“Peterson comes across no better in Brooks’ telling. He acknowledges that much of the Canadian psychologist’s self-help is quite useful, and he even jokingly admits that many leftists could do with some tough love about cleaning their room.”
was introduced to the “Intellectual Dark Web” n 2018, the world in the pages of The New York Times. The Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) was described as a collection of intellectuals and academics who varied ideologically but were united in their disdain for progressive identity politics and political correctness (PC) culture. It included religious conservatives such as Ben Shapiro, academics like Jordan Peterson, members of the New Atheist movement such as Sam Harris, and libertarians like Christina Hoff Sommers. Since then, the IDW has been subject to both unstinting praise from fans, as well as relentless critiques by opponents (including myself). To fans, the IDW is a necessary corrective to powerful and dangerous progressive movements threatening freedom of speech, social stability, and even Western civilization itself. To its fiercest critics, the IDW is a screen for advancing controversial views about race, ethnicity, and capitalism under the pretentious veil of being reasonable. Personally, I simply wish the more sophisticated members of the IDW took their ideological opponents seriously enough to mount well-reasoned criticisms. All too often, figures such as Peterson and Shapiro take pot shots at straw men, rather than actually dealing with progressive arguments in a rigorous way.
Michael Brooks, the host of The Michael Brooks Show, recently published an excellent new book entitled Against the Web, which distills many of these criticisms into a very handy and highly readable tome. Released with the critical theory outlet Zero Books (which—full disclosure—also publishes the works of yours truly), Brooks’ book does much to respond both critically and constructively to the Intellectual Dark Web. Anyone with an interest in contemporary politics and the culture war should find it engaging.
It offers progressives powerful arguments against the Intellectual Dark Web’s positions, while sketching out a moving alternative to life in the Vampire Castle of cancel culture and PC policing.
Brooks devotes a chapter-a-piece to criticizing the main intellectual figures of the IDW, starting with Sam Harris, moving through to Jordan Peterson, and concluding with Ben Shapiro. Each figure gets treated seriously, as Brooks reads through their major works and points out where they make serious errors or engage in recklessly dangerous polemecism under the guise of being more “reasonable.” Despite their substantive ideological and philosophical differences, Brooks notes that each of the major thinkers of the IDW falls into the same trap of trying to explain away injustices through naturalizing or mythologizing them. As Brooks puts it in the first chapter:
“They all defend the capitalist economic order domestically and American imperial hegemony globally. They all see themselves as defenders of a poorly understood (and frankly historically illiterate) construct called ‘the West.’ They all defend what they imagine to be ‘biology’ against feminists, and at least some of them—like Sam Harris, who’s supported the odiously far right and overly bigoted Charles Murray—defend a similar stance when it comes to race. Crucially, in all of these areas the IDW promotes narratives that either naturalize or mythologize historically contingent power relations—between workers and bosses, between men and women, they are old school reactionaries.”
The members of the IDW also fail to engage seriously with their more effective opponents’ ideas and criticisms. They either ignore them ala Harris, engage in crude and misleading generalizations ala Peterson, or outright refuse to face them ala Ben Shapiro’s disastrous interview with Andrew Neil. Despite this, Brooks does acknowledge where they make intelligent points, and he concludes the book with a call for a more cosmopolitan, funnier, and engaged Left
The quality of Brooks’ criticism is consistently high, combining scathing wit with impressive erudition and a willingness to acknowledge where his opponents may have a point. The longest chapter is dedicated to Sam Harris, who in Brooks’ reading comes across as the most intelligent member of the IDW. Brooks’ main criticism of Harris concerns the latter’s tendency to present extremely contentious moral claims as though they are self-evidently reasonable. When Harris is confronted on these tactics, he tends to back down from his claims by characterizing them as mere thought experiments. The most glaring example concerned Harris’ extremely controversial argument in The End of Faith, where he claimed it may be necessary to launch a nuclear first strike against a weapons-of-mass-destruction-armed Islamic country, even accepting that this might result in tens of millions of deaths:
“What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe.”
When confronted with the horrifying nature of such an argument, Harris backed away and called it a “thought experiment,” thus abandoning any responsibility for the genocidal dimensions of the claim—or the actions of anyone influenced by it. More importantly, according to Brooks, Harris’ tendency to frame these issues as abstract moral problems (thought experiments) confuses and obscures a lot of the history surrounding actual conflicts. When Harris describes the Taliban or the Iranian theocracy as serious threats to our way of life, he fails to acknowledge the role American and European powers played in destabilizing the Middle East and facilitating the rise of radicalism. The most obvious example was the installment of the Shah in Iran, who ran a brutal and dictatorial regime that was overthrown in 1979. By failing to acknowledge this history—and simply calling for more bloodshed to “ensure our survival”—Harris divorces his claims from material reality and treats the lives of people in the region as mere quanta in speculative moral calculations.
