Dave Rubin likes to talk about ideas on his YouTube show, The Rubin Report. Best known as a leftist who left the left, he has now written a book that details his intellectual and personal evolution: Don’t Burn This Book: Thinking for Yourself in an Age of Unreason. Hopeful readers will be disappointed. Despite the book promising to “give you the tools you need to think for yourself,” the field of ideas is barren and the arguments sparse.
First, the good. Rubin’s telling of how he came out as gay at the start is moving and demonstrates the difficulty many men in his position faced and still face. Another personal anecdote is his account of the reaction from erstwhile friends on the left to The Rubin Report and his evolving arguments. The often brutal behavior of those with whom he used to be close took its toll mentally and physically, causing significant psychological strain. His personal experiences with Jordan Peterson are also interesting.
There’s not much else to recommend this book. Humor is subjective, and for me Rubin’s attempts at it read like a frat-boy trying to prove his wit. Rubin wants his reader “to walk into a bar and order a full-bodied opinion. I want you to get absolutely wasted on facts until 3:00 a.m., and then, when you’re just about ready to pass out, I want you to get another glass of reality and chug it.” Apparently this is the epistemology of the alcoholic.
Further on, Rubin explains his ambivalence over Trump’s border wall: “you could say I’m sitting on the fence — waka! waka!” When arguing against giving puberty blockers to pre-growth-spurt teenage boys whose penises aren’t big enough for vagina construction, he quips, “For the record, I’d have a huge vagina.” Douglas Murray also argued against the politicization of transgenderism in The Madness of Crowds, but he did it in an eloquent, thought provoking way. Rubin’s approach just made me think “bruh…” The sentiment sums up my experience of the book.
Don’t Burn This Book, in its humor and overall manner, is stylistically impoverished. There’s no need to engage in academese to be taken seriously, but at least write something that takes your audience seriously. One would expect some actual discussion of ideas from the ideas guy. But there aren’t any beyond the canard that the “left” believes “Democrats = good, Republicans = bad” and similar binary thinking supposedly unique to the left but on endless display in this book. Democrats are mad and bad, the media is awful, and colleges are filled with snowflakes intent on destroying Western civilization. His low-resolution approach to these issues is a milquetoast intervention in a very real social crisis.
Rubin accuses the left of being unaware, self-centered ideologues. He should’ve taken Nietzsche’s passage — which he cites — about not falling into the abyss more to heart. What is irritating and, frankly, disappointing is that Rubin’s social justice targets are often perfectly legitimate. His best chapter, “Check your Facts, not your Privilege,” addresses systemic racism, patriarchy and the wage gap, gun control and hate crimes, and offers much-needed correctives to the excesses of the social justice left. But how could anyone take these correctives seriously, nested as they are within such a frivolous, antagonistic context?
These flaws of style and substance also undermine his explanation of his philosophical beliefs. Rubin’s “classically liberal principles that stand the test of time” amount to little more than a vague “live and let live.” He does actually mention “some of history’s greatest thinkers, including John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Jefferson.” However, he doesn’t cite anything any of them have ever said to support his arguments. The fact that in arguing for free speech, Rubin didn’t mention Mill’s arguments for it speaks to a laziness and neglect that borders on a dereliction of intellectual duty. Seriously, how clueless do you have to be not to score such an open goal?
Finally, the other major problem with the book is ideological. Rubin poses as a classical liberal. In concrete terms, this means people living as hedonistically as they want as long as they don’t harm anyone else, and libertarian economics that appeal to almost no-one apart from Republican donors. Rubin’s view of the human person is the radically autonomous individual whose highest goal in life is self-realization through gaining maximum freedom. As Patrick Deneen argues, liberalism failed because it succeeded. We are detached from each other, atomized and isolated. Liberalism’s restlessness lacks any sense of restraint or limits, essential to self-mastery and a good life lived in common with others.
Our pathological individualism has bred mass conformism, overseen by an ever-expanding Leviathan state needed to deal with the collateral damage of the eradication of intermediate communities that Rubin’s worldview encourages. As David Selbourne writes, this “suicidal dialectic” of “market free-loaders and moral free-choosers” has disintegrated civil society, leaving us bereft of belonging in a newly feudal world. It is ironic that one of the only books cited by Rubin is Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism, which argues against precisely Rubin’s worldview and its results.
Don’t Burn this Book is a paean to a culture-war aesthetic and attitude that does nothing to advance any part of our cultural conversation. It is a collection of puerile jokes surrounded by low-rent ideological handwaving and disjointed facts that would be more useful if they were part of a coherent argument, which they’re not. Dave Rubin sees himself as a dissident from leftist orthodoxy. The fact that the book’s thought doesn’t advance beyond this reactive stance demonstrates that Rubin is stuck in the flawed psychology of the tribal culture war mind, mirroring the very “SJWs” he opposes.