Enlightening the Intellectual Dark Web
Calling Out the Public Discourse for Lack of Criticality
The self-described ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ (IDW) is a force to be reckoned with. They are a stacked roster of nominally centrist-ish credentialed academics and influential commentators, according to this fan’s list: Joe Rogan, Steven Pinker, Camille Paglia, Owen Benjamin, Eric Weinstein, Nicholas Christakis, Gad Saad, Heather Heying, James Damore, Douglas Murray, Jonathan Haidt, Tim Ferriss, Stephen Hicks, Dave Rubin, Quillette/ Claire Lehmann, Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Sommers, Ben Shapiro, Dan Carlin, Lindsay Shepherd, Maajid Nawaz, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sam Harris, and Bret Weinstein. Moreover, they have legions of adherents (and mainstream publications) shoring up their work, who can’t separate the wheat from the chaff, which is what I intend to do. To her credit, Alice Dreger has alrealdy apostatized and is exempt from the IDW.
In the following sections below; Setting the Stage explains my stance, intentions, thesis, and some conceptual backgrounding. My thesis is generally that the IDW is overrated while other contemporary schools of thought are underrated, revealing an epistemic (d)rift in the discourse. The whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. A Brief History of Intellectual Darkness covers the inception of the movement, their trajectory, some comments and suggestions on their methods of discourse, a critical review of Big Think’s showcase of them, some paradigmatic observations, and discussion of their internal contradictions. The Paradox of Nice Critique highlights the inability to criticize the IDW on their terms, and the hypocrisy shown by their lack of engagement with that which they criticize.
Dialectics with Free Speech Warriors and the Pretence of Listening explains practical problems in the previous section through more anecdotal evidence and reflects on some better examples of listening, including how much they’ve been listened to. In What the Intellectual Dark Web Gets Right (and Could Do Better) I try to pinpoint their value so we can quarantine their bad beliefs, leaky abstractions, and co-option by dark forces in politics. On Bari Weiss and the NY Times looks at the mainstream media approach and social media rejection of it, along with a closer examination of, and judgement on, the left-right divide, leaving the IDW with the onus of sorting itself out in light of their 15 minutes of fame ticking us back to 2 minutes to midnight.
Quickly, (Dis-)Honorable Mentions discusses those from the list that have largely been left out by the commentary, and are less known or less controversial. I then use the term Intellectual Light Web only to make a counterpoint, not because it refers to a specific cluster, and to suggest a list of intellectuals that have better ideas and less exposure than the IDW. A very short Conclusion ties it off.
Setting the Stage
Unlike many on the left, I have a fair amount of respect for these intellectuals, and to varying degrees some of them have been very influential in my own intellectual development, as I will discuss. But by no means do I aspire to be counted among this freewheeling country club philosophy any more than I’d want to be lumped in with regressive leftists. I see where much of the conflict arises from in their encounters, and I intend to be a most incisive critic in order to help both them and the faltering left that they turned their back to (except in Shapiro’s case; he’s from the right). It is not so much that I disagree with the IDW on this or that (I do), but that I believe I have better ideas in some cases, or at least that better ideas are out there; ideas that have not been given a fair shot at shaping the conversation.
I will attempt to show that, for all their merits, aspects and statements of the IDW exhibit certain dangling threads of scientism, reductionism, contrarianism, elitism, hypocrisy, tone-deafness, anti-leftism with aimless right-ward drift, and indifference or antipathy to sociology as a discipline (and social justice as a concept), all of which threaten to unravel the whole ugly sweater. This is not to say that all the leftist critiques against them have been fair; some have, some haven’t. The IDW’s wrong headedness is not across the board either and I will sing their praises too, but for the sake of truth and freethought, let alone free speech, they should be more concerned and self-critical than ever; we all should. Nothing is as it seems.
At best, the IDW authors all generally advocate ‘enlightenment,’ no more or less than to the extent that it is occurring according the ivy-(be-)leaguered Steven Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now. Who could object to that? I’m all for a new enlightenment in these anti-intellectual post-truth times, and much earlier. Pinker’s announcement of enlightenment isn’t exactly novel though, especially when nested in the pre-20th century ‘classical liberal’ (modernism) bent of his fellows. Nevertheless, given that they fancy themselves new enlightenment thinkers, isn’t it then very assuming and pretentious of me, as per the title of this article, to suppose that this entire group is in need of even more enlightenment and that I can supply it? No, it is justified, as I will explain.
Pinker’s premise begs a lot of questions about the dark legacy of the Age of Enlightenment that postmodernism, and now metamodernism, are more apt to address than the IDW are. General progress has come at a very high (and unnecessary) cost for some that should not be written off or out of history. The situation is much more complex than their rationalist renaissance suggests. It’s a paradigm shift. I insist that all these “Dark” intellectuals — whatever you take that to mean — need some ‘enlightening’ from a metamodern perspective, and in good faith I believe that they’ll see the light if they open their eyes to this new emergence.
Pinker understands the contradiction that 18th-century philosophes could be great universalists and humanists, but also racist, sexist, slaveholders. He contends that we know better today though, and aren’t repeating the mistakes of the past. He empirically shows that almost all measures of human well-being are generally improving around the world.
He is of course also aware of many of the postmodern-ish critiques of ‘progress’ and his empirical optimism. He’s heard it all before, and has cleverly reduced that message to a stereotype. In this clip from Pinker’s book event with Sam Harris, which the uploader is advocating, Pinker claims that “intellectuals hate progress” — especially the progressive ones. To be sure, by “intellectuals” he’s not referring at all to himself and the IDW, but to his critics, whom he labels the “chattering class.” Below, he lists the common charges against him simply to mock and dismiss those who challenge him. Only Steven Pinker can be so prissy and provocative at the same time.
I would agree with this synthetic critique against him, even though he’s making a joke of it, but it is not a complete picture. Pinker is characterizing these progressives as cynics who “hate progress,” not in the sense of the scientific advances we enjoy, but because they are skeptical of the ‘idea’ of progress that also causes much destruction and injustice, and is used to justify it. He further claims that this negative outlook is due to the ‘availability bias’ of bad news, a negativity bias, and the market for said doomsaying of progressive cynicism. While that is true in some cases, the pessimism of progress is more accurately due to those calling attention to systemic problems and their solutions and being ignored.
In a roasting book review in the Routledge journal Challenge, Mike Sharpe relays how Pinker is right about the progress that he’s measured, but calls into question what is measured and how, or omitted. Pinker’s right that a new enlightenment is happening, but wrong about where the intellectual and moral center of it is. Sharpe answers Pinker’s 75 charts of increasing well-being by mentioning the facts of recent geopolitical conflicts, 49 countries still run by dictators, Trump and Congress destroying everything, US inequality being virtually maximized, unions in perpetual decline, and gerrymandering distorting politics. Sharpe then recommends to pass the torch of progress (back) to the social justice crowd:
Indeed, we progressive intellectuals don’t hate real progress at all, never did; we are trying to build it and keep getting blocked by ideologues, corrupt politicians, and pseudo-intellectuals. We are only doomsayers insofar as the current power structure and its criminal operaters makes the immediate prospects worse than bleak. Pinker’s thesis downplays those threats and diminishes the people actually working on them. As Eillie Anzilotti critiques in Yes, The World Is Improving–But That Doesn’t Mean The Work Is Done:
“The progress we’ve made should only ever be looked at through a critical lens of what worked, what didn’t, what the larger ripple effects were, what’s still left to be done, and how might we change our approach going forward to effect better, more lasting change. Granted, it’s not as neat as a collection of line graphs, but confronting the more messy reality is what will ensure Pinker’s vision of progress keeps moving forward.” — Eillie Anzilotti, Fast Company
Even still, as I said before, I have respect for these intellectuals and can learn a lot from Pinker and others. Given the recent Bari Weiss NYT Opinion peice on these ‘Renegades’ and the resultant leftist backlash on Twitter, I will probably not easily find an audience that appreciates the nuance in between. Both sides seem to enjoy serving cheapshots — and I’m no exception — rather than trying to analyze the substrate of the cognitive culture wars (here, though, I am an exception). I had started thinking about this piece long before Weiss weighed in her opinion, triggering the current scrimmage, but now that she has and some have replied it seems the timing might be best for a teachable moment (or to be drowned out in the noise).
