Skip to Content

Features Australia

Australia’s Mistress of the Intellectual Dark Web

Introducing Claire Lehmann

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

Claire Lehmann is editor-in-chief of Quillette, magazine to the oddly-named ‘Intellectual Dark Web.’ A rising star and genuine Australian success, her outlet’s extraordinary popularity also reveals troubling attempts to narrow the range of acceptable ideas in the academy, legacy press and wider culture.

Curiously, her story is not widely known — at least not in establishment circles.

During my stint as Senator David Leyonhjelm’s Senior Adviser, I had to keep a watching brief on Australian media. This was not a task I enjoyed. I went from someone who did not own a television or listen to talkback to someone who watched current affairs religiously, tuned into everyone, and read the papers — regardless of their political slant — daily.

While much of this activity took place with a view to placing my boss’s pieces in that same media, I did get to discover some excellent writing.

One name kept cropping up — that of a young Sydney psychologist, Claire Lehmann. Uninterested in politics — she wrote but a single piece on current issues, the higher education funding debacle — her articles took oddball, sideways perspectives on feminism, science education, and video games. All were beautifully written. And all appeared either on ABC’s The Drum or in one or another Fairfax outlet.

So obsessive was my media monitoring I also noticed when she wasn’t being published. Her articles — still excellent, but far less frequent — tailed off and finally stopped altogether.

Just before Christmas 2015, a Lehmann article from an unknown (to me) outlet, Quillette, appeared in my Parliamentary Library media briefing. It was a profile of Rutgers Professor of Psychology Lee Jussim, and it concerned his (never refuted) finding that ‘stereotypes accurately predict demographic criteria, academic achievement, personality and behaviour.’ The article blew up staffer-land (staffers, because they work in politics, have strong views on stereotypes, particularly of people in rival parties). Quillette acquired a batch of new readers tarrying in the red-carpeted Senate wing of Australian Parliament House.

From its foundation in October 2015, Quillette has always paid its writers. At first the sums amounted to pin money, but when Lehmann set up an increasingly popular Patron account, payment came to match and then better that offered by major metropolitan dailies. Lehmann also spent some of the income on multiple server upgrades so popular has Quillette become. She was helped in this because, sometimes, contributors did not want to be paid.

When I left Senator Leyonhjelm’s employ and returned to London, I began writing for Quillette. At first pieces published elsewhere — typically in The Spectator Australia or the Australian — but also original pieces. A conservative outlet spiked one article — an attack on President Trump’s abuse of the Executive power. Quillette took it gladly and Lehmann tweeted it. It proceeded to ‘go viral’.

Quillette is the official outlet — if one can be said to exist — of the now notorious ‘Intellectual Dark Web’. When the New York Times produced a lengthy investigation of both the magazine and so-called IDW ‘members’, the only non-Americans profiled were Canadian superstar psychologist Jordan Peterson and Australia’s Lehmann.

Eric Weinstein is Thiel Capital’s managing director — yes, PayPal’s Peter Thiel — and he coined the name as a joke. It certainly made me laugh. ‘So I’m a member of the IDW by virtue of writing for their magazine,’ I thought. ‘Rightio then.’

The NYT article spends a lot of time trying to work out who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ of the IDW, worrying that while it includes scholarly notables like linguist Steven Pinker, neuroscientist Sam Harris, biologist Heather Heying, civil rights campaigners Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz, and sacked Google engineer James Damore, it also seems to include a goodly selection of America’s most notable wingnuts — conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, provocateur Candace Owens, and rapper Kanye West — a man who boasts he’s never read a book.

That aside, the IDW foundation narrative is clear enough. The bulk of this loose intellectual confederation is made up of academics and former academics, plus an occasional businessman like Weinstein or YouTube personality like Dave Rubin. All have found themselves excluded from polite society — and sometimes their jobs — for suggesting, say, biological and psychological differences between men and women are real and well-documented, identity politics is polarising nonsense, courtesy in addressing opponents is essential because it confers an ability to persuade, and free speech is the sine qua non of civil society, no exceptions.

