Note from MT: The following essay was written in March of 2019, but not published at the time. Some references are slightly out of date. I am reproducing it here, in light of the recent renewed focus on Israel/Palestine.
The rise of the “Intellectual Dark Web” — a broadly-defined cohort of prominent online commentators who don’t necessarily share all the same beliefs, but claim a mutual commitment to unvarnished public debate — speaks to a real yearning for dialogue that is not stunted by shrill platitudes connected to personal identity. Only in a media environment hopelessly captive to cynical grievance-mongers, who seize on every opportunity to shut down meaningful debate by shouting some epithet — racist, sexist, homobophic, whatever-phobic — could the IDW have achieved the notoriety that it currently enjoys.
A foundational tenet of the “Intellectual Dark Web” (and yes, I’m by necessity generalizing about a group that has no firm membership criteria) is seemingly that difficult subjects must be confronted head-on, without regard for the discomfort this may cause. Emotionally-volatile “sensitive snowflakes” claiming they’re offended must not be allowed to foreclose rational discussion about important subjects, including subjects these snowflakes find highly incendiary — usually because some aspect of personal identity is implicated. Accordingly, claims of “I’m hurt” or “I’m triggered” cannot be taken as sacrosanct or above scrutiny, because these claims are often cynically leveraged to tarnish adversaries and hamper open, reasoned debate.
But have you noticed that the IDW’s disdain for “identity politics” and all its attendant excesses — the cheap performative outrage, capricious offense-taking, and over-eagerness to ascribe bigoted motivations — seem to go completely out the window when when the discussion turns to Israel? Leading figures in the Intellectual Dark Web responded with such ferocious, emotionally-reactive indignation to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s recent allegedly “anti-semitic” comments that they began to deploy exactly the same stultifying argumentative tactics they’d almost certainly deplore in virtually any other context.
Throughout the Omar episode, top Intellectual Dark Web luminaries have complained about how profoundly offensive they found her remarks, and then leveraged their identity status (Jewish, in this instance) to tarnish her as a bigot — using rationale that is manifestly fallacious. It should go without saying given the IDW’s general disposition toward such matters, but the mere fact that they feel offended does not mean that Omar must be automatically deemed as having done anything genuinely offensive. Regarding controversial remarks that impinge on other identity-realms — whether it be sexual orientation, gender status, or various ethnic characteristics — this is usually well understood by the IDW faithful: we can’t simply sit back and meekly nod our heads every time someone claims they are offended, without dispassionately assessing these claims for truth value. However, when something they dislike is said about Israel, the same people summon the exact kind of flamboyant identity-derived outrage that they’re exceedingly likely to condemn in other circumstances. The dispassionate commitment to reasoned discourse they trumpet gives way to passion-induced unreason.
I should say again: I’m well aware that the Intellectual Dark Web comprises a composite of differing sensibilities that have been grouped under the same umbrella “brand.” So for the purposes of this essay I’m going to narrow my focus to Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, Eric Weinstein, and Bari Weiss. And I’ll justify my selections thusly. For almost two months, Shapiro has been using his large platform to ferociously denounce Rep. Omar as a “rabid anti-semite,” while in the same breath routinely decrying “grievance culture.” Somehow per Shapiro’s calculus, imputing bigoted motivations to a member of Congress based on an extremely twisted reading of her words doesn’t qualify him as a participant in “grievance culture” — that only applies to campus liberals screaming about sexism and racism. It’s incoherent, but Shapiro has demonstrated that he’s just as apt as any college-aged “SJW” to weaponize identity politics when it’s convenient; in his case, deploying his Jewish identity for the purpose of hindering criticism of Israel (and the US “pro-Israel” lobby more generally). I’m still waiting for an explanation of how this doesn’t count as exactly the kind of “identity politics” grandstanding that Shapiro so often castigates.
Dave Rubin, another IDW luminary, was quick to cast knee-jerk aspersion on the interior bigoted motivations of Omar, peremptorily declaring her an anti-semite and helping to spark an “outrage mob” of the kind he has frequently decried in relation to other claims of identity aggrievement. Here’s the thing with these “Intellectual Dark Web” or “Intellectual Dark Web”-adjacent people: they are in many respects correct about the folly of contemporary online discourse, what with its over-reliance on cheap outrage and overwrought elevation of identity-based grievances. But they clearly don’t apply this criticism equally. As per usual, there’s a big fat exception for Israel carved out in their rulebook.
The person who coined the very phrase “Intellectual Dark Web,” Eric Weinstein, engaged in an hours-long circuitous Twitter exchange with me last month that by the end could barely be described as anything resembling a “conversation,” and more like a bizarre exercise in steadfastly avoiding the subject. Pressed (by me) on why so many of those notionally associated with the Intellectual Dark Web seem so keen to generate outrage mobs in response to criticism of Israel, Weinstein launched into a long, meandering digression about his familial history, his views on the nature of journalism (a totally unrelated subject) and other issues so irrelevant that they need not be recounted. Considering that he’s a founding father of sorts for the group, one wonders if this kind of obfuscation is representative of a broader tendency.
