In May of 2018, New York Times columnist, Bari Weiss, penned an article about the “renegades of the web”, the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW). The term, coined by the mathematician, Eric Weinstein, encompassed the following individuals: psychologist, self-help author, and university celebrity, Jordan Peterson; podcaster, atheist, and neuroscientist, Sam Harris; biologist, a former professor at Evergreen College and brother of Eric, Bret Weinstein; former Young Turks commentator and “ex-leftist”, Dave Rubin; podcast behemoth, comedian, and UFC commentator, Joe Rogan; former writer for Breitbart and conservative wunderkind, Ben Shapiro; among other individuals that hold “dangerous ideas”. What made these individuals so dangerous? Weiss explains in the now notorious column:
… they all share three distinct qualities. First, they are willing to disagree ferociously, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject: religion, abortion, immigration, the nature of consciousness. Second, in an age in which popular feelings about the way things ought to be often override facts about the way things actually are, each is determined to resist parroting what’s politically convenient. And third, some have paid for this commitment by being purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought — and have found receptive audiences elsewhere.
The catch with the IDW was that they were persecuted for holding “self-evident truths” about a current plethora of problems. As Weiss examined,
when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered “dark.”
Many of the members of this niche “have little in common politically,” but they share the experience of being “persecuted” for exposing such ideas. These individuals were elevated to an intellectual pedestal, disregarding the arguments that the Left or, as Jordan Peterson puts it, “the postmodern/neo-Marxist left” had against them.
The IDW became a stamp all over YouTube, appearing in various outlets, like Joe Rogan’s massive podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience”. An online magazine, Quillette, by Claire Lehmann, was started to spread the ideas that mainstream media “would not” publish. Dave Rubin departed from his Young Turks role and started a new interview show, The Rubin Report, that featured these individuals and others, that were supposedly outcasted by the media and the Left. The gist was fighting for “free thought” and “free expression” in the current, heavily charged, political climate.
And yet, after months of the IDW running as a collective, something clear started to appear: those ideas were not dangerous, nor new. The IDW was really exposing old, reactionary ideas; rebranding them as “new” or “dangerous”, to prove the intolerance of the Left. Moreover, they were never outcasted from mainstream outlets. You could find Peterson and Harris on Real Time with Bill Maher, Bret Weinstein in Fox News, Bari Weiss with highly circulated columns in The Wall Street Journal, and later, The New York Times. Rogan’s show is arguably the biggest or second-biggest podcast of the world; this week we found out that he was given $100 million for the exclusivity of his show on Spotify…
Nathan J. Robinson, the editor of the magazine Current Affairs, was one of the first to spot such inconsistencies and launch an assault on the obvious flaws of these “renegades”. In his collection of essays on the IDW, The Current Affairs Rules for Life (CA Press, 2018), Robinson questioned the validity of their claims:
First, even from the evidence in Weiss’ article, we can see that freely speaking about the “siege on free speech” is impressively lucrative. Dave Rubin’s show “makes at least $30,000 a month on Patreon” while Jordan Peterson “pulls in some $80,000 in fan donations each month” and recently released a bestseller. Ben Shapiro gets 15 million downloads a month and has published five books, Sam Harris gets a million listeners per episode and has published seven books. Though Joe Rogan insists “he’s not an interviewer or a journalist” (I wouldn’t disagree) his three-hour podcast conversations are among the most downloaded in the world. These dissident “intellectuals” each seem to make about as much money in a month, with far larger audiences, than is made annually by the critical race theorists and gender studies professors they think are keeping them from being heard.
On the accusations of being purged from academic institutions:
Weiss says members of the Intellectual Dark Web have been “purged” from institutions. It’s not clear, though, which institutions she means. Peterson is a full professor at one of the world’s top research universities. Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt, who have similarly spent time condemning campus leftists, have positions at Harvard and NYU, respectively. Charles Murray spoke at Harvard and Yale last year. Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying did choose to resign from Evergreen State after the protests there, but Weiss doesn’t mention that they took half a million dollars with them after filing a $3.8 million lawsuit against the university for failing to protect them from the Social Justice Warriors.
Michael Brooks Against the Intellectual Dark Web
A new book, Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right (Zer0 Books, 2020) by the co-host of The Majority Report, Michael Brooks, explores and critiques their “ideas” while showcasing his “liberatory and Internationalist project.” Brooks is a witty and charismatic figure on the left. His own show, The Michael Brooks Show (TMBS), showcases topics on the left spectrum of politics with a heavy tone of internationalism, from Bernie Sanders to the former president of Brazil, Lula da Silva. Brooks is a Marxist that’s willing to engage with the ideas that the Intellectual Dark Web wants to spouse. Moreover, he tries demonstrating how contradictory and full-blown reactionary are some of these intellectuals that present themselves as cool, collected, rational figures.
