On the Limits of Dave Rubin’s Cultural Politics

Dave Rubin speaks at the 2019 Young Americans for Liberty Convention in Austin, Texas, September 6, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
Don't buy Don’t Burn This Book. But don't deny Rubin's appeal.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE R ecently on Twitter I saw someone make a thread of their favorite meals — the best meals they’d ever eaten. It was all Italian countryside this, New York hole-in-the-wall that, Asian metropolis, Michelin star, and so on, complete with gorgeous pictures. I could remember a few meals I’d had like that. But I found it easier to remember the first times I’d eaten certain things: sushi from a grocery store; roasted peppers on soggy bread with a “tapenade” — whatever that is — in a college dining hall; and, most of all, grilled chicken and rice pilaf at a Denny’s near a hotel in, I think, Philadelphia. I love grilled chicken; I’ve eaten a lot of great grilled chicken since then. But there’s a sense in which it all started at that Denny’s. If I went to Denny’s today, I’d probably hate their grilled chicken. But if I’d never gone to that Denny’s to begin with — who knows?

You may be wondering what Don’t Burn This Book: Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Unreason, the new book by Dave Rubin — the host of The Rubin Report, interview show and centerpiece of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web — has to do with Denny’s grilled chicken. Well, you see, Dave Rubin is the Denny’s — the memorable if unspectacular entryway — of a certain brand of cultural politics, a brand with which I’ve become somewhat entangled. Some problems with Rubin’s book have already been pointed out. For instance, he gets some facts wrong and makes some incoherent arguments (my favorite: He says that the idea of reverse psychology came from “German philosopher Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, back in 1970,” but Adorno died in 1969), he talks a lot about ideas but doesn’t seem to have any of his own, and he may have taken one of the book’s best ideas from Bridget Phetasy. I’ll add another problem right now: There are several spelling and grammatical mistakes in the book, hallmarks of the poor editing endemic to contemporary publishing. (They get pretty egregious: His brother is acknowledged as “Jonat]han,” and I don’t think Elon Musk named him.)

But what I really want to know is: What makes Dave Rubin, like Denny’s, seem both so good to people who are new to this — to the so-called Intellectual Dark Web and its process of questioning progressive pieties — and so bad to people who have some experience with it? How can the process of acquiring a taste lead you to so strongly dislike the thing that introduced you to that taste to begin with? If we don’t like Rubin anymore — and he’s faced plenty of criticism from fellow members of the Intellectual Dark Web — does that mean we have to start hating the things to which, in our own experiences, sampling our share of Rubin led?

Rubin’s book starts out as a bit of a time capsule, a recapitulation of the greatest hits of Internet outrage from the mid 2010s. Rubin had been a stand-up comedian and then a talk-show host affiliated with the progressive Young Turks. Having himself been a progressive for most of his life, his experience being associated with progressive media, and the general distaste for disagreement and free thinking he felt he observed in progressive circles led him first to lose his hair — an episode he describes in the book, which does elicit some sympathy in the reader — and then his faith in progressivism. After describing his own experiences, Rubin covers Ben Affleck’s tussle with Sam Harris on Bill Maher’s show, the failure of some progressives to adequately condemn the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and the “cancellations” of figures such as Bret Weinstein, Lindsay Shepherd, and James Damore. Rubin explains that witnessing these excesses of progressivism led him back into the political philosophy of “classical liberalism” which had been abandoned by “the regressive left.” How? Well, the main factor seems to have been that the progressives became obsessed with group identity, while the classical liberals saw individual rights as paramount. This is a bit confused in Rubin’s presentation. He writes: “Progressivism has traded a love of individual rights for paternalistic, insincere concern for the collective. It judges people based upon their skin color, gender, and sexuality, thus imagining them as competitors in an Oppression Olympics in which victimhood is virtue.” Of course Rubin thinks progressivism is wrong, but why does he call it insincere? And what’s the relationship between a focus on groups and a focus on victimhood? Individuals can be victims too, and individuals can parlay all sorts of victim narratives that have nothing to do with their membership in any sorts of groups.

Rubin provides a list of classical-liberal principles. The first item on the list is “DRUGS.” The discussions in this section are a bit uneven. For instance, about abortion he avers that “life begins the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg.” But he gives abstract reasons, from the realm of political theory, that abortion should still be legal: “Personal views of morality and public standards of law butt heads in an intractable opposition. . . .This is the constant push and pull between the private and the public. . . . The belief in individual freedom must extend to having confidence in people making the best decisions for themselves — even if we personally believe they are ethically and morally wrong.” Rubin never says exactly why abortion presents a unique challenge for this sort of balancing.

On free speech, too, which should be one of Rubin’s strengths, his ideas aren’t quite clear. He writes that people are “scared of being ‘unpersoned’ by social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. . . . As private companies, they’re free to do whatever they want, but censorship is not a solution to bad ideas.” Then, writing about Colin Kaepernick, he says: “The NFL team’s owners were . . . free to decide if they wanted to keep Kaepernick or let him go for being too much of a distraction. . . . Nobody was silenced; everybody got to make their point.” I don’t doubt that there are ways of differentiating the Kaepernick case from the Big Tech cases, but Rubin doesn’t even try! In the one case, he simply says that a private company’s decision is censorship; in the other, he simply says that “nobody was silenced.” At least some awareness of likely counterarguments would be nice.