Also by way of introduction, some of my relevent work that precedes this article, includes a defense, a critique, and a synthesis on Jordan Peterson, the surrogate dad of the IDW. His narrative continues to (d)evolve along the lines I anticipated, for better (for him, his fans) and worse (for sociology/ society). I’ve contextualized further how he’s at odds with, and oblivious to, metamodernism, in The Metamodern Condition: A Report on “The Dutch School” of Metamodernism, and that this matters because it’s an intellectual movement that happens to help me and others directly address what (and how) he’s protesting, and how the IDW is missing the bigger picture.
Peterson’s belligerent anti-postmodernism went to the desperate extent of trying to dissuade students from taking classes on it, before retreating. I wish I could say that my critique influenced Peterson’s decision, because these excesses were one of many bad ideas I was warning against. His own circle of confidants is part of the problem if this is the only thing they could get him to relent on. The bottomline is that he does have critics close to him that he trusts, but to the exclusion of everything else. So his circle is part of the problem to the extent that they share his ideology and ignore or deny critiques.
Building and providing the tools of students’ own anti-intellectualism is no small transgression, and Peterson doesn’t deserve a free pass just because he’s dazzled us in other areas. And there are still many other missteps he hasn’t recanted. On a very practical level, he’s making humanities professors’ jobs a lot harder, because students then think they know better about critical studies, which they don’t. Peterson’s basic rhetorical defensive strategy is an old nonstarter known as red-baiting; AKA reductio ad Stalinum, a logical fallacy of denouncing an opponent’s logical argument by smearing them as communist. Until he realizes this, he will continue to put his foot in his mouth, get paid for it, and receive critiques from leftists who are correct.
While he is spreading a lot of personal empowerment and myth appreciation, he detracts from social theory and the paradigm shift (and metaxis) of modernism-postmodernism-metamoderism. He sows just as much discontent as he does salvation, but he won’t see his negative downstream effects in the twinkle of his fan’s eye. At any rate, until my critiques reach a wider audience and Peterson himself, there is no impact to be measured, no litmus test for metamodernism, or abstraction. Whenever that may happen, it’s never too late for metanoia, even if one thinks they’ve already been through it.
For many, including the IDW, metamodernism will still be a very alien and off-putting term —and perhaps will be until David Brooks gives it that special ‘moment’ treatment when he catches up in a few years — but we need to talk about it ASAP in order to elevate the intellectual discourse. It is not that metamodernism can magically solve everything at this moment just yet, but rather it at least allows one to level-up discursively, shake the baggage of postmodernism without shirking the lessons, and begin to transcend the left-right false dichotomy (and false equivalency). This is somewhat the claim of the IDW; that they are breaking new ground, transcending discursive limits, but metamodernism is the proof otherwise. The IDW is a product of the times, not a producer of timeless knowledge.
It is my hope and intention that the IDW will turn out to be little more than an opening act for a new intellgentsia that will actually end the culture wars, rather than inflame them. The IDW will likely fragment, as it was never unified to begin with, and some members will join better alternative schools of thought, including ours. Many of them will have played instrumental roles in quelling left and right wing fundamentalism overall, but not without some casualties along the way. We will take their positive cues and give credit where it’s due, but abandon the various dogmas and antipathies they’ve understandably developed in response to the regressive liberal infringement on their basic ideas or right to defend them (ie. anti-racist Bret Weinstein being effectively ironically chased out of his job over a perceived slight).
A Brief History of Intellectual Darkness
The term IDW was casually coined by Eric Weinstein (in January) to describe himself and this cohort of intellectual pariahs. Surely it is not a homogenous group and they did not ask to be bundled as such, but as they run with it they have to be prepared to hold each other accountable (and some do) or go down with groupthink. Amazingly, one from the list, Alice Dreger, has already publicly defected in a beautiful article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Why I Escaped the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’: Pissing off progressives isn’t intellectual progress,” which I return to later.
Nevermind the fact that some of Jordan Peterson’s own followers dislike the label (awkwardly, the “dark web” already refers to something quite seedy), it has stuck and the IDW notion and their message was taken up by Big Think — “Your Daily Microdose of Genius” — before Weiss got to them. Big Think lists 5 key moments that led to the rise of the Intellectual Dark Web, which are; Sam Harris vs Ben Affleck (2014), Ayaan Hirsi Ali vs Islam (2015), Bret Weinstein vs Evergreen State College students (May, 2017), James Damore vs Google (Aug, 2017), and Jordan Peterson vs Cathy Newman (2018). These are all inflection points that both the left and right still cannot properly process, not to mention the mainstream media (NY Times, or otherwise).
There are of course more than these five catalysts. Arguably why Dave Rubin left The Young Turks could be included, as it was sparked by the Harris vs. Affleck row in the first place, which according to Rubin “exposed lazy thinking of progressives (Affleck)… where we’re trying to have a complex discussion, you immediately go to these buzzwords, it shuts down the conversation.” The Harris vs. Affleck row is particularly interesting because it’s as if they were each trying to out-liberal the other. They both held deep passion and empathy for the victims of hate, but went about it in competing ways. Affleck’s logic was on a more personal visceral level, completely discounting Harris’ more abstract analysis, visibly aggravated at even being in the same room with Harris. Sam has a perfectly skeptical take on the Iraq and other wars too, even if his views on guns and profiling are questionable.
But most importantly, almost all of these disastrous conflicts can be chalked up to misunderstanding or poor mediation, not just irreconcilable viewpoints or expired ideas. Regrettably, both parties leave disgruntled and still thinking that they are right. In The Quantum Turn in Social Science, I advocate for Bohm dialogues, open group conversations moderated in such a way to produce a new level of collective understanding and inter-subjectivity.
Despite the IDW’s insistence that they are really pioneering in talking about various taboos, I’ve never seen them or anyone else effectively and conciously utilize Bohm’s method or anything closely resembling it. They do have quite good and deep conversations at times, given the complexity of the subject matter, but it falls short of apprehending the meta-crisis or transcending partisanship. They are literally just ‘shooting the shit’ in a high-brow way, not making any real headway in the discourse. Eric Weinstein might appreciate the quantum approach for not only Bohm dialogues but other reasons, given that he addresses quantum science in “Why Can’t We Find the Theory of Everything?”
Bohm dialogues are the type of process I would like to see The Abs-Tract Organization facilitate, in a think tank or academic setting, over much longer periods of time than the typical interview, which ranges from 30 minutes to 3 hours. I think real ideological-philosophical upgrading would be much more conducive in a more closed setting, a proper learning environment, over a period no shorter than a typical conference (2–3 days), to as long as 2–3 weeks of intensive briefing sessions, lectures, workshops, and conversations.
To be sure, the enlightenment process would go both ways; it’s not a simple matter of schooling the IDW. It’d be much better to at least attempt it — a real thought experiment — than to drag out this abhorrent public debate over several years in piecemeal interactions skewed by social media distortion and amplification. People would also pay to see this play out, especially if it was presented as some sort of super-documentary crossed with “Big Brother“ style filming. They are already sensationalizing and serializing their meta-narrative, why not go all the way and stage it like an intervention?
The five priming events of the IDW did not only catalyze salons like the IDW; they also feed into metamodernism in different ways. For every reaction that was caused in the nascent IDW community, other interpretations and new lines of inquiry were also inspired in others which have not broken into the mainstream. You can’t really have an Intellectual Dark Web without a Light Web to balance it. Staying with the Harris theme, metamodernism has a different take on secularism and religion that somewhat bypasses the commentary by Harris and Peterson both.
Research has been done Towards a metamodern academic study of religion and a more religiously informed metamodernism (2017). And outside of this, the metamodern approach to religion is already exercised in several active projects, such as Jonathan Rowson’s Spiritualise report, Alexander Bard’s ongoing Syntheism venture, the concept of Entheism (which actually enfolds into syntheism), not to mention parody religions enjoying some mainstream success, and the psychedelic spirituality that IDW folks like Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, and Jordan Peterson already embrace! They just don’t (can’t) see it through a metamodern framework.
Here it is important to note that the IDW is somewhat an evolution of New Atheism (with Harris especially), which itself could also be considered part of a broader cultural epoch of metamodernism. I was an avid ‘freethinker’ in the early window of New Atheism, and was impressed and inspired by Harris’s composed and eloquent deconstruction of fundamentalism. Along with Harris, Michael Shermer has also been at the heart of the skeptic community for several decades fighting pseudoscience and superstition. They all deserve credit for striving through those gauntlets prior to this current cultural phase.
