How Did the Intellectual Dark Web Become a Cesspool?

The Newsletter of Newsletters, volume 4.

Every week I highlight three newsletters that are worth your time.

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1. Arc Digital

Arc Digital isn’t just a newsletter—it’s a whole media company. I’m a big fan. A couple months ago they moved to Substack and have only gotten better since then.

Two pieces from Arc Digital last week really spoke to me. The first was an Adam Wakeling piece about the dissipation of the vaunted “intellectual dark web”:

The term Intellectual Dark Web, or IDW, was coined by American venture capitalist Eric Weinstein and popularized by Bari Weiss in a 2018 New York Times article. It had no clear definition but described a loose grouping of public figures including (among others) Eric and Bret Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, and Dave Rubin. . . .

Weiss finished her article on the cautious note that “I can’t be alone in hoping the I.D.W. finds a way to eschew the cranks, grifters, and bigots and sticks to the truth-seeking.” Three years later, not only are the “cranks, grifters, and bigots” still around, they sometimes seem to be actually running the show.

What went wrong? . . .

Everyone likes to be an original thinker, and to feel that they know—or understand—things which others don’t. Even the term “woke,” mostly used with derision these days, implies that someone is “awake” to realities to which others are still sleeping peacefully. Non-mainstream ideas can be fun to talk about, and sometimes even get proven right in the end.

There are dangers to heterodoxy, though. Most non-mainstream ideas are non-mainstream because they’re simply bad. The experts are sometimes wrong, but if they had been consistently wrong for the past three centuries, you wouldn’t be reading this article online because I would be an illiterate peasant in a cottage, the internet wouldn’t exist, and Jordan Peterson would be the local eccentric lobster fisherman in some North Sea village. And when the experts are proven wrong, it’s usually by other experts. Charles Darwin was wrong about how traits are passed on from parents to offspring, but the right explanation (being DNA) was discovered by a team of scientists at Cambridge University, not a slick televangelist.

Read the whole thing here. It’s truly great.

The other Arc Digital piece was by Luke Burgis and the headline alone will make you sit up straight: “Empathy Lessons . . . from a Hitman.”

Dave Romero had a thin ponytail and a sallow face. His narrow eyes and deep crow’s feet gave the impression that he could read your soul. He walked proudly, with the confidence of someone who never failed to even a score.

He showed up at the front door of my house at seven o’clock in the morning as I was getting ready to take my dog for a walk. When I heard the doorbell, I thought it was the Mormon missionaries again. But they don’t come at seven a.m. What I found instead was Dave Romero, “Customer Relations Specialist” of Fyre Pharmaceutical (not its real name), come to collect a debt.

My e-commerce company was flailing after a buyout deal fell through thanks to the Great Recession. I’d already maxed out my credit to keep the company afloat while I figured out next steps. In an effort to buy myself some time, I made a list of the suppliers I would pay first, a sort of debt triage plan.

My decision to exclude Fyre Pharmaceutical from my list of priority payments would have been different had I known that the company’s founders were rumored to have connections with organized crime, that they were said to be involved in gun trafficking, and that one of my competitors mysteriously vanished after crossing them. 

Again, read the whole thing. The payoff is tremendous.

And consider subscribing to Arc Digital.

2. Dry Powder

This is a Puck Media newsletter about the entertainment industry from William Cohan. He has a theory about why AT&T got into the whole Warner Bros. clusterfork:

The key to understanding the genesis of AT&T’s humiliating spin-off of WarnerMedia actually comes down to understanding the motives of the people who made it happen: the bankers.

M&A bankers, after all, get paid for their deal-making advice—fees that can run into the tens of millions of dollars—regardless of how the deals turn out. Good, bad, indifferent, most bankers care a little, but not a lot. We don’t know yet what AT&T agreed to pay Goldman Sachs and the prestigious advisory boutique, Lion Tree, for their advice on unwinding WarnerMedia, which they acquired in 2018 for $85 billion plus debt, into the $43 billion sale to Discovery plus 71 percent of the equity in the newly formed company, Warner Bros. Discovery. But as a proxy, we can look at what TimeWarner paid its three bankers for the sale of the company to AT&T three years ago: Allen & Co got paid $50 million, as did Citigroup. Morgan Stanley got paid $40 million. That’s $140 million alone, just for their sagacious advice and valuation work.

It’s no surprise then that the investment bankers involved in AT&T C.E.O. John Stankey’s Great Unwind appear to view the deal as evidence not of tail-between-the-legs ineptitude but rather his courage and genius. According to my well-informed sources with knowledge of the deal, the investment banking logic for AT&T’s capitulation on WarnerMedia goes something like this: AT&T is really just a holding company for a bunch of OpCos, and Stankey’s job is to “allocate capital”, “unlock value,” find the “right home for assets,” and create the right “financial flexibility” for a fast-shifting media and entertainment landscape that was rapidly going direct to the consumer, instead of from business to business. Investment bankers prefer to talk about industry “transformations” rather than “transactions.” The Great Unwind, so the M&A logic goes, is an example of Stankey being flexible enough to initiate an industry “transformation” by recognizing that the WarnerMedia assets would perform better in the hands of a new leader, instead of those of Stankey, who ran WarnerMedia before becoming C.E.O. of AT&T in July 2020, or Jason Kilar, who succeeded Stankey at WarnerMedia and got the cold shiv in this merger.

You can read the whole thing here, and sign up for Dry Powder here.

3. 500 Words

Ken Hesser’s newsletter is a real potpourri and here are his thoughts on who should be the next Jeopardy! host. (YSWIDT?)

  • Maybe it’s recency bias, but Mayim Bialik’s 2 week run last night was terrific. She’s a few weeks younger than me (Kate Winslet falls into this category also!), and I always found a superbly impressive woman. She brought the full package to her hosting duties…. she’s brilliant, has excellent pronunciation and projection skills as an actress, portrays a charming demeanor with contestants, and is obviously thrilled to be there. It also helps, frankly, that she’s not a man. I would think she has to be a frontrunner, if she actually wants the job full time.

  • I initially predicted this was Ken Jennings’ job to lose, now I’m not so sure. He was a more than competent host and has the pedigree. He also took a production role in the show prior to Alex’ death. That said, I’m not 100% sure he’s secured the gig. Is there something missing there? A bit too smug? A “tad” too controversial on social media? I wonder.

  • My wife’s favorite host of any show on television, and this is not revealing a state secret of Haile Plantation, is Cat Deeley of Fox’s “SYTYCDance,” mainly because she is a classic British “Presenter,” a total pro who balances all aspects of the hosting duties with utmost precision, preparation, with appropriate empathy for the contestants. Anderson Cooper is the closest thing we have here in the States, and his two weeks hosting delivered in all aspects. He was awesome. Two years ago, I picked him as the most likely non-Jennings successor to Alex, but my guess is his plate is full at this point, and him taking the job permanently would be a stretch.

  • Aaron Rodgers made it clear he wants the job. I thought he overperformed and was exemplary in his preparation. Still, he the reigning NFL MVP and probably playing another 5 years, at least. The show is not altering its production schedule at this point to accommodate.

Read the whole thing.

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