Reading Politico’s recent piece “The Voice of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’” was another frustrating reminder of how reporters, for some reason, love giving glowing coverage to this poorly named movement.
The so-called intellectual dark web is a loose confederation of writers, academics and media figures who generally hold views on race, gender and politics that are outside the mainstream. They often rail against political correctness and try to advance discussion of these third-rail topics without the constraints commentators typically feel.
But the name is a complete misnomer and should be abandoned by reporters covering the movement’s figures. It gives the group more credit than they deserve for intellectual rigor and disguises some of their uglier positions.
Let’s start with the “intellectual” component. One of the movement’s luminaries is Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto psychology professor. It’s hard to see much of the truly intellectual in much of his work. While I’m certainly no expert on his oeuvre, it seems to me the gist of his work is that — particularly when discussing gender roles — traditional arrangements are best because they have endured centuries or even millennia. One shouldn’t have to explain that exulting received wisdom simply because it has been received is the precise opposite of intellectualism.
Or take another leading figure of the movement, Ben Shapiro, the Daily Wire columnist who was dubbed by the New York Times “the cool kid’s philosopher.” Scanning his recent writings, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything approaching a truly intellectual argument.
Shapiro is a good writer and is particularly skilled at dressing up his arguments in language that looks vaguely philosophical and rigorous. But if you’re at all versed in the topics he writes about you quickly realize his arguments rely almost exclusively on strawmen, thoroughly attacking positions no real person actually holds. This is a symptom of the larger criticism of his work, which is that he presents no original ideas, merely attacks on liberal politicians and commentators. He’s not for anything, it seems. When it comes to the crowd of conservatives who think there’s no greater virtue than “owning the libs,” he’s the smartest guy in the room, hardly a claim to intellectualism.
Then there’s Claire Lehmann, the publisher of the website Quillette who is at the center of the Politico story mentioned above. The article discusses how she launched the site after experiencing frustration getting op-eds published in the Sydney Morning Herald. In the article she attributes her struggles to her desire to criticize feminism. In her telling it’s this transgression against political correctness that was her downfall, rather than the fact that she was a young, unknown writer trying to publish op-eds in the leading paper of a major metropolitan area. Nearly all writers have similar stories of rejection. Most correctly attribute their struggles to their lack of notoriety and connections, not the stifling confines of political correctness.
The “dark web” component of the movement’s moniker is even more perplexing. The dark web is a term used to describe websites that are not indexed by traditional search engines and are typically encrypted. They are generally put to nefarious purposes, such as buying and selling stolen personal information. It’s hard to see what a group of commentators expressing transgressive opinions has to do with this.
Yet the term appeals to journalists’ desire to cover something new, edgy and exciting. It evokes images of a group of renegades courting danger on a righteous quest for intellectual salvation.
A better title for the group would be conservative reactionaries. But sadly, there’s not much new to report there.
The views expressed by the group track closely with those of the alt-right. They detest multiculturalism, enforced gender equality and any kind of deference to racial minorities. It’s no wonder that the leading figures of the group are almost exclusively white men.
But where the alt-right uses explicitly racist and misogynistic attacks on the ideas they oppose, the intellectual dark web employs a sheen of academic rigor.
It’s a sheen that wears thin with minimal scratching. My hope is that reporters start doing more work to look beneath this surface and realize that there’s not much there that we haven’t seen before.