Normies are Noticing the Alt Media

intellectual-dark-webThe New York Times has an article on the alternative media titled Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web. The “normies” are finally starting to notice that there are people who don’t share their groupthink. What does the Times have to say about it?

Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: 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.”

These hardly seem controversial opinions.

I was meeting with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital; the commentator and comedian Dave Rubin; and their spouses in a Los Angeles restaurant to talk about how they were turned into heretics. A decade ago, they argued, when Donald Trump was still hosting “The Apprentice,” none of these observations would have been considered taboo.

And they wouldn’t be wrong: anyone who denies the sexual dimorphism in humans is deluded; a man was just convicted of hate speech in Scotland for a joke; and identity politics were created by the post modernists from the ashes of Marxism.

Today, people like them who dare venture into this “There Be Dragons” territory on the intellectual map have met with outrage and derision — even, or perhaps especially, from people who pride themselves on openness.

There is a word for people who pride themselves on openness and yet aren’t open to the truth: hypocrites.

The Intellectual Dark Web, a term coined half-jokingly by Weinstein, is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — 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.

The intellectual dark web is a new name for a subset of the movement that has also been called the alternative media.

The closest thing to a phone book for the I.D.W. is a sleek website that lists the dramatis personae of the network, including Mr. Harris; Mr. Weinstein and his brother and sister-in-law, the evolutionary biologists Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying; Jordan Peterson, the psychologist and best-selling author; the conservative commentators Ben Shapiro and Douglas Murray; Maajid Nawaz, the former Islamist turned anti-extremist activist; and the feminists Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christina Hoff Sommers. But in typical dark web fashion, no one knows who put the website up.

No one who follows the alt media gives a shit about this web site.

The core members have little in common politically. Bret and Eric Weinstein and Ms. Heying were Bernie Sanders supporters. Mr. Harris was an outspoken Hillary voter. Ben Shapiro is an anti-Trump conservative. But they all share three distinct qualities. First, they are willing to disagree ferociously, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject: religion, abortion, immigration, the nature of consciousness. Second, in an age in which popular feelings about the way things ought to be often override facts about the way things actually are, each is determined to resist parroting what’s politically convenient. And third, some have paid for this commitment by being purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought — and have found receptive audiences elsewhere.

The second point is the significant one. The alternative media, unlike the mainstream media, hold no allegiance to the political establishment. Nor do they bend the knee to the so called progressive movement.

“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.”

One of the best paths to the truth is to listen to diverse opinions and make up your own mind based on the evidence. The fact that this is “controversial” is sad.

That hunger has translated into a booming and, in many cases, profitable market. 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. A recent episode featuring Bret Weinstein and Ms. Heying talking about gender, hotness, beauty and #MeToo was viewed on YouTube over a million times, even though the conversation lasted for nearly three hours.

Maddow has been beating the drum for the Russian collusion conspiracy for over a year. How anyone can see her as legitimate, and Harris as controversial, is almost incomprehensible.

But as the members of the Intellectual Dark Web become genuinely popular, they are also coming under more scrutiny. On April 21, Kanye West crystallized this problem when he tweeted seven words that set Twitter on fire: “I love the way Candace Owens thinks.”

He merely made more people aware of the alternative media.

Candace Owens, the communications director for Turning Point USA, is a sharp, young, black conservative — a telegenic speaker with killer instincts who makes videos with titles like “How to Escape the Democrat Plantation” and “The Left Thinks Black People Are Stupid.” Mr. West’s praise for her was sandwiched inside a longer thread that referenced many of the markers of the Intellectual Dark Web, like the tyranny of thought policing and the importance of independent thinking. He was photographed watching a Jordan Peterson video.

And that’s wrong how?

All of a sudden, it seemed, the I.D.W. had broken through to the culture-making class, and a few in the group flirted with embracing Ms. Owens as their own.

What? Candice Owens has been mainstream in the alt media for months.

Yet Ms. Owens is a passionate Trump supporter who has dismissed racism as a threat to black people while arguing, despite evidence to the contrary, that immigrants steal their jobs. She has also compared Jay-Z and Beyoncé to slaves for supporting the Democratic Party.

Her point on racism is that allowing something that didn’t happen to you to make you a victim is bad. As far as immigrants “stealing” jobs, immigrants typically work in low paying jobs, which are disproportionately jobs held by blacks. What evidence is there that contradicts this?

Many others in the I.D.W. were made nervous by her sudden ascendance to the limelight, seeing Ms. Owens not as a sincere intellectual but as a provocateur in the mold of Milo Yiannopoulos. For the I.D.W. to succeed, they argue, it needs to eschew those interested in violating taboo for its own sake.

Candice Owens is not a provocateur. The “IDW” is not a movement. The moment there is an ideological purity test, the alternative media will have lost what makes it special.

“I’m really only interested in building this intellectual movement,” Eric Weinstein said. “The I.D.W. has bigger goals than anyone’s buzz or celebrity.”

Eric Weinstein doesn’t speak for the alternative media. If he wants to turn the IDW into a movement, more power to him, but they will not control the alternative media.

And yet, when Ms. Owens and Charlie Kirk, the executive director of Turning Point USA, met last week with Mr. West at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, just outside of the frame — in fact, avoiding the photographers — was Mr. Weinstein. He attended both that meeting and a one-on-one the next day for several hours at the mogul’s request. Mr. Weinstein, who can’t name two of Mr. West’s songs, said he found the Kardashian spouse “kind and surprisingly humble despite his unpredictable public provocations.” He has also tweeted that he’s interested to see what Ms. Owens says next.

Sounds like Weinstein is being a hypocrite.

This episode was the clearest example yet of the challenge this group faces: 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?

There is no alliance that made Sam Harris, Dave Reuben, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Douglas Murray “worth paying attention to”. Just because Dave Reuben interviewed Stefan Molyneux doesn’t mean he’s “aligning” himself with Molyneux.

There is no direct route into the Intellectual Dark Web. But the quickest path is to demonstrate that you aren’t afraid to confront your own tribe.

Which is another way of saying “to reject identity politics”.

The metaphors for this experience vary: going through the phantom tollbooth; deviating from the narrative; falling into the rabbit hole. But almost everyone can point to a particular episode where they came in as one thing and emerged as something quite different.

The metaphor that is almost universal is “taking the red pill”, as in The Matrix.

Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying left their jobs, lost many of their friends and endangered their reputations because they opposed a “Day of Absence,” in which white students were asked to leave campus for the day. For questioning a day of racial segregation cloaked in progressivism, the pair was smeared as racist. Following threats, they left town for a time with their children and ultimately resigned their jobs.

Opposing racism is racist?

Sam Harris says his moment came in 2006, at a conference at the Salk Institute with Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson and other prominent scientists. Mr. Harris said something that he thought was obvious on its face: Not all cultures are equally conducive to human flourishing. Some are superior to others.

It is obvious on its face.

After his talk, in which he disparaged the Taliban, a biologist who would go on to serve on President Barack Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues approached him. “I remember she said: ‘That’s just your opinion. How can you say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?’ But to me it’s just obvious that forcing women to live their lives inside bags is wrong. I gave her another example: What if we found a culture that was ritually blinding every third child? And she actually said, ‘It would depend on why they were doing it.’” His jaw, he said, “actually fell open.”

Who wouldn’t disparage the Taliban? Forcing anyone to wear anything is wrong. Is this the kind of people Obama had advising him? She makes Rick Perry and Betsy DeVoss look like excellent appointments.

Before September 2016, Jordan Peterson was an obscure psychology professor at the University of Toronto. Then he spoke out against Canada’s Bill C-16, which proposed amending the country’s human-rights act to outlaw discrimination based on gender identity and expression. He resisted on the grounds that the bill risked curtailing free speech by compelling people to use alternative gender pronouns. He made YouTube videos about it. He went on news shows to protest it. He confronted protesters calling him a bigot. When the university asked him to stop talking about it, including sending two warning letters, he refused.

Funny how protesting compelled speech leads to charges of bigotry and being told to shut up. If I say you’re trying to compel me to speak a certain way and you then try to shut me up, you have confirmed what I’m saying.

While most people in the group faced down comrades on the political left, Ben Shapiro confronted the right. He left his job as editor at large of Breitbart News two years ago because he believed it had become, under Steve Bannon’s leadership, “Trump’s personal Pravda.” In short order, he became a primary target of the alt-right and, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the No. 1 target of anti-Semitic tweets during the presidential election.

This is true, but he first became well known for thrashing Piers Morgan on gun control. Shapiro is opposed to abortion, is pro traditionalism, and is most famous for saying “facts don’t care about your feelings”. He has also faced protests by the left at every turn.

Jordan Peterson says he pulls in some $80,000 in fan donations each month. He has endured no small amount of online hatred and some real-life physical threats: In March, during a lecture at Queen’s University in Ontario, a woman showed up with a garrote. But like many in the I.D.W., he also seems to relish the outrage he inspires. “I’ve figured out how to monetize social justice warriors,” Mr. Peterson said in January on Joe Rogan’s podcast. On his Twitter feed, he called the writer Pankaj Mishra, who’d written an essay in The New York Review of Books attacking him, a “sanctimonious prick” and said he’d happily slap him.

And this is why people love him.

Yet there are pitfalls to this audience-supported model. One risk is what Eric Weinstein has called “audience capture.” Since stories about left-wing-outrage culture — the fact that the University of California, Berkeley, had to spend $600,000 on security for Mr. Shapiro’s speech there, say — take off with their fans, members of the Intellectual Dark Web may have a hard time resisting the urge to deliver that type of story. This probably helps explain why some people in this group talk constantly about the regressive left but far less about the threat from the right.

There’s some truth to this. Then again, if you keep making the same content, eventually it gets stale.

Go a click in one direction and the group is enhanced by intellectuals with tony affiliations like Steven Pinker at Harvard. But go a click in another and you’ll find alt-right figures like Stefan Molyneux and Milo Yiannopoulos and conspiracy theorists like Mike Cernovich (the #PizzaGate huckster) and Alex Jones (the Sandy Hook shooting denier).

