“I do want to give Rubin the fairest shake I possibly can. As such, instead of commenting on the book generally, I will look at some of the book’s arguments in detail and break them down…”
pril 28th was the day the world was introduced at last to political commentator Dave Rubin’s much-anticipated book. Ambitiously entitled Don’t Burn This Book: Thinking For Yourself in an Age of Unreason, Rubin’s book sets several goals for itself. It is partly an autobiographical account of how Rubin’s own political ideology changed; part of the book is somewhat of a self-help guide for others going through the same experience, and part of it is a defense of what he defines as his new ideology: classical liberalism. His new ideology is conceived of as mainly against the Left. As a general idea for a book, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, I would argue it is a worthy endeavor. Changing one’s mind is a good thing; it can be a sign of growth. Hilary Putnam, who was arguably one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, was famous for constantly revising his own philosophical theories, often completely abandoning some ideas. Surely, ideological change can be a difficult experience for those undergoing it, so providing some kind of guidance for it is valuable.
The problem, however, is that Rubin is no Putnam. The book, for the most part, reads like a “Greatest Hits” album of conservative clichés. Even the conservative magazine Spectator gave the book a negative review. I do want to give Rubin the fairest shake I possibly can. As such, instead of commenting on the book generally, I will look at some of the book’s arguments in detail and break them down—or, as the radical left social justice warrior I surely am, I might say “unpack them.” Now, there is no way I can do that for the whole book. Entire essays could be written about each individual chapter and about one single paragraph, so I will try to address those points that I see as the most important threads that run through the book. To illustrate what I mean by this, when I began reading, I thought I would devote some attention to Rubin’s naïve realism. (He describes the process of acquiring knowledge as if one can simply look at the world and get an objective, unfiltered picture of it.) I imagined it would be important to mention important debates that philosophers of science have been having for decades about perception, its impact on what we call “facts” and “knowledge,” and the limits of objectivity, among other subject that Rubin simply takes for granted when he writes sentences such as “I want you to get absolutely wasted on facts.” By the middle of the book, however, this no longer seemed to be a priority. Needless to say, the same thing happened with many other of his arguments. When relevant, I might mention other issues in passing and point in the direction of a more enlightening discussion of it.
If it is not abundantly clear by now, my general impression of the book is mostly negative. That does not mean I disagree with every point that Rubin makes, and it is only fair that I mention some of the aspects that I think he gets right. He makes a fine case for why certain drugs should be decriminalized, while others should remain illegal. I ultimately disagree, and I would argue that most—if not all—drugs should be legal. But his point that some substances have a high potential to go beyond self-harm and harm others is one that can be reasonably discussed. There are a few other points that I agree with, but I will mention one in particular because I think it probably suggests which others of his positions I agree with. Also, some readers might find this choice surprising coming from someone on the Left. I think Rubin’s position is correct on the now infamous Christian bakery vs. gay wedding cake issue. I would frame it somewhat differently. I would frame it in terms of how we would judge the issue if there were no money involved. No one would think that the baker should be taken to court for refusing to bake the cake if it had been asked as a favor—or if it were an informal sale between two private persons, instead of a formal establishment. I do not think that having a for-profit business changes the moral calculation, as long as it is a privately owned “mom and pop” shop, as opposed to a franchise establishment or owned by a publicly traded company. Small family businesses, especially those directly operated by their owners should not be seen as being different from the owners themselves. The owners themselves would be the ones making the cake. As businesses get larger, however, they increasingly rely on public services, and the responsibility of a single commission or request gets diffused among the many employees. Services like electricity, roads, water, police protection, are provided by the community become essential, and I do think it is legitimate for the community to impose some regulation. In addition, it is no longer required that the Christian owner directly bakes the cake.
There are other instances of claims or arguments that I find reasonable, like the two just mentioned. Sadly, none of these are central themes of the book. The first significant thread that runs throughout the book is the idea of the Left as some kind of overbearing antagonist. The problem is that this proverbial “Left,” for Rubin, is little more than an amalgamation of the most ridiculous version of the Right’s antagonists. It includes, of course, college students and activists but also socialists, a significant fraction of the media, Washington think tanks and the Democratic Party. More substantively, however, anyone who has spent even a few hours reading about left-wing ideology, would realize that the Left, particularly the Left that comes from a socialist tradition, has very little to do with any of the other elements that Rubin groups under the “Left” designator. The very idea that the modern Democratic Party can be considered left-wing should raise suspicion, and the same goes for much of the rest of the groups that Rubin designates as such.
Former President Barack Obama’s signature achievement in terms of domestic policy was the Affordable Care Act. One of the central components of this bill is what is called the “individual mandate.” This means that, rather than requiring that the government provide insurance or healthcare, the law mandates individuals to purchase private health insurance services. This is an idea conceived of by economist Mark Pauly, who originally envisioned it as the Bush Administration’s healthcare policy. Media Matters, one of the non-profit organizations mentioned by Rubin, and which he explicitly calls “far left” was founded by David Brock. Brock was one of President Obama’s top advisors and the main architects of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. The notion that an organization close to President Obama’s and Secretary Clinton’s circles could be considered “far left” is preposterous. Ironically, Rubin often complains about this proverbial Left (that he antagonizes in the book) throwing the term “far-right” around too easily. I could even concede this point, but one cannot have it both ways. If Media Matters is a far-left organization, then Rubin and his ideological allies are far-right.