But I could see how New Atheism would and eventually did regrettably fail as a movement (and so could Peterson, predicting New Ageism was more likely to succeed)— that is to say, I think it should have prevailed, but their cool calculated atheism and male dominated forums was too easy to dismiss by spiritualists, feminists, and fundamentalists alike. The world was just not ready for secular humanism, and/or the movement failed to appreciate how their concerns are actually intersectional with social justice issues.
The failure was also somewhat outside their control, as (neo-)conservative US politics and foreign policy was helping to foment fundamentalism both at home and abroad, undermining their very efforts. This is a key point you’d think Harris would understand, but he rejects Chomsky for making it. On the other hand, New Atheism not only suffered because of the resurgence of conservatives and religious fundamentalists, but because of liberals who uphold relativist values in the spirit of multiculturalism. In the same way that moderate Muslims of Christians inadvertantly provide cover for their own fundamentalists, liberals unwittingly put up a foil against secularism and progressivism in the name of tolerance.
Jeff Bercovici calls into question a particular Harris anecdote from 2006 that ‘turned’ him to the ‘dark side’ long before the Affleck confrontation.
Although the thread is interesting, as someone pointed out, it didn’t really matter about the anecdote because it’s ‘true enough.’ That’s the nature of anecdotal evidence done right. Armchair sleuths trying to catch Harris lying are simply wasting their time:
In the classroom and in life I’ve encountered similar arguments to what Harris recounts, because there is a paradox formed when one culture assumes moral authority over another, even if it’s justified. It is difficult to cognize a clear answer, so liberals err on the side of caution, neoconservatives err on the side of intervention. By the same token, it’s an intellectual cop-out to just say all societies are equal and relatively entitled to their beliefs and customs. Rather the opposite is true — that even the best most vibrant, wealthy, and peaceful societies also have some dark secrets and pathologies. All of it must be called out, and this ruffles a lot of feathers.
Meanwhile, a critique of postmodernism was also already implicit in New Atheism via Richard Dawkins in his review Postmodernism Disrobed. Since they had no replacement paradigm, it was simply put on ice. That some postmodernists persisted in their nuanced diminishing-returns research rather than conjoining social justice with the cause of secularism and humanism is a missed opportunity for all. Now, when a figure like Peterson surfaces to rehash 20-yr old critiques of postmodernism, it serves only to widen the schism rather than realize how much social justice and secularism have in common.
The tumultuous first decade of the 21st century was accompanied by many stimulating ‘post-postmodern’ philosophies, the paradigmatic placeholder that essentially kept the discourse churning. It was all for nothing if not to lead to metamodernism (and or trans- and neo-modernism movements), a more coherent emergent discourse, the only system(s) of thought that can periodize the 21st century adequately, explain everything away, and move us forward.
Also over the time frame of these five events (2014–2018), the public conversation seems to track a shift from more substantive debate about secularism to a relatively superficial battle of the sexes and a ‘race’ to the bottom, if you will, which is also mirrored in the downward spiral of politics leading to Trumpism. This may be a facile observation, but it’s a point the IDW should appreciate if they want to understand why we’re all so frustrated with what they’re talking about (and what they’re not talking about). Many have pointed out the lack of serious engagement with actual policy or social issues, instead of dwelling on their lived experiences at the hands of regressive liberals. Such is their responsibility now: to atone for why they became famous, and try to find more legitimate reasons to stay influential.
But this is also the problem. There is of course a slew of conservative policy wonks, pundits, academics, and politicians that have tons of ideas about public policy. The truth is that they are mostly shitty ideas, dressed up in academese and data-festishism, scientism basically, that is substantively little different from pomo-speak. Different, yet the same, and needing methodological reconciliation. The IDW is going to continue to become enmeshed in that very problem the more they attack, and are alienated by and from, serious leftist thinkers. Charles Murray is not a racist, neither is Sam Harris for talking to him, but they conduct research and discourse in a way that is ignorant of and disengaged from the abstraction of racism, the way in which racism becomes encoded and sublimated into language and policy, especially into conservative think tanks — the type that employ Murray.
The understandable sentiment of leftists is that the IDW are, in effect, feeding or obscuring systemic racism, which is channeled through politics. The deep anger and resenment is not just prompted by the IDWs interference on this issue, but by the deeper fact that both parties have been cranking out abstract systemic-racism since the civil rights movement, but certainly moreso Republicans. Meanwhile people are still arguing over explicit racism as if that’s all that matters. The Sam Harris — Ezra Klein feud reflects this profoundly, and yet they both failed to articulate it in a way that made any difference one way or the other. As I suggested with Bohm dialogues, it is very likely that they need mediation; that simple well-intentioned dialectic conversation cannot resolve everything.
If you’ll forgive the long tangents, I want to get back to Big Think again; they also offer 10 challenging books from the Intellectual Dark Web, “that I feel fit into this category,” says the author of the list. It is not evident how this list was chosen, other than that only 3 of the 10 books are from IDW authors themselves, and some are of their favorites. For example, Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker, is also on Jordan Peterson’s top 10. That book also happens to be one of Bill Clinton’s favorites, as well as my own, albeit probably for differing reasons. So it would indeed be a very good prompt for actual discussion, but it is rarely talked about.
And if I may gloss over that great book for now to make a deeper point: in the preface to Escape from Evil, the follow-up to Denial of Death and Becker’s last book, he acknowledges that each book stands on its own but writes that “[It] is a companion volume to Denial of Death. It completes the task begun there… the two books should be read side by side in order to give the integrated and comprehensive picture that the author himself has (or imagines he has)…” — p. xvii, Escape from Evil, 1975. Instead of being paired Escape collects dust in the shadow of Denial of Death’s Pulitzer.
One reason I bring this up is because the second to last chapter of Escape from Evil is titled “Social Theory: The Merger of Marx and Freud.” The chapter title alone is enough to raise Peterson’s hackles, but Marx(ism) is quite standard fare in any serious consideration of social theory (and I’ve done my best to comment on its contemporary expressions in Meta-Marxism); Marxism today has nothing to do with Soviet Communism, and it is but one puzzle peice of social theory. So, there you have it. Peterson can’t say enough to shame Marxism publicly, and yet it’s carefully thrust upon him in the very scholarship he claims to admire.
And how many of the IDW know about Terror Management Theory, the main contemporary application of Becker’s famous thesis, which argues that when people are existentially threatened they instinctually cling to cultural values and symbolic belief systems? It has been tested and affirmed in numerous studies. With or without the theory, corporations and politicians implicitly get it and are apt to manipulate and capitalize on these predictable vulnerabilities. No wonder people buy Peterson’s books when he threatens them with the gulags; he strikes fear in their hearts by invoking the most violent imagery of the 20th century while scapegoating ‘socialism.’
Thus, quite demonstrably the details in their favourite source material contains the seeds of their own undermining, just like Nathan J. Robinson pointed out with Peterson’s misreading of Orwell’s socialism. Marx(ism) is not someone(/something) to be feared irrationality, like a phobia. Indeed, to do so is anti-intellectual, and yet polarization has made so-called intellectuals over-commit to untenable theory-phobia. No serious “Marxist” academic advocates it as a supreme political program; it is only a method of critique now. To say it is not even that is idiotic, and yet this is the koolaid that IDW devotees are mainlining, plugging their ears for certain trigger words.
So as not to dwell on Peterson, the question remains: what does the rest of the IDW actually think about their apparent canon, their misappropriation of it, my quick and easy interrogation of it, and their popularity among ‘deplorables’? If one of your members truly can’t hack it, does he still get to keep the public intellectual status (and in fact fail upward for it) or get demoted?