This is a refreshing commentary on a very annoying social trend, which has become rather ubiquitous on the political right. Simply invoking “reason” and “logic” as though they are words of prayer does not magically make one’s argument reasonable or logical (these fallacies were well explored by Ben Burgis in his book Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left). All too often reason and logic seem to be little more than placeholder terms meant to dignify bad arguments with rhetorical glamor. When Harris presents nuclear annihilation as a rational “thought experiment,” or defends the use of force to advance American interests while condemning its use by Islamic states, he is being neither reasonable nor logical. Instead, Harris is making very thin arguments for controversial positions, and we deserve better.
Peterson comes across no better in Brooks’ telling. He acknowledges that much of the Canadian psychologist’s self-help is quite useful, and he even jokingly admits that many leftists could do with some tough love about cleaning their room. But Brooks lampoons Peterson’s ahistorical and simplistic reading of the political left as dominated by “post-modern neo-Marxists.” He points out that his characterization of Derrida and Foucault as reformed Marxist radicals gets their thinking entirely wrong; in the 1960’s, the Marxist Jean Paul Sartre even lampooned Foucault as the “last barricade the bourgeoise can erect against Marx.” Neither thinker was hugely indebted to Marx; Foucault called himself as Nietzschean, and Derrida was inspired by German existentialists such as Martin Heidegger. Ironically, these are both figures Peterson himself holds in high regard. Brooks also criticizes Peterson for not really dealing with the political left’s critiques of capitalism and instead invoking straw man claims about resisting “equality of outcome”—or pointing to the existence of lobster hierarchies to defend the status quo. As Brooks points out, the political left has often acknowledged the power of capitalism, including Marx himself who thought it was the highest form of economic organization yet to emerge. What leftists are concerned about are the hundreds of millions who are still left behind, despite the tremendous productive power of capitalism. As such, they seek new forms of social organization that will be more egalitarian and beneficial to all. Leftists also readily acknowledge the need for social hierarchies. Their arguments concern which kind of hierarchies are acceptable; and that is where the break with figures such as Peterson comes in. Unfortunately, none of this complexity is presented in Peterson’s rhetorical bites against the Left—possibly because he is simply unaware of it. As Brooks points out, Peterson’s admission he had not read The Communist Manifesto-a tiny pamphlet-since he was 18 is telling.
The last critical Chapter of Against the Web discusses Ben Shapiro, and even references my review of Shapiro’s book in Merion West. Brooks clearly takes Shapiro less seriously than Harris or Peterson, largely because Shapiro himself did not seem much more than a stock right-wing polemicist until recently. With the release of The Right Side of History, Shapiro appeared to take a more serious stab at outgrowing his reputation as a partisan by presenting a more intellectually rigorous work. Here, I do think Brooks could have been a little more rigorous in his analysis of Shapiro’s argument. While I do not think Shapiro’s position ultimately holds up (and I explained why in detail in the review), Brooks does devote much more time to castigating Shapiro’s catty behavior than criticizing his substantive positions. Oftentimes, this is very funny because Brooks is a gifted wit. However, a more substantive critique of Shapiro’s claims that the West was built on the twin influences of Athens and Jerusalem would have been useful. With that said, Brooks does make an absolutely brutal point when he observes that Shapiro simply ignores the fact that Islam is also a monotheistic faith with a long history of rich intellectual engagement with Grecian thinking. Despite these similarities, Shapiro either ignores or arbitrarily insists that these commonalities are irrelevant while carrying on with fear-mongering about Islam.
The last part of Brooks’ book is the most interesting but sadly is the least likely to be discussed. Drawing on Mark Fisher’s seminal essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” Brooks acknowledges that many leftists have alienated people through tactics of shaming and ostracization. Rather than trying to win converts, many on the Left have taken to condemning anyone who disagrees with them in the strongest possible terms, while refusing to countenance any moral failings in the past. Brooks argues, rightly, that this is a seriously bad decision. He argues that a rejuvenated Left should dedicate itself to “cosmopolitan socialism” ala Cornell West, Amartya Sen, and C.L.R James. Each of these figures rightly criticizes Orientalist and racist narratives suggesting that only European cultures produced anything of great or lasting worth. But they also happily acknowledge the genius of works by Shakespeare, Enlightenment philosophy, and so on. This is in stark contrast to leftists in the Vampire Castle, who insist that there is nothing to learn from figures such Hegel or Wollstonecraft:
“…Much of the ‘ancient western tradition’ was in fact highly geographically and intellectually diverse and included African and pan-Asian sources that are misleadingly remembered—and misleadingly whitened—as merely ‘Greek’ or ‘Roman.’ But to underline the larger point I am trying to make: Instead of policing each other’s influences and enjoyments for evidence of ‘cultural appropriation,’ we should all strive to emulate the curiosity and rigor of the great Christian revolutionary intellectual Cornel West, who explores the echoes between Anton Chekhov and the blues with no interest in drawing artificial lines between cultures.”
This argument is very inspiring, and I, myself, have also made calls for a more engaged and curious left along the lines argued by Brooks. I hope that Against the Web is followed up by a book extending this position in more detail. As it stands, the book is an important and very readable contribution to a key debate of our time. It offers progressives powerful arguments against the Intellectual Dark Web’s positions, while sketching out a moving alternative to life in the Vampire Castle of cancel culture and PC policing. If there is any justice, then Against the Web will be read by almost everyone.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof