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Michael Brooks’ New Book Hits the Mark

Brooks argues that, far from this façade of ideological diversity, the IDW is built around a single and deep ideological commitment. This commitment is the preservation of presently established power hierarchies.”

In a world in which conservative and libertarian pundits are practically trampling over each other to write the next takedown of leftist college students and “social justice warriors,” one might rightfully wonder, “Where is the Left’s reply to all of this?” In some ways, Michael Brooks’ upcoming Zero Books monograph Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right is exactly that. By this, I do not mean to say it is analogous but with an opposite ideology. Instead, it is a necessary argument against the industry that thrives on such inane polemics.

Last week, my Merion West colleague Matt McManus published his own review of Against the Web. In it, he gives a detailed analysis of the book’s various chapters with commentary on what he sees as valuable in Brooks’ book, which is the majority of it. McManus also raises a few issues he has with it. Because I think doing the same would add little value—and because I largely agree with McManus’s points—I want to take a different approach to reviewing the book. I have been familiar with Michael Brooks’ work for a few years now, both on The Majority Report, which he co-hosts with Sam Seder, and his own show, The Michael Brooks Show (TMBS). Both shows understandably share many aspects. However, the former leans more towards news and left-wing commentary on day-to-day issues and politics, while the latter tilts more heavily towards theory and commentary on systemic, “big picture” themes. In that sense, I want to give the book a more TMBS treatment and look at its general arguments and the way they are put forward.

The particular subject of Against the Web is the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” and, more specifically, three of its central figures: Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and Ben Shapiro. Beyond the three of them, there is some discussion of other members and adjacent figures such as Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, and the online magazine Quillette. All of these have been active participants in the aforementioned SJW takedown marathon. What is interesting about this group is the way they see and present themselves. The core argument that Brooks puts forward is that this self-image is a complete fantasy. There are many tropes and clichés in the IDW’s view of themselves: notably, their insistence on being paragons of reason and logic, their need to ask “the hard questions,” and their incessant warnings about “the radical left.” However, these are better understood as tools that allow them to present themselves as a group of public intellectuals brimming with ideological diversity. That is key because being able to present themselves as such a diverse group ideologically allows them to portray their criticisms of the Left (and it is almost always the Left) as somehow fair and balanced. Brooks argues that, far from this façade of ideological diversity, the IDW is built around a single and deep ideological commitment. This commitment is the preservation of presently established power hierarchies. 

The result is the same: Society is mostly just. There may be some small changes that we could make, but the basic structure of society—to borrow John Rawls’ phrasing—should not be altered.

One might watch or listen to a discussion between, for example, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson and come out with the impression that the two could not be more different. The former advocates for a number of socially liberal policies, has expressed support for the Democratic Party, and, perhaps most importantly, is a staunch atheist and a strident critic of religion. Peterson, on the other hand, is a social conservative, a Christian, and religion plays a fundamental part in his worldview. But Against the Web does an excellent job of showing how this is little more than a coat of paint. Peterson uses Jungian psychoanalysis to justify existing hierarchies through myths, stories, and religion. In Peterson’s view, the capitalist hierarchical structure of owners and workers which, in turn, produces economic inequality is justified and necessary because it is etched deep in our psyche, as evidenced by our myths and stories. Harris, consistent with his superficially different worldview, takes a different approach but arrives at much of the same conclusions. Rather than myth and religion, Harris relies on issues like IQ differences, cultural development, or the influence of religion to justify both an individual’s place in society, as well as the roles and relative power of states within the international order. The result is the same: Society is mostly just. There may be some small changes that we could make, but the basic structure of society—to borrow John Rawls’ phrasing—should not be altered.

Brooks contrasts these points of view with one that historicizes hierarchies and inequalities. While nature and myth are, in many ways, polar opposites, what they share is a rigid imperviousness to change. Nature, of course, changes through evolutionary processes, but the time scale of evolution is orders of magnitude larger than that of a human life. So, for us, it might as well be fixed. Myth is of a divine nature. As such, what is grounded in mythology is, in some sense, ordained by a higher power. So, while myth and nature are antithetical in important respects, they fulfill identical functions as grounding for a political philosophy. A historical perspective, which is what Against the Web advocates, explains hierarchies and inequalities as the result of human-made historical processes and power relations. This does not mean, as Brooks himself admits, that every hierarchy is unjust and must be dismantled. One example he gives of an appropriate hierarchy is the relationship between parents and their children. What is the case, however, is that every hierarchy should be subject to the lens of historical scrutiny to explain how it came about. In doing so, we can judge a given hierarchy’s ethical value.

