The year the Intellectual Dark Web died

Plus: Spinoza’s cerebral mysticism, one man’s lonely war on redundancy, Trump’s eternal stranglehold on the GOP, etc.

Welcome to the end-of-year-and-end-of-decade issue of NZN! (We’re on holiday next week.) Wherein I: (1) explore the reasons for this year’s not-entirely-tragic demise of the “Intellectual Dark Web”; (2) ask why over the past decade so many people have annoyed me by using the terms “overhyped” and “too simplistic”; (3) share part of a conversation I had with philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein about spiritual-but-not-religious and kind-of-Buddhist seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza; (4) steer you to background readings on such things as: an obscure but potent threat to your privacy; a comforting bedtime ritual for kids; why Republican politicians will never abandon Trump; and how non-zero-sumness made a stunningly beautiful squid so beautiful.  

R.I.P., Intellectual Dark Web (2018-2019)

Remember the “Intellectual Dark Web”? Nineteen months ago, that term was injected into America’s zeitgeist by New York Times staffer Bari Weiss, who, in a lavishly illustrated piece, explained what the IDW was and why it held great promise.  

In Weiss’s telling, the loose network of thinkers constituting the IDW was just what America needed in a time of political polarization and increasingly oppressive speech codes. This new tribe of “renegades” was bound not by ideology—“The core members have little in common politically,” Weiss wrote—but rather by a fierce commitment to principle, to the defense of free inquiry and expression. IDW members might disagree about any number of issues, but all courageously stood up to “the tyranny of thought policing.”  

Interest in the IDW spiked. (See graph, below, of Google search frequency for “Intellectual Dark Web.”) Then interest began subsiding. (See graph below again.) Then it kept subsiding. (Ditto.) Today, you don’t hear much about the IDW—not even from the people who are, or were, part of it.  

The reasons for the IDW’s demise are worth exploring because, in principle, having a group of influential people championing the vigorous and open exchange of ideas, regardless of whose ox is gored, could be a good thing. 

One early public relations problem faced by the IDW was that it didn’t, on close inspection, seem to actually fit that description. From the beginning, IDW members seemed united less by their opposition to speech police generally than by their opposition to a particular group of speech police: left-leaning “social justice warriors” on college campuses. 

Of course, it’s possible that, as some in the IDW argued, this wasn’t because the IDW was itself right wing; it was because the left is where most of the speech police were.  But that explanation started to seem inadequate as critics noted a more specific asymmetry in the IDW’s war on speech police. Namely:

On the one hand, members of the IDW complained about people who hurled charges of Islamophobia or anti-Arab bigotry—slurs that might, after all, stifle debate about terrorism or Middle East politics. But they didn’t seem too concerned about people who hurled charges of anti-Semitism in ways that might stifle debate about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians or Israel’s influence on American foreign policy. 

This critique of the IDW should probably be credited to Glenn Greenwald. If he wasn’t the first to articulate it, he was the most vociferous, suggesting again and again and again that the IDW’s opposition to speech policing could be counted on to lapse when the speech in question was critical of Israel. 

As it happens, President Trump this month provided an opportunity to subject Greenwald’s hypothesis to an empirical test. 

On December 11, Trump issued an executive order aimed at combatting anti-Semitism on campus. It empowers the federal government to punish colleges that allow the voicing of certain extreme criticisms of Israel. (An example I gave in last week’s newsletter: If a college student, during a panel discussion, says Israeli soldiers use “Gestapo tactics” against Palestinians in the West Bank, and the college doesn’t discipline the student, the federal government would—under a quite straightforward reading of Trump’s order—have the authority to withdraw funding.)

Lots of observers, including the ACLU and such progressive Jewish groups as J Street, are worried about this apparent threat to free speech. You’d expect members of a non-ideological tribe devoted to the defense of free speech to share that concern. 

So, a week after Trump issued the order, I checked the Twitter feeds of all eight people whose pictures appeared in Weiss’s Times piece: Eric Weinstein (who coined the term Intellectual Dark Web), Michael Shermer, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, and Christina Hoff Sommers. Plus, for good measure, IDW superstar Jordan Peterson, who was mentioned but not pictured. All of these people are active on Twitter, where they have followings ranging from big to huge—and not one of them had tweeted the slightest hint of criticism of Trump’s executive order. (As for Weiss herself: her several tweets or retweets on the subject were aimed at rebutting a common criticism of the executive order: that it, in effect, defined Jews as a “national group”.) 