None of these people are “alt-right”. Molyneux has a philosophy show. He will talk about topics that the most of the “IDW” crowd won’t touch, but he is essentially a libertarian anarcho-capitalist. Yiannopoulos is a shit disturber, but being gay, Jewish, and married to a black man, is hardly likely to be welcome in a white ethno-state. I haven’t heard Cernovich openly espouse alt-right views, though I don’t follow him much. Alex Jones does wander into conspiracy theory, but I hardly take him for a hard core alt-righter either.

“I don’t know that we are in the position to police it,” Mr. Rubin said. “If this thing becomes something massive — a political or social movement — then maybe we’d need to have some statement of principles. For now, we’re just a crew of people trying to have the kind of important conversations that the mainstream won’t.”

As soon as you try to police it, you will no longer be part of it. You can start a social movement (like the progressive “Justice Democrats” or Sargon of Akkad’s classical “Liberalists”), but you can’t take over the alternative media.

But is a statement of principles necessary to make a judgment call about people like Mr. Cernovich, Mr. Molyneux and Mr. Yiannopoulos? Mr. Rubin has hosted all three on his show. And he appeared on a typically unhinged episode of Mr. Jones’s radio show, “Infowars.” Mr. Rogan 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. When asked why he hosts people like Mr. Jones, Mr. Rogan has insisted that he’s not an interviewer or a journalist. “I talk to people. And I record it. That’s it,” he has said.

Talking to another person does not mean you are endorsing their opinions.

Mr. Rubin doesn’t see this is a problem. “The fact is that Jones reaches millions of people,” he said. “Going on that show means I get to reach them, and I don’t think anyone is a lost cause. I’ve gotten a slew of email from folks saying that they first heard me on Jones, but then watched a bunch of my interviews and changed some of their views.”

If you refuse to speak to people because they like someone you don’t, you isolate yourself. Eventually, you will be in your own little bubble.

The subject came up at that dinner in Los Angeles. Mr. Rubin, whose mentor is Larry King, insisted his job is just to let the person sitting across from him talk and let the audience decide. But with a figure like Mr. Cernovich, who can occasionally sound reasonable, how is a viewer supposed to know better?

If Cernovich is making sense, what is there to “know better” about? People can have sound view on some things and be wrong on others. Even Alex Jones has topics on which he’s completely lucid.

Of course, the whole notion of drawing lines to keep people out is exactly what inspired the Intellectual Dark Web folks in the first place. They’re committed to the belief that setting up no-go zones and no-go people is inherently corrupting to free thought.

And they are correct.

But people who pride themselves on pursuing the truth and telling it plainly should be capable of applying these labels when they’re deserved. It seems to me that if you are willing to sit across from an Alex Jones or Mike Cernovich and take him seriously, there’s a high probability that you’re either cynical or stupid. If there’s a reason for shorting the I.D.W., it’s the inability of certain members to see this as a fatal error.

Molyneux, who is neither cynical nor stupid, is more than willing to sit across from Jones or Cernovich. He calls Cernovich a friend. Like Reuben, his association with Jones may be more out of a desire to reach Jones’s huge audience, but I’m not sure. Labeling people and refusing to associate with them smacks of identity politics.

What’s more, this frog-kissing plays perfectly into the hands of those who want to discredit the individuals in this network. In recent days, for example, Mr. Harris has been labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a bridge to the alt-right: “Under the guise of scientific objectivity, Harris has presented deeply flawed data to perpetuate fear of Muslims and to argue that black people are genetically inferior to whites.”

The SPLC is a regressive organization. They labeled Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali anti-Muslim extremists. The Federalist went as far as to call them a “Hate-Mongering Scam”.

The group excoriated Mr. Harris, a fierce critic of the treatment of women and gays under radical Islam, for saying that “some percentage, however small” of Muslim immigrants are radicalized. He has also estimated that some 20 percent of Muslims worldwide are Islamists or jihadis. But he has never said that this should make people fear all Muslims.

I’ve yet to see any facts that disprove any of Harris’s claims.

When [Kanye West] tweets “only freethinkers” and “It’s no more barring people because they have different ideas,” he is picking up on a real phenomenon: that the boundaries of public discourse have become so proscribed as to make impossible frank discussions of anything remotely controversial.

And like Dave Reuben, I think West’s promotion of free thought could be a game changer.

I get the appeal of the I.D.W. I share the belief that our institutional gatekeepers need to crack the gates open much more. I don’t, however, want to live in a culture where there are no gatekeepers at all. Given how influential this group is becoming, I can’t be alone in hoping the I.D.W. finds a way to eschew the cranks, grifters and bigots and sticks to the truth-seeking.

They should be exposing the cranks and the bigots. There will likely always be gatekeepers, but I’m glad that the power of the mainstream media is being eroded. One day the author of this article is likely to look back and think “if only I had joined them.”

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About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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