Irony can be a difficult concept to grasp, but some hypothetical examples can illustrate it clearly. It would be ironic, for instance, if people who claimed their free speech was being trampled on were actually being heard more than anybody else. It would be ironic if television hosts and podcasters who believe in “engaging in debate with the other side” never actually engaged in any debate with the other side. And it would be ironic if a journalist who believes in “facts” and “listening to critics” ignored facts and never listened to critics.
Of course, you might think that ironies this obvious rarely occur in the real world. Surely life is much more subtle. But if you assume this, you haven’t yet read Bari Weiss’ New York Times op-ed/fawning profile, “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web.” Weiss uses the nation’s paper of record to introduce audiences to a group of people whose voices are supposedly being kept out of mainstream institutions, but who for some reason I seem to hear about all the damn time.
The “intellectual dark web” is neither on the dark web nor comprised of intellectuals. It is a phrase coined by one of Peter Thiel’s deputies to describe a group of people who share the following traits in common: (1) they are bitter about and feel persecuted by Leftist Social Justice Identity Politics, which they think is silencing important truths and (2) they inhabit the internet, disseminating their opinions through podcasts, YouTube, Patreon, etc. The group includes: Eric Weinstein, the aforementioned Thiel subordinate; vacuous charlatan Jordan Peterson; cool kids’ philosopher Ben Shapiro; deferential interview host Dave Rubin; ex-neuroscientist Sam Harris; former Man Show host Joe Rogan; American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers; and former Evergreen State University professors Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying. Weiss says that together these people form:
…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. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels…
Weiss says they have three things in common:
[First,] they are willing to disagree ferociously, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject: religion, abortion, immigration, the nature of consciousness. Second, in an age in which popular feelings about the way things ought to be often override facts about the way things actually are, each is determined to resist parroting what’s politically convenient. And third, some have paid for this commitment by being purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought—and have found receptive audiences elsewhere.
Weiss says that “offline and in the real world, members of the I.D.W. are often found speaking to one another in packed venues around the globe,” such as the O2 Arena, where they dare to say “That Which Cannot Be Said,” offering “taboo” thoughts like “There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart.” (Gosh, perhaps it’s just the fringe conservative circles I move in, but I seem to hear that stuff constantly!)
Well, are they right? Are they being “purged” as part of a “siege” on free speech by the illiberal left? It’s interesting that Weiss chooses to use the formulation “feeling locked out of legacy outlets,” since I seem to remember a great philosopher once saying that Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings. These people may feel as if they are persecuted renegades, suppressed at every turn by Postmodern Neo-Marxists. But there are a lot of facts to say otherwise.
First, even from the evidence in Weiss’ article, we can see that freely speaking about the “siege on free speech” is impressively lucrative. Dave Rubin’s show “makes at least $30,000 a month on Patreon” while Jordan Peterson “pulls in some $80,000 in fan donations each month” and recently released a bestseller. Ben Shapiro gets 15 million downloads a month and has published five books, Sam Harris gets a million listeners per episode and has published seven books. Though Joe Rogan insists “he’s not an interviewer or a journalist” (I wouldn’t disagree) his three-hour podcast conversations are among the most downloaded in the world. These dissident “intellectuals” each seem to make about as much money in a month, with far larger audiences, than is made annually by the critical race theorists and gender studies professors they think are keeping them from being heard.
But perhaps it is still true that they are “shut out” of the mainstream media. It might be true that you can get rich from the Dangerous Truths and sell out the O2 Arena, but maybe newspapers and television won’t give you a voice. Why, just look at what happened to Kevin Williamson: He was hired by the Atlantic, but the moment they found out he held a Dangerous opinion (in this case, the opinion that women who get abortions should be hanged and that little black boys can be appropriately described as “primates”), he was fired. Why are mainstream institutions punishing heterodox thinking?
Williamson is an instructive case, though. Immediately after the Atlantic dropped him, the Wall Street Journal published Williamson’s long account of “When The Twitter Mob Came For Me” as its featured weekend essay, and Bret Stephens spoke up for him in the New York Times. (Even the Atlantic published a defense of him!) This often seems to be what happens. A major publisher offered Milo Yiannopoulos a $250,000 advance for his book on how dangerous his opinions were to the establishment. The book instantly ascended to #1 on Amazon, and Simon & Schuster only withdrew Yiannopoulos’s contract when conservatives turned on him after he appeared to endorse pedophilia.
