Old whines in dark web bottles

July 16, 2018

Eric Pelkey takes a closer look at the reactionary pseudo-intellectuals behind the growth of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web.”

IN A May 8 op-ed article in the New York Times, Bari Weiss gushes about “a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities” known as the “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW).

But despite Weiss’ claims that this group “sound[s] unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now,” the IDW represents the same old reactionary ideas, repackaged for a younger audience.

The Intellectual Dark Web moniker was coined by Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital, during a January 5 episode of the Waking Up with Sam Harris podcast. During the podcast, Weinstein painted a picture of a group of public intellectuals shut out of the cultural conversation because of their willingness to challenge today’s “liberal consensus.”

Among the figures commonly associated with the IDW are Weinstein, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson and Douglas Murray.

Eric Weinstein
Eric Weinstein (YouTube)

Weinstein claims that the common characteristics uniting the various figures of the IDW are: strong support for free speech and debate; distaste for “identity politics” (though male identity politics are apparently acceptable, as evidenced by Peterson’s response to a mass killing perpetrated in Toronto by a self-described “incel” who, according to Peterson, “was angry at God because women were rejecting him...The cure for that is enforced monogamy”); and a preference for reasoned argument over emotional appeals.

The actual ideological commonalities are much less noble: racism, Islamophobia, transphobia, and a self-serving, hypocritical understanding of free speech.

FAR FROM offering innovative, fresh ideas concerning race, the IDW traffiks in the worst pseudoscience of the past.

Podcaster and author Sam Harris, for example, has set out to rehabilitate Charles Murray, the discredited co-author of the infamous 1994 book The Bell Curve, which claimed that there was a correlation between race and intelligence. Harris titled his podcast with Charles Murray “Forbidden Knowledge” and decried the criticism levied at Murray by “politically correct culture.”

Amid the controversy over his defense of Murray, Harris sought to deflect charges of racism by addressing the issue of race on his podcast. Tellingly, he dismissed the idea of having a conversation with Black intellectual Ta-Nahisi Coates — whom Harris asserts is “producing a pornography of anger and identity politics” and is the left’s equivalent to the alt-right.

Instead, Harris sat down with the conservative Brown University professor Glenn Loury. In their conversation, Harris put forward, without irony, the argument that he could not possibly be racist because he has friends of other races.

Harris’ Islamophobia is well-known and documented, but he is far from the only anti-Muslim bigot associated with the IDW.

Douglas Murray, a British author and frequent Harris collaborator, made the following comments in a 2006 speech: “We in Europe owe — after all — no special dues to Islam. We owe them no religious holidays, special rights or privileges...If some Muslims don’t have a mosque to go to, then they’ll just have to realize that they aren’t owed one.”

A strong strain of transphobia runs through the IDW movement. Take Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and author of the bestselling self-help book 12 Rules for Life.

Peterson gained notoriety when, in 2016, he became a vocal opponent of Bill C-16, which sought to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to add “gender identity or expression” to the list of groups protected against discrimination. Peterson reacted by posting a series of videos to YouTube, in which he attacked the bill and vowed to misgender trans students to assert his freedom of speech.

Peterson’s grandstanding led him to make inaccurate claims about what the bill actually said and even to question whether his own arrest was imminent. As University of Toronto law professor Brenda Cassman pointed out, “There is nothing in Bill C-16 that criminalizes the misuse of pronouns.”

Despite the falsity of Peterson’s transphobic fearmongering, he quickly became a darling of the far right, enabling him to profit considerably from his devoted, conservative fan base. From donations to his Patreon account alone, he makes more than $50,000 a month.

HEREIN LIES a paradox at the core of the IDW: Its key figures lament their victimhood and the various ways they are being silenced by the status quo, all while reaching a huge audience via YouTube videos, speaking tours, podcasts, bestselling books and friendly television shows like Real Time with Bill Maher.

It’s a very effective business model. Just ask Dave Rubin.

Rubin began his media career at the Young Turks, Cenk Uygur’s liberal online news network. According to current Young Turks host Ana Kasparian, Rubin left the network after his demand that he receive a six-figure income for a 30-minute-a-week show was rejected.

Rubin then experienced a convenient political conversion, ditching his “progressive” label and taking up the mantle of libertarianism. He now receives funding from the Koch brothers.

It’s questionable whether the Kochs are getting a good return on their investment. In a June episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast, Rubin attempted to make the case for libertarianism with a curious example: the U.S. Postal Service. “Do they do the post office well? No,” Rubin confidently asserts. “They do the post office pretty good, actually,” Rogan responds.

Rubin partially concedes the point, but then states that a private corporation — Amazon, in particular — could be more efficient. But he fails to note that the U.S. Postal Service delivers 40 percent of Amazon’s packages.

According to Rubin, his political awakening was brought about by the left’s affinity for intersectionality and “oppression Olympics.” Leaving the Young Turks, in his telling of it, was an opportunity for him to speak freely, without the restrictions and oversight of liberal orthodoxy. But the Koch brothers never provide money with no strings attached.

When The Daily Beast’s Anthony L. Fisher attempted to interview Rubin, he discovered something very different from Rubin’s carefully constructed “free-speech warrior” persona:

At the start of an interview last year on The Alex Jones Show, Rubin boasted that he had not been presented with questions or topics ahead of time. Yet when this civil libertarian journalist made multiple requests for a recorded in-person, phone or Skype interview, Rubin declined, asking for e-mailed questions and then refusing to answer them.

The AV Club has accurately referred to the IDW as “the Bonehead Renaissance.” Its ranks are populated with pseudointellectuals, con artists and reactionaries.

Its success is primarily a marketing ploy, the ability to rebrand antiquated, ugly ideas — but it does demonstrate that there is an audience of people hungry for ideas outside of the mainstream political consensus, which the left must respond to.

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