A guest authored edgy essay by Doug Mann
In ancient Athens, shopkeepers, philosophers and politicians met at the foot of the Acropolis in the agora, the public square of the city. There they debated everything from the nature of justice to the wisdom of war against Sparta. There Socrates practised the dialectical method, asking the Athenian elite embarrassing questions that exposed their ignorance or hypocrisy. He was, in Plato’s words, a gadfly stinging their lazy hides.
Every free society has its agora. In the heyday of the Enlightenment, the English had their coffee houses, the French philosophes their salons. In the nineteenth century, newspapers took over — Sherlock always checked the Times for clues to the latest of Moriarty’s criminal activities. By the late twentieth century, the rise of mass media had degraded the agora, making it a one-way spectacle: we listened to radio and watched TV to get our news and entertainment.
Then around 2005 something happened. Social media was born. Much of it turned out to be like rotten candy, sweet but stomach-churning: Twitter became an angry ideological battlefield, Instagram an engine for illusion and unhappiness, Facebook a font of fake news and psychological isolation. Cats playing piano are one thing, but thousands of people posting pictures of flower-shaped foam in their espresso is surely a sign of civilizational decline.
But two good things came out of this New Web: the podcast and YouTube commentaries. Podcasts were like radio shows of old, though without any time limits or pressures from advertisers to conform to a given political agenda. The best are those that combine science, philosophy and politics, such as the Joe Rogan Experience, with 16 million downloads per episode, and Sam Harris’s more skeptical Waking Up Podcast, where the neuroscientist takes on everything from the debates over free will to the perils of religious extremism.
Yet at the center of this new agora are YouTubers who mercilessly sting establishment political parties, college elites and the military-industrial-entertainment complex. They come in three levels of popularity and slickness. At the top are mega-stars like Rogan, Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson, who straddle the center of the political spectrum, attract millions of subscribers, but outrage authoritarians with their defenses of free speech and exposure of the hypocrisies of authoritarian “liberals.”
Above them all stands that Dadaesque trickster Felix Kjellberg, aka Pewdiepie, who sometimes engages in cultural critique when he’s not playing video games or hanging out with his belle Marzia. His 93 million subscribers dwarf the major American TV networks, who can manage at best only 7.8 million viewers a week.
In the middle we find a range of commentators who bring the same degree of commitment to facts as professional mass media with a fraction of the production costs. These range from the gentle critique of Benjamin Boyce, who exposed the darkness at the heart of Evergreen State College, through the more corrosive political commentary of Carl Benjamin, aka, Sargon of Akkad, whose main target is the authoritarian left, to the flaming Marxism of Abby Martin, whose aim is to take down the American Empire. Also worth mentioning is the hard-working, self-proclaimed “social liberal” Tim Pool, who seems to churn out a new video every day. Basing his work on solid research, he aims the majority of his video invective at the regressive left.
On the fringe of YouTube are dozens of bedroom philosophers whose equipment is little more than a camera, mike, and comfy chair. This network of pundits is dispersed across borderlands outside the geographic and ideological centers of mainstream media. There’s Alfsvoid and Josephine Mathias from Canada, Po and Paul Joseph Watson from England, Sydney Watson and Independent Man from Australia, and Barbara from Slovenia, to name but a few.
Playful, caustic, and irreverent in ways that NBC, the BBC and CBC can no longer be, these bedroom thinkers fight the culture wars with the kid gloves off. And they put the lie to the victim narratives current in academe–many of them are young women who resolutely reject the notion that we live in a racist patriarchy. If there’s a single tone that dominates their videos, it’s a sarcastic scepticism about the honesty of the identitarian elites that run higher education, most mass media, and leftist political parties, and about the utility of the censorship, call-out culture, witch hunting that they support.
Sadly in the grip of bureaucratic paralysis and toxic identity politics, post-millennial universities have failed as places of vigorous public debate. Yet this is nothing new. Many of the great thinkers of the past–Descartes, Hume, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, and Sartre, to name just a few–had nothing to do with universities once their school days were done.
In the midst of the swamp that is the internet a few islands of rationality and sanity stand out. It’s there we’ll find the new Socrates, Orwells, and Voltaires, where 2 + 2 still equals 4, where reality still matters.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 259
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Saturday 6 April 2019
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