Against The Web: A Review
The rise and metastasis of the so called ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ (IDW), a neologism invented by one of its head honchos, Eric Weinstein, has been a curious development in public life. An affiliation of supposed ‘free thinking’ insurgents in the battlefields of the culture wars resisting the cultural hegemony of their bête noires: identity politics, political correctness, post-modernism, post-structuralism, wokeness and biology denialism. Bari Weiss in her rather laborious ballyhooing longueur in the New York Times on the IDW declared the hard ‘dangerous’ truths no one wants to hear, but the “renegades” of the IDW will certainly proclaim without restraint or embarrassment: “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.”
Among the ranks of this recalcitrant galère, launching their intellectual guerrilla warfare against the mainstream, includes figures such as Sam Harris, Dave Rubin, Eric and Brett Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, with various ‘adjacent’ allies within the periphery of its solar system such as Joe Rogan, Douglas Murray, Michael Shermer, Maajid Nawaz, Steven Pinker, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Jonathan Haidt. The precursors to this tendency lay in the campus wars of the 2010s on free speech, no platforming and trigger warnings, the infamous quarrel on Real Time with Bill Maher, between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on the Islamic question in 2014 (“That’s gross and racist!”), James Damore’s memorandum critiquing Google’s diversity program, claiming disparities between men and women have a basis in biology, and Cathy Newman’s viral interview with Jordan Peterson on Channel 4.
Which is as well that Michael Brooks, host of The Michael Brooks Show and co-host of the Majority Report, a noticeable left voice within broad the social media ecosystem of Youtube shows and podcasts, has penned an acutely terse polemic, published by Zero Books, against the IDW and the new right, in which he proposes a “cosmopolitan socialist” answer to the nefariousness of the IDW and the new burgeoning new right.
As Brooks is right to point out early on in his text, invocations of ‘culture wars’ are by no means a new one. The debates we are having on the culture wars today, while updated, have been going on for a long time. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there were intense debates around multiculturalism and political correctness, especially surrounding the ‘canon wars’. Conservatives like Allan Bloom authored books decrying the corruption and cheapening of classical education, in favour of levelling down multiculturalism. For Brooks the IDW are nowhere near the ‘maverick renegades’ they were hyped up to be. They “defend the capitalist economic order domestically and American imperial hegemony globally.” In their partisanship for ‘Western civilisation’ and defence of the solidity of biology against feminists they “naturalise and mythologise historically contingent power relations” based on class and sex. In other words, they are “old school reactionaries” in a new garb.
Yet, Brooks doesn’t simply seek to heap bucket loads of calumny upon this coterie. He seeks to “historicise” these figures and put them into context. But also provide a few words of caution against the “inadequate” ways much of the Left has responded to the IDW with rather embarrassing counterproductive tactics, often based on shaming and simple minded moralism. Four figures form the main sinew of Brooks’ text — Dave Rubin, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro — before he lays out his cosmopolitan path beyond the IDW.
“Dumb as a rock” is Brooks’ rather curt description of Dave Rubin. Those familiar with Michael Brooks’ YouTube show will know that for the past two years, Rubin has been a favourite piñata for Brooks to proverbially wack, mock and tease (Brooks packs a mean sardonic impression of him). Rubin gained his notoriety as a political ‘apostate’ who has followed one of the most cliched scripts in political life; he ‘left the left’ and lived to tell the tale — he was once a stalwart on The Young Turks network before his pupation into a so called ‘classical liberal’.
Now, in the course of one’s intellectual and political evolution, one will inevitably modify and perhaps revise one’s own opinions and sentiments on any number of subjects. It would be very suspicious if one never changed their mind on anything— even slightly. No doubt, one can feel the need to upend their entire raison d’etre, and in light of further study and life experience, usurp old convictions for new ones, especially when the prospects for progressive change seemingly dim, you feel a certain sense of ‘betrayal’ from your former colleagues, and the acute realisation that your youth has an expiration date sets in. But when this ‘apostasy’ is accompanied by sickly condescending fanfare and fireworks for ‘seeing the light’, and constant exploitation for naked grifting it becomes repellent.