Moving along… some books on the list seem very out of place, like The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. It’s a direct critique of capitalism, and to a large extent a description of what I call systemic-conspiracy, and none of the IDW are really big on that. However, to his credit, while IDW-coiner Eric Weinstein is a Thiel-toting economist on one hand, on the other hand he can acknowledge generally that “Capitalism Is in Trouble. Socialist Principles Can Save It,” and in effect, some type of hybrid economy is necessary, as he presented via Big Think. This should put him at loggerheads with Peterson, who can’t even stomach the word ‘socialism.’ At any rate, Naomi Klein is far from a member of the IDW, so the inclusion seems like a glaring mistake. And here is Jordan Peterson mocking her:
Although here is Bret Weinstein trying to court her to their cause, and to Bret’s credit he was (and I hope still is) a Bernie Sanders supporter, unless his exile has changed his mind altogether:
Another classic from their list is Anti-intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter, which also won a Pulitzer prize. Again, one of my favourites too, and should prompt discussions of what anti-intellectualism is in our age, both in the public sense, but also the IDW sense I am discussing. I touch on the current state of anti-intellectualism and the reproach of intellectuals in The (New) Reproach of Abstraction. But again, I have to skip over the details of this Hofstadter book to discuss another. Peterson’s paranoia about cultural marxism, instead of the destructiveness of late capitalism, is also a teachable moment here:
Hofstadter’s other famous book The Paranoid Style in American Politics is also important for reasons the IDW should appreciate. As I’ve noted in my theory of systemic-conspiracy, we live in a time both of deep fanatical conspiracy theorizing, and also actual conspiracy (both of systemic and agentic varieties). Hoftstadter’s book is incorporated into my theory as it’s part of the first wave of conspiracy scholarship. Post 2000- we are now well into the third wave, which attributes agency and pathology to ‘the system’ itself, hence systemic-conspiracy.
So, it begs the question: what is one really doing when they behold these famous old books to buttress their authority, while also ignoring the actual developments in the fields they represent? Again, how is it that these intellectuals are on the vanguard, and yet I am ahead of them in these important categories? Or in this case am I simply tilting at Big Think’s poor reductionism of their ideas?
Big Think is usually a quite neutral yet critical education platform, but their lack of criticality on the IDW status shows they have lost their edge. To be more direct, their enabling of Peterson by unquestioningly packaging his typically glib sound bites to tighten up his anti-leftist diatribe in their slick minimalist branding is uncritical and unthinking, to say the least. It’s ‘small think,’ sorry to say. You would think that some of the thoughtful dissent and critique of Peterson over the past 18 months might register on their radar. But it’s as if there’s been no history leading up to their Big Think debut.
Make no mistake about it, the IDW is ‘dark’ insofar as they are accidently increasingly courting the ‘dark side’ of politics, which is not just Trumpism, but ordinary rotten Republicanism. The alt-right is a fringe that they’ve already condemned, so we can stop with those associative smears. This is not to say you should run to corrupt Democrats either. Hell no. As a metamodernist I would advise everyone to be an Independent, and vote with an informed conscience. Forming an Independent Party to activate the actual majority of voters (registered as Independent) would be great, however unrealistic that is because of the electoral college (it can’t be forever). Otherwise the best hope is to purge the bad apples of the Democrat party and reinvent it for 2020. If there is any hope to reform the Republican party, it is most certainly without Trump and the old guard.
I genuinely think that resident conservative and Trump critic Ben Shapiro is very smart and knows a lot more than I do about a lot of things. But he is on record saying people like Betsy Devos and Scott Pruitt are actually defensible human beings. They are not; they are transparently villanious politicians with no expertise or responsibility for the mantles given to them. The entire IDW has somewhat of a duty keep each other in check better, and specifically to deprogram Ben or simply kick him out. And to a large extent they have upheld the promise to challenge each other, but I simply don’t see it going far enough.
And let me further frame this brief dark history with this point: This 2014–2018 period of IDW formation runs roughshod right over the 2016 election. The noise generated by these and other ‘intellectuals’ (save Bernie-boosting Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying) who got caught between alt-righters and regressive lefties while on their speaking tour to the other side helped drown out all the people who called the election correctly in realtime and offered a solution. Then they blindly got behind Hillary Clinton (or even Trump) during (and even after) the primaries, contributing to the election of Donald Trump as leader of the ‘free world.’
They are not the cause of it, but implicated by it, partially complicit in it. And it wasn’t just the IDW. The mainstream media failed, social media failed, Republicans failed, the voters failed, and Clinton failed, resulting in the election of a mobbed up con man and crass entertainment punchline who had actually been seriously scheming to squat in the oval office for almost a decade prior.
The only person who didn’t do anything wrong, who from the beginning vowed to unify the world by redirecting American foreign policy towards addressing climate change and dismantling the bloated and sadistic military-industrial complex, was denigrated and ignored by the media and political establishments that desperately needed those very reforms. The political movement was there, a metamodern moment coalesced, but the trusted news networks didn’t report on it, and most of these IDW intellectuals didn’t notice either. Of course, intellectuals like Chomsky and Cornell West noticed, and said and did everything they could to make it salient.
And as I noted in my critique of Peterson, where was our dear professor when Trump was clinching the nomination and then victory in the general election? Whining about the subtext of Canadian legislation proposed to protect a marginalized group of citizens. I don’t actually have a strong position on Peterson’s mission there, but his attitude are informed by a range of anti-sociological beliefs, so it’s the wider context and the timing that concern me. I won’t even fault him for wanting to vote for Trump, though I probably should:
“I think what I would have done was walk into the voting booth with the intention of voting for Clinton, and then at the last minute gone ‘to hell with it, I’m not doing it’ and voted for Trump.” —Jordan Peterson — Would I have voted for Donald Trump? @ 0:30 mark.
In the hysteria of the moment, I can actually really sympathesize with this notion. I was anti-Clinton, and anti-Trump, but he seemed like a wildcard. Even Susan Sarandon though it could help usher in a socialist surge down the road. One could rationalize that you weren't voting for him based on the malicious campaigning, but rather just saw his provocations as means to an end that would peter out after victory. One could rationally believe in Trump, even though he’s patently full of shit. But Trump is still on the campaign trail, even though he’s President now. We should all be unified against the corruption he literally (physically) and figuratively embodies. So, the quote above actually captures nihilism in a nutshell — while Peterson claims to be providing a psychological solution to nihilism. The irony is as rich as $1M annual income from Patreon.
It’s a time of chaos, and the political spectrum is topsy-turvy, but when the dust settles, none of these (formerly left) right-drifting IDW folks will be content with the state of conservative politics, let alone conservative thought. Candace Owens and Kanye West can’t and shouldn’t save Trumpism, though very smart and talented they may be in their ways. I’m glad the IDW found each other, but may their diversity and penchant for deep discussion quickly lead to their resolution and dissolution.
What follows in my article is an attempt at a more balanced critique and compliment to their movement. By applauding their strengths, I hope that they (the IDW and fans) will more than just entertain the critiques against them, but that they will embody them and change on their own terms.
The Paradox of Nice Critique
Although I’ve already spent a couple sections introducing the IDW while critiquing it, I’d like to reset and refer to Maria Popova’s short post How to Criticize with Kindness. She cites Arthur Martin and Mark Twain in urging us to strive for truth or consensus, not the defeat of our ideological detractors. To be fair, to a large degree this is also what the two most prominent hosts of the IDW — Joe Rogan and Dave Rubin — do; converse aiming at truth (even if they don’t reach it sometimes), rather than victory. I’m giving credit where its due, and I have been a fan of Joe Rogan since his antics on News Radio. Whatever legitimate critiques can be laid against them, especially the more politicized Rubin, they do a pretty decent and sincere job most of the time. Although Rubin is more consistently a useful idiot for regressive conservatism, deaf to serious critiques not audible over the drone of his protestors.
Aside from her introductory anecdotes, Popova mainly quotes Daniel Dennett, who proposes these simple steps to criticize with kindness:
“How to compose a successful critical commentary:
1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.” — How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
Popova admits that this seems like “a naively utopian, Pollyannaish approach to debate” but insists that it’s good advice based on Dennett’s assertion that it’s probably the only thing that will solicit your opponent’s attention. I want to dwell on this for a moment, because I think its paradoxically both of these things. It’s both the right way to critique someone, but it’s also overly simplistic and can generally be ineffective or even counter-productive at affecting a change in the person.
What’s wrong with it? Well, suppose your opponent is a fascist dictator or an ideological bully? Should you really have to steelman their position first, cite your alignments and learned lessons, then critique? Suppose they are Richard Spencer? Is it even worth the mental gymnastics you would have to do to compliment his thought? “Hey bro, you studied Intellectual History, that’s cool, and so ironic!” Understandably this is why people would rather punch neo-Nazis in the head. And would niceness even ensure that they listen to your critique? Certainly doesn’t work with Donald Trump, who needs it more than anyone. There is nothing to stop the recipient of critique to saying “thanks” to the first compliments, and then ignoring the rest. That seems to be the status-quo in today’s intellectual discourse.
There’s a built-in assumption that Dennett’s approach could change an ideologue’s mind, when truly nothing will but their own reflection (and probably some random event). Also built-in to the IDW is the assumption that they themselves will change their mind in light of facts and critique, which is only true some of the time. And it would be impossible anyway if new ‘facts and critique’ don’t actually reach them through all the noise. Dennett’s approach is a game-theoretical gamble, that we hope will work, only because we can be pretty certain that fighting will fail. What Dennett’s approach is missing is an equally artful method of receiving critique, which is exactly what the IDW (and probably all of us) need.
Nevertheless, Dennett’s humble respectful approach is what I’ve already attempted to embrace, demonstrated by my 3-Part series on Jordan Peterson. My critiques are generally against systemic forces, not individuals. With Peterson, because of his academic fixation on “abstraction” that only someone as obsessed as I also am with it could pick up on, I made an exception and directed the only critiques at an individual that I have authored, at him. For my critique of the IDW in general, it is mostly at no particular person, but the group(think) as a whole.
The first article on Peterson was entirely a compliment on his “abstraction” method of deconstructing myth and psychohistory, something which I think a lot of his proponents and critics alike still don’t appreciate properly. I also noted that his ‘essentialist’ positions about gender were compatible with the social ‘constructionist’ view, but in retrospect Peterson didn’t deserve that level of fairness, nor does he even want it; he doesn’t believe social construction is a valid concept, which it is. I could probably write a book on what Peterson is right about, but in pursuance of sociology I/we so frequently are halted by his intransigence towards basic concepts. It’s a complete non-starter, which begs the question of how these and other intellectuals haven’t noticed, or also believe these mischaracterizations of sociology.
The next two articles I wrote on him are meta-critique and synthesis, but sprinkled throughout with endorsements of some of Peterson’s underlying ideas and critiques. I followed Dennett’s rules, and it didn’t work. But of course, Peterson’s rules for critique are much more stringent. First you have to stand up straight, then you have to clean your room, then sort yourself out bucko, then… (I think there’s about 12 rules and about 20 catchphrases you have to follow), then,and only then can you critique him. Well, I’ve done all of those things too. I pet cats, I leave alone skateboarding kids. And not that it’s anybody’s business, but I am “sorted” in the first place, thanks though.
The nice critique has proven insufficient, as it has generated little more than hate or indifference from Peterson loyalists online too, many of whom are demonstrably Trump-pumping crypto-fascists who think smearing mass shooting victim David Hogg is funny. Peterson’s denouncement of his alt-right fan constituency comes late in the game, after many warnings, and the damage has already been done. Also, as I’ve noted in my synthesis, plenty on the left have outright demolished and mocked Peterson’s ideological sandcastle, pulling no punches, going much further than I have. As we would expect according to Dennett’s logic, however, that mode of attack fails to sway Peterson and conservatives in the slightest too.
But let’s step back a moment and apply Dennett’s process to Peterson himself. Has he respectfully engaged with anyone who he’s attacking in the first place (Foucault and Derrida are dead, lucky for him)? Does he understand social justice or Marxist critique? Does he know who David Harvey is, who also sat across from Russell Brand just as he did, but discussed the contemporary state of Marxism and late capitalism instead of ‘bloody marxists’? No, no, no.
Peterson is a fine psychologist but truly just another a dilettante outside his field on certain issues, which is why nobody who actually understands social theory can take Peterson very seriously as a social critic. But it’s not his fault that sociologists are not fighting back and speaking up in the media. Maybe they are the ones being ignored/silenced, or are media shy. Indeed, Peterson rises and thrives in the void left by the lack of public sociology. Peterson is also a climate change skeptic along with Camille Paglia, full stop.
So, critique prompts a sort of paradox. How do we be constructively critical? Do we kill them with kindness? Do we be subversive and satirical? Dennett’s strategy aside, we certainly have to be striving for truth, not for victory. We all must follow that dictum, sort out our own contradictions, and arrive at universal truth together. The IDW claims to follow this, almost to the extent that they act like they have a monopoly on truth and reason. If it doesn’t drop its ideological baggage, it’s eventually going to self-implode just like the alt-right has.
I must conclude this section with the observation that ‘critiquing with kindness’ is also somewhat the opposite of Nietzsche’s “philosophize with a hammer.” And if Peterson is really a true Nietzschean then he should loved being smashed to bits with one, shouldn’t he? But an insight from a metamodern colleague in his article Spring Break, reveals that we should not just be hammering “but chiselling with them precisely, subtly, and organically.” We can and do extend Nietzsche’s metaphor to make more sense of philosophy’s function in a metamodern context. We must carefully excavate and sculpt truth from its raw material. Metaxy between kind and cutting critique, so that a beautiful model may be freed from the rationalists’ rock of ages.
Dialectics with Free Speech Warriors and the Pretence of Listening
Having already put in the work on Peterson, when I tried to share and defend my perspective in response to Jordan Greenhall’s and David Fuller’s puff pieces, they couldn’t even be bothered to read and respond to my research; they simply entrenched their positions. I mean(t) no disrespect or ad hominem implications, but by definition they wrote ‘puff pieces’; see definition below. Go read them both, see for yourself. This is simply on them.
puff piece: “A journalistic form of puffery; an article or story of exaggerating praise that often ignores or downplays opposing viewpoints or evidence to the contrary.”
Jordan actually blocked me, rather than engaging, whereas at least David had the courtesy to chat before threatening blocking, even if we disagree. It’s not the first time I’ve been blocked by a Peterson loyalist; race realist Tara McCarthy — who had Peterson on her podcast — got sick of ignoring my challenges. Cyber-polarization already makes echo-chambers and these people are just making it worse for themselves. It’s worth noting the episode of Black Mirror that highlighted the dystopian irony of blocking. These instances and the episode’s cases are different, but when you block someone for critique as if it’s harassment, it is wilful ignorance and you defeat yourself by filtering out good information.
In their defence, my comments to them were critical of their blatant romanticizing of Peterson and the IDW and they must have simply misread me as attacking or party-pooping. Greenhall’s article had the gall to declare 2018 “the year of Jordan Peterson,” which is gratutious to say the least. They (over-)reacted to my comments, instead of engaging with my substantive content. But the main point is that their ‘work’ on Peterson did not reflect a single mention of anyone’s critiques against Peterson, let alone mine. Which is a shame, because they are both highly capable and do produce good work otherwise. As such, their fellowship with the IDW is not research, or even journalism, but simply whitewashing and agenda promotion. To this effect, Fuller excitedly encourages you to ‘join’ the IDW!
So, I suppose that in this instance given that I failed to follow Dennett’s steps and kiss their feet first, Greenhall and Fuller felt validated instead of called-out and embarrassed, on top of the validation the Peterson train provides. But their reviews are all panglossian pandering, stinking of intellectual hypocrisy of the worst kind, not to mention the anti-intellectualism of blocking/ censorship. The meta-problem is that these are smart, intellectual people, who should know better, but they just are “not convinced” or “not interested” in real critique and the critical theories it is rooted in. By association, and to some extent their own actions, they confirm Peterson’s anti-sociology.
Under this pretence of “free speech,” I’m encouraged by Fuller, Greenhall, and others, to go out and make my points. By all means, it’s a free world they say — ‘you do you’ — because they erroneously assume that the free market for ideas will make the best rise to the top. They gloat that as freethinkers they somehow have no intellectual obligation to listen to anyone they don’t like.
Thus, the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) is flanked by an Intellectual Snark Web (ISW) that does some of the heavy lifting of rallying the troops while beating back and silencing critics. They are the early-adopters and social-influencers of the IDW. Indeed, to this effect the website the maps the IDW also has a Critical Darker Web page, with the likes of Fuller, (Louder with) Crowder, and Sargon of Akkad. They do have some incredibly fair and cogent critiques of regressive leftism but almost to the point where it becomes a fallacy-filled schtick, meanwhile none of them are helping to translate the concerns of the SJW victims (not that they want help).
We can place Claire Lehmann’s Quillette on the border between the two, with plenty of tripe like In Defence of Scientism (a word that by a basic encyclopedic definition implies a bad thing) and The Illiberal Logic of Intersectionality being littered amongst some more informed, agreeable, and less politicized articles. Lehmann appears to devote half her energy to soliticting and editing these right-leaning undergraduate op-eds (with the occassional prof chiming in their bias) and half to mocking (while also ignoring) social justice advocates on twitter.
