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The “Intellectual Dark Web,” explained: what Jordan Peterson has in common with the alt-right

A controversial New York Times article describes several popular white intellectuals as marginalized “renegades.”

Jordan Peterson, author of “Twelve Rules for Life”
Jordan Peterson, author of Twelve Rules for Life.
Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Bari Weiss, an opinion writer and editor at the New York Times, created a stir this week with a long article on a group that calls itself the “Intellectual Dark Web.” The coinage referred to a loose collective of intellectuals and media personalities who believe they are “locked out” of mainstream media, in Weiss’s words, and who are building their own ways to communicate with readers.

The thinkers profiled included the neuroscientist and prominent atheist writer Sam Harris, the podcaster Dave Rubin, and University of Toronto psychologist and Chaos Dragon maven Jordan Peterson.

The article provoked disbelieving guffaws from critics, who pointed out that cable news talking heads like Ben Shapiro have hardly been purged. Many words could be used to describe Harris, but ”silenced” is not plausibly one of them.

Some assertions in the piece deserved the ridicule. But Weiss accurately captured a genuine perception among the people she is writing about (and, perhaps, for). They do feel isolated and marginalized, and with some justification. However, the reasons are quite different from those suggested by Weiss. She asserts that they have been marginalized because of their willingness to take on all topics and their determination not to “[parrot] what’s politically convenient.”

The truth is rather that dark web intellectuals, like Donald Trump supporters and the online alt-right, have experienced a sharp decline in their relative status over time. This is leading them to frustration and resentment.

Members of the intellectual dark web want to be at the center of intellectual debate. But the center has shifted.

To understand the unhappiness of dark web intellectuals, you have to go back in time. The past few years have seen extraordinary changes in how left-wingers, liberals, and liberal centrists understand themselves. But go back a bit further and marriage equality for gay people was a controversial issue, and women’s rights and the status of African Americans in American life were the targets of intellectually lazy speculation.

Precisely because we have changed so much, we have forgotten how bad things used to be. For decades, contrarianism on questions of race and gender — ranging from opposition to certain feminist projects or to affirmative action, to flirtation with the idea that black culture and even black brains were intrinsically inferior — was part of the intellectual mainstream of the center. Andrew Sullivan published an entire issue of the New Republic devoted to presenting, and debating, Charles Murray’s claim that black people were, on average, less intelligent than white people.

Leon Wieseltier, who ran the New Republic’s book section as an independent barony, sought to exercise a droit du seigneur over female employees, as we learned last year. Slate, famous for its contrarian #slatepitch pieces, published several essays by William Saletan on race and research, which credulously accepted the arguments of J. Philippe Rushton, a race-obsessed researcher linked to the racialist Pioneer Fund and white nationalist New Century Foundation.

Sullivan, Saletan, and others justified themselves by claiming that they were disinterested inquirers pursuing the scientific truth, even if it led them to deeply uncomfortable conclusions. Their enthusiasm for discomfort did not then extend, however, to examining the awkward politics beneath their own contrarianism. As Philip Kitcher, the famous philosopher of science, suggested back in 2001 in Science, Truth, and Democracy, there is an “epistemic bias” in favor of the sorts of arguments these thinkers embraced.

The repeated outbreaks of fascination with the question of whether women and racial minorities are inherently unequal were not quite the product of the disinterested pursuit of the truth, Kitcher argued; otherwise, the same unpleasant questions would not keep appearing in radically different pseudoscientific forms. Instead, the recurrent interest stems from public and elite eagerness to believe that discrimination against women and minorities was justified.

This was reinforced by individual intellectual incentives to cultivate contrarianism for the sake of fame, or, as Kitcher describes it, the “temptation to gain a large audience and to influence public opinion by defending ‘unpopular’ views” — views that, in truth, mirrored widespread societal prejudices.

Not only was it considered acceptable for pundits to speculate about the limitations of other races or women, or to engage with the nastier corners of the intellectual right, but it was often seen as a good thing — a sign that one was tough-minded and decidedly not beholden to 1960s-era leftism. Hence, intellectual centrists prided themselves on their political independence from both sides of the political spectrum but were often more at pains to distinguish themselves from the left than from the right.

Now, this has all changed radically. Centrist liberals still have many political blind spots. But writers who suggest that black people are relatively more likely to be stupid are likely to have a much rougher time of it than in the 1990s or the aughts. The same is true for men who call for women who have had abortions to be hanged by the neck until dead.