Finally, Bari Weiss, who helped popularize and amplify the idea of the “Intellectual Dark Web” with a highly flattering New York Times profile in May 2018, has made clear that her Jewish identity is absolutely foundational to her overall political outlook. At a speech last month in Manhattan, Weiss proclaimed: “I see it as my obligation, and proudly so, to be a proud Jewish and Zionist voice at the New York Times.” That’s certainly her prerogative, but what she’s overtly doing is expressing a firm commitment to the primacy of identity in the formulation of her political beliefs. If that’s your thing, OK. But how can you then turn around and purport to condemn “Identity Politics” writ large? Weiss has invoked the moral authority of her Jewish identity to heap strenuous opprobrium on Omar, most notably earlier this month when she co-hosted The View. (At the Manhattan speech, she roused the crowd into raucously applauding for the ouster of Omar from Congress). Identifying and condemning perceived “anti-semitic” offenses has become a defining journalistic pursuit for Weiss.
Is my distillation of the “Intellectual Dark Web” into these four individual figures debatable? Sure. But taken together they’re clearly emblematic of a common sensibility.
Now let’s consider the actual words of Ilhan Omar, which compelled so many ostensible Free Speech advocates to issue strident denunciations and calls for censure on the ground that they were profoundly offended. With a plain reading, it should be obvious that these words have been twisted beyond recognition to serve a particular outrage-seeking purpose. Rather than present a fair appraisal of what Omar actually said, and address her points on the merits, her critics lept immediately to impugn her motivations — reflexively shouting “anti-semitism” to toxify the discussion and preempt any reasonable debate. (Is anyone struggling to imagine scenarios wherein IDW devotees would claim frustration that “racist” or “sexist” motives have been imputed as an excuse to shut down debate?)
Here are Omar’s two main claims which have set off so much misplaced controversy:
“Pro-Israel” donors and lobbyists use their substantial financial resources to influence US policy in a manner they find amenable to their interests
Politicians often espouse “allegiance” to Israel, and exert pressure on others to do the same
With regard to the former, Omar never postulated a vast sinister conspiracy or anything that made reference to the innate characteristics of Jews. To underscore: she never expressed animus toward Jews — due to their inborn characteristics or for any other reason. The former would be obviously anti-semitic. What she did do was simply note the existence of a powerful lobbying organization, AIPAC, which does indeed spend millions of dollars per year on activities explicitly intended to shape US policy in a manner desired by “pro-Israel” activists. (The Wall Street Journal subsequently confirmed the unassailable accuracy of Omar’s point). Her firestorm-starting tweet was an admittedly flippant quotation of a Puff Daddy song lyric — “it’s all about the benjamins, baby” — but only a hyper-literal reading of this would find it to connote genuine anti-semitism. The most influential political donor in country, Sheldon Adelson, spends hundreds of millions of dollars every election cycle, and is absolutely explicit that his goal is to move US policy in a direction that he regards as “pro-Israel.” Adelson is a conservative, but top-tier billionaire Democratic donor Haim Saban has also stated that his principal objective in pouring millions of dollars into the US political system is to promote Israel’s interests. To deny that such lobbies and donors exist, and avowedly use their financial power to achieve a particular political purpose, would be to ignore plainly-demonstrable, objective facts (in the classic Ben Shapiro formulation) for “feelings.”
Though a six-word song lyric obviously didn’t capture every facet of the debate around the influence of the Israeli lobby in US politics, Omar’s core point was accurate. MJ Rosenberg, a former high-level AIPAC operative, has repeatedly confirmed that AIPAC’s central objective is indeed "intimidating members of Congress to support its demands through the use of financial pressure.” This is far from unique for money-flush lobbying organizations, but it’s nonetheless observable reality — copiously documented by all manner of reliable sources (many of whom are themselves Jewish). Again, unless you want to adopt an arbitrarily literal interpretation of the song lyric quotation, Omar never claimed that financial pressures are the sole reason why American politicians, donors, operatives, and ordinary citizens support Israel; there are obviously cultural, religious, and strategic reasons as well. But to deny it as a significant factor would be laughable.
With regard to the second Omar comment that generated so much disproportionate fuss — yes, it’s true that Omar alleged Israel supporters often profess “allegiance to a foreign country.” But in order to ascribe bigoted motivations to this statement, her critics again twisted her words beyond recognition. She never asserted that “pro-Israel” politicians have taken any formal oath that would be indicative of formal “dual loyalty” — the “trope” that these alarmists claimed they were so offended by. She simply noted that American politicians regularly declare their allegiance — politically, culturally, religiously, and otherwise — to Israel. This point cannot be even remotely contested. (Here’s Mike Pence doing it. Here’s Kamala Harris doing it.)