The other aspect of the book I want to discuss is the way it delivers its message. While the content itself is serious, the style is much less so. This is not intended as criticism. In fact, personally, I enjoyed the tone considerably. In a video for Zero Books in which he discusses his book Give Them and Argument: Logic for the Left, Ben Burgis opens by saying that he laments the impulse of many on the Left to simply mock what, in their view, are obviously useless arguments put forward by conservatives or libertarians. Instead, the substance of these arguments should be engaged with. I think it is fair to say that Against the Web does this, while also using a mocking tone when appropriate. This comes across particularly in the chapters on Harris and Peterson. Brooks seriously considers their arguments and the audience to which they are speaking. He then provides coherent alternatives drawing from a wealth of leftist literature. Yet, he never shies away from ridicule and mockery.

This is a very interesting stylistic decision, and one that I welcome personally. Regardless of how accurate this characterization is, I think it is fair to say that the Right has mostly succeeded in painting leftists as sanctimonious and hysterical. I would, of course, contend that that is a mischaracterization, and the veracity of their charge is limited to a small number of those of us on the Left. Brooks, however, acknowledges that there is a hysteria problem that exists in some sectors of the Left when he discusses Mark Fisher’s brilliant essayExiting the Vampire Castle.” However, in the end, for better or worse, this image of leftists seems to have stuck. I cannot speak for every leftist writer or content creator who chooses to seriously engage with right-wing thought. However, if their experience is in any way similar to mine, then they most likely also have to choose among certain stylistic possibilities.

I have previously written about the IDW’s (and particularly Peterson’s) treatment of the concept of equality—and about this renewed interest in the idea of “Western Civilization.” I am not exaggerating when I say that I found several of the arguments put forward by the opposite side to be absolutely ludicrous. If I had not been trying to remain serious, I would have referred to the latter concept exclusively as “Western Civilization™.” Many of us would likely be less measured in our tone, if we were not trying to combat this image of leftists. Brooks, however, does not seem to mind in the slightest. Honestly, I found this quite refreshing and perhaps somewhat cathartic. I want to be very clear: I still think carefully considering opposing views, deconstructing arguments, and presenting reasonable alternatives is essential. And there is that in Against the Web. However, all of that notwithstanding, it is always satisfying to call a spade a spade.

As with every choice, of course, there is always a downside to the final decision; otherwise, it would not be much of a choice. In this case, I think the downside is that the style will make it all too easy for ideological opponents to label Against the Web as just another product of leftist hysteria and sanctimony. Rather than considering the arguments put forward, I imagine some conservatives will simply point to the appalling way in which the honorable Dr. Jordan Bernt Peterson, PhD and Dr. Samuel Benjamin Harris, PhD have been treated. This is a shame because I believe the central tenet of Brooks’ book is very valuable. And, those who find themselves on the receiving end of the book’s critiques (or even just those siding with his targets of criticism) would do well to pay attention to Brooks’ points. Now, I have no illusions about those figures being discussed in the book changing their minds. The same is likely also true for their fans. I do think, however, that some small percentage of these fans (those who are “on the fence”) might be open to being won over by arguments such as the ones Brooks forwards.

Overall, Against the Web is a welcome addition to the left-wing arsenal in the culture war in which—whether we like it, want it, or know it—we are all immersed in.

With that said, however, if I were trying to win over lukewarm conservatives, I might recommend a book other than Against the Web, given Brooks’ tone at times. However, I do not think this takes away from Brooks’ work. His arguments can still be presented by others in a different tone, and, after all, his book is likely intended primarily for a leftist audience trying to find arguments such as these. Against the Web is not about convincing those on the other side.

Overall, Against the Web is a welcome addition to the left-wing arsenal in the culture war in which—whether we like it, want it, or know it—we are all immersed in. The central thesis of the book is correct, and people on both sides would do well to take it seriously. The style and tone, especially when understood as a book by a leftist for other leftists, is funny and refreshing.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.

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