Of course, different people can defensibly hold different views on Trump’s executive order, and, besides, nobody can be expected to tweet all their views about everything. But if Bari Weiss’s description of the IDW was accurate—if it was an ideologically diverse group of people with the shared concern that “Free speech is under siege,” as she put it in the first paragraph of her Times piece—you’d think one of these people would consider this executive order at least worth worrying about.

There’s one other recent example, in a different if not wholly unrelated area, of inconsistency in the attitude of some in the IDW toward thought policing. It indirectly involves me—and in fact is probably the reason the IDW was on my mind when Trump’s executive order was issued.

In October, on my audio/video podcast, The Wright Show, I had a conversation with flamethrowing lefty Max Blumenthal about Syria. He believes (and I agree) that arming the Syrian rebels was a mistake. Though not arming them would have let the Assad regime brutally suppress an insurrection, bringing thousands of fatalities at a minimum, arming them led to something even worse: a long civil war that brought hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees, with uncounted atrocities committed by the Assad regime and also by some of the rebels we backed. And all for naught: Assad is still in power.

People who make this argument against America’s effort at Syrian regime change sometimes encounter a particular form of thought policing: attempts to stigmatize them by calling them “Assad sympathizers” or “Assad apologists.” And Blumenthal is a particularly tempting target. In addition to being rhetorically provocative by nature, he recently went to Syria, reported that many Syrians prefer living under the Assad regime to living under the control of western-backed jihadist rebels, and argued for ending economic sanctions on Syria. So the stage is set for anyone who wants to misleadingly accuse him of “defending Assad.”

If you’re hoping that the IDW will step in and defend Blumenthal against such attacks, I have bad news: some IDW outlets are too busy launching them to defend against them. The unofficial magazine of the IDW—mentioned, along with its editor and founder, Claire Lehmann, in the Bari Weiss piece—is Quillette. And Quillette ran a piece about Blumenthal that cited my conversation with him as among the evidence that he is “Tyranny’s Mouthpiece,” as the headline put it. 

A sample sentence: “Blumenthal constantly emphasizes the atrocities of jihadist groups like Jaish al-Islam and al-Nusra because they give him moral and political cover for defending Assad, who has committed atrocities on a far greater scale.” I’ve added those italics to highlight the part of the sentence that is sheer speculation about Blumenthal’s motives—comparable to social justice warriors trying to silence, say,  critics of affirmative action by calling them racist. In both cases, alternative motives are of course possible. But in Blumenthal’s case the unofficial magazine of the IDW seems oblivious to this fact. (An alternative ending of that sentence about Blumenthal would be “…because they were funded by American taxpayers, whereas Assad’s atrocities weren’t and anyway are already well known.”) 

Quillette’s crude ad hominem attack on a critic of one of America’s regime change campaigns got me curious about the magazine’s general drift on foreign policy. Turns out this wasn’t its only article alluding to Middle East regime change. Last year it ran a piece about Iran that, while not explicitly calling for a military invasion or for arming the Iranian opposition, was titled “The Islamic Republic Must Fall” and, for good measure, ended with this sentence: “The Islamic Republic must fall.”

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with a magazine having a foreign policy ideology, even if it’s an ideology that I personally don’t like. And there’s nothing unusual about a network of people who tend to agree on certain issues and, as a result, are insensitive if not indifferent to certain kinds of thought policing. All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t pretend these things aren’t the case when they are. 

It’s not surprising that even members of the Intellectual Dark Web aren’t using the term much any more. Purporting to be an equal-opportunity opponent of thought police can be burdensome, especially when everyone knows it’s not true! You’re besieged by demands from the Glenn Greenwalds of the world that you defend your ideological adversaries against the thought police, when what you really want to do is defend your ideological allies against the thought police.

And naturally so! I can’t remember the last time I sprang to the defense of an ideological adversary. Life’s too short. Then again, I don’t claim to stand in constant vigilance against thought police of all kinds. 

Is it even possible for something like the idealized version of the Intellectual Dark Web to work? A network of people who disagree intensely over the great issues of our day yet feel a deep mutual affinity out of a common commitment to free speech and intellectual fair play? Maybe. But one unfortunate irony is that the more hotly contested the great issues of the day, the more you need such a thing, yet the harder it’s going to be to create and sustain. Maybe the best we can do is try hard (harder than Quillette, I’d say) to avoid cheap attacks on people and to address their arguments on the merits. 

