Liberals are having fun mocking Tuesday’s New York Times story about the “intellectual dark web.” In the article, Times editor and writer Bari Weiss describes a network of writers and provocateurs who have been ostracized from polite society, mostly for saying things offensive to the left. These exiles have responded by congregating and developing their own audience.
Critics think the Times article is bad and stupid because the dissidents it profiles are bad and stupid. These dissidents aren’t even exiles, the critics point out: They have large audiences and are well-paid. But this is a lazy critique. Weiss hasn’t venerated the IDW. She has drawn a frank portrait of its ongoing struggle between intellectuals and charlatans. If you read the article with an open mind, you’ll learn useful things about the IDW’s insights and weaknesses. You’ll also learn a thing or two about your own blinders.
Weiss doesn’t pretend that the leading voices on the IDW are starving. She details their best-selling books, their tens of thousands of dollars in monthly donations, and their millions of podcast listeners and YouTube viewers. But lesser figures in this world aren’t so lucky. Some are scrounging for a living. Some have been warned about their job security. Some have been physically threatened. Bret Weinstein, a biologist at Evergreen State College, had to teach off campus after the police chief advised him to stay away for his own safety. Jordan Peterson, a best-selling psychologist, gave a lecture at which a protester, armed with a garrote, broke a window.
The larger problem is that these folks have become segregated from academia and mainstream media. That’s bad for them, but it’s also bad for people on the left and center left who don’t hear their ideas. Consider some of the questions that drove troublemakers to retreat to the IDW. Here’s one: Is it OK to ask all white students to leave a college campus for a day? Weinstein and his wife, Heather Heying, also a biologist at Evergreen State, said no. For that, they were called racists and hounded by their critics. They eventually resigned their jobs and sued the school for not protecting them from the resulting hostility.
Here’s another question: Should parents of children with gender dysphoria take social and hormonal measures to transition these kids at an early age? Debra Soh, who began life as a gender-dysphoric girl and is now a straight female neuroscientist, got in trouble for cautioning against such measures. In a 2015 op-ed, she cited research indicating that most gender-dysphoric kids grow out of that feeling.
Or how about this: Is it wrong to make women wear burqas? Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and podcaster, says yes. That position offends people on the left who think it’s wrong to judge other cultures. “The moral confusion that operates under the banner of ‘multiculturalism,’ ” Harris tells Weiss, “can blind even well-educated people to the problems of intolerance and cruelty in other communities.”
You can argue with Weinstein, Heying, Soh, or Harris. You can doubt whether they needed to leave academia or the mainstream media to defend their views. But the fact is, they left. That’s a problem. It’s a sign that something is wrong in our public square.
The most wrongheaded indictment of the Times story is that Weiss glorifies as “dissidents” and “heretics” people who are really just idiots or demagogues. In reality, she spends much of the article dissecting the “cranks, grifters and bigots” who populate the IDW. She reprimands Candace Owens, a young black right-winger, for telling blacks, “despite evidence to the contrary,” that immigrants are stealing their jobs. She calls the IDW’s credulous treatment of Alex Jones and Mike Cernovich “cynical or stupid.”
The IDW’s predicament, according to Weiss, is that having rejected the ideological strictures of academia and the liberal media, it has become a subculture with “no gatekeepers at all.” Conspiracy theorists of 9/11, Sandy Hook, and Pizzagate are given platforms alongside everybody else. In this Wild West of free speech, Weiss asks, “how is a viewer supposed to know” whom to trust?
Weiss puts her finger on a bad habit of contrarians: “violating taboo for its own sake.” She raps Peterson, who, “like many in the I.D.W. … seems to relish the outrage he inspires.” (“I’ve figured out how to monetize social justice warriors,” Peterson half-joked in a podcast.) She notes that skeptics in the IDW see Owens as a mere “provocateur in the mold of Milo Yiannopoulos.” Kanye West has compounded this problem with his vacuous comments about “freethinkers” and “different ideas.” Just because an idea is different doesn’t mean it’s good.
One temptation facing the IDW, in Weiss’ account, is populism. Some of its leaders “talk constantly about the regressive left,” not the right, because “stories about left-wing-outrage culture,” particularly on college campuses, “take off with their fans.” This lures the IDW into what one of its founders, Eric Weinstein, calls “audience capture”: saying what your audience wants to hear, instead of what it needs to hear.
Another temptation, related to audience chasing, is celebrity worship. Weiss describes how Eric Weinstein and another IDW figure, Dave Rubin, have sucked up to Kanye West, hoping to cultivate and capitalize on his support. They might get it, at the price of rationalizing West’s nonsense.
If you read her story, you’ll see lots of other concerns. Schoolyard taunts (“sanctimonious prick”) and glib analogies (“the Democrat Plantation”) flourish in a culture that prizes controversy over rigor. There’s also a casual, naïve inference that since free speech is good, ideas can’t be harmful. “The only way you can construe a group of intellectuals talking to each other as dangerous,” Heying tells Weiss, “is if you are scared of what they might discover.”
But these problems aren’t unique to the IDW. And it has many features and practices that the left, right, and center ought to emulate. It offers a forum to skeptics and dissenters. It’s politically diverse, ranging from Trumpers to Never Trumpers to Bernie Sanders fans. It attracts people who “aren’t afraid to confront [their] own tribe,” such as Ben Shapiro, who left Breitbart News when it became a Trump mouthpiece. It encourages civil dialogue. It cultivates debate over everything from Trump’s truthfulness to West’s foolishness.
You don’t have to love the IDW. You don’t even have to think it does more good than harm. But you ought to ask why so many people have fled to it, what we can learn from it, and why self-satisfied progressives are so quick to dismiss it.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus