Last week, New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss published a profile of the “Intellectual Dark Web,” i.e. politically unboxable, anti-PC internet conversation hosts such as Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Sam Harris.
“Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web,” the article begins: “There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered ‘dark.’”
Just by voicing and exploring these apparently dubious ideas, the “IDW” garner tens of millions of hits for their videos, podcasts, and articles, and sold-out auditoriums at in-person lectures worldwide. Yet, says Weiss, this collection of pundits eyed dubiously by discourse gatekeepers face a challenge personified by the recent Kanye West-Candace Owens outrage cycle: “In their eagerness to gain popular traction, are the members of the I.D.W. aligning themselves with people whose views and methods are poisonous? Could the intellectual wildness that made this alliance of heretics worth paying attention to become its undoing?”
It is a curious question for Weiss to ask, as if it ought not also apply to her own publication and others like it. The New York Times, after all, published Louise Mensch’s prognostications and recommendations on, of all things, the Russia investigation.
BuzzFeed notes that Mensch is “known for spinning conspiracy theories: that the Russians ‘murdered’ the late Breitbart News founder Andrew Breitbart and that Anthony Weiner was sexting not with a 15-year-old girl but with a hacker working for the Russians. That claim is false: A BuzzFeed News reporter, David Mack, interviewed the teenager in person.” Is The New York Times, then, “aligning itself with people whose views and methods are poisonous”? Could that “become its undoing”? Inquiring minds do wonder.
Weiss disapprovingly notes that Rubin has hosted “alt-right” and “conspiracy theorist” “people like” Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, Stefan Molyneux, and Milo Yiannopoulos on his YouTube show. Jones has insisted the Sandy Hook school shooting was “completely fake with actors” and is being sued by families of children slain there. Cernovich pushed the theory that Democratic operatives were running child sex rings out of pizza restaurants.
Weiss also dings Joe Rogan, whose podcast has one of the largest audiences, period, because he “regularly lets Abby Martin — a former 9/11 Truther who is strangely sympathetic to the regimes in Syria and Venezuela — rant on his podcast. He also encouraged Mr. Jones to spout off about the moon landing being fake during Mr. Jones’s nearly four-hour appearance on his show.”
Know who else was an unhinged truther about several issues? New York magazine writer Andrew Sullivan, who has also held positions at marquee, self-consciously respectable publications like The Atlantic, Time, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, and The New York Times Magazine. As Warren Henry pointed out on our pages recently, however, Sullivan is an unabashed conspiracy theorist. He pushed “the theory that 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin was not the mother of her then-newborn son Trig and that her pregnancy was faked for political reasons.”
Sullivan also posted a video from “Alex Jones [yes, that Alex Jones] claiming that Vice President Dick Cheney’s hunting accident, in which he shot Harry Whittington, was less than an accident. (Sullivan didn’t back down when challenged, either.)”
As for Martin’s “strange sympathy” to the authoritarian regimes of Syria and Venezuela, The New York Times has shown a strange sympathy for Communist China and Karl Marx, spending this entire year (and decades beyond) on the Bolshevik revolution’s 100th celebrating the man whose ideas led to mass murder in myriad countries, with astronomical death tolls. Does that not undercut the Times‘ legitimacy and credibility, or are we only supposed to memory-hole the mistakes of “respectable” institutions on the Left?
We could go on with how writing out of public life falls much more harshly on the Right than on the Left. Roy Moore gets eaten alive for alleged behavior in line with proven behavior lefties have either ignored or rationalized from people like Bill Clinton, rock stars, and Roman Polanski. Straight-arrow Mitt Romney is burned at the stake for explaining how he wanted to hire qualified women, while the Obama administration is allowed to get away with hiring fewer women and paying them less. Tracking instances of this kind of media and political slant is a cottage industry in which The Federalist participates. It could keep many writers employed full-time, and probably already does.
Despite decades of very well-documented mainstream press bias, those who comprise it continue to believe themselves the legitimate arbiters of public discourse. The explosion of talk radio in the 1980s was one reaction to their hubris, and the intellectual dark web is another. People who listen to “alternative media” and those who run it often continue to implicitly cow to the mainstream’s pretense of being mainstream, even though the numbers show that’s not really the case.
“Episodes of ‘The Joe Rogan Experience,’ which have featured many members of the I.D.W., can draw nearly as big an audience as Rachel Maddow,” writes Weiss. Maddow competes with Sean Hannity for top-ranked cable news show, at about 3 million viewers monthly each. Coming in third is Anderson Cooper, at 1.125 million viewers a month on average. Compare that with the YouTube subscribers for Peterson, at 1.13 million. Rogan has 2.65 million, Steven Crowder has 1.9 million, Rubin 711,000. Each of these YouTubers essentially has his own cable news show audience. Shapiro’s podcast gets 15 million monthly downloads.
Their combined reach easily competes with Fox News, the top cable news outlet, which averaged 2.5 million viewers in the first quarter of 2018. It also competes with legacy media such as the New York Times, which has 2.5 million digital subscribers, the Washington Post, which has 1 million, and The Wall Street Journal’s 1.27 million.
“Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels,” Weiss writes of the IDW: “‘People are starved for controversial opinions,’ said Joe Rogan, an MMA color commentator and comedian who hosts one of the most popular podcasts in the country. ‘And they are starved for an actual conversation.'”
This shows “the establishment” media really aren’t as prominent, predominant, or even mainstream as they and their detractors claim, although they claim to deserve the power to police discourse. Yet that power is already out of their hands.
This reality accounts for a lot of curiosities about public life, such as Donald Trump’s dark swan presidency. It’s not that there were no signals that enough people might be willing to buy what he was selling. It was that those who spend their lives claiming to be signal-readers were flying blind. They were tuned to something else besides a large chunk of America: themselves.
So maybe it’s time to stop accepting their broken paradigm about who gets to police public discourse. Maybe it’s time to realize that conspiracy theorists are a part of life, that people shouldn’t necessarily be written off forever for making a mistake while not being woke. Maybe it’s time to start actually making arguments for what should be considered racism or a conspiracy theory and why that should matter instead of using words like that as all-purpose labels merely to shut up the opposition.
Yes, if we do that, some people are going to say some impolite or dangerous stuff. But they already do. Pretending it’s not happening only allows bad ideas to fester. Addressing them saps them of their power. And allowing people to float their imperfect ideas will help them change in response to criticism.
It’s messy. It’s a little disorienting. It’s embarrassing to admit you were wrong, and hard to consequently work to develop new habits of talk and action. It’s difficult to take responsibility for your own words and thoughts rather than outsource the talking and thinking to others who do it in exchange for pretension. But that’s the price of self-government we all have to be willing to pay in order to have a free society.