Much reaction to Bari Weiss’ May 8 piece in the New York Times, “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web” , about a covey of cranks and contrarians kvetching that their cranky and contrarian views, like Rodney Dangerfield, don’t get enough respect—except that they’re being profiled in the Times and have to put up with the ignominy of making lots of money off their publications, lectures, podcasts and YouTube videos. Faux outrage has been their excellent marketing program.
However, William Saletan in Slate suggests that we should take the portraits seriously and instead of responding with sarcasm, ask ourselves “why so many people have fled to [the Dark Web], what we can learn from it, and why self-satisfied progressives are so quick to dismiss it.”
Okay: Why does this Dark Web have so many unself-satisfied non-progressive immigrants within its borders?
This Dark Web is not a new American habitation, but people mired in the nowness of their technologies and the now-intellects these technologies spawn cannot see the Dark Web’s historical roots. I just finished reading Richard White’s The Republic For Which It Stands, a 900-plus-page history of the period from the end of the Civil War to the Progressive era at the turn of the 20th century. The 19th century had its own version of the Dark Web as the country dealt with the crushing changes brought about by an increasingly corporate-style economy built upon the bodies of black, white and immigrant labor while marinating in earlier pieties about manliness, virtue, “the home” and the noble yeoman that hamstrung efforts at both reform and revolution.
The inhabitants of the 19th-century Dark Web saw America threatened by foreign elements whom they believed did not cherish the American volksgeist of home, patriarchy (which included whiteness and the terrorizing of black people), free labor and contract freedom, the sanctity of private property, Protestant ethics, and, above all, American exceptionalism. These are clearly not the concerns of the 21st-century Dark Web. But what links the two Dark Webs is “threat,” and that threat comes from “those who are not properly real people, not really us,” whether “those” be Eastern European Jews working in the garment trades or “pointy-headed intellectuals” (thank you, George Wallace) who dare to insist on keeping a civil tongue in one’s head.
And what is threatened and threatening for the Dark Webbers whom Saletan says are our social and political bellwethers? That politically correct thought-policing oversensitive and unmanly snowflakes will not allow them to say and do what they damn well feel like saying and doing when they want to say and do it against whomever they want to say and do it. They may gussy themselves up as free-speech warriors, but let us name their sanctimony as what it is: an adult-sized childlike tantrum.
Naming it as tantrum, however, does not lessen its viciousness. In the 19th century, black bodies swung from trees and unemployed workers starved in their homes as the threatened beat back the threat. Our current Dark Web denizens employ ridicule, shaming, lying and crocodile tears as their enforcers. In both, the aim is to suppress any challenge by dehuman(demon)izing the challengers to maintain the power of the status quo to continue conferring power and riches upon those dubbed worthy of being rewarded by it and kicking everybody else to the curb.
Part of what makes these Dark Webs so vicious is that they take on the character of scorpions in a bottle, the bottle being a paracosm constricted by fear and the scorpions being fear’s offspring: intolerance and status-anxiety, to be sure, but let us not leave out the species’ taste for bloodsport as well.
Solutions? The writer in me, of course, wants to rely on the Rortyian belief that new vocabularies will birth new visions and behaviors. What would that new vocabulary be? In reading the reactions to Weiss’ piece, the scorpion bottle is built out of the American version of the terms left, right and center.
A better array of terms would be center, left and radical. What about “right”? Conservative ideology is a reaction to a failed revolution and seems to be, in America, the belief system of those filled with fright, resentment and hard-heartedness. It has nothing to contribute to a dialogue about what needs to be done to break America out of the ideological confines that keep it from achieving the revolutionary ends it proposed two and a half centuries ago.
What would left be? Bernie Sanders, I guess. What would radical be? St. Paul when he said that there were no Greeks or Jews, no men or women, only Christians and the enemies of Christianity, though in this case, as Žižek points out, it’s those who fight for emancipation and their enemies.
Such a totalizing language/behavior shift will not happen any time soon, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be nudged along by supporting people who can make political and institutional changes at any level, from schoolboards on up.
But vocabulary-shifting can never be enough because the deep structure of the American state is what needs the overhaul. The liberal/reformist narrative during the time of Trump goes like this: The squires of our American civilization have no interest in the interests of ordinary people. In White’s world, this often led to violent rebellion, and just as often led to the rebellion’s being crushed. But eventually the squires got part of the message because, at the risk of overusing Frederick Douglass, power gives up nothing unless it’s hand is broken open, and Power eventually loosened a finger so that it could hold onto to most of what it still gripped, which is why our lives are not as nasty, brutish and short as the lives of our fellow citizens 150 years ago.
Thus, says the narrative, we need to come together to keep forcing the hand open. We can do it if only we come together and reason our way through and keep the pressure on.
Maybe that will work. Maybe. And maybe something else is needed.
I’ve never been a strong fan of the Constitution. The received narrative is that it made the country possible in a way the Articles of Confederation could not and thus set the historical stage for creating “E pluribus unum.”
But I think the “unum” is the problem. The Constitution can be seen as an Articles of Confederation that worked, written in a way to make the confederating of 13 clashing colonial statelets easier to accomplish and maintain. I think that impulse towards confederation should continue, something along the lines of Switzerland’s canton system, and under the umbrella of a constitution that applies certain global principles to guide political and social actions, and then people can confederate with whomever they want and create whatever laws they want, taking the notion of the states as “laboratories of democracy” to another level.
Perhaps New York and California create a canton, while the entire congress of western states creates another – in the latter you can open carry, in the former you can’t even own a gun. Perhaps cantons can secede if they wish: New York/California, one of the top 10 economies in the world, might well believe it could do better on its own.
I don’t see any profit in trying to forge an “American” people and an “American” nation out of elements that do not want to meld, and, if White’s history is accurate, have never wanted to meld. And, really, if “the American people” can’t even respond in a healthy and forceful way to the plague of gun violence killing children in our schools, then there isn’t much reason to place hope in the more lofty mission of forging a united nation.
Weiss didn’t need to delve into an ersatz Dark Web – all she needed to do was look around her, since we are all living in a permanent state of Dark Webness, otherwise known as America, and write about that. The Dark Web of Sam Harris and company is small beer compared to what D.H. Lawrence discovered about the dark web of the American spirit in his Studies of Classic American Literature: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”