Romans in Coriolis: Tribalism and the Intellectual Dark Web
“One fire drives out one fire; one nail, one nail;
Rights by rights falter, strengths by strengths do fail.”
— Coriolanus, Act II, Scene VII
This brief excerpt from Coriolanus cuts to the quick of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), and their exaltation of individualism over tribalism and rationalism over ‘barbarism’. Coriolanus carries a dubious honor Shakespeare’s other works do not. The Roman tragedy was his only play formally banned under a liberal democracy; Its militarism troubled Allied censors in post-war Germany. In the play, Shakespeare elucidates the essential nature of all conflict: “strengths by strengths do fail.” Only a power can overcome another power, only a tribe another tribe.
The IDW can be divided into three principal factions: The New Atheists, led by Sam Harris, are vociferous critics of Islam, ‘Trumpism’, and woke fervor. The ‘Hard Liberals’, flagshipped by Bari Weiss and the Weinstein brothers, share many of the same viewpoints as the ‘wokeists’ they oppose, but seek to advance their position through discourse and persuasion. Finally, there are the Right Liberals, embodied in polemical figures like Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, and to a lesser extent, psychologist Jordan Peterson.
Almost every ‘member’ is concerned with the threats unfettered tribalism pose to civil society. In response to the January 6th Capitol events, Weiss asserted that America’s “liberal consensus is dying because of ideologues on the left and the right who hate the other side more than they love the country.” She goes on to call for respect of “our common identity as Americans.” But Weiss has her diagnosis of American decline backward. There is no ‘America’ as she describes. The liberal consensus scrapped American identity for parts during its sixty-year campaign of deindustrialization and deterritorialization. Regional identities were evacuated for hagiographic narratives of migration. Offshoring hollowed out once-proud cities and towns, annihilating regional elites and common livelihoods. Secularism disintegrated Americans’ shared moral universe, and catapulted cosmopolitans and heartlanders in opposite directions. The issue is not too much identity, or too much ideology, but too little, and of little quality.
As media theorist Marshall McLuhan believed, weak identities produce violence. Without metanarrative frameworks, senses of belonging, and ties to somewhere, man becomes violent to prove to himself he exists. The frontier, the high seas, the contemporary Middle East, are all replete with “people minus identity.” What Weiss sees as overactive tribalism is its obverse: a multitude of weak identities struggling to prove to themselves that they still exist. If you put swathes of the country under spiritual and material siege, they will lash out. The solution, then, is not to embrace a sort of vacuous pluralism or individualism, but to create strong collective identities, and remove the threats to these identities currently provoking violence.
On some level, Weiss knows this is the case. Her hero, Natan Sharansky, chaired a clandestine committee that removed Palestinians from East Jerusalem so Israelis could settle there, and consistently rebuffs taking any actions that may limit Israeli sovereignty. Fair, but the luxury of nationalism isn’t extended to Weiss’ American compatriots, the Trumpists she considers beyond hope. The civil strife and violence of today is, as ever, ‘a quest for identity’, something that civility and moderation themselves can never provide. These are the fruits of strong identities and political order, not its preconditions. There is no middle ground between evangelicalism and transgenderism, nor nationalism and globalism. Not even facts themselves supersede this tribal paradigm, and have themselves all but disappeared.
In honor of Caius Martius’ conquest of Corioli, he is given the name Coriolanus. After being urged to campaign for consul, he is ejected from Rome by envious patrician demagoguery. Rather than retreat into glum hermitage or inglorious sinecure, Coriolanus claims it is he who forsakes Rome and its people: “that do corrupt my air, I banish you!” He throws in his lot with an enemy tribe, the Volscians, and plots to destroy Rome. The IDW, almost entirely liberal to its core, is incapable of following him, because ultimately they’re true believers. Despite their own banishment, their own disdain for BLM and Antifa vulgarity, they’re unwilling to part ways with liberalism. If their cause was noble, or even viable, their antagonism toward political reality would be admirable.
Postmodernism’s poster boy Michel Foucault is feared and loathed by the IDW’s members. But the French scholar’s theory of power-knowledge strikes at the heart of liberal assumptions about truth and debate: Knowledge and authority, in every society, are mutually reinforcing systems. Facts are, as with anything else, the subject of interpretation, and will be reformulated or discarded depending on the interpreter. To rely on them as the basis for discourse, you must share the same interpretations of underlying reality, and for this, you must exist in a shared moral universe; and for this, you must belong to the same tribe. Power is exercised by collectives, and the shade of knowledge produced depends on the tribe’s particularities.
Conspiratorialism, often in the name of anti-conspiratorialism, is now the American default. The New York Times recently asserted “belief that Black Lives Matter protests caused widespread violence” was a “conspiracy theory” — outraging many, surprising none. The gulf between America’s Q-Anon cargo cult, heralding a glorious return to power for Heritage America, and the high-status Russia collusion cryptographers, is impossible to mend. The distance between your average Red Tribesmen and Blues Tribesmen is similarly vast. If one were to show the same burning building to members of opposing tribes, it would be impossible for them to agree on what was happening before their eyes.
