new nexus of cultural power.” The writing is scorching. The last thing you want after reading the piece is to be the Cool Guy. It’s almost enough to make a fella want to counter-signal. If you’re new to this intellectual neighborhood, it can be hard to keep up with who’s signaling what at this point. In other words, both sides can accuse the other of taking a stance to merely signal a certain kind of in-group status or just to spite someone (i.e. “virtue signaling,” “contrarian” etc).
Phoebe Maltz-Bovy is the other half of the “Feminine Chaos” duo and a writer and French Lecturer at the University of Toronto. Her book The Perils of “Privilege” outlines the complications and limitations of a “privilege” based social justice framework. Putting “Privilege” in quotations, Maltz-Bovy explains, is to avoid the impression the term would give without quotations, which is that genuine privilege is a real burden. Yet with the quotes, it’s meant to be about a certain conception of privilege, a conception that’s in dispute.
If you’ve grokked the spirit of the group I’ve sketched so far, it won’t surprise you that the book is not a partisan screed against the most basic concept of privilege. As Maltz-Bovy explains in a Canadian TV interview, she believes that privilege is real, that systemic inequality is real. Yet, there’s a specialized context in which accusations of privilege come — e.g. “check your privilege” — and that context doesn’t track other normal uses of the term. She explains that if one is cisgender (identifying with the gender one is assigned at birth) then that’s surely easier than being transgender, yet the vast majority of people who are cisgender are not privileged in any other context, so there’s no existing precedent for people to use or rely on. The disconnect leads to people “missing the point in a way they wouldn’t necessarily miss the point if this had been phrased otherwise.”
Further, the concept is often used only as a cudgel among similarly situated people, such as two white people or two wealthy people. Or worse yet, two wealthy white people, (think of a casual political conversation in Brooklyn, for example, that takes place with all the rhetorical weapons of woke vocabulary). When the accusation comes in that context, it’s not clear what the called-out party should do to ameliorate or correct the situation. The account of who possesses privilege will also change as the perspective changes. About half-way through the interview, when considering who has privilege from the point of view of a Trump supporter, Maltz-Bovy first clarified “I am not a Trump supporter at all. I am very very anti-Trump myself.” She somehow still didn’t seem confrontational saying it.
That’s because Maltz-Bovy has a self-possessed delivery that you naturally trust. She’s the good Rubin — composed, but in a way that gets you somewhere. I’m imposing a characteristically male, adversarial frame on this that doesn’t really line up with her style, (wait, I keep forgetting I don’t have to perform that here!). OK if you were, say, a public figure on twitter who frequently goes around challenging people to debate, you might see someone like Maltz-Bovy, carefully crafting her thoughts in real time in order to deliver the most pristine and justified statement, and you might think you could roll to victory on bluster alone. You would be wrong. While she’s crafting her statements with maturity and you’re chomping at the bit to deliver a pedantic point, you would miss the hard-to-handle insight she articulates. The reason she crafts her statements carefully is that she appears to care a great deal about giving the most thoughtful diagnosis on the topic at hand, but also because she’s dealing with more information, way more information than you’re dealing with (remember, you’re this hypothetical twitter jock). She’s going into territory that requires navigating through and around potholes and crevices and by ravines and roving bandits and still bringing the point home, all while you’re impatiently waiting to speak.
This is communicative virtue, and each thinker I’ve highlighted in this new group displays it in one way or another. Some of us care a great deal about these kinds of communicative values — speaking for myself, in some cases even as much as the issues themselves. Others on the left see a prioritization like this one as a kind of crypto-conservatism, and we haven’t moved far beyond this impasse.
In any case, Herzog, Rosenfield, Maltz-Bovy, and Singal (see how much easier it is to just say “ILW?”), are rounded out by interests other than the kinds of disputes I’ve highlighted, but circumstances have partially shifted their attention to dissenting from or tempering prevailing trends. There may be others who fit into this niche as it evolves over time. Will Alice Dreger break down and join this group? Will Meghan Daum start anew with the ILW? Will John McWhorter come over if Glenn Loury gets on his nerves? I’m kidding with those questions. A little. McWhorter and others have made the point that independent minded people aren’t “joiners” so they likely won’t see any value in attaching a specific group-name to themselves.
But there are no membership contracts here, just helpful labels that pick out distinct phenomena, and at the very least mentioning these thinkers is me taking a stab at the kind of expansion I could see as consistent. My main point is just that this space exists and should be seen as related to but distinct from the IDW (Dreger has referenced a similar sounding “Intellectual Light Web” before, and Nathan J. Robinson employed the same term in a different context, but neither seem tightly connected to the specifically pro-contrarian, anti-IDW space mapped out here).
That’s my pitch. I’ve pointed to where I think we can find a sort of Contrarian Goldilocks Zone, and I’ve given my proposal for a new(ish) label for it. Maybe I could accept “Contrarian Lite,” or some other name, but that’s not ultimately important. It’s not even about being contrarian in any permanent sense. Over the long haul, issues can change and alliances can shift. Insofar as anyone is a contrarian to cynically chase a market niche, or to satisfy some sort of adolescent contradiction impulse, then that’s bad. Presumably, we all agree that no one should be a contrarian for its own sake. It only does good work when there are warranted viewpoints that are shut out of significant segments of acceptable conversation.
The really important thing to consider is the function of any healthy contrarian space. What immediately comes to mind is sticking up for those the mob unjustly punishes, to counter-balance. But for me, at its best, its most important function is in the dissemination of a certain kind of information. Dispatches from contrarians on the front lines ultimately give sustenance to the those of us back home, who, in spite of our policy preferences, for one reason or another cannot bring ourselves to perform the necessary gestures or sit for the required purity tests of our tribe. It’s to support the person who wants to be true to their political identity but also to their individual intellectual conscience, preserving the right to have both. It’s a space worth fighting for.
Maybe in some idealized concept of a virtuous intellectual self, we should all be capable of riding off into the sunset as autonomous individuals, not relying on a soul for intellectual support. But, at the very least, labels help orient people who are searching for what’s possible for an individual to coherently believe. A little help in our overwhelming information environment can go a long way, even when the labels are just informal and rough guideposts.
When or if a group of contrarians ever gets too goofy, they’ve outlived their usefulness. Even if I’m right that the contrarian space is where individual conscience is upheld, it will always be vulnerable to figures who are more entertaining than edifying, more magnetic than enriching, as by the time an appetite for contrarian content emerges, large audiences will follow anyone who confidently fills the space.
But this space should always be tough to occupy for long, because contrarians shouldn’t get an undue break any more than we’d give one side or the other, and because it’s not easy to articulate the nuance of genuinely warranted contrarian insights. The IDW in particular is past its peak, though it will undoubtedly sputter along for quite a while, just hopefully in not too degraded a form compared to its original conception. In Weiss’s NYT’s piece, it looked like Sam Harris had already started to experience cognitive dissonance on his newfound group when he observed, “There are a few people in this network who have gone without saying anything critical about Trump, a person who has assaulted truth more than anyone in human history. If you care about the truth, that is quite strange.” I think he’s onto something there.