One of Rubin’s central criticisms of the Left—or what he calls the Left—is that it deploys arguments based on identity politics and victimization too often. Other than a few anecdotes of campus activists heckling or shouting down conservative speakers, Rubin provides little evidence to back up this claim. The most obvious reason for this is that evidence would actually point in the opposite direction, especially if describing those on what we might meaningfully call “the Left.” One academic who is unquestionably a leftist is University of Pennsylvania Professor Adolph Reed Jr. Reed is a staunch advocate of class-based politics, often adopting Marxist points of view. Reed is also a fierce critic of identity politics, and even of the concept of “antiracism.” For him, the very idea of a single monolithic black community is a neoliberal construct used to make black elites the legitimate representatives of all blacks in the United States, thus erasing fundamental divisions predicated on class. Rubin argues on multiple occasions that the Left’s goal is to present everything in terms of immutable identities such as race and gender, which is completely at odds with Reed’s actual left-wing perspective. Just to give another example, in a 2017 piece for Current Affairs, Briahna Joy Grey, who went on to become Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign press secretary, attacked the notion of cultural appropriation as having gone too far.
Incidentally, a cursory glance at the front pages of other left-wing publications such as Jacobin or Dissent will readily show that the Left is focused primarily on economic and material issues. The primary focus is not on calling everyone they disagree with a racist or a Nazi, as Rubin claims repeatedly. And, in fact, one of the earliest and most thoughtful critiques of what we now call “cancel culture” is the now-classic essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” by British leftist philosopher Mark Fisher. What makes all of this the more ironic (and irony abounds throughout the book) is that Rubin constantly reminds us that we ought to challenge our beliefs and engage in conversation, yet there is no effort in the book to challenge his own beliefs about the Left. Lastly on this subject, while not strictly about the book but certainly about what the book espouses, Rubin seems very unwilling to have conversations with leftists. Not one of the guests he cites in the book are leftists, and he has consistently turned down invitations to debate leftists, such as The Majority Report’s Sam Seder. As far as I am aware, the only credibly left-wing guest he has ever had on his show is former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson (more on this exchange later).
Now, it is true that Mussolini did read Marx at an early age. It seems strange for Rubin, however, writing a book on ideological transformations, to assume that this fact makes Mussolini a leftist for life.
Before moving to the next big topic, I want to end this discussion of (mis)characterizations of the Left with an all-time classic: the idea that nazis and fascists were, in fact, leftists. There is— once again—some irony here, given that one of Rubin’s chief complaints about the Left is its purported overuse of the “Nazi” epithet. Like many conservative outlets, notably PragerU, Rubin claims that the fascist movements of the 20th century, particularly Nazism and Italian fascism, were left-wing movements. His evidence for this is that Benito Mussolini was “[r]aised on Karl Marx’s Das Kapital” and that the full name of the Nazi party includes the word “Socialist”—and that they took voters from the Social Democrats and the Communists. Now, it is true that Mussolini did read Marx at an early age. It seems strange for Rubin, however, writing a book on ideological transformations, to assume that this fact makes Mussolini a leftist for life. Giovanni Gentile, an Italian philosopher who provided much of the ideological framework of fascism, does acknowledge that Mussolini had read Marx, but he also makes it abundantly clear that fascists and socialists were not aligned. As for the Nazis, a clear example that Rubin widely misrepresents history is the role of philosopher and jurist Carl Schmitt within the Nazi regime. Schmitt was largely responsible for much of the legal justifications that allowed the Nazis to take power in Germany, as well as for the legal architecture of the Nazi regime. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Schmitt explains, he narrowly escaped being tried at Nuremberg after the war, but he remained a virtual outcast, with the exception of West Germany’s conservative circles where he remained an important figure until the end of his life. Rubin decries the contemporary association of Nazism with conservatism given that, in his view, it was a leftist movement. Yet, it was conservatives, not leftists, who rehabilitated the legal architect of the Nazi regime. This, of course, does not mean that conservatives are Nazis in any way, but it does show why this association makes little more sense than the one Rubin suggests.
The next big thread that is present throughout the book is the defense of classical liberalism. This relates to many other themes in the book such as Rubin’s insistence on the open exchange of ideas—and how this made the United States the greatest country in the world. Rubin’s version of the story is that classical liberalism was the ideology of the Founding Fathers, and this permeated throughout the country’s original institutions, instilling strong values of liberty, individualism, self-reliance, and the like. This ideology, in turn, supports the United States’ free market capitalist economy, which, in turn, makes the American Dream possible. This is now, under attack by the Left, which dismisses all of this on the basis of the Founding Fathers being straight white men For Rubin, this is also the reason why the Left hates America—and the American ideological tradition. Now, it is undoubtedly true that the Founding Fathers were influenced by thinkers we can correctly call classical liberals, such as John Locke. The problem is that the story is much more complicated, in terms of the ideology of the Founders, in terms of Rubin’s account of classical liberalism, and, unsurprisingly, in terms of his characterization of the Left on these matters.
