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The Intellectual Dark Web Is Quietly Crumbling. Should We Care?

The Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) has an important place in current politics. This group of intellectuals and interviewers gained notoriety in recent years by spurning the social justice wing of the progressive left. In 2014 and 2015, Sam Harris, the philosopher, neuroscientist, and horseman of New Atheism, had several well-publicized dustups with leftists who had painted him as a hateful bigot by deliberately mischaracterizing his views on Islam. In 2016, Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson was labelled a transphobe for his criticism of Bill C-16, which added gender identity and expression to the list of classes protected by Canada’s human rights code. In 2017, biology professor Bret Weinstein lost his job when he protested Evergreen State University’s absurd “day of absence” for white people. The list goes on and on.

These years witnessed a surge in left-wing fracturing, as scores of liberals fed up with social justice and political correctness took to YouTube and Joe Rogan’s podcast to criticize progressivism and, in some cases, embrace libertarianism or conservatism, at least in part. It was Harris’s treatment by progressive media outlet The Young Turks that triggered Dave Rubin’s departure from the organization and the launch of rival outlet The Rubin Report. This new class of liberals who were suddenly prepared to have open-minded and convivial conversations with right-wingers led Rubin to characterize the movement as a growing “new center.”

At the same time, Eric Weinstein, managing director at Thiel capital and brother of Bret, described these liberal outcasts and their conservative allies as the “Intellectual Dark Web” because their unique analyses of current events would grow to rival those of the mainstream and thus serve as a suppressed alternative. Free speech, viewpoint diversity, intellectual honesty—these would be the values that would unite otherwise dissimilar thinkers in their quest to throw off the yoke of political correctness and repair the public discourse.

But with just over a year after its formal inception, the IDW is in crisis, with more and more criticism coming from all sides: left and right, inside and out. In some ways it’s predictable. After all, how long can a group of dissimilar thinkers coexist under the same banner before alienating each other? Even in the Bari Weiss article that first popularized the IDW are the wedges obvious. She quotes Sam Harris as saying that

[t]here are a few people in [the IDW] who have gone without saying anything critical about Trump, a person who has assaulted truth more than anyone in human history … If you care about the truth, that is quite strange. 

He was likely referring to Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson, two IDW figures known more for their extensive criticism of the progressive left than the populist right. For the man who started out debating religious apologists with ferocious intensity, Harris’s Making Sense podcast (formerly Waking Up) mostly features like-minded guests who are either worried about technology, political correctness, or Donald Trump, and has become rather dull. His only conversation with a Trump supporter was with Dilbert creator Scott Adams in 2017, a fiery back-and-forth debate that was far from concluded by a single interview. If you care about the truth, having fewer and fewer conversations with your political opponents is quite strange.

Harris’s concern that certain IDW figures aren’t sufficiently critical of President Trump is shared by progressives, for whom criticism of Trump (a proxy for right-wing populism) qualifies someone as left-wing. Progressive YouTuber David Pakman is often guilty of this political purity-testing. In an interview earlier this year with guerilla journalist Tim Pool about Twitter censorship, Pakman wasted no time establishing Pool’s politics. “I want to hear you defend your position that you’re center-left,” Pakman said. Before Pool could respond, Pakman quickly established the criteria for a left-wing YouTube channel: one in which the right-wing is the predominant target of criticism. “When someone looks at my channel, it’s obvious that I’m on the left,” Pakman added, referring to his frequent criticism of President Trump. Tim Pool, whose channel is replete with videos criticizing far left activists and democrats, failed the exam before knowing there was one.

Not only does it matter how often one criticizes the right-wing, it also matters how that criticism is given. In a YouTube video titled “Absolutely Ridiculous Dave Rubin Interview Totally Off the Rails,” Pakman blamed Rubin for “fomenting anti-Semitism” during an interview with “far right” anti-Islam activist Brigitte Gabriel. He claimed that Rubin agreed with Gabriel that billionaire George Soros was a former Nazi collaborator who now dictates talking points to the leftist media, a “debunked conspiracy theory” Pakman described as “dangerous.” For Pakman, talking to someone like Gabriel must be done responsibly by an interviewer who challenges questionable statements.

Five minutes of research, however, reveals that Soros did give a weird 60 Minutes interview in which he admits no guilt for watching a Nazi official confiscate Jewish property in his youth. And Soros is now financially involved in many left leaning media outlets, by donating to them through his Open Society Foundations, or giving prominent media figures, like Jill Abramson of The Guardian or Christiane Amanpour of CNN, seats on some of his organizations’ advisory boards. The man likely has some influence on left media. Whether it’s as extensive as Gabriel believes is debatable, certainly, but nowhere near a “debunked conspiracy theory.”

The same progressive concern about who IDW figures may talk to and how to conduct themselves is also coming from the self-described free speech platform Quillette and authors Uri Harris and Cathy Young, centrist IDW orbiters who’ve both regularly critiqued the social justice left, such as the left’s excuses for anti-white rhetoric, or novel problems with the #MeToo movement. Yet in his article “Is the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ Politically Diverse?” Harris agrees with Vox editor-at-large Ezra Klein that conservatives embrace self-described liberals like Rubin and Jordan Peterson because they’re united in a reactionary movement against the social justice left as part of a “new right.” Young essentially agrees: despite his liberal positions, Rubin is aligned with the right and his softball interview style attracts fringe figures to the IDW (Bari Weiss worries about the same thing in her IDW profile).

