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The Hidden Political Lineage of the “Intellectual Dark Web”


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In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jacob Hamburger examines the political lineage and growing influence of the “intellectual dark web,” a loosely affiliated group of internet-savvy libertarian thinkers like Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and Christina Hoff Sommers. As Hamburger writes, these figures like to present themselves as politically diverse defenders of free speech and reason. But upon closer inspection, they owe a lot to the US conservative movement against “political correctness” in the 1980s and '90s. Here’s an excerpt from Hamburger’s piece:

What exactly are the ideas that have made people like Eric Weinstein, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, and Christina Hoff Sommers into what a recent New York Times profile described as intellectual “renegades”? According to the Times writer Bari Weiss, most emphasize the biological differences between men and women, a feeling that free speech is “under siege,” and a fear that “identity politics” is a threat to the United States’s social fabric.

A listener of Harris’s podcast might add to the list a vociferous defense of the validity of genetic explanations for IQ differences between racial groups, a follower of Peterson’s videos might insist on the nefarious influence of “postmodern neo-Marxism” on college campuses, and a fan of Ben Shapiro might contribute a skepticism toward the reality of “transgenderism.”

The movement sees itself as an alliance that defies established political categories in order to defend these ideas against the creeping influence of thought control. This leads us to another important meaning of the term intellectual dark web, the suggestion that its ideas are not only controversial, but particularly innovative in our political moment. If the dark web arouses the anger of certain commentators in the media or the academy, it is for the same reasons that new technologies in the internet age are “disruptive.”

It would take a short memory, however, not to notice that these sorts of polemics over political correctness are anything but novel: they have been around for at least 30 years, ever since a strikingly similar set of media debates centered around college campuses took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Toward the end of the Reagan years, political correctness became a favorite bugbear of conservative intellectuals, who believed that college professors had latched onto illiberal or totalitarian notions of equality, and were indoctrinating their students with a subversive view of American society. Today’s “dark web” provocateurs rarely mention these predecessors, who not too long ago occupied a similar place in national media debates. But the comparison suggests that the “iconoclastic” ideas of these figures are actually a well-established institution in American discourse: an institution whose home is on the political right.

Image: Christina Hoff Sommers, a libertarian thinker whose video blog is called “The Factual Feminist.” Via the Washington Times.