Meanwhile, shed no tears for the Intellectual Dark Web. Though the term is fading,  the people it referred to are still a network, and a powerful one. They plug each other’s work, and host each other on their podcasts, and defend each other against scurrilous allegations—just like other ideological networks. And they’ve gotten some mileage out of the term. Who had heard of Eric Weinstein before he created it and declared himself an ally of Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris? 

The most recent magazine piece I’m aware of that took the label Intellectual Dark Web seriously appeared this summer in National Review. Written by a young intern, the piece championed the IDW, noting that many college kids find its leading lights alluring. The IDW, the writer observed, “serves for many as the new gatekeeper to the Right.” I’m sure he meant well, but he had just sounded the death knell for the Intellectual Dark Web per se. He had said the quiet part out loud.

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Overhyped and too simplistic

You know those old people who are always seeing signs of civilization’s collapse in the way patterns of English usage are changing? You don’t? Well you do now!

Let me call your attention to this recent headline from no less an arbiter of linguistic propriety than the New York Times Book Review: “Is Blockchain Technology Overhyped?”

Now, when I was a boy, to “hype” something meant… well, let’s consult the actual dictionary I bought when I was in seventh grade, the Second College Edition of the Webster’s New World Dictionary: “to stimulate, excite, enlighten, etc., artificially by or as by the injection of a narcotic drug.” [emphasis added] Twelve years after buying that dictionary, when I got my first job at a newspaper, I discovered that this meaning of the term was alive and well, as reflected in a specifically journalistic usage: For a reporter to “hype” a story was to overstate it, to write it up in a way that exaggerated its actual significance (typically in hopes of getting it on the front page). 

Before I proceed with my jeremiad, let’s pause to note an etymological irony: though to “hype” a story means to overstate it, the word derives not from the root hyper, which means “over,” as in “hyperbole,” but from the root hypo, which means “under,” as in “the hypodermic [under-the-skin] needle that brings the artificial stimulation.” OK, enough irony—now back to my jeremiad.

So, if to “hype” something means to overstate it, then to “overhype” something is to “over-overstate” it. Which is, well, a bit much, right? Even flat-out redundant? 

And yet, such is the pace of civilization’s decline that the decade now drawing to a close has seen growth in the use of “overhype.” Actually, I don’t know that; my go-to source for changes in the frequency of word use, the Google Books Ngram Viewer, seems not to chart data past 2008 (presumably because many recent books aren’t in the Google database). But I can say that between 1980 and 2008 use of the word “overhyped” grew by a factor of 25. Not 25 percent—2,500 percent! And I can say that the curve charting this growth was, as of 2008, still headed (slightly) upward.

So why would you add two syllables to a word when the resulting meaning is what the word meant before you added the syllables? What has gotten into Americans younger than me? I mean, next thing you know, they’ll be taking the word “simplistic,” which means “too simple,” and putting “too” in front of it: “too simplistic”—that is, “too too simple.”

Oh, wait—that crime, too, is being prolifically committed. A Google search for “too simplistic” yields 1.5 million results, and in some cases the crime trail leads to such guardians of usage as the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic.

Usage evolves—I get that. But, ideally, wouldn’t it evolve toward efficiency—like, using fewer syllables to express something, not more syllables? 

No jeremiad about the interconnected declines of the English language and civilization would be complete without a theory about the precise connection. How’s this:

The reason “over” was added to “hype” is that we live in a culture so full of hype, of blatantly over-the-top promotion and self-promotion, that the word “hype,” by itself, seemed inadequate to convey an abnormal amount of such inflation. And, similarly, the reason “too” was added to simplistic is that we live in a time of such facile, reductive thinking that “simplistic” is now the norm.  

What do you think? Too simple? 

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Spinoza’s cerebral mysticism

I can’t decide whether Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is one of my favorite philosophers or one of my favorite novelists. (Cue Certs commercial here.) In any event, she’s definitely one of my favorite authorities on Spinoza, the early-Enlightenment Dutch philosopher. In this excerpt from a conversation I had with her on meaningoflife.tv, we talk about (among other things) Spinoza’s pantheistic theology and his mystical side, and how the two are linked. 

ROBERT WRIGHT: [Spinoza] kind of fascinates me … There's a phrase that's common now, people will say they're “spiritual but not religious.” And Spinoza strikes me as … maybe one of the first prominent philosophers you could call “spiritual but not religious.” He did use the word God, but not in a way that a lot of religious people would recognize, right?

REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN: Right. Pretty eccentric use of the word God.

By way of background, he was Jewish. His family had fled the Spanish Inquisition. They had been forced to pretend they were Christians. They went to Holland where they didn't have to pretend they were Christians and they could practice Judaism. And wouldn't you know it, their son almost immediately becomes a heretic and is excommunicated [from the Jewish community] at a very young age, in his early 20s, because his views on God and on Judaism are so radical, right?

Yes, yes.

So what was the problem? Where did he depart from orthodoxy? (Almost everywhere, I guess.)

He was put into—actually, in Hebrew it's called “herem”, and it's translated as excommunication, but it really means separation from the community—and usually there was … a term of separation, then you were allowed back in to the community. You did your penance and you came back in. Spinoza's is the only case on record in the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam where it was just “Get out, don't come back, we don't want you.” 

And the thing is that he was, as you say, very young—23, 24…

You can read the rest of this conversation on the nonzero.org website.

At the conservative never-Trump site The Bulwark, Jonathan V. Last offers four reasons Republican politicians will never abandon Trump. And he means never; even after Trump leaves the White House he can use his Twitter following to punish politicians who defy him. Trump, writes Last, “owns the GOP in a way that is unprecedented in the modern era.”

In the first of a multi-part series, the New York Times vividly shows how vulnerable your cell phone makes you to invasions of privacy. The invaders aren’t telecom companies or the government but rather “location data companies” whose software resides in smart phone apps you’ve authorized to know your location—and who can sell your data to anyone who wants it. Though the software doesn’t know your identity—and most commercial users of the data don’t care about your identity, so long as they can, say, show you an ad for Acme Coffee the moment you walk past an Acme Coffee Shop—your identity can be inferred from your daily patterns of movement. 

Tweet of the week comes from @DanMKervick: “We’ve reached a point in world history where a genuinely international political party makes abundant sense. It should focus on peace, disarmament, environmental preservation, and shared global prosperity.” Sign me up.

Turkey, according to a piece in the New Scientist, wins the award for first country to build and deploy drones armed with machine guns. An accompanying promotional video shows the drone in action in a setting that looks authentically warlike—without committing the marketing blunder of showing people on the ground getting killed. 

In Tricycle, Sumi Loundon Kim explains how parents can introduce their kids to a nighttime ritual of lovingkindness (metta) meditation. It can be done more formally or less formally—while seated near a Buddhist altar or while snuggled in bed. I suspect this ritual might provide some of the psychological benefits that, as I dimly recall, my nighttime prayer provided when I was a boy. 

Humans didn’t invent non-zero-sum games. Natural selection was forging win-win outcomes long before people showed up and articulated the underlying logic. The Hawaiian bobtail squid, for example, houses and feeds bacteria that, in return, camouflage the squid at night by emitting a light that’s similar to the moonlight filtering through the water. As Quanta magazine’s Laura Poppick reports, scientists have now mapped the bobtail squid’s genome and are using that data to flesh out the evolution of this symbiosis. Even if you’re not a genome enthusiast, you should consider checking out the beautiful pictures of bobtail squids. 

Incoming: NZN reader Michael, having read last week’s piece about the challenge of convincing climate change skeptics to be less skeptical, wrote in to recommend Citizens Climate Lobby as a group that’s taking that challenge seriously. So check it out—chances are pretty good that there’s a chapter near you. Also: Thanks to readers who replied to my request for self-helpy questions that might be answered from a perspective of Buddhism and/or mindfulness. So far I haven’t seen a question I feel qualified to answer. (Giving people personal advice is high pressure!) But if you’ve got such a question—even if its just a practical question about meditation—feel free to send it in (I’m sure there’s something I’m competent to weigh in on): nonzero.news@gmail.com.

Ritual exhortations: Follow us (@NonzeroNews) on Twitter! Follow me (@robertwrighter) on Twitter! And include one or both of those Twitter handles, when appropriate, if you tweet about newsletter content. Final exhortation: Tweet about newsletter content!

Feedback loop: The newsletter will almost certainly change significantly during the first couple of months of the new decade. All options (as we potentates say in high-gravitas situations) are on the table: format, frequency, regularity, etc. If there are things in the newsletter you do or don’t like, or new features or themes you’d like to see, please let me know: nonzero.news@gmail.com. Meanwhile, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year. See you in two weeks.