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Evaluating the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’

Bari Weiss appears on Morning Joe. (MSNBC via YouTube)

I’m a big fan of Bari Weiss, and I think there are a lot of interesting things in her essay on the “Intellectual Dark Web,” a phrase I’d never heard until this morning.

And perhaps that’s part of the reason I think the label is a bit overwrought, and Weiss’s thesis a bit off target.

First, let me say that the phrase “Intellectual Dark Web” strikes me as a marketing label — and not necessarily a good one. The actual Dark Web is full of terrible and criminal things. I get the idea of wanting to sound subversive and transgressive, but the Intellectual Dark Web sounds not only a little gimmicky for a purportedly serious intellectual movement. It also sounds a little desperate, like a middle-aged man deciding to wear biker jackets and ride a Harley to prove how rebellious he is.

More substantively, I guess I still don’t get it. Having read the essay twice, it seems to me this IDW thing isn’t actually an intellectual movement. It’s just a coalition of thinkers and journalists who happen to share a disdain for the keepers of the liberal orthodoxy. Weiss recounts a bunch of conversion tales where once-respected and iconoclastic liberal types run head-on into the groupthink or party line of the liberal establishment. They suddenly have a revelation about the enforced orthodoxy of their own side, and as they pull on these intellectual threads, they face blowback and reinforcement from unexpected places.

Where have we heard that before? Well, it’s the story of successive waves of neoconservatives in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s the story of former Communists — Burnham, Meyer, Eastman, et al. — who joined the founding generation of National Review. It’s the story Whittaker Chambers tells in Witness. It’s also the story of many of the progressive intellectuals who were disillusioned by the First World War. Are they exact parallels? Of course not — in part because these are different times. Irving Kristol famously said, “a neoconservative is a liberal who’s been mugged by reality.” New realities may create different muggings, but the pattern is awfully familiar.

I guess I’m just having a hard time getting how the Intellectual Dark Web is anything more than a list of people some anonymous author of a website likes. Weiss writes:

The closest thing to a phone book for the I.D.W. is a sleek website that lists the dramatis personae of the network, including Mr. Harris; Mr. Weinstein and his brother and sister-in-law, the evolutionary biologists Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying; Jordan Peterson, the psychologist and best-selling author; the conservative commentators Ben Shapiro and Douglas Murray; Maajid Nawaz, the former Islamist turned anti-extremist activist; and the feminists Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christina Hoff Sommers. But in typical dark web fashion, no one knows who put the website up.

A list of very different people with different ideas and different people who share the ability to reject bad liberal cant and groupthink sounds like a great bunch. Indeed, I like and admire nearly all of the people Weiss profiles — and I know quite a few of them (indeed, some are colleagues of mine). But I’m still missing the theme to the pudding.

Weiss suggests that one thing that unites all of these people is how they bypass “legacy” media. As someone in this business, I certainly find it interesting how folks such as Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson have figured out “how to monetize social justice warriors,” in Peterson’s words. But I’m not sure the fact that they’re using podcasts, YouTube, and other social media to get their messages out is as significant as Weiss makes it sound. You know who else is using podcasts, YouTube, and other social media to get their messages out? Everybody. And there are any number of enforcers and supporters of liberal orthodoxy and dogma who have made a roaring success of alternative media, too.

The media landscape has been balkanizing for a very long time, and entrepreneurs such as Shapiro have had remarkable success as early adopters and adapters. But I don’t think Shapiro’s burgeoning media empire is best described as his being shunned by or “locked out from” the legacy media. He’s no victim, and neither is Peterson. And while the protests and shout-downs at college campuses do say something important about liberalism today, I’m hard-pressed to see how most of these very successful people have been “silenced” in some broader sense. Indeed, there are many people who share many of the IDWers’ ideas yet haven’t lost their perches in academia or journalism. Do they not count?

I don’t mean to be too harsh. I learned a lot from the essay, and some of the issues raised by Weiss and her subjects — the need for gatekeeping, line-drawing, and resisting being captured by an audience — are important topics. But they are also issues that conservative institutions — magazines, journals, think tanks, foundations, etc. — have been grappling with for decades. This is an interesting new chapter, but, again, I’m not sure it’s a new story.

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