Quillette Faces IDW Backlash for Critiquing Online Partisanship

There’s trouble in centrist paradise as Quillette and The Rubin Report, two of the largest online platforms for reactionary politics, wage their own internally focused culture war. Over the past few weeks, Quillette has faced the firing line of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), an emerging movement of seemingly marginalized moderates, after it posted three constructive articles criticizing members as being bad faith actors with poorly caricatured arguments of the opposition and partisan loyalism to reactionary orthodoxy. 

The IDW’s response only cemented these observations as proven reality.

In early April, the popular author and podcaster Sam Harris tweeted out a graph showcasing the IDW’s political positions, taking seven of the most prominent members — Harris, Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro and both Eric and Bret Weinstein — to compare each other on a select handful of issues on a liberal vs conservative spectrum. By these results, with exception of Shapiro, the group mostly frames itself as “a collection of disillusioned liberals looking for a place to have an honest conversation,” according to the graph’s author Daniel Miessler. 

Miessler’s framing, however, was immediately called out by Uri Harris, a contributing journalist for Quillette, who stepped off the magazine’s obvious IDW-sychophant reservation by offering legitimate skepticism. “This is misleading,” Harris tweeted. “Just take a look at @RubinReport’s timeline; he relentlessly attacks Democrats, retweets Trump Jr., and hangs out with Candace Owens and Charlie Kirk. The proof is in the pudding. Some of the other people are debatable, but clearly, the chart is missing something.”

This ‘something’ is the comparison between belief and behavior. 

Generally, it makes sense that anyone on the political spectrum can show their thinking matches their record. This is the case whether it’s leftists arguing for universal healthcare, conservatives arguing for border security or centrists flip-flopping across the aisle. For neo-conservatives like Shapiro, this standard holds when his social media, publications and events are overwhelmingly embraced by right-wing voices who endlessly push right-wing positions. It’s a simple matter of whether they’re both talking the talk and walking the walk.

The same can’t be said of Rubin and Peterson, so-called “classical liberals”, who are so often embraced by the likes of Tucker Carlson on Fox News, Charlie Kirk, Candace Owens and Donald Trump Jr. through Turning Point USA, the Koch brothers through the IHS subsidiary Learn Liberty, the objectivist think-tank The Ayn Rand Institute and Dennis Prager’s own propaganda YouTube channel Prager University. 

The relationships aren’t exactly adversarial. Scan their Twitter feed or watch their interviews and the positions often taken by Rubin and Peterson are also those embraced by their opposition, from conservative victimhood culture perpetrated by big tech platforms, climate change skepticism, opposition to sexual liberties to attacks on center leftist politicians for civility. Sure, their disagreements on specific social issues are discussed, such as abortion and the death penalty, but how do these compare when they also claim there is a “much bigger threat to western civilization” such as the “regressive left” and “social justice warriors?”

Harris asks if this is some “mass delusion.” Are liberals and conservatives suddenly singing kumbaya despite their disagreements to reach across-the-aisle? We’re hardly living in this bipartisan utopia if there’s also a divisive culture war over whether western civilization and its institutions deserve to exist. Has society achieved peak civic harmony where the issues are discussed to find common ground? Or is it a simple case of building a reactionary alliance, joining forces with the enemy of your enemy in order to secure some united better tomorrow? Use Occam’s razor however you see fit.

“A significant selling-point for the IDW has been that it fosters both political bridge-building and across-the-aisle debate,” Harris writes. “If one accepts Miessler’s claim that issues such as abortion and gay marriage are the main points of contention between liberals and conservatives today, then it does indeed seem that this is what the IDW is doing. If, however, one accepts that the main point of contention between the left and right… is rather acceptance or rejection of the new left and its focus on identity and structural oppression (i.e., modern “social justice”), then it’s pretty clear that this is not what the IDW is doing… Either [Miessler]’s wrong about their positions on the most important political issues, or he’s wrong about which issues truly divide liberals and conservatives.”

These are important questions to bring into the so-called “marketplace of ideas,” the term coined to describe when society allows bipartisan criticism to be freely exchanged across the political divide. If you’re genuinely committed to this concept, the marketplace should allow criticism from the leftist opposition and those giving their grievances a fair hearing. Harris even cites Ezra Klein, the editor-in-chief of Vox, who used the debunked study from Data & Society to explain how the IDW alliance developed based on reactionary principles and emerging political issues. 

Thankfully, the modern political division isn’t based on the merits of slavery, segregation, women’s suffrage or ethno-theocratic rule. Klein explains these were the fundamental issues solved decades past. Things change, certain labels are no longer fit for purpose and new divisions are formed as a result. “The coalition Rubin is a part of, is best understood as a reactionary movement because, well, that’s what it is — a movement united by opposition to changes it loathes… whether you support legal pot has nothing to do with it.” As we move into new definitions of what it means to be a leftist vs a rightist, the classic blue dog liberals like Rubin are left wondering why screaming old values isn’t enough to gain new-school liberal cred.

Instead of taking these criticisms of the IDW like an across-the-aisle good sport, Rubin shutdown the marketplace by demanding Harris and editor-in-chief Claire Lehmann apologize for “garbage pieces” used to smear his name as a political partisan. Lehmann, also considered a friend of Rubin’s and an IDW member, responded by saying his outcry to “mild, rational criticism” made him an overly sensitive “big baby.” 

The full exchange can be found across Rubin’s own subreddit (which happens to post similar critiques). This sudden rift within the IDW caused Rubin to post an elongated counter-defense, which amounts to saying he’s debated the right on that select handful of issues, therefore, don’t criticize the alliance or whether there are true across-the-aisle debates. When there are many leftists requesting Rubin for debate — whether it’s Sam Seder of the Majority Report, Natalie Wynn of ContraPoints, Oliver Thorn of Philosophy Tube or even Ana Kasparian of Rubin’s former network The Young Turks — the marketplace starts to stink of rotten gatekeeping and stale partisanship on his behalf.

Personally, I find this all quite ironic considering both Rubin and Lehmann have blocked my own personal Twitter account for criticizing whether they actually commit to free speech principles (which are questions I consider answered). If you asked me to name people least qualified to lay claim to the free exchange of ideas and bipartisanship, these two names would make the list. That said, Lehmann’s publication took a brave stance by examining whether Rubin and company are the reactionary right excesses of modern politics. 

The IDW can offer some of these diverse discussions, evidenced in Peterson’s recent exchanges with Slavoj Zizek on Marxism, Sam Harris debating Klein, Peterson and TYT’s Cenk Uygur on identity politics and religion, and even Shapiro who’s somehow DESTROYED every leftist under the sun on any given issue anywhere. Whether in good faith or bad, these members adhere to some these principles more than a discussion dodger like Rubin. Is Quillette the only member to cut the fat of their movement? Or will colleagues and followers demand better of their own if there’s a genuine interest in the free exchange of ideas? The grift of striking down caricatured arguments about how “math is a patriarchal construct” and “all white people are racist” can only work for so long.

“The IDW needs to make a choice,” Uri Harris concludes. “Does it want to be a partisan organization, where its members get together in front of an audience to iron out their differences and strategize on how to defeat the new left, or does it want to be genuinely non-partisan? If the latter, it needs to open itself up to new left people and ideas. The new left isn’t going anywhere, and issues of identity, structural oppression, privilege, critiques of classical liberal notions of free speech and assembly, and similar topics will probably play an important role in the cultural and political discourse in the future. The question is whether the IDW will take a leading role in these discussions or will it allow itself to be pigeonholed?”

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