Bari Weiss is at it again.
On Tuesday, the much loathed New York Times Opinion columnist—who began her journey out of the left's good graces last year with a piece entitled Aziz Ansari Is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind-Reader—published a long column on the Intellectual Dark Web. This, as Weiss explains it, is "a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now." The most prominent members of this club include Canadian psychologist and self-help guru Jordan Peterson (Rich's fave!), Sam Harris, Dave Rubin, and Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, the former Evergreen professors who were at the center of last year's student-led protests. While there is no shared ideology uniting this club, the thing they all have in common is that the groups they once belonged to kicked them out.
This also includes Bret's brother Eric Weinstein, who is a mathematician and the managing director of Thiel Capital. It was Eric Weinstein who came up with the name, and while he may be good with numbers, marketing, clearly, is not the man's strong suit. "Intellectual Dark Web" sounds like a place you go to buy bootleg textbooks, which is too bad, because it's an interesting phenomenon, although one that's not quite as novel as it may seem.
The idea, basically, is that dissidents—people who don't follow the orthodoxy on either the left or the right—are using the internet to grow massive audiences. Weiss spoke to several members of this tribe, who told her about their come-to-Jesus moments, when they saw, maybe for the first time, that the left can be just as rigid and doctrinaire as the right. For Weinstein and Heying, it was being tagged as racists for objecting to an equity plan that they felt was being imposed on the faculty at Evergreen last year. For Harris, the awakening came earlier. Weiss writes:
Sam Harris says his moment came in 2006, at a conference at the Salk Institute with Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson and other prominent scientists. Mr. Harris said something that he thought was obvious on its face: Not all cultures are equally conducive to human flourishing. Some are superior to others.
“Until that time I had been criticizing religion, so the people who hated what I had to say were mostly on the right,” Mr. Harris said. “This was the first time I fully understood that I had an equivalent problem with the secular left.”
After his talk, in which he disparaged the Taliban, a biologist who would go on to serve on President Barack Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues approached him. “I remember she said: ‘That’s just your opinion. How can you say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?’ But to me it’s just obvious that forcing women to live their lives inside bags is wrong. I gave her another example: What if we found a culture that was ritually blinding every third child? And she actually said, ‘It would depend on why they were doing it.’” His jaw, he said, “actually fell open.”
“The moral confusion that operates under the banner of ‘multiculturalism’ can blind even well-educated people to the problems of intolerance and cruelty in other communities,” Mr. Harris said. “This had never fully crystallized for me until that moment.”
Harris, the Weinstein brothers, and Heying are all liberal at heart (Harris supported Hillary Clinton; the latter three went for Bernie Sanders), but they've also been fiercely criticized by the left—and they've criticized it right back. But the IDW isn't entirely leftists who've been kicked out of the club: Weiss includes Ben Shapiro on this list, a conservative Orthodox Jew whose criticism of Trump earned him ire on the right. A capitalist evangelist like Shapiro may seem like odd bedfellows with Occupy activists like Weinstein and Heying, but that's sort of the point: Instead of pushing a clear political agenda, the IDW is about considering all opinions and ideas, even those that, to some people, are too dangerous or vile to air. This sounds more dramatic than it really is; no one on this list is arguing that maybe Nazis were on to something after all. But, as Weiss notes, its members have gotten in trouble for, among other things, engaging with people across political lines as well as airing controversial or politically incorrect views. After Bret Weinstein appeared on Fox News, for instance, 90 of his then-colleagues signed a letter to the Evergreen administration demanding an investigation. And Harris, who frequently criticizes Islam for the religion's treatment of women and gays, was named by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a gateway to the alt-right.
The defining trait of the IDW—a willingness to engage with all kinds of ideas—may also be the movement's Achilles heel. As Weiss puts it, there's a serious risk of "associating with genuinely bad people":
Go a click in one direction and the group is enhanced by intellectuals with tony affiliations like Steven Pinker at Harvard. But go a click in another and you’ll find alt-right figures like Stefan Molyneux and Milo Yiannopoulos and conspiracy theorists like Mike Cernovich (the #PizzaGate huckster) and Alex Jones (the Sandy Hook shooting denier).
It’s hard to draw boundaries around an amorphous network, especially when each person in it has a different idea of who is beyond the pale.
Now, while the name and the medium is new (many of the IDW's ostensible leaders got famous through YouTube rather than conventional media), the ideas really aren't. The most overlap, as I see it, is in skepticism, a school of thought that goes all the way back to ancient Greece. Skeptics reject dogma and require evidence to support their own beliefs. They are, either by nature or nurture, doubters, and generally reject tribalism in all of its forms. (Indeed, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, is on Weiss's list.) This is one of the ironies of the Intellectual Dark Web: It's a group for people who refuse to go along with the group, and, as Weiss notes, this can lead to a sort of myopia about the movement itself, where the group defends people whose ideas aren't worth defending just because they're in the same anti-groupthink group chat. (Again, Ben Shapiro, who once tweeted, "Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage," comes to mind.)
The response to Weiss's piece was entirely predictable. Soon after it came out, her name was trending on twitter. She was savaged by all the people who usually savage her, lauded by those who agree, and the same old argument was trotted out for the show. But Bari, people screamed at her on Twitter, how can you say that these people are being silenced when they have millions of viewers on YouTube and make more money than meeeeee?? Weiss, for the record, never claimed that anyone she named was being silenced, although it is worth noting that Weinstein and Heying did lose their jobs when they stood against the crowd at Evergreen State. Really, had anyone but Bari Weiss written this piece—which is just as critical of the IDW as it is complimentary—I suspect the outrage would have been much more subdued.
For my part, I'm a fan of many (but not all) of the people named in this group, and I think I know somewhat how they feel. While the political policies I support fall slightly to the left of Karl Marx, when I've been critical of the left, the outcry from angry liberals can make it easy to feel like I no longer belong to the club. But, like many of the people Weiss interviewed, this hasn't made me turn right. Unlike Candance Owens, a black conservative whose profile was recently boosted with a Kanye West tweet, being shit on by the left, as Owens says that she was, will never make me go Trump. I'm still a cranky ol' libtard, just one who gets invited to far fewer potlucks these days. So I'm glad that this thing exists. The more people who can see past political lines—who can have conversations with people they disagree with that don't devolve into screaming—the better off we, as a country, will be. We are divided, that much is clear, and I'm convinced that the only way out of this canyon is to really listen to people, even those we don't like. (Even, yes, people who voted for Trump.) That said, if the most prominent members of this group want more people to sign up, the name "Intellectual Dark Web" is confusing, elitist, and dorky as hell. How about "Thought Criminals," instead?