They agree on almost nothing else. The Americans involved voted variously for Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson and even Donald Trump.

What drew the core group of North Americans together was likely the ‘Evergreen incident’. Heying and her husband Bret Weinstein (also an academic at Evergreen State College, as well as Eric’s brother) objected to an all-white ‘Day of Absence’ held by their employer. White staff were told to stay away from campus for a day and leave it to black students discomforted by the 2016 presidential election result.

The episode seems bonkers to Brits and Australians whenever I describe it, but it culminated in the couple being chased off campus by a marauding mob armed with baseball bats and told to stay away by police as their ‘safety could not be guaranteed’.Evergreen apparently agreed, later paying them USD$500,000 and accepting their resignations.

As the world’s media — with a deluge of articles in outlets from Vanity Fair to Slate to Reason to The Spectator have tried to come to grips with both Quillette and the IDW, two things have been forgotten. First, Lehmann is Australian and founded the magazine when the ABC and Fairfax stopped accepting her articles, and secondly, when it comes to the IDW, Quillette defines the boundaries of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.

Pinker, Damore, Hirsi Ali and the like get by-lines, respectful interviews and thoughtful reviews, for example. Candace Owens, meanwhile, is excoriated as, well, a wingnut.

‘I have all the respect in the world for the Australian and The Spectator,’ Lehmann told me last week when I asked why she’d never approached either, ‘but my interest has always been cultural criticism and science writing and not political commentary per se.’

Lehmann wanted to write about issues that interest Australian feminists like Clementine Ford and Ruby Hamad, but she also wanted to bring her scientific — and particularly statistical — training to bear on what she wrote. A pair of articles, one by Ford, and another by Hamad, ‘suggesting that science and scientists were biased against women and were anti-feminist’ infuriated her, but a consistent refusal to write what she calls ‘fluff’ and to ‘pander to parochial biases’ meant publishing opportunities soon dried up.

She also didn’t see herself as conservative — and still doesn’t — preferring to go where the evidence leads, damn the politics. ‘I felt the Australian media environment was inward looking,’ she says, ‘and I wanted to tackle issues that went far beyond Australia, issues that are affecting all Western nations at this moment in time.’

Long before Quillette was noticed by the likes of Peterson, Lehmann proved adept at recruiting prominent British and Australian writers, including Spectator Associate Editor Toby Young. Consistent with her desire to ‘to create something original and fresh,’ however, she’s always been open to new voices, as long as they write well. To this day, the most popular article on the Quillette site — outpolling everyone from Peterson to Pinker — is by an undergraduate anthropology student at the University of Queensland, Matthew Blackwell.

He’d never had anything published anywhere previously.

Quillette and the Intellectual Dark Web are symptomatic of a wider problem, despite the magazine’s growing audience and the (new-found) success of IDW ‘members’. Almost to a man and woman they write for Lehmann and leverage their popularity in alternative media, particularly on YouTube and in multiple podcasts. National broadcasters and much of the quality press, meanwhile, have simply vacated the field, something great for IDW people, a fillip for Quillette’s editorial team — as well as a compelling tribute to the flexibility of free markets — but a depressing reflection on our culture’s ability to hold an adult conversation.

‘To me,’ Lehmann says, ‘the IDW has no clearly defined boundaries but is simply the people who log on to Twitter every day to learn something new, to share new scientific papers, to discuss cultural trends and interact civilly with each other. Most of us are alienated by the polarisation and partisanship that is present in a lot of the media, but when we interact online, we learn from each other, test out our own hypotheses, crowd-source information, share jokes and insights, and have fun.

How did that become so hard?


Helen Dale became the youngest winner of Australia’s premier literary award, the Miles Franklin, for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper. Her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked Book I Rules, was released in October 2017, and Book II Order, is published this month. She read law at Oxford.

Show comments