The Intellectual Dark Web—loosely defined as the group of public intellectuals coalescing around issues of freedom of speech in the context of left-wing political correctness on American campuses—is one of the most fascinating political developments of the Trump era.
The core members of this group appear to be Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Heather Heying and Bret and Eric Weinstein. Rubin is perhaps the most curious case of them all—a former Young Turks host, who completely switched his political worldview from progressive to classical liberal, which Rubin uses as a synonym for libertarian.
Rubin’s personal development mirrors a major online trend of the past three years, in that social justice, or political correctness on the left has become the central wedge issue for deciding what side of politics one is on. Culture war is the central focus of the online landscape, and if one is opposed to political correctness and the excesses of the left, one finds oneself gradually moving rightward.
But what does an excess of political correctness have to do with issues of economics, war, climate and public policy? Marxist scholars such as Adolph Reed have skewered identity politics as a scam for dividing the working class and transforming representation into some false notion of class power. The socialist writer Chris Hedges has condemned Antifa, calling political violence from the left a poison. Angela Nagle, the author of Kill All Normies and a budding star of the left, has chronicled the rise of the online right with a critical eye toward the Tumblr ideology on her own side.
Figures on the left have no problem critiquing political correctness on the left. In fact, the idea that political correctness is a left-wing phenomenon is itself deeply contestable. During the 2016 election, the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders was himself the target of dogmatic politically correct attacks. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and feminist icon Gloria Steinem each declared that women must support other women in electoral politics, and in Steinem’s case, that young women were only supporting Sanders because “the boys are with Bernie.” Rather than a weapon of the left, in electoral politics identity politics is consistently used by the political center to fend off challengers from the left.
In conversation with Bret Weinstein, Dave Rubin asks Bret if his experiences being ostracized by progressives have made him rethink his progressive views. Bret responds that the center right has become a kind of oasis for heterodox thinkers, but that the dark side of political correctness has in no way made him reconsider his allegiances. Rubin presses the question, asking if any progressives have invited Bret to speak, as those on the right, including the Ayn Rand Institute, have.
Rubin’s questions are deeply telling—the feeling that you have been ostracized from progressivism, and the tendency to therefore see the left as a monolithic entity reflect what Bret refers to as political PTSD. When your own political tribe rejects you, you become in many ways a prisoner of your own antipathy toward that group. This leads disaffected leftists frustrated with PC culture to vote for Trump, or to become classical liberals. This tendency merits deeper examination.
Political correctness is posed as a yes or no proposition. If you say no to PC, invariably, you are cast as right wing. Rubin saw this happening and decided to leave the left entirely. But this is a social phenomenon, not an intellectual one. To leave the left for these reasons is to allow the tides of social opinion to change every tenet of your political worldview, turning you—in Rubin’s case—from a progressive who believes in regulating business to a libertarian with limitless faith in markets alone.
Jordan Peterson, perhaps the most famous member of the Intellectual Dark Web, has repeatedly been challenged on his notion that the far left presents the greatest contemporary threat to Western nations. He tends to reply to this critique either by claiming that the far left is the biggest problem on college campuses, or by pointing out that the left has gone after him, so he therefore chooses to focus more squarely on the left. But this reflects the sheer inadequacy of making one’s opposition to political correctness the main tenant of one’s political worldview.
Peterson has a highly refined mode of thinking designed for the campus environment and the orthodoxies present there—but viewing him in the context of the world at large reveals how narrow his vision has become. In his GQ interview with Helen lewis, Peterson defined “identity politics” as a phenomenon started by the postmodern left in the 1970s, in order to dodge Lewis’ claim that the United States was founded on identity politics. This just seems pedantic of Peterson – his recourse to ‘English common law” or Enlightenment values cannot muddy the fact that the United States was founded on the exclusion of particular people on the basis of identity. For an intellectual concerned with storytelling, mythologies, and shared cultural rituals, it does seem that he is actively trying to focus as little on identity as possible, reflecting his concerns with excesses on the left more than the full scope of history.
The entire Intellectual Dark Web, coalescing around left-wing political correctness, must begin to make serious decisions about its future as a political movement. On the one hand, they desire an apolitical discussion of scientific and empirical issues. And yet, one cannot ignore the presence of Ben Shapiro in the group, who is a megaphone for conservative political ideas.
The Intellectual Dark Web has been criticized for being too right wing—a fair critique. Eric Weinstein, who presents himself as “a Bernie guy,” recently told Dave Rubin that Bernie was “economically confused.” How so? Rubin did not ask Weinstein to elaborate in any way. This is frustrating. Does Weinstein agree with Ben Shapiro’s views on universal healthcare? Is Bernie wrong about Wall Street regulation? What, exactly, does Weinstein mean?
Political discussions which focus on broad swathes of the left and classical liberals tend to avoid real and messy questions of public policy. But the Intellectual Dark Web cannot hide behind the idea of being apolitical so long as Ben Shapiro remains a core member. The group includes Peterson, Rubin and Shapiro—outspoken political messengers, almost all of whose opinions invariably favor the right.
If political correctness on the left is the glue keeping this group together, then the Intellectual Dark Web will be a limited movement that will exploit a weak spot of the left for a brief time, but fail to branch out into the political world at large. Like Jordan Peterson, the group will remain trapped on campus, while the world’s problems vastly eclipse the scope of academic self-censorship.
The Intellectual Dark Web is caught in the trap of its own fame—as a movement, it has garnered an enormous audience. Between Shapiro’s daily show, Sam Harris’ podcast, Peterson’s appearances and Dave Rubin’s interviews, millions of people have encountered their output. But what do they stand for? Are they simply concerned with rejecting left-wing identity politics in academia and the media, or do they also hope to create a new paradigm for thinking about politics?
If the latter, then the quality of political discussion must be raised beyond the issues on campus. Ben Shapiro is the most political and most vocal member of the group. Dave Rubin—with his libertarian views and intellectual U-turn—tends to be coddled or go unchallenged, while the focus of every conversation quickly moves to the shared enemy. A group formed on the basis of heterodoxy cannot remain interesting for long when major chasms of disagreement go publicly unexplored.
Bret Weinstein, in conversation with Robert Wright, presents a fascinating theory about the Intellectual Dark Web. Weinstein argues, as an evolutionary biologist, that the function of the IDW is to develop a toolkit for transitional historical times. As our sense-making apparatuses break down, as Bret’s brother Eric Weinstein has said, new aspects of our evolutionary toolkit must emerge to navigate chaotic times, and a possible transition from an era of material abundance to an era of austerity. A group of individuals dedicated to making evolutionary tools work in our favor might provide us with the ultimate trump card, a bulwark against the chaos of our contemporary political world. But if these evolutionary tools cannot be discovered and spotlighted, then the Intellectual Dark Web will remain a movement narrowly focused on purported far-left dogmas, whose most vocal and ideological members promote a firmly right-wing libertarian politics of markets and individuals, with little role for the protest and regulation expected within a healthy democratic polity.
From #WalkAway to the Jobs not Mobs slogan used by President Trump leading up to the midterms, the political right has been rebranding itself as the force of opposition to PC culture and Antifa. Whether they can respond to these global trends thoughtfully will prove the major test of the IDW as a worthwhile political movement, in this age of campus issues gone global, and political partisans seeking to exploit the far left to peddle old narratives as new.