The Intellectual Dark Web Revisited

The momentous election a few weeks ago constituted a high point of tension in the intellectual community which has become known as the Intellectual Dark Web. Coined by mathematician Eric Weinstein and popularized in a New York Times article by Bari Weiss in 2018, the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) is a term applied to a group of heterodox thinkers who constitute an alternative sense-making apparatus. Though the term was created to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it stuck.

I have argued in other articles that what became known as the Intellectual Dark Web is a modern version of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters. I still stand by that assertion. However, any high point for the IDW has almost certainly passed. While several thinkers associated with the IDW are among the most important living intellectuals, others have descended into the realm of pseudo-scientific, pseudo-intellectual nonsense. While traditional media outlets (the commentariat) and institutions are vey much stultifying and may need to be demolished, the potential that the IDW has includes elements of both very high and very low quality. I have written about this diverse group of thinkers over the past two years and find myself increasingly struggling to view it from a clear vantage point. The IDW is, indeed, a complicated mosaic.

In the years between 2016 and 2018 — when I would argue that the potential of the IDW (indeed, the proto-IDW for most of that time) — was at its greatest. Most of the thinkers were more original and most were either left-leaning or liberal (in the classical sense). Not one major person associated with the IDW voted for Trump in 2016. The assertions that the IDW constituted some right-wing network are completely unfounded. Problems really emerged as 2019 progressed into 2020. While the presidential election overshadowed and heavily influenced much during its seemingly endless run, the very thing that made the IDW an essential ‘group,’ if one insists on viewing this network of diverse individuals that way — an alternative sense-making apparatus — has built within it the fatal flaw that recently caused neuroscientist Sam Harris to distance himself from it.

“In so far as I’ve noticed what others in the so called Intellectual Dark Web have been saying, it’s generally not something I want to be associated with. I don’t want to single anyone out in particular, but allow me to take this moment to turn in my imaginary membership card to this imaginary organization. I mean, the IDW was always tongue-in-cheek from my point of view. It was the name for a group of people who were willing to discuss difficult topics in public mostly on podcasts, but it never made sense for us to be grouped together as though we shared a common worldview. I never saw much downside to it, and I didn’t much think about it, but in the aftermath of this election with some members of this fictional group sounding fairly bonkers, I just want to make it clear that I’m not part of any group.” — Sam Harris, November 2020

In his podcast, Sam Harris went on to say that he did not want to single anyone out in particular. I, on the other hand, do want to single a few people out — Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, and Maajid Nawaz. All three of these people have debased the intellectual discourse associated with the IDW to a considerable degree. Ben Shapiro was always a partisan and conservative political pundit whose fame on the internet owes much to ‘owning the libs’ — debating college students on campuses. He actually did bring an interesting perspective when in conversation with Eric Weinstein and the psychologist Jordan Peterson. However, Ben Shapiro is first and foremost a political pundit — the right-wing version of Sam Seder. He can be rational and engaging in private conversation but is happy to bracket that in many instances and throw red meat to his audience. Neither Ben Shapiro or Sam Seder is worth much time — both sacrifice true intellectual discourse for trying to score cheap political points.

Dave Rubin has traded left-wing blind spots for right-wing ones. He was never particularly clever, though his show did have potential in the mid- to late-2010s because of his curiosity and the people in his network. He also got lucky and did point out actual instances of illiberal perspectives among so-called liberals. He did stand up for James Damore and recognized that Ben Affleck didn’t really know what he was talking about when on Bill Maher’s show with Sam Harris. However, the end of the previous decade also saw the closing of Dave Rubin’s mind. As his views drifted to the increasingly crazy fringes of the right, he actually appeared to get less intelligent right in front of the camera.

His show — the Rubin Report — became essentially Fox New outside of Fox News. Rubin went into full meltdown mode after endorsing Donald Trump in 2020 (he had voted for Gary Johnson in 2016). Clips from his show were compiled from election night to the succeeding days — revealing that his support for Trumps re-election was grounded in bitterness and resentment. The man had taken leave of his senses and promoted falsehoods, including questioning the legitimacy of the election — despite overwhelming evidence that the 2020 United States Presidential Election was the most secure in American political history. Rubin’s cries of ‘regressive’ aimed at the left, it turns out, were merely an outward projection of his increasingly toxic personality. Even many of the people who were once on his show have come out and criticized him as a person.

Maajid Nawaz also makes this list because of questionable tweets and an article he wrote about the recent presidential election — calling into question its legitimacy.

The IDW has a quality problem — a mixing of high quality critiques and low quality blows by bitter pundits. Eric Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Alice Dreger, Jonathan Haidt, and Michael Shermer (among many others) are able to present critiques with great precision. Joe Rogan is able to entertain a vast array of ideas from an endless stream of fascinating (and, yes, some very questionable) guests. However, Dave Rubin is one striking example of a man who cannot reach their quality. He is just not willing (and likely not able either). When one watches the episode of the Rubin Report where Rubin has Eric Weinstein, Ben Shapiro, and Jordan Peterson on all at the same time, he is clearly the least intelligent man in that room — the other 3 are talking over his head.

Like the Enlightenment Republic of Letters, the world needs the likes of the IDW — even if it will not be called that. A form of the Republic of Letters — decentralized networks of intellectuals — has existed since the Renaissance, when the proliferation of printed materials, due to the printing press, allowed for the emergence of public intellectuals. Low quality pundits are a price we have to pay for honest and deep intellectual discourse of a much higher quality than can be offered by the talking heads on TV or the boring academic library rats focused on their narrow academic interests.

The Enlightenment Republic of Letters had some bad apples but they also gave us Rousseau, Diderot, Gibbon, Adam Smith, d’Holbach, Condorcet, Benjamin Franklin, Kant, and Goethe. The Intellectual Dark Web has its bad apples but has given us the ideas of Eric Weinstein, Bret Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Heather Haying, Claire Lehmann, Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, and Alice Dreger.

It is inevitable that people don’t want to be associated with a group — particularly prominent intellectuals. Alice Dreger asked to be left out of the Bari Weiss article in 2018. Sam Harris turned in his “imaginary membership card to this imaginary organization.” The name may have soured a bit but the ideals and ideas associated with it, as articulated by Eric Weinstein are still of immense value and should be pursued. I’m an optimist and think that even the tongue-in-cheek name ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ should be maintained. Why, after all, should it be sullied by a few pseudo-intellectuals?

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