I want to believe she/they are better than this, so it never ceases to amaze me that Quillette has such a dismissive absolutist tone when it comes to ‘social justice.’ No wonder the IDW all celebrate Quillette’s lucid commentary; it provides quite the buffer to critique! To their credit, much of Quillette’s articles are well research, complete with citations, but it’s the overall worldview (or lack of one) and contrarian attitude that doesn’t add up. Perhaps it’s ill-conceived. In response to Peterson’s childlike fascination with the name Quillete, Lehmann explains…;
“I needed an original domain name and we were just brainstorming and I don’t know where Quillette came from but it just came into my head…” — Jordan B. Peterson Podcast Episode 41 /w Claire Lehmann @ 11:38 mark
Let me try to help. I am a fan of naming things properly, not just pulling words out of my ass, whether it’s for a band or a blog title, hence The Abs-Tract Organization is so named because it explores the deep nested and punny nature of ‘abstraction’ (as well as the words ‘abs’ and ‘tract’) as a social process, bio-physical process, thinking process, and research methodology.
It turns out that “Quillette” could actually be a fitting name for her publication and classical liberalism fetish, as a quill can refer to a feather pen, and the -ette suffix means small (as in kitchenette) and can even denote the female gender (as in suffragette). So, at best Quillette could be her little feminist feather pen that writes big ideas supporting great men… or is it? A quill can also refer to a ‘hollow tube’ as in penne pasta or a porcupine quill, and -ette can also mean ‘imitation’ or ‘substitute’ (as in flannelette). So, at worst, Quillette is an ‘imitation hollow tube’ taking either the form of a high-carb low -nutrition food, or a thing that stabs you.
You see, such are the wide choices we have in hermeneutics, in perceiving and interpreting ideas and their presentations. What is the real Quillette? It’s like what color is this dress? And although there is only one truth, with effort one can wilfully oscillate their perception to see both color schemes. There is also joy in mockery and sucking the juices out of low-hanging fruit, and it is abused on both sides. But seriously, I would ask that all of these detractors meet me halfway if they can. The IDW only has but a fragment of the deep code, with which you can do nothing; metamodernists and others have the other pieces. They must be (re-)united, like a broken amulet, to have any positive power.
The IDW are staunch supporters of free speech, but they aren’t very good at listening, and it empowers right-wingers to abuse free speech and further not listen. This gets us closer to the root of the problem. With the exception of probably Joe Rogan, the IDW (as a whole) have poor listening skills. As researchers, they have great selective listening skills, in the same way that Hillary Clinton is a ‘great listener’; very pragmatic and open-minded but obtuse to the greater movement happening around them, while devoting a large portion of their resources to self-preservation. But as public intellectuals, they’re so tone-deaf they haven’t even heard of our metamodern conversation yet.
“Listening” is at the center of the metamodern treatise “The Listening Society” for a reason, but in a much more profound sense. It means at least shutting the hell up for a long time and taking in the entire world. Sam Harris should understand this well, as he’s spent inordinate amounts of time in silence.
Some of the IDW failing to listen to the right critics, but they also failed to hear the social justice critique that has been extant for decades. Some of them were social justice advocates and got swept up in this movement because of things that happened to them, not because of things they did or thought. Consequently, the IDW collectively declares social justice itself as the cause of society’s problems, and only see misguided SJWs harassing them, not the difference between the sound theories and suspect ones that underpin those same misguided efforts, much less the broken and corrupt institutions that those theories criticize.
This general climate of ignoring and rejecting sociological theory and critique is partly what has shaped the current campus battlefield culture over social justice, which has rebranded the protestors as the villains (ie. “SJWs”). I wouldn’t say Greenhall, Fuller, or Lehmann deserve the pejorative ‘free speech warriors,’ but the some members of the IDW and ISW are certainly enabling this culture of hiding hate speech within free speech. The bad ideas become sanitized, and indeed it’s almost always the case that the bigot doesn’t think they are bigoted.
Candace and Kanye cheerlead the claim that Obama failed black people (which he did) and the IDW/ISW defend the right to those opinions, all the while all of them neglect the fact that Obama was the target of systematic Republican racism and resistance on every agenda point for 8 years, no less than by President Trump himself. This is a running joke on late night TV, but the right has no real sense of humor. Though the Democrat party is indeed corrupt, Obama was set up to fail by the GOP that these ‘freethinkers’ are acting on behalf of now. The new conservativism isn’t freethought, it’s slavish contrarianism.
The paradoxical challenge is to some how ‘come together’ and find consilience while also criticizing each other so hard that we don’t fall for a false consensus.
What the Intellectual Dark Web Gets Right (and Could Do Better)
Collectively the IDW have too much non-controversial work for the left to dismiss. They write books and articles, and produce lengthly podcasts, much of which contributes to human knowledge and flourishing. They are right that political correctness can be a slippery slope. They are right to try to understand and respectfully engage and understand the students who confront them (their response is not a mere defensive measure). And truth be told, Eric Weinstein’s intelligence and particular expertise is outside my scope. But they all could do better.
The original infraction that is motivating campus activists is an abstract one of long-term systemic injustice maintained through ubiquitous cases of on going oppression (profiling, policy brutality, sexual discrimination or assault, etc.), leading them to resort to ‘calling out’ academics that don’t play along with their performative game. The real backlash against these IDW thinkers comes after they’ve been cornered and shamed in the first place, which was unwarranted, and they find that their responses are unsatisfactory to both the regressive and progressive left. Meanwhile, they also receiving a windfall of both positive attention and money, hence the calling out their crocodile tears. All of this pushes them further to the right, as Weiss admits.
Bret Weinstein was entirely undeserving of the protest against him at Evergreen. I’m sure he does fine work as an evolutionary biologist, so instead of being dragged down by the IDW politics I’d rather hear what he thinks about evolutionary globalization. After all, few of these individuals are being hoisted by the NY Times for their actual work, but for their controversy. Weinstein’s is one of the most clearly unfair cases I can think of, along with the Lindsay Shepherd/ Laurier ordeal.
The better way to expose abstract racism, in my view, is to make it more explicit by showing how it is abstracted. Bad abstraction (mystification, institutional racism) must be met with good abstraction (clear thinking, critical research) and accompanied by civil disobedience. Social justice advocates must continue to protest as peacefully and articulately as possible, not to ‘perform’ acts of resistance shouting to interrupt a speech or be surrounded by a campus mob.
Nicholas Christakis recieved a similar brow-beating because his wife responded to an email that she didn’t realize was an ultimatum insisting that people do not wear any halloween costumes that could be perceived as offensive. The SJWs demanding justice from him ironically disallow any kind of resolution. They have put their foot down (his throat), but he maintains professionalism. Like Weinstein, Erica Christakis spent a career engaged with social justice issues, so the absolutist rejection of her constructive criticism about the authoritarian risk of making costumes a matter of institutional policy amounts to a form of SJW self-sabotage.
Christakis is the only sociologist counted among the IDW and his work is overshadowed by the IDW’s reactionary mandate. He may be too busy defending himself to understand and criticize the broader IDW’s antipathy to sociology. Christakis’ research on social networks looks quite state-of-the-art, and although it aims to make the world a better place, the social justice critique has to ask ‘is it sufficiently ‘woke’ or just more tools to be co-opted and instrumentalized by the current power structure’? Is it too TED-esque, like Pinker, and not post-TED enough, like Bratton? Christakis can track biological and social contagions, in theory, — cool — but how come he can’t put his finger on the spread (or spreading) of bad conservative ideas throughout this very network he’s now in?
Yes, the IDW gets many things right in the first place. Sam Harris, before he started mildly offending everyone, only offended fundamentalists and religious apologists. He was a boon for secularism, not to mention psychedelic science. And at the end of the day, Harris is right about Christakis’ case that an individual trying to dialogue with a large critical crowd who all want to be heard but can interrupt him is “a problem of spoken word geometry” (at 28:24 mark).
Others get a bad rap unfairly. Joe Rogan is much more than a meathead. His comedy is occasionally penetrating, and his 1000+ long-form conversations with a very diverse set of intellectuals and artists are as educational as they are entertaining. Similarly, Dave Rubin is more than an hyper-agreeable cartoonish reduction of anti-regressivism, which is a criticism from the right no less. Though these hosts are stalwarts of the IDW, they are also independent and resilient enough to stand on their own and push back against the right. What they could do better is simply to find and engage more serious leftists.