If you’re a fan of TMBS, you will find yourself laughing at various moments. Brooks is certainly witty, especially when he quotes people like Dave Rubin. One imagines the imitation of the voices of various members of the IDW through Brooks.
Against the Web stems from the long tradition of pamphlet writings. This, of course, is not an indictment on the book. Pamphlets are better for these types of attacks, that want to bring an argument against a collective or a political topic. Figures like Christopher Hitchens loved this method of writing –more if the target was a sacred cow of the media.
Brooks’ book concentrates only on the current, high profile figures of the Intellectual Dark Web. The victims of his writings currently have a huge following on social media, YouTube, and even the mainstream media. The figures that fall in this category, for Brooks, are Peterson, Harris, Shapiro and to some extent, the Weinstein brothers and Rubin. The latter is the habitual “butt of the joke.” In recent months it has been noticeable how intellectually shallow Rubin is. He tends to agree with anyone who is against the “lefties”, which makes him susceptible to have on The Rubin Report characters that are white supremacists, Holocaust deniers, and racists that further the claim of IQ and race. For Brooks, “Dave Rubin doesn’t belong in the intellectual anything.”
He talks a lot about having “high level” conversations bout “ideas”, but in practice he stares blankly into space while a parade of crackpots and crypto –and not– so crypto fascists make ridiculous assertions. His idea of having “important conversations” certainly doesn’t include talking to anyone who would seriously challenge him.
It’s only in the introduction that Brooks bothers to showcase the disingenuous persona that Rubin acquired. His main example, when Rogan challenged him about regulations, and the Post Office. Rubin could not mount any pushback against a fellow traveler of the IDW. Not because he didn’t want to have a debate with a friendly ally, but because of the vagueness of his “classic liberal” ideas (in other words, Libertarian ideas).
Historizing Sam Harris
Brooks understands that the big heads are Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. The former is the main recipient of Brooks’ scorn. He decries Harris’ attempt to create hypothetical scenarios in which the west is obliged to trigger a nuclear warhead against a country with a Muslim majority. Brooks goes through Harris’ greatest hits and demonstrates that when reading the material, we are not taking his words out of context. Indeed, “a fair reading of the context makes it very clear that Harris’ discussion of nuclear genocide is not a thought experiment in any meaningful sense.”
In the chapter titled, “The History is Completely Irrelevant”, Brooks tries to create a historical context in which Harris wrote most of his material regarding foreign policy and Islam. Brooks critiques The End of Faith (W.W. Norton, 2004) and expands on how, in the context of the Bush years, the book wasn’t that far-off from the policies that the neoconservative administration at the time was taking against Afghanistan and Iraq. In historizing the moment in which Harris’ book was published, Brooks insists that behind the liberal tendencies of Harris, there’s an inclination to agree with military action against Muslim-majority countries, especially against Iran. Moreover, Brooks expands on the dual behavior of Harris: advocating for these hypothetical scenarios in which the US has to attack the Middle East while rejecting any accusations that arouses any support for extreme military or nuclear transgression in the regions.
But Brooks does not delve too much on Harris’ bad ideas on foreign policies. He also illuminates on Harris’ tiptoeing on the idea of race and IQ. Harris had at one point on his podcast, “Making Sense” (FKA “The Waking Up Podcast”), the conservative intellectual, Charles Murray. The author of the polemic book, The Bell Curve (Free Press, 1994), went on Harris’ podcast to talk about the current climate at universities and the state of free speech. Instead, a conversation about the topic of race and IQ was highlighted, in which Harris deemed as “Forbidden Knowledge”. Here’s an excerpt that Vox writer, Ezra Klein, extracted from that episode:
People don’t want to hear that a person’s intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence even in childhood. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don’t want to hear this. And they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups.
Now, for better or worse, these are all facts. In fact, there is almost nothing in psychological science for which there is more evidence than these claims. About IQ, about the validity of testing for it, about its importance in the real world, about its heritability, and about its differential expression in different populations.
Again, this is what a dispassionate look at [what] decades of research suggest. Unfortunately, the controversy over The Bell Curve did not result from legitimate, good-faith criticisms of its major claims. Rather, it was the product of a politically correct moral panic that totally engulfed Murray’s career and has yet to release him.