In fact, all of the persecuted intellectuals appear constantly in major outlets with huge reach. Whether it’s Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson appearing on HBO’s Real Time, Christina Hoff Sommers writing for Slate, the Atlantic, and the New York Times, Milo going on CNN, Bret Weinstein being interviewed on FOX News, Andrew Sullivan being racist in New York magazine, Peterson getting invited on the NBC Nightly News, or Ben Shapiro being profiled in the New York Times, not one of these individuals ever seems to lack for a mainstream perch from which to squawk. It’s a strange kind of oppression in which silenced dissidents keep getting book deals, op-eds, sold-out speaking tours, lucrative Patreons, millions of YouTube views, and sympathetic profiles in the world’s leading newspapers. How much more attention do they want? How much freer can speech be? Weiss’ article itself pushes the absurdity to its limits. It features half a dozen staged photographs of its subjects moodily lurking amidst topiaries, and is the longest piece yet in Weiss’ ongoing series on the illiberalism and repressiveness of the left. As one commenter put it, Weiss’ argument is “that unseen forces are preventing her and those like her from making the exact arguments that she’s making, right now, in the exact venue where she’s making them, right now.”
Weiss says members of the Intellectual Dark Web have been “purged” from institutions. It’s not clear, though, which institutions she means. Peterson is a full professor at one of the world’s top research universities. Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt, who have similarly spent time condemning campus leftists, have positions at Harvard and NYU, respectively. Charles Murray spoke at Harvard and Yale last year. Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying did choose to resign from Evergreen State after the protests there, but Weiss doesn’t mention that they took half a million dollars with them after filing a $3.8 million lawsuit against the university for failing to protect them from the Social Justice Warriors. (What kind of snowflake files a lawsuit because they can’t handle a little free speech?)
The members of the Intellectual Dark Web are attacked, supposedly, for their “ideas,” which they are eager to discuss “civilly” but which the left will not debate because it hates rational discourse. It’s a strange definition of civility, though. Shapiro’s speeches contain such civil remarks as “you can all go to hell, you pathetic, lying, stupid jackasses,” and he has repeatedly made vile racist remarks about Arabs. Peterson, when criticized in the New York Review of Books, did not respond with an extended rebuttal, but by calling the writer a “son of a bitch” and a “sanctimonious prick” on Twitter, and threatening to slap him in the face. (Not the first time that criticism has caused genteel conservative “civility” to give way to threats of violence.) Sam Harris goes from cool reason to angry denunciation and accusations of bad faith when people dare to suggest to him that Charles Murray is a racist. For men who care about facts, they sure have a lot of feelings!
Here’s another reason why I’m skeptical that our national Martyrs for Free Speech and Rational Debate are interested in actually debating ideas: I’ve tried to get them to do it. I wrote a long explanation of why I thought Ben Shapiro’s logic was poor and his moral principles heinous. Shapiro mentioned me when we both gave speeches at the University of Connecticut. Did he rebut my case? No. He said he hadn’t heard of me and that my crowd was smaller than his. (I admit to being obscure and unpopular, but I’d ask what that says about which speech is mainstream and which is marginal.) When I wrote about Charles Murray, explaining in 7,000 words why I think his work is bigoted, Murray dismissed it with a tweet. When I wrote 10,000 words meticulously dissecting Jordan Peterson’s laughable body of work, Peterson responded with about three tweets, one misunderstanding a joke and another using fallacious reasoning. (See if you can spot it!) The wonderful ContraPoints recorded a highly intelligent 30-minute explanation of why Peterson is wrong. Peterson’s only reply: “No comment.” So much for wanting a debate with the left.
And yet I’m so eager to discuss ideas! A while back, a student group at a large public university contacted me asking me if I’d be willing to debate Dave Rubin on their campus. I said I’d do it for the price of a plane ticket, and if they couldn’t afford a plane ticket, I’d go anyway. They called me back the next day informing me that the debate wouldn’t be happening because Rubin’s representatives had asked for $15,000. So perhaps some of these guys are theoretically willing to engage the left. They just make it prohibitively expensive for anybody to actually make it happen.