It’s worth pausing for a moment to address these concerns. First, do Rubin and Peterson belong to a new right? The strength of the claim rests on Klein’s observation that the right has embraced Rubin and Peterson because some of their liberal qualities have helped invigorate a conservative counter-culture—think Milo Yiannopoulos with his flamboyantly gay lifestyle and his outspoken conservatism, a combination that would’ve screamed “cognitive dissonance” a few short decades ago, but today has brought many liberal people with conservative tendencies to the right. This is Klein’s reactionary “new right”: a coalition of liberals and conservatives who’ve set aside the differences that once separated them in order to defeat progressives.

The problem isn’t so much with the concept. At bottom, Klein’s theory is obvious: politics shift, and new movements and alliances rise and fall in response to various circumstances. That’s history. The problem is with the label. There could be no clearer sign of an incomplete understanding of the political landscape than to suggest that Rubin, Peterson, and Yiannopoulos represent a new right-wing simply because they despise progressives. These voices are largely, if not entirely, devoid of concern for race differences, interethnic violence, and demographic change.

From the point of view of the dissident right, the conservative love of Peterson and Yiannopoulos represents a shift to the left. In truth, the near-universal disdain for progressives that centrists and right-wingers share is somewhat incidental, born more of existential necessity than wilful coalition-building, since progressivism stands to become the only game in town should it successfully squash free speech.

Does Rubin bring fringe figures to the IDW? The concern is uninteresting: “fringe figure” is just a derogatory label for anyone with taboo views and, in leftist circles, can apply as much to Jordan Peterson as it does to Stefan Molyneux or Mike Cernovich, ensuring that the IDW is always open to this kind of criticism. What’s interesting though is Young’s characterization of the far right. In her estimation, Rubin mustn’t consider far right figures allies against progressives because they’re just as antiliberal. Since the IDW is, in her own words, an “intellectual freedom movement,” its survival depends on a certain level of exclusion. “This doesn’t mean dissenters [i.e., the IDW] should avoid hard topics; but these topics should be approached with awareness of their pitfalls,” she wrote, implying that a conversation with, say, Stefan Molyneux, a right-wing YouTuber who regularly discusses taboo topics like race and IQ, necessarily entails searching questions about his motives, like whether he’s committed to universal human rights. Sam Harris, whom Young regards as a paragon of IDW values for his balanced criticism of illiberalism on the left and right, submitted the co-author of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray, to a similar line of questioning on his podcast.

Young’s evidence for her antiliberal conception of the far right is scant. Indeed, it’s an assumption that appears to rest largely on implication. She lists a few uncouth things Rubin’s guests have said, such as a comment by Cernovich that “diversity is code for white genocide,” and a comment by Molyneux that “low-IQ” minorities are “rapey.” The smoking gun comes from Lauren Southern, who (correctly) pointed out on Rubin’s show that Richard Spencer is not a white supremacist, but a promoter of white ethno-states. Young leaves it up to the reader to connect the dots: these are the ravings of neo-Nazis who want nothing more than to run roughshod over civil liberties and commit terrible crimes against the people they don’t like. It’s a view derived from horseshoe theory, the idea that the left and right are almost indistinguishable at their extremes. It’s a centrist meme with little merit, which Young makes especially obvious with her insinuating and cherry-picking. One has only to watch the longform conversations Rubin has with these people to realize that her fears are grossly exaggerated.

I’ve drawn attention to these flawed critiques of the IDW because they appear to serve another purpose. Just as many progressives draw a circle around their side in order to police who is and isn’t progressive, so too are Uri Harris and Cathy Young territorializing on behalf of the IDW, setting the parameters for what must constitute legitimate IDW discourse and conduct. Harris views Rubin and Peterson much the same way David Pakman views Rubin and Tim Pool: liberals in name only, who betray their real politics by the topics they emphasize and the company they keep. His “new right” label places Rubin and Peterson at odds with his vision of the “real” IDW, a group of intellectuals willing to take in progressive members and learn from progressive ideas as much as conservative ones.

Likewise, Young’s claim that Rubin is too friendly with the far right in his fight against PC culture misses the forest for the trees, being a more nuanced iteration of Pakman’s belief that certain topics require a prior moral position and that a conversation with a far-right figure is impossible without specific pushback. With so much concerted pressure from sympathizers and detractors alike, it’s only a matter of time before the IDW is reduced to a banal cadre of centrists complaining about #MeToo while winking at their progressive masters.

This should trouble the dissident right. Although Ricardo Duchesne is correct to characterize the IDW as a band of fake dissidents who’ve gained fame and fortune for their views, while the thinkers who question diversity and stick up for white identity are pushed out of public life, the IDW as a concept nevertheless presents an opportunity for dissident thinking to cross into the mainstream. The “intellectual freedom movement” that Young spoke of can be occasionally glimpsed in the freewheeling interview styles of Dave Rubin and Joe Rogan. Rubin has had Stefan Molyneux on his show to discuss differences in race and IQ. Rogan has had Alex Jones on his show twice and boldly in the aftermath of Jones’s expulsion from the Internet. He recently spoke with Hotep Jesus, a black nationalist and promoter of the idea that Africans played a much larger role in the histories of ancient civilizations. And there’s currently a bid for soph, a talented and popular 14-year-old girl, who was banned by YouTube for her incredibly daring and eloquent satires of progressive thinking, to go on Rogan.

Rubin’s and Rogan’s willingness to occasionally step into the oven and engage controversial figures begs the question: who else could they be willing to talk to? Is a future conversation with Jared Taylor or Richard Spencer conceivable, given the right circumstances? In any case, Rubin’s and Rogan’s ability to have these kinds of amplified conversations likely depends on their association with the IDW. But as the IDW is increasingly swallowed up by progressive voices, even benign interviewers like Rubin and Rogan could become the next targets of Internet censorship, as the jaws tighten ever harder around dissent, information, and free speech.

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