Brooks indicates that there’s a fixation by Harris on “bad ideas,” demonstrated on how hard he fought against his critics regarding his playfulness with race and IQ. Moreover, how he approached the topic, taking Murray’s side and claiming that “everyone who disagrees is just too afraid of being called a racist.”
In this regard, such part of the book seems rushed. Brooks treats this aspect of Harris’ new-found niche and how the race and IQ crowd has taken over on the Intellectual Dark Web but doesn’t stay too long. Which is a shame, Brooks misses the opportunity of expanding this facet of Harris’ and demonstrating how he works as a link (as a rabbit hole) for white individuals entering the Alt-Right.
Moreover, the comparisons and critiques of New Atheism are sound, but one would want to see more of the deviations of Harris from the collective that included Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. Brooks features the notorious conversation of The Four Horseman in 2007, in which Harris mentions in passing the idea of IQ and race. But leaves out the answer of one of his own peers, Hitchens, illustrating how stark was his deviation:
Harris: Well, you brought up the bell curve [regarding a comment about Hitchens on people supposedly discovering the difference between black and whites in IQ were to be true]. If there were reliable differences in intelligence between races or genders-
Hitchens: But I don’t think any of us here do think that that’s the case.
These distinctions would have helped to understand the general benefits that the IDW brought to Harris and how some of the attitudes of New Atheism remain in his new role.
Peterson, Shapiro, and the Pushback of the Left
Such distinctions are not needed with other “renegades” as the psychologist Jordan Peterson. Brooks does something similar to Robinson’s critique of Peterson. They both acknowledge that in general, Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life are benign. (Brooks acknowledges discrepancies with only two rules.) Instead, they concentrated on other topics that Peterson loves to peddle. Peterson, for Brooks, is a figure ignorant of Marxism. This, of course, becomes problematic, since Peterson’s main attitudes towards the left are explained through a conspiracy of the “postmodern/Marxist” crowd at universities that’s “hostile to men.” As Brooks explains: “Marxism doesn’t explain gender oppression or anything else in terms of bad people designing structures with the intention of screwing over people who are unlike them.”
Peterson, who rose to fame amid the introduction of the Canadian Bill, C-16, which he claimed was an authoritarian method to make him use gender pronouns around his students and colleagues, also has a love for hierarchies. Brooks explores this aspect in some brief pages but arrives at the obvious point quickly: “The question is whether any particular hierarchy is justified, and if not, how can we get rid of it.”
Moreover, Brooks wonders on Peterson’s following, which concentrates on “angry young white men.” In one illuminating aspect to Brooks’ critique, he goes after the Left for writing off such demographic. Adding that, “Peterson appeals because of its relative racial and gender privilege.” He asks of the Left to address “their alienation in a constructive way,” channeling “their justified frustration in a positive direction.”
Brooks’ book shines when he encompasses the appeals of Peterson and others, like Ben Shapiro, to their audience. He does not stand on a hill to critique them. Instead, he acknowledges the work that his side must do to really have a united left. Moreover, Brooks knows how the Intellectual Dark Web thrived these past three years:
But here’s the thing. Quillette and similar magazines don’t attract attention to their toxic material because there’s a massive pre-existing audience for their worst takes. Rather, they generate their relationship by publishing a never-ending stream of “of my God, look at these leftists being crazy” articles…
Entire careers are built on this nonsense. We wouldn’t have heard of Bret Weinstein if not for what happened at Evergreen College… The way the activists turned their attention to this ridiculous and thoroughly unimpressive person (who none-the-less has connections) turned him into a cause celebre for the right. Whatever else is true about all this, what matters most is that Bret and his brother Eric Weinstein are here with us now, pushing the right-wing “classical liberal” pablum of the IDW.
For Brook, the left will not win over Peterson or Shapiro fans by asking them to be conscious of their privilege. Instead, “material politics” and a “material analysis”, with a sense of humor is needed to bring aboard fans of the new Right and the Intellectual Dark Web.
Against the Web is a great critique of the IDW, that sometimes feels rushed. One feels the void of a critique of other odious members and allies, like Bari Weiss or Steven Pinker. And yet… the IDW is radically falling in some respects, which would make sense on why this is such a short book. Rogan is inviting lefties like Sanders, Kyle Kulinsky, and Cornell West to his podcast. Dave Rubin has been attacked by the IDW’s own magazine, Quillette. While Shapiro has been partially exposed for his meltdown with Tory commentator, Andrew Neil, in a BBC interview. Against the Web dissipates any remaining doubt on the seriousness that the IDW thought it had.
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A review of Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right (Zer0 Books, 2020) by Michael Brooks