And furthermore, Omar was not necessarily referring specifically to Jews. Many of the most vehement advocates of Israel are themselves not Jews, whether they be Evangelical Christians (like Mike Pence) or secular hawks (like Kamala Harris). Indeed, Omar could have just as easily been referring to Nancy Pelosi, who at a 2018 gathering of the Israeli-American Council made the following remark:
If this Capitol crumbled to the ground, the one thing that would remain would be our commitment to our aid, I don’t even call it our aid, our cooperation with Israel. That’s fundamental to who we are.
Pelosi may have not pledged a formal oath of allegiance to the state of Israel, but that’s an overly-literal, pointlessly-invidious interpretation of what Omar said. How could anyone fair-mindedly review Pelosi’s quote and not conclude that she was professing “allegiance” of a certain kind to Israel? “Allegiance” in this context simply means devotion or fidelity. But Omar’s critics in the IDW and elsewhere seem so strangely intent on ascribing bigoted motivation that they’ve resorted to the same kind of uncharitable hyper-literalism they’d rightly decry in other contexts.
It bears repeating for maximum clarity: Omar never used the phrase “dual loyalty.” A plain reading of her words shows them to be unquestionably true: that American politicians of various stripes, both Jew and non-Jew, profess “allegiance” to Israel. There is no shortage of examples of American politicians, donors, and lobbyists proudly declaring their unshakable cultural, political, and metaphysical allegiance to Israel. (Here’s the minority leader of the Senate doing it.) Only by applying multiple layers of convoluted linguistic exegesis to her words could one come up with the kind of nefarious, bigoted motivation that so many have tried to impute. This overly-literal, supremely uncharitable interpretation is exactly the kind of tactic that those in the online Free Speech Warrior class tend to inveigh against, often with much good reason. But with regard to Israel, their standards seem to mysteriously vanish.
Another fallacy used to malign Omar is depicting as suspicious the notion that she fixates unduly on Israel, when there are other things she should be focused on. Leave aside that Omar has also “fixated” on human rights abuses everywhere from Saudi Arabia to Venezuela. Even if she did for whatever reason choose to focus exclusively on Israel, it would be fully justified. As John Mearsheimer, the esteemed University of Chicago professor, has said: “The United States has a special relationship with Israel that has no parallel in modern history, and it is almost wholly due to the lobby.” There are particular characteristics of the US-Israel relationship that warrant unique attention (among them being the fact that Israel is the largest recipient of US military aid, at $3.8 billion per year.) As virtually the entire Congress is ardently supportive of sending conditions-free aid to Israel, while also furnishing the country with various kinds of international political cover — not to mention the fact that there is a powerful domestic US lobby devoted to sustaining this relationship — it would be entirely appropriate for Omar to set her focus on providing an alternate perspective. Yet the assumption is that her doing this must be a product of some deep-seated, despicable anti-semitism, a.k.a. intrinsic hatred of Jews. There’s no evidence for this. She has never expressed such hatred. So it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this bad-faith assumption derives from scurrilous extrapolations based on her identity traits (Somali Muslim woman). Which, again, is the kind of identity-based extrapolation that would ordinarily be shunned, rightly, by luminaries of the IDW.
With his ongoing tirades against Omar, Ben Shapiro in particular has shown himself to be one of the most vigorous proponents of “identity politics” in the entire country. His over-sensitivity and reflexive offense-taking have been on full, illuminating display as he spends day after day melodramatically bemoaning how much Omar hurt his feelings. (Ben, if you’re reading this, my offer to formally debate the subject still stands.) But although it may seem inconsistent with his wider critique of identity politics, this performative outrage should not be surprising. Shapiro has proclaimed that the reason for his attachment to Israel is fundamentally “biblical,” stemming from “God’s promise to the Jews.” If your political beliefs are organized around a claimed supernatural directive, OK... but then your supposed commitment to raw rationalism is maybe a tad suspect.
A sadly necessary disclaimer: any attempts to explain the US-Israel relationship by reference to the innate subversive qualities of Jews — a tendency one often encounters on nasty, conspiratorial corners of the internet — should be rightly denounced as anti-semitic because these theories dwell irrationally on Jews’ supposed inborn features, and encourage animus on that basis. But to emphasize one last time, Omar never even remotely came close to trafficking in such theories. Indeed, she never even referenced “Jews” per se. Whereas Israelis themselves frequently use the phrase “Jewish lobby” to refer to American “pro-Israel” advocates, Omar never made any direct ethnic or religious reference. (Christopher Hitchens once described these lobbyists as comprising “an impressive demonstration of strength by an ethnic minority,” but again, Omar has refrained from making any such comments.)
Interestingly, Omar is the national politician most forthrightly challenging political correctness at the moment. Instead of buckling to pressure — Democrats would love if she’d just shut up — she has instead chosen to continue her focus on an issue she views as of paramount importance. She has elaborated that she intends to continue this focus notwithstanding the discomfort it may cause others. Typically, the Intellectual Dark Web and Free Speech Warrior brigades would celebrate this commitment to engage in difficult conversations, even when those conversations may cause offense. But with respect to Omar, the response is exactly the opposite. All the principles they apply to other topics go swiftly out the window. And it’s worth pondering why.