Politics & Policy

Critics Miss the Point of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’

Ben Shapiro (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
Writers like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro appeal to the growing number of Americans who feel left behind by mainstream American culture.

It’s been interesting to watch and read the many critics of Bari Weiss’s instantly controversial piece on the leaders of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. Rarely have more people more contemptuously missed the point. Rarely have more people inadvertently confirmed the need for a movement of intellectual free-thinkers.

Much of the criticism has centered on whether the few very successful, sometimes wealthy pundits who comprise this “movement” can in any real way be considered “renegades” or “outcasts.” They write best-selling books. Their podcasts are downloaded tens of millions of times. They appear all over mainstream media. Isn’t it just silly to believe that modern American political correctness in any way silences or inhibits their voices?

Of course, as Weiss notes, the path to prominence for many of these now-popular people has sometimes been painful. Bret Weinstein faced down the mob at Evergreen State College. Before Jordan Peterson became an international sensation, he battled (at great professional risk) for free speech in Canada. My friend Ben Shapiro resigned from Breitbart and endured an unholy avalanche of anti-Semitic hate because he made a principled stand against Donald Trump. But all of these folks pushed through. Though they still face threats and efforts to boycott or marginalize their work, their platforms are large enough that they now enjoy immense power of their own.

So, no, the Intellectual Dark Web isn’t really about the speakers. It’s about their audience.

The acolytes of these free-thinkers aren’t powerful. They haven’t pushed through political correctness. Instead, they live in fear of speaking their minds. They are growing weary of propaganda, yet many of the standard avenues for education and self-improvement now speak with one voice and permit little dissent. They fear that even asking questions could endanger their livelihoods and ruin their public reputations.

Overwrought, you say? I’ve been speaking and writing about free speech for a quarter-century. I’ve been litigating free-speech issues just as long. Two things stand out to me.

First, the law of free speech has mainly improved. Americans might have more legal defenses against government censorship now than they ever have before. If the government moves against your speech based on your viewpoint and you fight back, you’re likely to win.

The Intellectual Dark Web isn’t really about the speakers. It’s about their audience.

Second (and more importantly) the culture of free speech has decayed. Individuals and organizations are far more sensitive and far less tolerant of dissent than they were even in the recent past. People in academia and in much of corporate America who report increasingly politicized workplaces, with HR departments weaponized in the service of identity politics social-media accounts monitored for thought crimes. People are all too aware of social-media pile-ons, and they know that one complaint — even if hypersensitive and meritless — can derail a career.

My email inbox is often a clearinghouse for dissenters from corporate America. They’ll forward me all manner of corporate communications in which their bosses establish definitive company political positions on all manner of hot-button political and cultural topics unrelated to their business. Banks, insurance companies, and technology companies produce statements about gun rights, fund Planned Parenthood, and conduct “diversity training” sessions that would make an Ivy League gender-studies department stand up and cheer. An employee “transitions,” and rather than relying on the good will, manners, and professionalism of an otherwise collegial and functional office, the company brings in “trainers” to teach a roomful of people in no uncertain terms that gender is different from sex, the man they worked with for years is a woman and always has been a woman, and dissent from these highly contentious positions is pure hatred and bigotry.

And everyone knows what happens to bigots in the workplace.

There are millions of Americans who are deeply frustrated with an educational system that walls out their point of view, a corporate culture that’s increasingly indistinguishable (particularly on social issues) from a faculty lounge, and a legacy media — including Hollywood — that’s influenced by and pays homage to these same ideas and institutions. Yes, you can make an anonymous account on Twitter to engage in social-media combat, but if you live and work in these immense and powerful American institutions, you speak your mind at your own risk.

In those circumstances, a Ben Shapiro podcast or a Jordan Peterson YouTube video is a breath of fresh air. There — right there — fearlessly and eloquently stated is the other side of the story. It’s inspiring (not everyone is afraid), it’s informative (it frequently introduces facts not widely discussed in progressive circles), and it’s often wildly entertaining. The members of the Intellectual Dark Web are just flat-out good at what they do.

Weiss is right to observe that there is a downside to this movement. Even alternative media has to establish boundaries. There is a massive difference between Peterson and Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, but some listeners and readers are drawn to both because they share some common ideological foes. I’m, however, less troubled than Weiss is by the tendency of the Intellectual Dark Web to focus more on the Left than on the Right. After all, for most in the audience the Left is the dominant corporate, academic, and cultural actor. The Left is far more likely to tell them how to think or what to say.

Finally, I’d note that the radical Left’s response to the emerging voices of the Intellectual Dark Web has been exactly wrong. It’s as if the response to the shock of 2016, to the emergence of wildly popular voices like Peterson’s, and to the challenge to millennial hearts and minds from Shapiro has been to try to narrow the range of acceptable ideas. It’s not just Shapiro and Peterson and their ilk who are out of bounds, it’s Bari Weiss herself — a thoughtful, heterodox voice in the Times. It’s my colleague Kevin Williamson, one of the most talented writers in America, and certainly no more provocative than equivalent left-wing writers who are celebrated in progressive circles from coast-to-coast. It’s men like John McAdams, a professor terminated from Marquette University because he chastised a colleague for shutting down dissenting views on marriage.

Oh, and it’s the countless corporations who are choosing this contentious time to get more political, to more clearly stake out a place in the culture wars. For good (and sometimes) ill, the voices in the Intellectual Dark Web will only grow louder, and their audience will only grow larger, at least until America’s cultural superpowers learn that bullying, stigma, and censorship are ultimately self-defeating in a nation that still raises its children to believe their minds are free.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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