In our political culture, the first rite of passage towards ‘wisdom’; ‘leaving the left’ is the equivalent of a bar mitzvah; the moment where you have achieved ‘maturity’, dumped all that callow ‘utopian’ claptrap about ‘creating a better world’ and embraced sombre reality and the virtues of the status quo for what it is. It would be easy to say Rubin lacks principle. Not only does Rubin lack any principles, he isn’t capable of adopting any principles to then negate in the first place. He is an alleged comedian who is gobsmackingly unfunny, fantastically pin headed, abnormally unaware and chronically illiterate about the subjects he sounds off on. All these traits aptly demonstrated whenever he decides to belch out whatever cerebral flatulence is festering in his mind, such as in an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, where he got showed up as incredibly ignorant on the most basic economics (and apparently good old fashioned common sense) in a quarrel over the Post Office and building regulations.
But Brooks knows full well it would to easy and rather unfair to spend too much time dunking on Rubin (as tempting and fun as it often is), so he doesn’t waste too much word space on him. The simple fact is Rubin is not in the same intellectual stratosphere as any of the other colleagues. So it would easily be a disservice to judge the IDW phenomenon on the basis of Rubin alone.
Which brings us to Sam Harris, obviously an intellectual virtuoso compared to Rubin. For Brooks, Harris has made a career in engaging in needless and incoherent thought experiments to mask an insidious pro-imperialist, war on terror agenda and passing it off as provocative intellectual experimentation. His “faith in empire” means he is blind to the reality that the intentions of the United States aren’t as noble and good as is officially propagandised. In fact for Harris, when ‘the West’ engages in brutality, they are merely “forced” to because of the morally deficient ‘other’, never of its own volition.
Clearly, Harris has experienced a noticeable declension from claiming Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens (whatever you think of them, all three are eminent thinkers in their own right) as comrades in the campaign to defend secular liberal civilisation from assault by rejuvenated religious fanaticism, to hobnobbing with Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro (both considerably less secular and less liberal), and making an ass of himself dying on the hill that is race and IQ.
In fact, Harris’ trajectory superbly denotes the limits of the actually existing atheist secular humanist subculture in the Anglosphere. At best they make good stolid liberals, but few can advance a millimetre further. What is lacking is familiarity with the social and political dimension. Few of these people have any conception of social theory, history, ideology, critique and social science; of how ideology interacts with sociological factors. They don’t realise how small their intellectual gamut is, how small a slice of the philosophical pie they are chumping on, hence disarming themselves from the necessary intellectual sophistication to grapple with the range of social and ideological phenomena, of which religion is a subset of.
Which is why when some do try to extend themselves into broader social and political questions, they can only buttress their genteel liberalism with mediocre scientism, revealed in Harris’ case with his awful book The Moral landscape, that attempts to use science to construct an ‘objective morality’, or the fascination with genes and biology to root the origins of social questions, ironically hearkening back to a biblical view of morality handed down from above by an unimpeachable authority, whether nature or the costume of ‘scientific authority’. It is no wonder that Christopher Hitchens was the most politically astute and historically literate of the ‘New Atheist’ tendency with his Marxist background, where he learned how to grapple with questions of ideological phenomena and the conflicts between various social forces in society in a thoroughly materialist manner.
Next is Jordan Peterson who is perhaps an exemplar of a post-modern reactionary, who skyrocketed to stardom because of his opposition to the supposed linguistic totalitarianism of gender pronouns and vituperating against “postmodern identity politics”. Brooks swiftly notes the contradiction in Peterson’s Weltanschauung: he jeremiads familial breakdown, moral rot and social atomisation, yet supports the capitalist system that is causing these trends, or he doesn’t see the connection at least. He lambastes Marxism, but conflates Marxism and postmodernism, and has barely read Marx beyond The Communist Manifesto, which is pretty disgraceful from a supposed big shot intellectual. It revealed itself in his ‘debate of the decade’ with Slavoj Zizek who very easily dressed him down when he inquired over who are exactly the “post-modern neo-Marxists” that he persistently bangs on about — a question Peterson couldn’t answer.
