Last year I wrote a book about recent trends in the marketplace of ideas, which means I like to keep up with what others are saying about matters of the mind. So when I saw people talking about an “intellectual dark web,” it piqued my interest.

Then I read Bari Weiss’s essay in the New York Times on the topic. And … I don’t get it.

What kind of ideas does the intellectual dark web (IDW) produce? According to Weiss:

Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web: 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. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered “dark.”

If this is the intellectual vanguard, then I would hate to see what parts of the IDW are moldy. The National Review’s Jonah Goldberg is correct when he writes:

I guess I still don’t get it. Having read the essay twice, it seems to me this IDW thing isn’t actually an intellectual movement. It’s just a coalition of thinkers and journalists who happen to share a disdain for the keepers of the liberal orthodoxy. …
Where have we heard that before? Well, it’s the story of successive waves of neoconservatives in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s the story of former Communists — Burnham, Meyer, Eastman, et al. — who joined the founding generation of National Review. It’s the story Whittaker Chambers tells in Witness. It’s also the story of many of the progressive intellectuals who were disillusioned by the First World War. …
I guess I’m just having a hard time getting how the Intellectual Dark Web is anything more than a list of people some anonymous author of a website likes.

Checking out the website, I confess to being even more flummoxed than Goldberg. The ideas that these people are promoting are not exactly cutting-edge. Political correctness is bad: Who knew?! This critique is not devoid of value, but it’s about as original an idea as the latest sitcom reboot.

Furthermore, Weiss characterizes the intellectual dark web as if thinkers like Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro have been marginalized instead of being profiled all over the damned place. Over at Vox, Henry Farrell is correct to note that some IDW members might feel relative status deprivation. The members of the intellectual dark web crave prestige; after all, they’re intellectuals. But they are still prospering. If marginalization is pulling in “some $80,000 in fan donations each month,” as Peterson tells Weiss, then someone let me know how to become marginalized, and fast.

To be fair, Weiss gets at something in her article, and it’s the tension between different trends underlying the modern Ideas Industry. On the one hand, all these people are thriving as thought leaders in a world in which there has been an erosion of trust in traditional intellectual gatekeepers. Neither the academy nor the New York Times op-ed page holds quite the power over the marketplace of ideas that it did 50 years ago. There is clearly an audience that is hungry for the kind of ideas IDW members are pitching, whether that is measured in YouTube views, book sales, retweets, or Patreon contributions.

Weiss herself is troubled by how the IDW is thriving. She clearly sees these thinkers as valuable in their ability to keep individuals from drifting toward more disturbing ideologues. The problem, as Weiss concludes, is IDW members keep cozying up to these people, as well:

I get the appeal of the I.D.W. I share the belief that our institutional gatekeepers need to crack the gates open much more. I don’t, however, want to live in a culture where there are no gatekeepers at all. Given how influential this group is becoming, I can’t be alone in hoping the I.D.W. finds a way to eschew the cranks, grifters and bigots and sticks to the truth-seeking.

That last sentence brings up the other way the IDW intersects with the Ideas Industry: deepening political polarization. It’s here that some internal tension starts to build. These intellectuals are most devout in attacking the political correctness of the left. But their relationship with the right is more fraught. Reason’s Matt Welch got at this recently in a podcast about the IDW and Jordan Peterson in particular:

There’s a reward system over there. His fan base comes [for] that minority of his interactions when he sort of swells up and says, “Men must be dangerous!” or when he criticizes feminists for being potentially submissive and that’s why they don’t criticize Islam that much. When he rises up and trolls a little bit, that’s exactly when he’s rewarded. And that’s not his best work, as far as I’m concerned. His best work is his kind of clinical practice, is sort of pragmatic, buck up, straighten yourself. I still straighten up my back, my posture, after reading his book.
But if the reward structure is for precisely when you are out there transgressing, you’re dancing on that kind of borderline where you’re supposed to [engage in] the sort of taboo subjects, right?

And this is the tension that IDW participants cannot quite reconcile. Regardless of their own political preferences, most of their core audience consists of those on the right (or, rather, people who despise the left). But truly free thinkers need to criticize all sides for their errors. Some of these people have done this at times, but it is risky and threatens their feedlot. So they also cozy up with the cranks (Alex Jones), grifters (Mike Cernovich) and bigots (Milo Yiannopoulos).

Partisan thought leaders excel when they bash out-group ideologies as wrongheaded and dangerous. But they cannot afford to alienate their ideological soul mates. In a moment in which the right is in power but bereft of any innovative policy ideas, the IDW is offering little but complaints about kids these days.

Weiss wants the intellectual dark web to offer a beacon of light to a confused populace. But in an age of populism, all these thinkers can do is appease their followers. They are thought leaders who cannot demonstrate any leadership.