The Age of Trump has conservative intellectuals in an embarrassing predicament: Trump has either turned conservatism into, or revealed conservatism to be, nothing but a gigantic grift, so who needs conservative intellectuals? When Republican tax cuts are such a brazen payoff to the super-rich that even tax-hating voters don’t believe it will ever trickle down, and when Michael Cohen taking obvious bribes from AT&T and Novartis exemplifies “draining the swamp,” how could anyone listen to a right-wing pencil-neck talk about conservative policy without laughing?
But don’t worry about the pencil-necks, they’ve found a way around this dilemma by escalating the decades-long culture war, diverting their audiences’ attention from the real issues with little melodramas in which conservatives are oppressed by Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Shakespeare in the Park (boo!), then are rescued at the last minute by right-wing stars like Kid Rock and Kanye West (hurray!).
And now conservatives even have their own Wingnut Avengers for their Infinity Culture War: the Dark Intellectual Web, a group of conservatives and crypto-conservatives whose unifying principle seems to be that liberals are mean and therefore out of step with the millions of Americans who have never heard of the Dark Intellectual Web.
Last Tuesday Bari Weiss filed a gripping story at the allegedly leftist New York Times about the “Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web,” who are either known conservatives like Ben Shapiro or public figures whose fans are nearly 100 percent conservative, usually because they have something bad to say about minorities, but who resist the label and prefer to call themselves “libertarians” or “classical liberals.”
IDW superheroes include Douglas Murray, one of those Islam-Wants-to-Kill-Us-All types; Christina Hoff Sommers, a Milo-fan anti-feminist libertarian who doesn’t like Muslims either; Claire Lehmann, who believes “nationalism is the antidote to racism,” and claims to have been “blacklisted” for “criticizing feminism”; atheist It Boy, Ben Carson fan, and idol of the alt-right Sam Harris; right-wing intellectual of the moment, clean-your-room scold, trans-rights opponent, and disbeliever in the gender pay gap Jordan Peterson, et alia.
According to Weiss, what unifies this crew is not their tendency to identify with the powerful against the powerless, but rather that “each is determined to resist parroting what’s politically convenient” — which I guess is the cool new IDweb way of saying “politically correct” — and their alleged willingness “to disagree ferociously, but talk civilly.” Weiss did not offer evidence for this claim.
Weiss’s article was mocked by mean liberals, particularly because Weiss portrayed the IDweb as “feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets” and “purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought,” a sort of Kevin Williamson what-about-my-right-to-be-in-your-magazine maneuver. Weiss didn’t help her cause by claiming in a series of tweets (seconded by her right-wing fans) that, if followers of Donald Trump were racist and sexist, it was only because liberals had turned them racist and sexist by making fun of them, which is how Hitler took over Germany.
Right-bloggers and other conservatives sprang to this classic conservative mix of self-aggrandizement and persecution like kittens to catnip, though not as gracefully.
At Hot Air, John Sexton celebrated podcaster Dave Rubin, “one of the leading talkers in the IDW,” because “Rubin isn’t screaming. He isn’t angry,” which is apparently remarkable among conservative intellectuals. To demonstrate Rubin’s appeal, Sexton quoted some of his “rational, intriguing, thought-provoking content.” For example, if you “believe that people should be judged by their character, not their skin color” and “in freedom of religion,” Rubin has said, then “you’re probably not a progressive,” because progressives go around “banning speakers whose opinions [they] don’t agree with from college campuses…prohibiting any words not approved of as ‘politically correct,’ ” and “putting ‘Trigger Warnings’ on books, movies, music, anything that might offend people” — as, coincidentally, I was just doing on my day off, because my week had been taken up in recreational abortions and otherwise épatering le bourgeois.
Andrew Sullivan admitted the IDweb had “not been silenced,” but that they “have definitely been morally anathematized, in the precincts of elite opinion,” to a collective gasp and the covering of ladies’ ears. Sullivan accused Ta-Nehisi Coates of doing to newly right-woke Kanye West as elite opinion had done to the IDweb by “subjecting West to anathematization, to expulsion from the ranks.” (For the uninitiated, Coates is a writer known mainly to readers of political magazines, while West is a global superstar; but, like the Dark Web superstars, West suffers mightily from anathema and expulsion.)
At National Review David French said the IDweb guys were also oppressed because “the path to prominence for many of these now-popular people has sometimes been painful.” For example, Peterson had “battled (at great professional risk) for free speech in Canada,” and paid for it by remaining a tenured professor while making huge bank off videos and TV shows.
IDweb fans were even more oppressed than Peterson, French pressed on, because they “fear that even asking questions could endanger their livelihoods and ruin their public reputations.” The best French could do to explain this is by saying that while, admittedly, “the law of free speech has mainly improved…the culture of free speech has decayed” — that is, “people in academia and in much of corporate America…report increasingly politicized workplaces, with HR departments weaponized in the service of identity politics social-media accounts monitored for thought crimes.” Insult your co-workers as biologically inadequate, and you might lose your job! This ain’t the country your pappy grew up in, assuming he was white.
History suggests the IDweb phenomenon will be evanescent and mainly benefit its promoters, like the hippie-dippy “Crunchy Conservatism” once advocated by current Benedict Option scold Rod Dreher, or the fart-jokey “South Park Conservatism” briefly pimped by Brian C. Anderson, now editor of City Journal. But in the current environment of perpetual right-wing grievance, IDweb conservatism may have more staying power because there are plenty of angry wingnuts out there.
For example: You may have heard about white Yale student Sarah Braasch, who last week called the cops on a black student who had been napping in the dorm lounge; on a previous occasion, Braasch had chased another black student out of the dorm.
Turns out Braasch was not just a run-of-the-mill racist, but what we might call an Intellectual Dark Racist. She has written at length about her anger at seeing women in hijabs — which she assumed they’d been forced into wearing, because Muslims, right? — and then congratulated herself on her bravery in saying so out loud: “If I should ever get into any kind of a dispute or altercation with anyone who claims to be Muslim,” she fantasized, “I could conceivably be prosecuted for a hate crime,” in part because, she said, “I love hate speech.” But hark, libtards, “you can’t scare me,” cried Braasch defiantly: “What are you going to do? Kill me? Put me in prison? We’re all going to die someday.”
Braasch has it all: Intense fear of at least two minorities, a persecution complex, and a tendency toward provocative declarations. If she plays her cards right, she could be Bari Weiss’s next superstar.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 14, 2018