Why I Asked Not to Be in That New York Times Article

(Note: You can also read “Why I Escaped the ‘Intellectual Dark Web'” by me in the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Bari Weiss wanted to include me in that article on the Intellectual Dark Web, but I asked her a couple of weeks ago to take me out of it, which she did. Here, in a nutshell, is what happened.

A while back Bari (I think it was her?) tweeted that there should be a university where all us “exiled” academics are on the faculty. I loved that idea mostly because I love the idea of hanging out with other academics who see the value in teaching “dangerous” ideas in rigorous ways.

I specifically had in mind having as colleagues Bret Weinsten and Heather Heying, who I got to meet in Dallas last year. Bret has the same dietary restrictions as me, so I figured that besides great company, we’d have a campus cafeteria that was gluten- and dairy-free, which would be awesome.

At some point, Bari decided to do a story on this—the “intellectual dark web,” not our dietary problems—and at that point I started joking about it, asking if we would all get to have a uniform. I had in mind the jumpsuits from The Incredibles. To me, the joke was the idea that a bunch of renegades would have anything in particular in common. It seems kind of, um, contradictory to consider us as a group since the point is we are all bad at group-think. Hence the desire for an ironic uniform.

Okay, some of it was nostalgia. My last jumpsuit was made of purple rayon and I wore it as a mortgage broker in 1988. Yes, it had shoulder pads. It was so shiny.

Anyway, when Bari called on my vacation in Hawaii to interview me on this, I just kept laughing at the idea. I told her I don’t get why I count as being on a “dark web” when what I say is out in the open.

Yes, I resigned my last academic job by choice, over censorship, but since leaving Northwestern’s medical school I haven’t been driven to some dark corner. On the contrary, people like Bari regularly invite me to write for major publications, something I’d do more if I weren’t doing a lot of intense investigative journalism for my city right now.

But, after we got back from Hawaii, the Times sent Pulitzer-winning photographer Damon Winter to take my photo in East Lansing, where I live, for this article. This was a weird scene. Damon wanted to do it at a very particular moment of sunset, out in a field with a bunch of reeds, so we parked ourselves behind the fire department in a park, with reeds.

Afterwards, I invited Damon back to our house for some food because—I’m not making this up—he’s off gluten, and there’s nowhere around here to eat on a Monday if you’re off gluten. So, he came back to our place and I made him crepes and we had a nice sauvignon blanc that went with them. He was super nice and really normal for a guy who is clearly a genius photographer.

After he left, I started thinking this was not the right story for me to be in. We had talked about who else would be in it, and it wasn’t so much as I didn’t want to be associated with those people as I didn’t know who most of them were. So, it wasn’t “I don’t want to be a member of any club that would have me” so much as “Who now? What now? What am I supposedly a key part of?”

I was also, frankly, worried about any article that was going to have a bunch of highly dramatized images. That kind of thing has rarely worked out well for me. In such cases, I usually look like I’m there for the purposes of playing “one of these things is not like the others.”

Bari and I talked again, including in person when I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, and I became convinced I made no sense in an article for which I did not understand the most basic premise. If the idea is that I piss people off by being disloyal to my likely tribes, well, I don’t think that makes me that unusual; I think it just makes me a good intellectual.

I know plenty of people like this—academic doctors and scientists and historians and the like who are deeply unpredictable because they go where the data takes them, even if it gets them in trouble. The intellectual dark web? Frankly, the character type just sounds like the average attendee at my dinner table, including my 17-year-old son.

Mostly what worried and worries me is this: the group identified as the “Intellectual Dark Web” appears to be so-identified because they have a lot of opinions. As I’ve been saying to Bari since the first time we talked, a few months ago, I’m really tired of the valorization of opinions, and I think it is exactly what has gotten us into the mess we are in. (I admire her for still talking to me after how many times I’ve said to her, “Bari, listen: what you do is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”)

There’s a reason the newspaper for which I am publisher has no opinion pages. Publishes no editorials. Does not endorse any political campaigns or causes.

I am not interested in darkness or dark connections. I want intellectualism, journalism, scholarship, and government to be about light, transparency, and facts. Peer review, checks and balances, open access. Not about clicks and skirmishes and dramatic photos taken at sunset.

Art is great. It is necessary and life-giving. But we shouldn’t confuse it with scholarship or journalism. I don’t know what it means to think real intellectualism could live on a “dark web.” There, it would die. (There, I would die.)