But the examples in Rubin’s tale of “leaving the left,” hackneyed as it may be by now, are well-picked, and the stories are not always poorly told. Some are very familiar. Some involve Rubin himself, such as a story about a New York Times cover story “The Making of a YouTube Radical.” Apparently this YouTube radical watched Rubin’s program, and so Rubin was blamed in part for his radicalization and that of “countless” others in which web surfers are “seduced by a community of far-right creators” by the YouTube recommendation algorithm, which sees that a surfer enjoys videos of a particular political bent and proceeds to show them more, and may “travel all the way to neo-Nazism” or “stop at milder forms of bigotry.” But the subject of the story, Rubin writes, “ended up watching far-left content. Yes, that’s right. The article about YouTube radicalizing people to the far right ends with the subject becoming a lefty. You can’t make this s*** up.” But this is a little glib on Rubin’s part. In fact, the article describes its subject spending five years in “a vortex of far-right politics,” and it describes some lefty YouTubers trying quite intentionally to combat the alt-right’s YouTube style in order to “deradicalize” people like the article’s subject. So Rubin has, without outright lying, given a false impression of the Times story. However, his instinct to dismiss the Times’ narrative is probably right. Researchers Mark Ledwich and Anna Zaitsev have found that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm has an overall deradicalizing effect, not a radicalizing one.

Mainstream handwringing about alt-right videos often comes from journalists who are upset to see even one recommendation for content they disagree with. Unfortunately, Rubin expresses a similar sort of idea, writing that “our factory settings — everything the system teaches us to believe — are programmed into us from a young age.” For Rubin, ideas like “Democrats = good, Republicans = bad” are “easily swallowed by the idealistic and impressionable youth. The message is even more appealing when it’s constantly reinforced through academia, the media, and celebrity [sic], which make it look cool and credible.” But this is a theory of entertainment radicalizing a gullible consumer not unlike the one advanced in the New York Times story to which he objected. So which is it: Are people gullible and easily brainwashed, or can they be trusted to think for themselves? Though he has some good instincts and interesting “takes,” Rubin can’t quite corral facts or principles into a coherent, consistent argument without a guest or partner of some sort helping him out. On his own, in this book, he seems to end up flailing.

Rubin is at his worst when he’s trying to explain and argue for his own views. But he is at his best in at least a few places in the book, as the interviewer-cum-character he’s developed and made so popular. There is a certain kind of magnanimity to this character that dissipates any mystery about why former guests on his show are by and large so loyal to him. Rubin takes many opportunities in the book — though maybe not quite as many as he should — to shift the focus from his own views to those of various guests he’s had on his show. He admiringly describes his interactions with Jordan Peterson, “the Michael Jordan of psychology,” on some sort of international tour: “I realized that [Peterson]’s moments of humility were something I had implemented in my own work. In fact, it was a founding principle of my (frequently criticized) interview approach. Sometimes I’d be seeking knowledge or clarity as much as the viewer at home . . . and wasn’t afraid to ask for it.” (Ellipsis in original.) And he describes in detail being “owned” by conservative commentator Larry Elder when Elder appeared on The Rubin Report before Rubin had fully “left the left.” Throughout, Rubin presents himself as just an amateur trying his best to make sense of the world, helped out by people he really admires: his guests.

Rubin once famously said during an interview: “I have to say that my brain is still in recovery mode from taking in so many high-level, important ideas.” The listener gets to see things from his perspective and begin to take in new ideas. This is the sense in which Rubin is both a character and an interviewer, as I suppose most interviewers are — and his character is the protagonist, the audience stand-in, who leaves home for the first time and sees a whole world open up before them. Rubin spends a lot of time writing about the stress — and sometimes illness — that for him came with becoming “politically homeless.” He’s the hobbit, not the powerful wizard; it’s all a bit much for him.

Here’s one theory. What makes Rubin bad is precisely what makes Rubin good. The sort of dull charm that makes him smilingly uncomprehending of disagreement in one case helps him bulldoze through obstacles in another. So, for instance, when a journalist scolds him for having two ex-Muslims on his show, he writes that the journalist “heavily implied that I’m somehow ‘Islamophobic,’ which seems more disturbing to him than [one guest]’s arranged marriage or [the other guest]’s brother being killed by jihadists.” I think of what my own reaction would be. I might try to understand the charge, to see how I might defend myself. But Rubin just waltzes through it. The real issue isn’t what he’s been accused of; it’s what the journalist is focused on. And he’s right! Rubin is right that it’s the journalist, and not him, who comes off as inhumane and opportunistic. Now, there’s no sophistication in seeing this. It’s an intuitive piece of human psychology. It has all the class of the grilled chicken at Denny’s. But it works. And this sort of straightforward judgment, backed only by sheer human instinct, will seem sophomoric to those with more than a few days of experience with these debates for just the same reason that it will seem refreshing to those who are new to them. It was refreshing to me, too, once, to think that I could employ such instincts in addition to the muck of academic theories and empirical data I always muddled through in order to make my own arguments.  But this can only be the start of a new way of thinking about things. Right now, though, that’s the best that Dave Rubin can manage.

Probably nobody should buy this book. And definitely nobody should burn this book — among other bad consequences, that would drive up sales. But nobody should deny Rubin’s appeal, either. In an overwhelming world where everyone is trying to seem like the expert with all the answers, Rubin bumbles along, wide-eyed, a daring escapee from his former friends on the left to the towering figures he now interviews for a living. It’s a coming-of-age story about a man who hasn’t yet come of age.

Oliver Traldi — Mr. Traldi is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame.

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