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Growing Up with the Intellectual Dark Web

(Rick Madonik/Toronto Star)

“It was around that time that I, a decidedly aimless and apathetic 15-year-old, would stumble upon a still somewhat blossoming The Rubin Report, along with The Joe Rogan Experience and Sam Harris’ podcast Making Sense.”

Nearly three years ago—in May of 2018—Bari Weiss authored a piece in The New York Times recognizing for the first time in any mainstream publication a certain group of loosely affiliated thinkers. This group was, of course, the counter-narrative force that Eric Weinstein had termed “the Intellectual Dark Web.” In the time since Weiss’ article ran, quite a lot has changed, and the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) has been anything but spared from the seemingly unhaltable chaos of our age, despite its original conception as a force for making some ordered sense out of it all. Indeed, in many ways, the original members of this informal alliance against the dogmatic arrogance, general corruption, and cleverly-veiled coerciveness of the legacy media (and the intellectual dishonesty and laziness of blind adherence to ideology) have been unable to escape the very forces they had sought to oppose. 

The IDW’s origins could perhaps be traced back to 2015, to the creation of Dave Rubin’s YouTube show The Rubin Report and then to the subsequent rise in notoriety of Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, and Bret Weinstein for each of their respective scandals or, more precisely, for their impressive and necessary acts of moral courage. Still, it was not until these thinkers, along with Ben Shapiro, Eric Weinstein, and others, began having considerable and frequent discussions with each other that the IDW would fully come into its own in 2017 and 2018. 

It was around that time that I, a decidedly aimless and apathetic 15-year-old, would stumble upon a still somewhat blossoming The Rubin Report, along with The Joe Rogan Experience and Sam Harris’ podcast Making Sense. This was an unlikely turn of events that I owe primarily to the controversy which befell former games journalist and podcaster Colin Moriarty for his 2017  tweet in which he made an innocuous joke on one of several now-sacred social justice holidays, International Women’s Day.  Following the fallout of his withdrawal from the company and talk show he helped to create, he made appearances on The Rubin Report and The Joe Rogan Experience. What I had not realized at the time was the significance of the corner of the Internet I had fallen into: the larger world into which I had unwittingly stumbled. Making sense of the culture wars became my new favorite pastime. Indeed, I previously had no idea that people and their intellectual differences could be so interesting or that extended discussions about ideas could be so uniquely captivating.

Before I heard those such as Ben Shapiro and Rubin speak about problems of the modern, progressive left, I knew of no other ideas about how the world was (or could be), apart from those presented to me by any and every source that a passive participation in our dominate culture naturally exposes one to. (I had only had a vague sense that “political correctness” and its corresponding demands did not rest well with my conscience.) Prior to listening to Weinstein and Peterson converse, I was unaware such careful and intellectually sound discussion was even possible—that such things even occurred. I should think to blame this at least partly on the failure of my education, but the IDW, for all its faults, provided me with a springboard into not only leading social and political discussions but, also, to exploring the entire world of ideas. For this, I am forever grateful.

This is also why it has been so painfully disappointing to see the momentum the IDW once had dissipate. This is not to say that important discussions have stopped occurring but, rather, that the original coalition (to the degree it ever was one) did not evolve together or change in the same (and correct) direction. From its relative peak in 2018, with lively discussions such as one in June of 2018 featuring Weinstein, Peterson, Shapiro, and Rubin all together, the IDW started to decline. This was likely at least the partial result of conversations devolving into a circular meta-analysis (speaking about the fact that a discussion was taking place), as well as the stagnation of the discourse in endless critique, a critique almost exclusively directed toward the same elements of the same ideology.

At a certain point, it began to seem as though the IDW was able only to offer one thing: more conversation—but always in the same way, about the same things. Although not a terrible offer by any means, it became certainly an insufficient and ultimately uninspiring one. The demise of what was would truly come in April of 2019, after Peterson made his final public appearance of significance until recent months in his discussion with Slavoj Žižek in Toronto. Peterson and his family’s tragic health problems forced him into private recovery, and his absence forced the well-being and relevance of the IDW project to drop off massively. Following his departure from the discussion, great fragmentation occurred. Without Peterson’s guiding hand, Rubin fell ever-deeper into an echo chamber of the shallow “conservative” strain of thought associated with Dennis Prager and Fox News commentary. In doing so, he became just as ideological as his enemies on the Left. Both Weinsteins started their own (very high quality) podcasts and distanced themselves from Rubin. Harris allowed an unwavering obsession with the threat of former President Donald Trump’s re-election to overwhelm his thinking and arguably compromise his previously stated principles.

