A WILDERNESS OF LABELS

by Chris R. Morgan

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I’ll admit that when I first caught wind of a feature written about this thing called the “intellectual dark web,” it piqued my interest. In this time of socio-politico-techno-philosophical tumult, many secluded hubs of unusual thought have appeared just outside conventional wisdom’s periphery. And what new decrepit corner has been overturned and exposed to show the general reader, at turns desperately complacent and hauntingly frazzled, the extent of this encroachment? Often the quality of the answer depends on who is holding the flashlight and who is supplying the batteries. When I found it was Bari Weiss and The New York Times respectively, I realized my hopes were too high.

In Weiss’s words, the intellectual dark web (IDW) is “a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation … 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.” Among these people are Sam Harris, Christina Hoff Sommers, Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson, and Ben Shapiro; though their website includes a host of others such as Steven Pinker, Alyaan Hrisi Ali, James Damore, and Owen Benjamin.

These names are recognizable to anyone who follows web-based ideological blood sport. One can even make trading cards out of each of them with their stats and signature moves. Their areas of interest center on the biological distinctions of gender, the hostility toward free speech, the toxicity of identity politics, and generally the preservation of Western Civilization. To their opponents they are the un-persons of humanity, the archenemies of all that is good, an advanced placement Legion of Doom. So one can imagine that when this feature ran touting “renegades” in a melodramatic desert photo shoot, there would be much backlash. And lo, none were disappointed.

I’m not surprised that such an article exists. The United States finds itself governed by the first non-intellectual president since the 1950s, and the most anti-intellectual president in maybe ever. The novelty of any cerebral person becoming widely popular is, in the strictest sense, newsworthy. It is about as newsworthy as the “libertarian moment” was four years earlier, which the Times covered with similar panache. And this time the paper just happens to have recently hired this particular movement’s most effective whisperer. “Like many in this group, I am a classical liberal who has run afoul of the left, often for voicing my convictions and sometimes simply by accident,” Weiss writes.

But “newsworthy” and “valuable” are not always one and the same, so it helps to cast, at the very least, a cold eye on what Weiss and the Times are selling its readers.

The people who make up IDW are a diverse bunch. Rogen, Benjamin, and Rubin are comedians. Peterson, Pinker, and Jonathan Haidt are academics. Ali, Lindsay Shepherd, and Maajid Nawaz are activists. Shapiro is a conservative pundit, while Harris voted for Hillary Clinton. With no single area of expertise, no single style of expression, and no apparent partisan overlap, it is hard to imagine how these people get along. But they do; in fact they spend an inordinate amount of time talking to each other. There’s an answer for that, thankfully, on their website: “Where [the IDW] begin to converge are on issues of the individual vs. collectivism, liberty over authoritarianism, and the importance of freedom of speech.” That seems fairly commonplace in any Western democracy, and it makes them very approachable to the intellectually curious. And yet there’s sufficient reason to be put off by them as a whole. For they embody what I’ve come to call the Janis Ian rule.

I always thought that Janis Ian was the actual villain of Mean Girls. Certainly much of the film’s plot is driven by her and her worldview. Through her, Lindsay Lohan’s deer-in-the-headlights ex-homeschooled protagonist Cady learns how the school is socially arranged—preps, jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don’t eat anything, desperate wannabes, sexually active band geeks, etc.—and overseeing that arrangement are Regina George and the Plastics. The film does little to counter this view, but it also does not sidestep that Janis is deeply invested in this order to the point of obsession, and so embittered that Regina is its leviathan that she will break down Cady’s unique personality to subvert it.

Spend enough time with the denizens of IDW and one will start to see a similar obsession with labels and an arranged order. They are champions of the individual and stand athwart all politics, but at the same time cannot escape explicitly political frameworks. Everything can be deduced by what table one sits at: liberal, conservative, libertarian, classical liberal, feminist, regressive leftist, Antifa, social justice warrior, and so on. They are, moreover, highly sensitive when labels are imposed on them:

If ‘alt-right’ was your initial thought, you may be suffering from Ostrich Parasitic Syndrome or captured by a political ideology. You might also live in a mythical place called the left pole where any opinion that doesn’t conform to your orthodoxy is considered far-right. The exact same applies in the opposite direction. Check yourself.

Ideas are potent on IDW. They are an amalgam of currency, malady, and demonology. An encounter with a Bad idea, even a casual encounter, leaves one mutated. The writings of Marx, the poststructuralists, and postmodernists are corrosive elixirs that can only be cured with the fabled red pill, a kind of reverse wokeness. Everything, in fact, is a reversal: reverse enlightenment, reverse ideology, reverse religion, reverse identity. IDW functions best with opposition. Peterson said that the root of his success was in his “figuring out how to monetize the social justice warrior.”

There’s a simpatico relationship developing here that almost approaches the parasitic. A member of the IDW will go to a speaking event which will inevitably be disrupted by the SJW, who will either get booted from the premises or force the event to cancel. One will claim oppression, the other to be upholding the principles of free speech. The confrontations will go up in social media, the substance of the subject being spoken about will be lost, and it seems wholly beside the point. This occurs with such frequency that performance art would not be an unfair suspicion.

Their more dreaded enemy, however, is the mainstream media. Like Regina George it is the police of their idea society, and when it attacks, it hurts. For instance, IDW and their followers have developed a curious revulsion to being called “far-right.” Doubtless this is lazy catchall on the part of the media in a lot of cases; a kind they are very good at, because “far-right” can mean anything. Yet because IDW is cripplingly invested in understanding each shade of the ideological spectrum, they are prevented from simply turning the term on its head and owning it in some ironic way. For me it doesn’t matter what ideological hat(s) their godfather Christopher Hitchens wore, it matters that was he for the invasion of Iraq before he was … still for it. “His allergy to one kind of bullshit, that propounded by some of his erstwhile left-wing allies, blinded him to other, ultimately more pungent varieties,” read Hitchens’s obituary in The Economist. “As a result, on the most consequential political issue of the last decade of his life, the bullshit got him.”

Part of me wants to end this piece on a dickish note, albeit a slightly clever one. Rather than go the safe route and apply a new label onto them without prior consent, I would instead remove one: intellectual. That’s a bit rich given the credentials of many IDW members, but it’s not totally brazen. After all, Weiss implies in the first paragraph of her piece that the ideas of IDW are only as interesting as their censors allow them to be. But my understanding of what it means to be intellectual is different.

IDW member Camille Paglia wrote a scathing essay on Susan Sontag, attacking her for abandoning her pathbreaking mass culture criticism and becoming a cliquish, dated, and pretentious literary insider. Of course one person’s “pretension” could just as easily be “doing your fucking job.” Whatever Sontag’s personal and intellectual faults, Sontag was guided by a spirit altogether distinct from Paglia. Paglia spent decades essentially circling back to her thesis in Sexual Personae, while Sontag could never stay in one place for long. She was ambitious and curious; she took risks, she explored, she made errors, walked things back, changed her mind, had doubts, and wrote beautifully while doing so. I don’t know a more fitting and reasonable set of expectations for an intellectual than that.

Still, another part of me knows that IDW is a loud, maybe even sizable, but not total encapsulation of the intellectual landscape of the moment. It is far vaster and more substantial than a bunch of podcasters with a marketing angle are letting on. Moreover, neither The New York Times nor I are qualified to say with finality what ideas will matter the most in the long term. I just know that the most interesting, vital, and dangerous ideas, as always, are not so easily cordoned off by a label, and are more likely to alter rather than preserve order in ways few can anticipate.

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