It happens intermittently, without warning, on no fixed schedule. First: eerie wails in the distance. Then comes the rustle of terrified feet, soon growing into the low roar of a stampede. The faces of the tormented show a mixture of hostility, disbelief, and confusion. Thomas Pynchon captured the mood in his famous description of the V-2 rocket attacks on London, at the start of Gravity’s Rainbow: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.” This week the screaming across the skies of the Internet could mean only one thing: Another Bari Weiss column had arrived.
Some right-leaning writers are provocateurs, but Weiss, a New York Times columnist and editor, is not Kevin Williamson or Ben Shapiro. She writes reasonable, even-tempered essays from a commonsense perspective. In her latest, “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web,” a profile of a loosely affiliated group of public intellectuals from left and right who don’t share much in common except for a belief that ideas should be freely discussed, you’d be hard-pressed to identify a single point that’s outrageous or even controversial.
Yet Weiss came in for the usual harrumphing and invective on Twitter and her name quickly became one of the top trending topics on the social-media site. Many of the aggrieved were triggered by the mere glimpse of her name. Others hurled insults. “Be the refusal to read an ostentatiously inflammatory Bari Weiss column you wish to see in the world,” wrote journalist Andi Zeisler on Twitter. “Logged on to see you guys saying bari weiss again. Cmon. F*** that name,” wrote Twitter user @eminemobama. “I just realized that Bari Weiss’s incredibly stupid piece is just an update on that NYT Mag piece from the 90s about the young conservative voices like Laura Ingraham,” wrote Esquire columnist Charles P. Pierce. “Every bari weiss piece is like ‘its a political crisis for america that most of my peers think i’m unbelievably dumb,’” tweeted Isaiah Breen, former press secretary to Congressman Keith Ellison.
Some Twitter critics who have been vocal participants in the effort to render politically incorrect writers radioactive to mainstream-media outlets expressed frustration that Weiss continues to enjoy a platform at the nation’s most prestigious news organization. The premise of their tweets is that if any heterodox writer manages to keep her job amid their hectoring and demands for purges, then the hectoring and demands for purges are inconsequential or even imaginary. Take Ashley Feinberg, the Huffington Post media writer who was a leader of the online mob that succeeded in getting my former colleague Williamson bounced from the Atlantic in his first week on the job. “Can someone also lock me out of legacy publications because i’ve got some s*** i’d like to say in a legacy publication,” she tweeted in response to Weiss’s new piece, attaching images of columns by and about members of Weiss’s Intellectual Dark Web that had appeared in the Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. In another tweet, Feinberg wrote sarcastically, “This mild criticism of a thought i shared with a large audience on a public platform is an affront to the first amendment.”
Weiss’s subjects, thinkers such as Shapiro, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Eric Weinstein, and Christina Hoff Sommers, aren’t exactly barred by the mainstream media, but the activist Left is furious at all of them and doing its best to marginalize them, disrupting their speaking appearances and denouncing them every time they appear in the big-name media outlets. Celebrating Karl Marx is cool; questioning whether a boy can become a girl simply by saying so is out of bounds.
The reason the Left was especially rattled by its Weissophobia this week is that in her new column she did two extremely scary things. One is that she found a really cool name to unite a group of thought outlaws the Left wants to silence. Weiss didn’t come up with the (half-joking) brand “Intellectual Dark Web,” but she popularized it, and it’s going to stick. It saturated social media the way a great Super Bowl commercial does. The IDW handle makes the love of vigorous open debate seem rebellious, dangerous, edgy, subversive. The woke crowd can’t afford to lose their near-monopoly on perceived cool among those under 30.
The other source of white-knuckle panic in the IDW piece is that Weiss so blithely reminded the Left of all the paths there are into the castle of public opinion without asking permission from the gatekeepers. If Harris, Dave Rubin, and Joe Rogan are reaching millions of people through their podcasts and YouTube videos and websites, who cares if the Ashley Feinbergs of the world declare them anathema? What if getting people fired from the Atlantic turns out not to matter very much? Coming so soon after the heady days when the Left managed to eject Williamson from its territory, it has to be terrifying to consider the prospect that a dam might break and inundate the country with free thinking.