In the end, all critique has a net effect of zero without the creation of new, better things.

And so, things are quite different now from the last time Peterson  offered the world “12 Rules for Life.” What the IDW was—and what it was supposed to be—is ultimately not what it became or could sustain. The vibrant, diverse, high-level thinking it was meant to foster and embody has moved outside its original center. Its participants are each cozied into their own niches with enough comfortability that they, in many cases, need no longer take on the risks of engaging with one another. Or, perhaps, doing so is no longer plausible or, worse, is uninteresting. 

It is no coincidence that the spaces Peterson, Douglas Murray, and the Weinsteins occupy have remained the more compelling and intellectually stimulating. They always had more to offer than the likes of Shapiro and Rubin, as original thinkers with deeper concerns than today’s culture war disputes. They consistently offer insight that transcends the contemporary moment, and, because of that, they can also best address it as it unfolds. It is the fundamental distinction that made the grouping untenable; some were there to apply the knowledge and experience obtained from their true efforts to the discourse, and others made the discourse itself their bloodline. 

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As Peterson has stated regarding his explosion in popularity, “They came for the scandal and stayed for the content.” This was certainly true for me, as it was for so many others. It became increasingly obvious that Peterson, like the Weinsteins and others, had something to offer beyond cultural commentary or a critique of the authoritarian left. Their dissent was born of a more sophisticated motivation than transient opportunism or seeking clout or heterodoxy for their own sake. This, after all, is why they have been able to remain so consistently present.

Those who positioned themselves to be focused entirely on the IDW and its counter-narrative efforts against the mainstream and legacy media became unable to contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way. This was precisely because their participation in the discussion had always come with a prerequisite of there already being some passing controversy or new radical woke proposal to discuss. Their relevance always relied upon some immediate issue to lament over, some reaction to react to. Those without a calling other than to social and cultural conflict itself inevitably become uninteresting.

The decline of the discourse—paired with the incredible divide between those once involved—is further evidenced by the increasing relevance and inclusion of figures of the staunchly pro-Trump right, who are there to fight against the woke left. Candace Owens and Bret Weinstein, for instance, are not even playing the same game. Nor are Charlie Kirk and Coleman Hughes, or Donald Trump Jr. and Douglas Murray. Some are obviously more interested in the true free exchange of ideas and the unwavering pursuit of truth than others. The divide goes beyond mere personal opinion or conviction and extends to motive, self-awareness (or lack thereof), and, of course, depth of thought.

What a new cultural movement needs to be, what the IDW (or something like it) could be, is an effort that makes true strides in our collective intelligence and sensemaking, including a deeper understanding of ourselves as a preliminary requirement. This is an ideal David Fuller has outlined. These efforts are taking place at Rebel Wisdom and are also being imagined by many leading thinkers in the Game B, “alt-but-not-alternative” space. Many of these thinkers—such as Jordan Hall (previously Greenhall)—provide models and frameworks that are often more workable than any articulated by the IDW; they offer more encompassing and substantial diagnoses of the problems. Such complexity of thought is not so grounded in the political as to be swept up and ripped apart by a single presidential election.

In the end, all critique has a net effect of zero without the creation of new, better things. Otherwise, how are we to know we are, indeed, any smarter than we were? If we cannot create more functional and effective ways of thinking, more adaptable systems to change, better structures of incentive, and more inspiring art and inventions, what is it all for?

The miscarriage of the mission of the IDW was primed from the start without a defined ideal for something more apt to replace our various current systems, structures, and dogmas. Without a shared vision, when push came to shove, it could only crumble under the weight of its own prescribed task, which was itself a noble and still necessary one. The necessity of a renewed culture of open inquiry (and abandonment of ideology and mere self-interest) remains a problem to be solved, and, for what it is worth, the IDW did reveal to the world many truly worthwhile people who are properly aimed at and capable of doing just that. But it will take more than mere articulation of what we do not find interesting, compelling, or even truthful. It will take some real thinking and reflection.

The great Roger Scruton, who left us all too soon, noted this fundamental truth: “Good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” I believe this truth to be foundational to any effort (individual or collective). This awareness is necessary when reexamining and reimagining our thoughts, ourselves, and our world to address, with any effectiveness, the growing list of existential issues we face. It must be that the IDW was the first sprouting flower in a garden of essentially new thought—new thought not bound by the limiting dogmas of our ignorant, decaying institutions. Instead—and going forward—thought along these lines must be grounded in the wisdom of the past, paired with an openness to fundamentally new and visionary ideas about how to live and how to die. The permanence of our civilization may itself depend upon it.

Jordan Stout is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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