I can acknowledge that most of Jonathan Haidt’s actual work is impressive enough, but when it comes to his more opinionated pieces he is defensive against valid criticism, much like Peterson. As a social psychologist, I’d ballpark that Haidt is about 80-90% psychologist and 10–20% sociologist, so to me, he gets a lot of the latter wrong, even if is a ‘top global thinker’ according to Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine. But that is still plenty that he gets right in his own wheelhouse. Still, Haidt and Peterson seem conflate their own political analysis with the hard scientific research they do in the lab. What they get right about their expertise is undermined to the extent of what they each get wrong about social critique. Here, Emily Pothast breaks down exactly what’s wrong with Haidt’s centrism.
On Bari Weiss and the NY Times
From a critical perspective, at first glance her article looks like yet another puff piece. It adds no new information to the topic, and it hardly even measures her ‘opinion’ on the IDW; it reads more like a Vanity Fair or Hollywood Reporter feature than an NYT op-ed — she had dinner with some of them and they did an inexplicable photo shoot. It’s just Weiss telling a good story, actually… but a good story is not what we need. We need the whole truth, not a partial one, and perhaps that can’t even been done in the NY Times; it’s just a large newspaper after all, that occassionally supports war and amplifies untenable views for the sake of diversity. It is not actually the intellectual clearinghouse it aspires to be. In this instance, it’s much better than this “Daily Mail”-level bad take being published by the outlet that once broke the Snowden revelations.
I get that there is a Bari Weiss Problem, according to The Outline, but like her, critics also sometimes go too far, and left and right just end up misquoting and misunderstanding each other (ie. vicious abstraction). The animus is deep seated, because many of these popular writers have been personally fighting and slandering each other for years. I’m trying to get ahead of this problem before the web becomes saturated with more leftist overreaction (“laugh at it” is not the only thing to do with the IDW, because it is not “JUST A BUNCH OF WHINY RICH PEOPLE”) or banal right-ist plugs like this one: I Was Liberated by the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’.
Leftists on twitter, many of whom I follow and support, went to town tearing the piece and Weiss apart. I’m almost nervous to say that I actually thought the article was pretty even-handed, an objective narration of events and actors, even flirting with the idea they might be grossly mistaken and causing negative externalities. It was not simply fluff; it humanized IDW and touched on the risks they both take and create. I say this even after all the critiques of the IDW I’ve laid out above. Not that I endorse Bush-insider David Frum’s authority, but we agree on this surface level observation:
Still, while I can agree that it’s reasonably fair, I also found the piece to be fundamentally shameless and empty, reflecting Charlie Warzel’s tweet above. It is but one version of this dark reality, and not the best explanation. Weiss’ commentary, like most reporting out there, is pretty surface level, it involves very little academic research or deep critical thinking. It takes interview statements at face value. It is bounded by deadlines and certain publishing standards and conventions. It is aimed at a wide audience. Etc… It’s a systemic problem.
The problem with grappling with issues of racism is that most people still don’t understand how abstract it can be, as a part of systemic-conspiracy, and how inartful ‘white people’ can be when glossing over the deep complex history of black struggle and its social justice expressions. Thus, I can understand where the leftist critiques come from as well, even if they overshoot a little.
Hyperbole answering hyperbole, but with some core truths. Though it’s tempting to try to play peacemaker, I would merely propose a ceasefire for the time being. I highly value the critical work that the genuine left does, and hopefully they can appreciate my broader point on the IDW here: that there is a middle ground to be taken without being politically compromising in the way we are accusing the IDW of being. In other words, there is a way to be tolerant without tolerating their intolerance towards the left.
But the paradox of nice critique shows how appreciating their merits while exposing their flaws is not enough; we must create a better discourse while including and transcending them. Neither the IDW nor their critics are successfully finding that line. The macro perspective is actually above the chaotic weather, in metamodernism, so to speak. Some of the left continue to fall into traps, and some continue to rise above the IDW and the general antagonism and defensiveness of the right.
Nor do I want to play devil’s advocate for Weiss and her own controversial cohort. This was their victory lap, and now the silly intellectual race should be over. We are all so tired of the dog and pony show, the pomp and circumstance, so sick of politics, its social media (black) mirror, and this IDW wannabe superhero team-up crossover event. Everybody’s wrong. Upgrade to metamodernism. Join our freethought movement. Put your classical liberalism or libertarianism on hold for a New York minute, if you can. Learn some new ideas. For god’s sake, you’re all wasting enormous time criticizing each other so poorly, although I can appreciate the jokes:
To Krugman, Bret Weinstein and then Dave Rubin replied in good faith, explaining some context and inviting him to the discussion:
And some of the best takes were the simply the ones that pointed out the absurdity of the photo shoot:
Harris’ rightful place is indeed ‘between two ferns,’ except sat across from Zach Galifianakis. So whether we like it or not, perhaps the IDW NY Times piece, and hopefully my reply, can help steer us all back on course. Good faith needs to be maintained, because that’s the game theory that will keep us talking across different channels and move us forward. But this good faith means acknowledging and addressing the still unresolved valid criticism. We must also address social paradoxes and meta-problems. Metamodernism is one gate you can’t get through without doing all these things first, including maturely processing modernism and postmodernism.
I also found inspiration in Henry Farrell’s excellent vox article, a quite sober analysis of the myopia of Weiss’ piece, despite his sensational “alt-right”-invoking title. He explains how the IDW mirrors “centrist” intellectuals of the 60s that also relied on contrarianism and societal prejudices while also leaning towards conservative politics and distancing from the left. Thus, they were posing as centrists. While those intellectuals enjoyed relative immunity in their time, their influence eventually waned and their pseudoscience was rejected. Like them, the IDW has peaked, but has also been deconstructed in the same moment, so they’re experiencing status loss (in the form of critique and intolerance) and feel resentment. As Farrell explains;
“In absolute terms, dark web intellectuals enjoy far more access to the mainstream than genuine leftists. But in relative terms, they have far lower status than their intellectual forebears of 20 or even 10 years ago. They are not driving the conversation, and sometimes are being driven from it. This loss of relative social status helps explain the anger and resentment that Weiss describes and to some extent herself embodies. It’s hard for erstwhile hegemons to feel happy about their fall.” — What Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro have in common with the alt-right
Indeed, but this is not to say that the regressive liberals that chased Bret Weinstein away are driving the conversation either, or should be. Although when I was in their place I felt the same pent up rage at elites and fantasized about channelling it at them. These students are simply at the end of their rope — subconciously feeling the existential dread of knowing you are going to graduate into nothingness — and found an excuse to ironically demand systemic justice from a single individual.
What is attempting to take the reigns from the IDW is ultimately a progressive metamodern politics, emergent in the movements of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, at odds with both a postmodern regressive liberalism and the unholy trinity of IDW “classical liberalism,” neoreactionary conservatism, and unfettered capitalism.
So, while the IDW does not personally believe woman and minorities are unwelcome in their group (they have a few), the alt-right and #GamerGate cultures do explicitly — the same cultures that Steve Bannon activated in order to rock the boat and get Trump elected, many of whom are now suckling at IDW teats because of their shame. What they all share is the perceived ‘status loss’ and antipathy towards leftist culture that attempts to empower women and minorities generally.
Their enemy of their enemy is their friend. The IDW provides cover for the red-pill right, which goes way beyond [Red Pill Black] Candace Owens and Kanye West, to a very radicalized populace that share the same false beliefs about cultural marxism ruining their lives. Thus, the reason leftists or liberals accuse the IDW of alt-right association, even if the IDW are opposed in principle, should be obvious to any rationalist, including themselves; because we’ve seen it before, and have correctly diagnosed it again.
Farrell notes that the IDW are capitalizing on their controversy, which Peterson brags about, while mixing up their rationality with very anti-rational politics. He then concludes with a speculation similar to my own earlier in this peice; that the IDW now has a forked choice and some will continue to drift into darkness, while some may head towards the light:
“They also have resentments to be capitalized on, and a commitment to rationality that can all too easily be transformed into a commitment to rationalizing their less salubrious political desires… It would not be surprising to see many of the people discussed in Weiss’s piece defect to the forces of darkness over the next couple of years. Instead, it would be surprising if some did not.” — What Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro have in common with the alt-right
The thoughtful critiques are virtually endless, if you just listen. Here Michael Brooks and Douglas Lain from Zero books have a great conversation about the IDW, particularly Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson.