I’m open to being proved wrong here. I’m waiting for Shapiro/Peterson/Murray/Rubin to call and ask me (and/or a certain other leftist who is known to be perfectly willing to engage conservative ideas) to come and clean their clock in a debate. But so far, what I’ve seen is that when you do seriously challenge their arguments, they scamper away and pretend they haven’t heard you.
We can also tell how little they care about serious debate from their total refusal to rationally engage with advocates of the social justice/ identity politics position that so horrifies them. In his debate with Sam Harris, Ezra Klein made an important observation: In 120 episodes, Harris had only ever had two African American guests. Harris then replied that he had had former Reagan administration official Glenn Loury on specifically to discuss racism, but suggested that he chose Loury specifically because he wanted someone who didn’t hold the views Harris disdains. That’s so often the case with critics of social justice: I pointed out recently that when David Brooks attempted to “engage” with the campus activist position, he didn’t do so by reading a book or speaking to an actual human being, but by inventing an imaginary caricature in his head and then arguing with it.
Critics, who are exhorting the left to listen more and be fair and rational, do not ever try to listen to the left. They don’t try to understand where the activists are coming from. Instead, they take left beliefs in their most extreme and simplistic versions and sit around talking to each other about what fools leftists are. When Dave Rubin and Sam Harris want to talk about the left’s view on racism, they’ll talk to people who already share their views, rather than the people they’re actually talking about. (Even Weiss says that they are to be found “speaking to one another in packed venues across the globe.” Note: one another.)
Think of all the black leftists and liberals, or scholars of race, that Sam Harris or Dave Rubin could have on their shows if they wanted to: Eddie Glaude, Michelle Alexander, Cornel West, Adolph Reed, Angela Davis, Kiese Laymon, Peniel Joseph, James Forman, Paul Butler, Tommie Shelby, Robin D. G. Kelley, Cathy Cohen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Nina Turner, Bryan Stevenson, Nell Irvin Painter, Elizabeth Hinton, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Briahna Joy Gray. (Those are just a few names from the top of my head; given time I could produce a list 10 times longer.) If Sam Harris had Ibram Kendi, author of a National Book Award winning history of racist ideas, on his show, Harris might finally come to understand why so many people react badly to Charles Murray’s work, and appreciate the multi-hundred year history of “racial intelligence difference” discussions serving to justify racist violence. (He might also finally grasp that the ideas he thinks are “forbidden” have been spoken loudly nonstop since the beginning of colonialism.) Ijeoma Oluo and Reni Eddo-Lodge have both authored books trying to carefully explain social justice race politics to white people. You’d think, since everything is all about Identity Politics these days, these women would be all over the press. Could it be that the people referred to as “marginalized” are actually marginal and the people who mock those people are actually the ones with greater influence?
It seems to me as if a lot of the supposed “disdain for rational debate” that “social justice activists” have is a quite justified frustration at hypocrisy. While I get plenty exasperated by tactics like antifa and concepts like cultural appropriation, I think a lot of the supposed “illiberal leftism” emerges out of an anger at the sorts of people who love to talk but refuse to listen. They cannot see the hypocrisy in demanding that activists empathize with their perspectives without doing any empathizing of their own. Jordan Peterson has made fun of protests as an inexplicable shaking of “paper on sticks” that started in the ’60s, seemingly without having considered what the world looks like to those doing the paper-shaking. Ben Shapiro refuses to consider the possibility that wealth disparities across generations might affect African American social outcomes. Bret Weinstein accused protesters of oppressing him while publicly misrepresenting what they were doing. The righteous rage at these particular white people is less because of what they think than because they don’t think at all.
I wonder when Bari Weiss will be sending a New York Times staff photographer to take pictures of leftist dissidents standing in foliage. When is Norman Finkelstein, pushed out of academia for nakedly political reasons, going to get the same generous humanizing coverage that Nazis get? When is Lisa Durden going to be defended in a column by Bret Stephens, David Brooks, or Bari Weiss? When will Nina Turner and Abdul El-Sayed be given their 3,000 word profile stories? No, it’s always the poor persecuted conservatives (I’m sorry, classical liberals), who the illiberal left have repressed to the point where you just can’t say anything anymore.