Dave Rubin is an “ideas” guy on the political right, in the sense that he seems to get off on saying the word “ideas.” His new book, Don’t Burn This Book: Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Unreason, is an effort to prove Rubin actually understands ideas, at least to the point where he can expound on them with modest consistency and plausibility.
But while the book raises a few scattered arguments of worth, most of it consists of vague appeals to historical ideologies better unpacked elsewhere, celebrity bashing, seemingly endless penis jokes, fan service, and outrage at outrage culture. By the time the last page turns, you find yourself pondering whether Rubin the intellectual is actually a big joke pulled by Rubin the comedian. Sadly, the punch line still hasn’t landed.
A Critique of Empty Reason
That’s right people, I want you to walk into a bar and order yourselves a full-bodied opinion. I want you to get absolutely wasted on facts until 3:00 am, and then, when you’re just about ready to pass out, I want you to get another large glass of reality and chug it.
—Dave Rubin, Don’t Burn This Book.
By this point the anti–“social justice warrior” tome has joined the “campus activism and left-wing academics are ruining our country” monograph as a minor genre in conservative circles. At its core Rubin’s book is little different from many others under this umbrella. It features complaints about people who complain a lot and demands that “social justice warriors” grow up, clean their room, and stop whining about being victims. And lest the faithful contend that this characterization is unfair, this is a book where Rubin unironically muses over whether Jordan Peterson is “a Jesus-like figure.” (Rubin concludes that no, Peterson is in fact “just as human as you or me.” Thank God we sorted that out.)
A similar grandstand and performative contradiction pervades the book. Consider the first pages of Don’t Burn This Book, which claims “the left has completely lost its mind” by attacking “sane, decent people who happen to be fiscally conservative” and then seven pages later insists that “tribalism is dead.” Throughout we also get a load of facts that turn out to be pretty nonfactual, like the claim that Ukraine is a member of NATO, and hard truths that turn out to be pretty soft, such as Rubin’s claim that the United States — which engaged in mass expansion westward and then across the world from the late eighteenth century onward, occupying everywhere from California to the Philippines — is “not an imperialist country” since it was “literally founded on a pushback against imperialism.” It’s not like anyone was “literally” inhabiting the country before the Mayflower arrived and the pilgrims celebrated Thanksgiving.
This isn’t to say that everything in Rubin’s book is bad. His account of coming out of the closet as a young man is moving and even inspiring at points. There is also some truth to his argument that some elements of the Left can be excessively puritanical. As far back as 2013, the late socialist Mark Fisher was warning that online leftists were falling into a pattern where they were driven by a “priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first in the crowd to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.” Unfortunately, the lesson didn’t sink in, and to this day leftist commentators like ContraPoints raise alarm bells about the perils of “cancel culture.”
In the book, Rubin often goes for low-hanging fruit when lambasting Ben Affleck for shaming Bill Maher rather than arguing against his (repugnant) screeds against Islam, or mocking left-wing Twitter for erupting with shouts of “NAZI!” every time he hosts Ben Shapiro. But low-hanging fruit is still fruit, and we would be wise to recognize that this kind of behavior is manna from heaven to the political right.
The right-wing outrage machine is just waiting to magnify any slipup, and the best way to counter it is to refuse to give them any material. If that were to happen, right-wing pundits would have to get by on the strength of their ideas. And if Rubin’s book is any indication, that would be very, very bad for them.
By far the worst portions of Don’t Burn This Book are the sections where Rubin tries to spell out his own interpretation of classical liberal philosophy. This might sound strange since Rubin really wants you to buy into him being a “classical liberal.” In the longest chapter, “Think Freely or Die,” he bounces between describing the term in religious, sexual, and commodified terms to get the point across.
True liberalism, classical liberalism, was the political philosophy I was looking for. I’d been temporarily mind-hijacked by progressivism because it seemed like a louder, sexier liberalism. I returned with a new appreciation for classically liberal values. Sure I’d dumped them for a newer model — but they were the original and best. (New Coke is to Classic Coke as progressivism is to classical liberalism.)
Rubin proceeds to invoke a lofty heritage that includes “John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Jefferson.” But nowhere are these thinkers’ actual ideas engaged with in any substance — and it shows.
After discussing his own experiments with drugs, Rubin opines that marijuana should be legal while insisting that “Schedule I substances such as crack and heroin are obviously very different beasts.” It is ok, Rubin argues, for the state to restrict access to these substances because neighborhoods with high addiction rates “ain’t pretty” and “human beings have a track record of succumbing to indulgence.”
But the whole ethos of classical liberalism as espoused by someone like Mill in On Liberty is a person’s distaste and apparent concern for another’s “good . . . is not a sufficient warrant” for the use of state power to regulate behavior. “Over himself, over his own mind and body the individual is sovereign” — the individual alone decides if they are willing to pay the price of addiction, not Dave Rubin.
Later in the chapter, Rubin writes that nationalism is a “commonsense approach” and approvingly cites the conservative philosopher Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. Yet nowhere does Rubin address Hazony’s condemnation of liberalism as a “political dogma” or engage with his criticism of liberals like Immanuel Kant, who supported a cosmopolitan project where nationalism would give way to an international legal order.
Kant’s position was not coincidental: many of the classical liberals that Rubin touts saw their project as spreading a doctrine of universalistic individualism that would eventually reach all parts of the globe. They insisted that nationalism, plagued by particularism, was at best an anachronistic complement and at worst a form of “heteronomy” that led people to think in traditionalist terms rather than bothering to think for themselves.
Finally, Rubin ruminates on foreign policy and insists that any:
sane foreign policy protects our homeland, enhances foreign relationships with democratic allies, helps spread the ideas of human freedom, and uses its military might only when absolutely necessary. This concept is not imperialist, nor pacifist. It is realist.
It is not at all clear what Rubin means here. If he just means realistic, then it is unclear why such a vague description counts. What does it mean to “spread ideas of human freedom?” Whose conception of freedom counts? When and who decides if “military force is absolutely necessary”?
Or maybe Rubin is invoking the international relations theory of realism. Rubin is, after all, an ideas guy. But historically, realists have neither been particularly liberal nor especially impressed by cute ideas about spreading freedom and protecting allies. From Thucydides onward, adherents of the school have insisted that the world is fundamentally governed by power rather than ideas — the “strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”
If Rubin really thinks it’s the United States’ job to “spread the ideas of human freedom” without using force, he is positioning himself against realism and situating himself in the long and very utopian tradition of liberal internationalism. Except with little of the compassion and vision, however misguided, of the best of the liberal internationalists.
A Vacuous Man
Early in the book, Rubin criticizes German chancellor Angela Merkel for accepting “millions of immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan and other troubled nations.” Later he criticizes Barack Obama for drawing a red line in Syria and not following through, mocking Obama for making America look like a “paper tiger” that a “stiff wind” could knock over.
You wouldn’t know it from reading Rubin, but most of these “immigrants” were in fact refugees fleeing from conflicts the United States had unleashed. Rubin’s decision to ignore or even condemn millions of victims fleeing humanitarian catastrophes, while complaining about the damage to America’s reputation, speaks to his vacuous politics. For Rubin, everything operates at the surface, on the level of affect, completely removed from the real complexities of the world and its moral challenges. Ironically, even the history of classical liberalism is not spared this reductive flatness.
But at least on page sixty we learn that if Rubin ever decided to turn his penis into a vagina, he would wind up with a “huge” one.