There are 24 in the IDW list and the NY Times addresses the 14 at the forefront. It is a wide web to criticize all at once. Many features and critiques gloss over the lesser-known members, so I want to mention just a few of them. I’ve tried to be thorough in my research, but many of them I had still never heard of either, and do not have the time or space to consider; as such I can give them all the benefit of the doubt, rather than judge them based on membership of this ill-concieved club.
Debra Soh wasn’t even on the original list, but was included in the NYT article. I don’t know enough about her to comment. Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s interview included in the 5 IDW moments is hardly controversial in my view, and she’s a well respected scholar. As far as I can tell, her greatest crime might be just being married to an intellectual who supported the Iraq War. Gad Saad is critical of political correctness but it seems his spot is mostly on account of being the first to host and promote Jordan Peterson. Likewise, people only know the name Stephen Hicks because of Jordan Peterson basing his anti-postmodernism off of him. Dan Carlin is brilliant and talented at writing and presenting Common Sense and Hardcore History, and has his finger on the pulse of contemporary politics, so it seems to me he has less in common with the rest of the IDW than anyone else.
If Tim Ferriss is an “intellectual” then I’m the Queen of England. He’s highly intelligent, there’s a difference. He’s an enthusiast about big ideas, but he’s more interested in the science of ‘success’ and self-help than critical truth. I’m sure his book Tribe of Mentors is amazing, but I’m not looking for life or career (or cooking) advice. I’m looking for information that helps solves the world’s systemic problems. Similar with James Damore; very smart, not intellectual. An intellectual drills down into philosophy and social theory, is obsessed with the life of mind, with what’s wrong with the world, and sharpens critique for the greater good. Tech entrepreneurs, whether Ferriss or Damore, are not “intellectuals” by default. That Damore spoke up at Google and got fired does not make him a hero, though I do think he did not deserve his fate either.
Intellectual Light Web
In 2015, Daniel Tutt wrote about The Resurgence of the Leftist Public Intellectual. His article cites Remzig Keucheyan’s The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today as a resource that introduces “master thinkers such as Jacques Rancière, Antonio Negri, Giorgio Agamben, Gayatri Spivak and Slavoj Žižek… [and] sheds light on lesser known thinkers such as Elmar Altavater and Yann Moulier Boutang.” Ever heard of them? Many more leftist intellectuals are out there than you would realize from consuming mainstream media, or any of the IDW’s content.
Add Alice Dreger to our list, and I invite other members of the IDW who are getting tired of their routines or mischaraterizations to join our discourse instead of keeping us out of theirs. Dreger prefers to be part of the “Intellectual Light Web,” as she calls it. It only took her three days after Weiss’ profile to officially jump ship. The light is ubiquitous and quickening. Andrew Sweeney could admit the IDW was dead on arrival of the NYT piece, but ironically also thinks that Fuller and Greenhall might be better alternatives even though they were just buttressing the IDW in the first place. The university itself is still the first line of defense and the last bastion of learning, as Dreger explains;
“The Intellectual Dark Web isn’t a solution, it might just be a sign of end times.”
“How, since resigning my position at Northwestern University over my dean’s censorship of my work, I miss the Intellectual Light Web, the crisscross of walking paths that bisect the campus green. How we need job security to keep people from going to the dark side… Professors, listen to me: You don’t want to be in this dark-web thing, even if it comes with an awesome trading-card photo. You are in the right place. Carry on.”
Beyond the thousands upon thousands of unsung heroes in academia, and notwithstanding the merits and credentials of the remaining IDW, below is a list of 75+ more thinkers, scientists, activists, and media figures that I think are more critical and outside the mainstream than the IDW. They’re more in touch with the darkness, and yet much lighter and enlightened. They’re more deserving of attention and investment than the spotlit IDW. They’re more ‘centred’ leftists than the supposed ‘centrist’ IDW.
Well rounded critical thinkers like these are essential in any sustainable social enlightenment enterprise. It is a random sample of a prospective public Light Web to counter the IDW, a diverse set of radical thinkers united by their commitment to progress, epistemic first and foremost. There has of course been some clashes and cross-overs between a few of these people and IDW folk before, but they are mostly carrying on independent conversations. More of less off the top of my head, in no particular order:
Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Alexander Wendt, Norman Finkelstein, Benjamin Bratton, Jeremy Scahill, Briahna Joy Gray, Matt Taibbi, Russell Brand, Jonathan Rowson, Nathan J. Robinson, Owen Jones, John Ganz, Stephen Klein, Noah Berlatsky, Luke Savage, Zaid Jilani, Abby Martin, Chris Hedges, Francesca Fiorentini, Shuja Haider, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Indy Johar, Jeet Heer, Ryan Cooper, Adam Curtis, Nick Srnicek, John Kellden, Zero Books’ Douglas Lain, Carl Beijer, Eillie Anzilotti, Libby Watson, Ezra Klein, Frank Furedi, Scott Santens, Clément Vidal, David Korten, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Matt and Elizabeth Bruenig, Michael Brooks, Sam Seder, Contrapoints, H. Bomberguy, Peter Coffin, Jack Smith, Jesse Brown, David Chapman, Bhaskar Sunkara, Julia Galef, CHAPO Trap House, Hanzi Freinacht, The Dutch School metamodernists, Seth Abramson, Bernie Sanders, Robert Reich, Ronan Harrington, Alain Badiou, Sarah Stein Lubrano, Julia Butterfly Hill, David Harvey, Nathan Snyder, Michael Burawoy, @TheOnion, Rosario Dawson, Zak Stein, Jeremy Corbyn, @screenslaver, Patrick Blanchfield, Adam H. Johnson, David Klion, and Axel Honneth.
Serious intellectuals are abundant, when you really think about it. The IDW has a lot of potential sources for their re-enlightenment. Check out the prolific Nathan J. Robinson’s THE REAL “DANGEROUS” IDEAS for a similar alternative list; more people and facts that get to the point faster and better than the IDW.
Though this is one of the longest articles you’ll probably read on the IDW, it is still only but a snapshot of a situation with baffling complexity. I’ve tried to include everything that’s relevant to making an objective statement about this group, their pros and cons, and what should be done about it both by them and others. There are many hot-takes and footnotes that didn’t make the cut. This much we can conclude:
The IDW are intellectuals, whether we like or not, but they have to answer to the charge of the anti-intellectual threads connecting them as well. And although there is snark going in every direction, it’s arguably the brands of conservative pundits like Ben Shapiro and/or “classic liberal” Jordan Peterson, who’s holier-than-thou commentary and combative dispositions leaves no room for criticism of their shared allergy to socialist (or even sociological) concepts and principles. The pseudo-humility is confirmed as they continue to dodge serious critique that would actually just humble rather than humiliate them. Plenty of facts and evidence can and has been presented to invalidate some of their views.
The fact that the IDW has now tentatively conglomerated as a predominantly white male demographic, while also criticizing identity politics and groupthink, is richly ironic, although not the strongest case against them. It is a tired critique, and I myself am a ‘white male,’ who by happenstance with a lot of other white males. The difference is that I’m read in the literature critical of ‘whiteness’ and such, whereas Peterson rejects that ‘white privilege’ is even a valid concept. He is the examplar of emasculated ‘white fragility’, yet refuses to even pick up the book. Leave it to the shitrag Quilette to publish “The Problem with ‘White Fragility’ Theory” — an article that of course doesn’t even mention the word ‘black’, the war-on-drugs, or the incarceration epidemic.
‘We have women and minorities’ the IDW says. But they are missing the point. And the snide and hypocritical attacks against the left and the conceptual foundations of social justice are hardly “dark,”; in actuality are more of a “lark” at the expense of vulnerable students and the global precariat (subsistence class). The more esteemed and prolific of IDW members should leave or raise the rest of the group to their standards. They all need to begin engaging more in the broader discourse with both contemporary leftists and metamodernists, or everyone will continue to suffer and complain for it.
Regressive leftists (“SJWs”), who are both actual victims of systemic oppression underserving of the epithet as well as potentially self-victimizers who undermine their own cause by being authoritarian, need to take a breather to heal and recoup while finding better ways to advocate for social justice. They also need to realize that they potentially have allies in the IDW, even if they think they have irreconcilable differences. Meanwhile, the left as a whole needs to consolidate and unify under a dynamic and inclusive progressive political framework that could be described as “metamodern.”
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