R.I.P., Intellectual Dark Web (2018-2019)

By Robert Wright, Dec 21 2019

Remember the “Intellectual Dark Web”? Nineteen months ago, that term was injected into America’s zeitgeist by New York Times staffer Bari Weiss, who, in a lavishly illustrated piece, explained what the IDW was and why it held great promise.  

In Weiss’s telling, the loose network of thinkers constituting the IDW was just what America needed in a time of political polarization and increasingly oppressive speech codes. This new tribe of “renegades” was bound not by ideology—“The core members have little in common politically,” Weiss wrote—but rather by a fierce commitment to principle, to the defense of free inquiry and expression. IDW members might disagree about any number of issues, but all courageously stood up to “the tyranny of thought policing.”  

Interest in the IDW spiked. (See graph, below, of Google search frequency for “Intellectual Dark Web.”) Then interest began subsiding. (See graph below again.) Then it kept subsiding. (Ditto.) Today, you don’t hear much about the IDW—not even from the people who are, or were, part of it.  

The reasons for the IDW’s demise are worth exploring because, in principle, having a group of influential people championing the vigorous and open exchange of ideas, regardless of whose ox is gored, could be a good thing. 

One early public relations problem faced by the IDW was that it didn’t, on close inspection, seem to actually fit that description. From the beginning, IDW members seemed united less by their opposition to speech police generally than by their opposition to a particular group of speech police: left-leaning “social justice warriors” on college campuses. 

Of course, it’s possible that, as some in the IDW argued, this wasn’t because the IDW was itself right wing; it was because the left is where most of the speech police were.  But that explanation started to seem inadequate as critics noted a more specific asymmetry in the IDW’s war on speech police. Namely:

On the one hand, members of the IDW complained about people who hurled charges of Islamophobia or anti-Arab bigotry—slurs that might, after all, stifle debate about terrorism or Middle East politics. But they didn’t seem too concerned about people who hurled charges of anti-Semitism in ways that might stifle debate about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or Israel’s influence on American foreign policy. 

This critique of the IDW should probably be credited to Glenn Greenwald. If he wasn’t the first to articulate it, he was the most vociferous, suggesting again and again and again that the IDW’s opposition to speech policing could be counted on to lapse when the speech in question was critical of Israel. 

As it happens, President Trump this month provided an opportunity to subject Greenwald’s hypothesis to an empirical test. 

On December 11, Trump issued an executive order aimed at combatting anti-Semitism on campus. It empowers the federal government to punish colleges that allow the voicing of certain extreme criticisms of Israel. (An example I gave in last week’s newsletter: If a college student, during a panel discussion, says Israeli soldiers use “Gestapo tactics” against Palestinians in the West Bank, and the college doesn’t discipline the student, the federal government would—under a quite straightforward reading of Trump’s order—have the authority to withdraw funding.)

Lots of observers, including the ACLU and such progressive Jewish groups as J Street, are worried about this apparent threat to free speech. You’d expect members of a non-ideological tribe devoted to the defense of free speech to share that concern. 

So, a week after Trump issued the order, I checked the Twitter feeds of all eight people whose pictures appeared in Weiss’s Times piece: Eric Weinstein (who coined the term Intellectual Dark Web), Michael Shermer, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, and Christina Hoff Sommers. Plus, for good measure, IDW superstar Jordan Peterson, who was mentioned but not pictured. All of these people are active on Twitter, where they have followings ranging from big to huge—and not one of them had tweeted the slightest hint of criticism of Trump’s executive order. (As for Weiss herself: her several tweets or retweets on the subject were aimed at rebutting a common criticism of the executive order: that it, in effect, defined Jews as a “national group”.) 

Of course, different people can defensibly hold different views on Trump’s executive order, and, besides, nobody can be expected to tweet all their views about everything. But if Bari Weiss’s description of the IDW was accurate—if it was an ideologically diverse group of people with the shared concern that “Free speech is under siege,” as she put it in the first paragraph of her Times piece—you’d think one of these people would consider this executive order at least worth worrying about.

There’s one other recent example, in a different if not wholly unrelated area, of inconsistency in the attitude of some in the IDW toward thought policing. It indirectly involves me—and in fact is probably the reason the IDW was on my mind when Trump’s executive order was issued.