The relationship between power and knowledge runs down to the very foundation of every society. At its metanarrative heart, there will always be something beyond criticism, justified by itself alone. Blasphemy laws arise to defend this core from injury, and to protect the people from being led astray. Today, the ‘seamless garment’ of kaleidoscopic minority ‘rights’ are this unquestionable center in American public life. This, the IDW understands — but their response is woefully inadequate. They seek a revival of an open public square, in which they will compete and triumph in a ‘battle of ideas’. Joseph de Maistre saw clearly in his Generative Principle of Constitutions that society’s spiritual core is not determined by elocution or intellectualism. As he writes, “fundamental principles of political constitutions exist prior to all written law.” It is not that a critical mass of Americans was persuaded to support abortion, gay marriage, or Black Lives Matter. These were victories delivered by judicial fiat or mass intimidation. Power inscribes new constitutions in man’s heart, and moves society in its stead. The IDW, an elitist project without elitist influence, can not change society with either podcast or polemic. Only power can do that.
This isn’t to say the IDW is all pacifism and pusillanimity. Sam Harris, for one, is perfectly fine with vituperation against an enemy. The targets of his ire are typically religious yokels, either domestic or foreign. His lengthy defense of torture and belief that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,” show that Harris is, as any other tribal, focused on rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Carl Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction expresses itself among rationalists as well as zealots. What is different is that erstwhile IDWers are spectacularly bad at discerning ‘friend’ from ‘enemy’.
Brett Weinstein — who was famously forced to flee Evergreen College with his wife after protesting a banishment ritual inflicted on white students — recently waded into a ‘Wokeism’ Clubhouse discussion, brandishing his anti-racist credentials, only to be coerced into a struggle session, silenced, and pressured for Venmo reparations. Weinstein appealed to the purported common moral framework shared by those in the discussion, saying “I’m not a classical liberal, I’m an actual liberal.” Despite his protestations, his on-command affirmations of BLM and transgenderism, he was utterly routed. The Clubhouse coup against him isn’t fantastically unreasonable. Brett is claiming ostensible membership in the tribe, only to object to their victories on the grounds of procedure or politeness. He agrees with the leaders’ underlying premises regarding white supremacy, but refuses to take the radical action which necessarily accompanies that claim, for this tribe. IDW Girondins will proceed to the guillotines apace, in lockstep with the out-groupers.
Coriolanus’ mortal hamartia, his error in judgement, fell along the same lines. On the precipice of conquering Rome, besting his foes, and securing eternal glory, his mother intercedes with him on the city’s behalf. Rather than proceed with the siege, Corioalnus makes peace between Rome and the Volscians, and is promptly sentenced to death for his service. Unlike the IDW, he dies in heroic defiance of his captors. The error, however, is the same. In an attempt to remain tribeless he slights both sects and engineers his own destruction.
By far the most unique and popular member of the IDW, Jordan Peterson embodies a different paradigm. Though his politics and prognostications leave something to be desired, Peterson successfully reintroduced Christian mythology, Jungian archetypes, and some semblance of Nietzsche into the popular lexicon. The Canadian psychologist is often referred to as a guru and a father figure for young men, and he is both in more than one sense. Yet his semiotic project, despite being often described as an antidote to postmodernism, is responsible for ‘postmodernizing’ Christian themes and icons. As Baudrillard says in Simulacra and Simulation, postmodernity is characterized by a “liquidation of all referentials — worse: with their artificial resurrection in the systems of signs.” Peterson undertakes a program of positive deconstruction, whereby the eternal archetypes forerunning and culminating in Christ are stripped bare and freed, dancing again into our collective imagination. Christianity’s signs and signifiers are present, but its Event is not.
Peterson is Jung’s answer to postmodernity’s Vatercomplex, its absence of patriarchal authority and contiguous identity. The great metanarratives are gone. The utopian schema in disarray. The thrones and squares vacant. In pouring out authority’s archetypal infrastructure, he aims to galvanize an age of enchantment, not through orb and scepter, but through mirror, via reflections and shadows of power rather than the ‘real thing’.
Postmodernity is a thoroughly haunted epoch. Dead ideologies are revived as kitsch, and past visions of the future hang over popular consciousness and political projects. We are a society in the void between history’s end and its rebeginning. History is idling, waiting to be restarted. The public square is a battleground, and only one tribe will enjoy it as their own in victory. Peterson knows this, though his tyrannophobia prevents him from understanding it fully. While his postmodernization of traditional symbols and stories provides the postliberal right a new means of popular interface, his politics provide neither solace nor solution. For civil society, facts, and ‘normality’ to reemerge, a decisive victory is necessary. Strong collective identities build strong societies, and these identities do not emerge from individualism or rational pursuit.
By and large, the IDW is a spent movement subsisting on podcast sinecures, fractured by Trump, incapable of accepting America’s tribal realities and lacking the understanding to resolve them. In a desperate attempt to escape from ideology, it only tumbles further and further into its maw. As facts themselves fade into ether, its members are left advertising an Enlightenment project long since dissolved. There are no longer any facts, only data flows to be instrumentalized or ignored. Collective identities are in terminal decline, desperately scrambling against deterritorialization through violence. Rights by rights are faltering, and discourse cannot save us.
As we explore our haunted and stagnant era, searching for exit, pining for unity, we see as T. S. Eliot did: “Only at nightfall, aetherial rumors/Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.” A resurrection of Coriolanus, one who refuses to turn back, will be necessary for America to survive until the Final Resurrection. Those ready to leave the dark will light the way.
Benjamin Roberts is an NYU Abu Dhabi undergraduate interning for the Wallace Institute.
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