Brooks locates Peterson’s appeal in the reservoir of disorientation and alienation many young men (mainly white) due to changes in work patterns, technological development and economic reconfiguration. I would add his appeal also partially lay in social changes in familial and sexual relations; the decline of patriarchal authority. Adorno once made the point that modern capitalism has created the “fatherless society” of today where the father figure has lost his economic independence that gave him the authority the son either followed or rebelled against. Now that this authority has withered the son will look for substitute father figures. It is clear that Peterson somewhat is a surrogate father figure to many of his votaries, hence why his admonition to “clean your room” resonates so much.
Nevertheless, Peterson is more than a self-help guru. He seeks to “naturalize” and “mythologize” inequality and traditional social hierarchies, often with mediocre appeals to nature. As Brooks notes “an eighteenth century Peterson could’ve used it to defend the hierarchy of Kings, Lords and Commons.” What Peterson doesn’t acknowledge is humans are the only species that has a measure of control over its own social organisation, so it can change and dismantle old social hierarchies that are no longer fit for purpose or simply unjustifiable. Brooks stresses the point that the argument isn’t about tearing down literally every singly hierarchy, but whether any “particular” hierarchy is justified, and if not should it be allowed to continue.
Lastly, Brooks focuses his attention on Ben Shapiro, with a few remarks for the bric-à-brac figures of his text like the Weinstein brothers. To be frank, there isn’t really much one can say about Shapiro, a snot nosed reactionary pipsqueak. Unlike most of the IDW, Shapiro is more overtly conservative in his politics and morality, who has a sordid history of bigotry against Arabs, Palestinians in particular. He aspires to be a cultivated intellect, but he’s just a two penny bigot, evidenced by his romantic culturalist trumpeting of the ‘Judeo-Christian West’, the ummah of the Occident.
What gives the IDW a grain of validity is the fact that yes some elements of the Left do trumpet a cartoonish form of identity politics and a zealous form of cultural politics, which I find very conservative, despite its ‘radical’ veneer. Brooks by no means omits any criticism of the Left on this score, which he feels has been characterised by a “failure” to recognise the “need for moral growth instead of shaming and cancelling people for having gotten things wrong in the past”. He warns that the worst thing the Left could do is to wholesale designate all of Peterson’s sympathisers as persona non-grata:
“One of the most dangerous things the left can do is to write off the demographic to which Peterson appeals because of its relative racial and gender privilege. For one thing, setting all else aside, young and angry white men have historically been a pretty dangerous group. They are the subset of the population most likely to become school shooters or join fascist movements. Far better with someone addresses their alienation in a constructive way and channels their justified frustration in a positive direction.”
“The answer to the IDW and the new right in general is an internationalist-socialist synthesis that is all about global and materialist politics”, Brooks begins his conclusion, sketching out his “cosmopolitan vision of global socialist humanism”. The first stage of this process would be “building a truly global intellectual and political culture with roots in a diversity of societies”, based on a new comradeship supplanting identity politics, thus making it easier to form common causes with peoples of all races. With quotes and references from an assortment of figures ranging from Amartya Sen, Adolph Reed jr, the Buddhist emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Dynasty, the ANC charter and CLR James (Brooks generously quotes an article on James by yours truly), Brooks demonstrates that what we call universal humanist values have been expressed and articulated, so to speak, universally, therefore it can’t be proclaimed to be in essence the exclusive of any particular civilisation.
Overall, Brooks’ criticisms of the IDW are quite efficient and mostly agreeable. His vision for a cosmopolitan socialism is an admirable sentiment — one which I am very sympathetic to and feel should be a foundation for a reconstituted Left. The challenge, however, is to translate this sentiment into a concrete emancipatory politics that can affect revolutionary change on a global scale, which is easier said than done, particularly with the current political impotency of the Left, especially the revolutionary Left. The task is momentous, but the importance of posing an alternative to the current state of things in the midst of our current crisis cannot be overstated.