In October, on my audio/video podcast, The Wright Show, I had a conversation with flamethrowing lefty Max Blumenthal about Syria. He believes (and I agree) that arming the Syrian rebels was a mistake. Though not arming them would have let the Assad regime brutally suppress an insurrection, bringing thousands of fatalities at a minimum, arming them led to something even worse: a long civil war that brought hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees, with uncounted atrocities committed by the Assad regime and also by some of the rebels we backed. And all for naught: Assad is still in power.

People who make this argument against America’s effort at Syrian regime change sometimes encounter a particular form of thought policing: attempts to stigmatize them by calling them “Assad sympathizers” or “Assad apologists.” And Blumenthal is a particularly tempting target. In addition to being rhetorically provocative by nature, he recently went to Syria, reported that many Syrians prefer living under the Assad regime to living under the control of western-backed jihadist rebels, and argued for ending economic sanctions on Syria. So the stage is set for anyone who wants to misleadingly accuse him of “defending Assad.”

If you’re hoping that the IDW will step in and defend Blumenthal against such attacks, I have bad news: some IDW outlets are too busy launching them to defend against them. The unofficial magazine of the IDW—mentioned, along with its editor and founder, Claire Lehmann, in the Bari Weiss piece—is Quillette. And Quillette ran a piece about Blumenthal that cited my conversation with him as among the evidence that he is “Tyranny’s Mouthpiece,” as the headline put it. 

A sample sentence: “Blumenthal constantly emphasizes the atrocities of jihadist groups like Jaish al-Islam and al-Nusra because they give him moral and political cover for defending Assad, who has committed atrocities on a far greater scale.” I’ve added those italics to highlight the part of the sentence that is sheer speculation about Blumenthal’s motives—comparable to social justice warriors trying to silence, say,  critics of affirmative action by calling them racist. In both cases, alternative motives are of course possible. But in Blumenthal’s case the unofficial magazine of the IDW seems oblivious to this fact. (An alternative ending of that sentence about Blumenthal would be “…because they were funded by American taxpayers, whereas Assad’s atrocities weren’t and anyway are already well known.”) 

Quillette’s crude ad hominem attack on a critic of one of America’s regime change campaigns got me curious about the magazine’s general drift on foreign policy. Turns out this wasn’t its only article alluding to Middle East regime change. Last year it ran a piece about Iran that, while not explicitly calling for a military invasion or for arming the Iranian opposition, was titled “The Islamic Republic Must Fall” and, for good measure, ended with this sentence: “The Islamic Republic must fall.”

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with a magazine having a foreign policy ideology, even if it’s an ideology that I personally don’t like. And there’s nothing unusual about a network of people who tend to agree on certain issues and, as a result, are insensitive if not indifferent to certain kinds of thought policing. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t pretend these things aren’t the case when they are. 

It’s not surprising that even members of the Intellectual Dark Web aren’t using the term much any more. Purporting to be an equal-opportunity opponent of thought police can be burdensome, especially when everyone knows it’s not true! You’re besieged by demands from the Glenn Greenwalds of the world that you defend your ideological adversaries against the thought police, when what you really want to do is defend your ideological allies against the thought police.

And naturally so! I can’t remember the last time I sprang to the defense of an ideological adversary. Life’s too short. Then again, I don’t claim to stand in constant vigilance against thought police of all kinds. 

Is it even possible for something like the idealized version of the Intellectual Dark Web to work? A network of people who disagree intensely over the great issues of our day yet feel a deep mutual affinity out of a common commitment to free speech and intellectual fair play? Maybe. But one unfortunate irony is that the more hotly contested the great issues of the day, the more you need such a thing, yet the harder it’s going to be to create and sustain. Maybe the best we can do is try hard (harder than Quillette, I’d say) to avoid cheap attacks on people and to address their arguments on the merits. 

Meanwhile, shed no tears for the Intellectual Dark Web. Though the term is fading,  the people it referred to are still a network, and a powerful one. They plug each other’s work, and host each other on their podcasts, and defend each other against scurrilous allegations—just like other ideological networks. And they’ve gotten some mileage out of the term. Who had heard of Eric Weinstein before he created it and declared himself an ally of Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris? 

The most recent magazine piece I’m aware of that took the label Intellectual Dark Web seriously appeared this summer in National Review. Written by a young intern, the piece championed the IDW, noting that many college kids find its leading lights alluring. The IDW, the writer observed, “serves for many as the new gatekeeper to the Right.” I’m sure he meant well, but he had just sounded the death knell for the Intellectual Dark Web per se. He had said the quiet part out loud.

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