A group united mainly by its disdain for “multiculturalism”

These changes explain why Weiss and her arm’s-length comrades in arms feel so embattled. What they all share is not a general commitment to intellectual free exchange but a specific political hostility to “multiculturalism” and all that it entails. In previous decades, their views were close to hegemonic in the intellectual center.

Arthur Schlesinger, for example, feared that multiculturalism might weaken America’s vital center (although he also acknowledged the cultural threat from the right). Structural arguments about the oppression of black people and women didn’t often make it into mainstream publications. Now, the hegemony has been overturned.

The traditional safe spaces for pseudoscientific speculation have been taken over, almost literally. The New Republic — which Ta-Nehisi Coates has asserted had perhaps two black staff writers or editors in its heyday and was certainly overwhelmingly white — is now being edited by the leftist multicultural barbarians. Slate has moved away from reflex contrarianism toward a more robust liberalism. And William Saletan, to his genuine credit, has written a serious mea culpa for his previous flirtations with race-IQ theorizing.

Today, contrarianism on race and gender is liable to get fierce pushback in the publications of mainstream liberalism. Intellectual ties to the right can win you toleration if you are David Frum, Ross Douthat, or David Brooks. You may be recognized as a member of a minority that needs to be acknowledged, and as a possibly unreliable ally against Donald Trump Republicanism. However, you are unlikely to enjoy real love or deep acceptance.

In absolute terms, dark web intellectuals enjoy far more access to the mainstream than genuine leftists. But in relative terms, they have far lower status than their intellectual forebears of 20 or even 10 years ago. They are not driving the conversation, and sometimes are being driven from it. This loss of relative social status helps explain the anger and resentment that Weiss describes and to some extent herself embodies. It’s hard for erstwhile hegemons to feel happy about their fall.

There is also an irritating but genuine grain of truth deep beneath the layers of whining. Campus leftists and their allies in the media are often no more open to alternative perspectives than the New Republic white male elite of two decades ago; they can behave badly too. But where dark web intellectuals veer from analysis of that phenomenon into self-pity is in their consistent tendency to treat all skeptical criticism of their purported commitment to truth-seeking as further symptoms of political correctness gone mad.

How great is the distance between the intellectual dark web and the hard alt-right?

Weiss is largely sympathetic to dark web intellectuals. Still, she is obviously troubled by the new movement’s tendency to embrace right-wing conspiracists such as Pizzagate rumormonger Mike Cernovich, lite-alt-righter Milo Yiannopoulos, and the frothing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Dave Rubin justifies this to her by saying that they don’t now want a statement of principles but are “just a crew of people trying to have the kind of important conversations that the mainstream won’t.” In Weiss’s description, dark web intellectuals are “committed to the belief that setting up no-go zones and no-go people is inherently corrupting to free thought.”

However, intellectual openness is not the only possible reason the dark web is flirting with the dark enlightenment. Recent political science research suggests that Trump’s popularity in the 2016 presidential election was based on “status threat.” Members of high-status groups that had lost prestige were more likely to be receptive to Trump’s rhetoric.

And it is less well appreciated is that the online alt-right orchestrated by Cernovich, Yiannopoulos, and others had origins quite similar to the somewhat more respectable dark web types that Weiss’s piece describes. Gamergate united men’s rights activists, white nationalists, and neoreactionaries around indignation over the inroads that women and minorities had made into video game culture, previously dominated by young white men.

Weiss lists some of the colorful metaphors that dark web intellectuals use to describe their conversion experience: “going through the phantom tollbooth; deviating from the narrative; falling into the rabbit hole.” They’ve had “a particular episode where they came in as one thing and emerged as something quite different.” However, they, and she, systematically avoid using one obvious and common metaphor for their experience: taking the red pill.

Gamergaters commonly talk about how they used to feel a vague sense of unease and oppression, until, like Neo in The Matrix, they took the red pill and could see the vast invisible structures of race and gender norms that imprisoned them. As Steve Bannon told Joshua Green of Bloomberg Businessweek, Gamergate was a potent gateway drug to the extreme right: “I realized Milo [Yiannopoulos] could connect with these kids right away. … You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.”

Dark web intellectuals would probably resent any comparison to Gamergaters. They think they operate on an entirely different plane of thought. However, the political and social resemblances are obvious. Dark web intellectuals too have seen their culture invaded by women and minorities. They also have resentments to be capitalized on, and a commitment to rationality that can all too easily be transformed into a commitment to rationalizing their less salubrious political desires.

It would not be surprising to see many of the people discussed in Weiss’s piece defect to the forces of darkness over the next couple of years. Instead, it would be surprising if some did not.

Henry Farrell is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Find him on Twitter @henryfarrell.

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