Scholars such as the historian J.G.A. Pocock have argued that we ought to see the Founders as thinkers in the Greek and Roman republican tradition that was revived in Italy during the Renaissance by thinkers such as Machiavelli and Savonarola.
As I mentioned, Rubin is not entirely wrong in pointing out a connection between classical liberalism and the founding of the United States. However, to claim that classical liberalism was the country’s founding ideology is dubious at best. Scholars such as the historian J.G.A. Pocock have argued that we ought to see the Founders as thinkers in the Greek and Roman republican tradition that was revived in Italy during the Renaissance by thinkers such as Machiavelli and Savonarola. This thinking was then carried over to England most notably by James Harrington, and it was eventually inherited by the American Founding Fathers. This is clear in the Founders’ use of language borrowed from Machiavelli, such as in the Founders’ focus on corruption, as well as in their frequent references to Rome.
This may seem like pedantic scholarly nitpicking, but it is actually highly relevant. This ties directly with the claim that the Left is no longer liberal, as well as with the alleged disconnect between the modern left and the American intellectual tradition. A crucial part of the difference between the two traditions is the different understandings of the concept of liberty for classical liberals and republicans. For the former, liberty is understood as the absence from external impediments to carrying out one’s will. This is why liberals place a strong emphasis on limits to government powers and action. For republicans, however, it is not about impediments, so much as not being subject to another’s will. Alex Gourevitch, professor of Political Science at Brown University has studied the republican tradition in later periods of American history. During the mid 19th century, organizations of laborers started emerging which explicitly invoked the republican principles of the American Revolution, and they applied it to the concept of wage labor. They called themselves “labor republicans.” Property relations between factory owners and their workers, they argued, effectively subjected the will of workers to that of the owners. This was because the need for a wage bound them to capital owners. These Labor Republicans called it wage-slavery. Their proposal, which again they traced to the principles of the American Revolution, was to reorganize factories and plantations so that each would be owned collectively by their workers. This movement, incidentally, was an indirect influence on Karl Marx, who, as Cambridge historian Quentin Skinner notes, also uses “neo-Roman” vocabulary. Historians seem to agree, then, that there are important aspects of both the Founding Fathers’ and Marx’s ideas, which come from the same intellectual tradition.
There is an extensive history of left-wing radical and worker movements in the United States. The previously mentioned example is but one, yet Rubin completely ignores it. But in ignoring these instances, he is then able to claim that the Left hates the country and its principles because they were written by “straight white men.” Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the subject of Take Hold of Our History: Make America Radical Again, the 2019 book by University of Wisconsin professor of history Harvey J. Kaye. In this book, Kaye provides a history of American radical thinkers and movements and how they have shaped the country. Many of these include men and women of color, like the labor republicans mentioned before, but many others, including those cited by Kaye (such as Thomas Paine and President Franklin D. Roosevelt) are, of course, straight white men.
It should be noted that many of the authors that Chomsky cites as his own influences such as Wilhelm Von Humboldt are, in fact, classical liberals.
Rubin’s remarks on the Founding Fathers and the Left’s relation to American intellectual history are shaky at best. But even on classical liberalism, he is not as sure-footed as he should be. He relates the classical liberal conception of freedom to the basis for capitalism. But this is a mistake. One first reason for this is that classical liberalism predates industrial capitalism by a few hundred years. Noam Chomsky, one of the most renowned leftist intellectuals in America, makes this case in his essay “Language and Freedom.” It should be noted that many of the authors that Chomsky cites as his own influences such as Wilhelm Von Humboldt are, in fact, classical liberals. All of these classical liberals support private property, but none of them could have predicted something like multinational corporations, which have as much power to encroach on individual liberty as the state. Therefore, to claim that classical liberalism must necessarily provide a defense of modern capitalism is incorrect.
Rubin’s other dubious claim when it comes to classical liberalism has to do with nationalism. While discussing immigration, he endorses a nationalist position, which he says is influenced by Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism. He also claims that this nationalism “embodies many fundamental tenets of classical liberalism.” Now, this is outright false. One of the key principles of liberalism is that the individual is the ultimate source of moral value. The legitimacy of the state, for a liberal, derives from the consent of the governed. For the nationalist, the nation itself has moral value, hence the name. The two positions are fundamentally at odds. Now, this does not mean that there can be no such thing as liberal nationalism. British philosopher David Miller has defended this position. Yet Miller’s nationalism is a very moderate form of nationalism, predicated on the usefulness of nations in making liberal commitments more easily realizable. Miller also takes the trouble to explain how to ease tensions between the two ideologies. This is not Hazony’s more robust cultural nationalism. I would be surprised if Hazony considers himself even ideologically close to classical liberals. Now, it is possible that one could make this stronger form of nationalism with liberalism, but it would require an entire book. Even Rubin’s own arguments on immigration lay these tensions bare. One of the principles he insists on is the fact that we should be respectful of those whose ideologies we find repugnant, or even bigoted. Yet he also claims that one of the problems with immigration is that people coming from other countries might hold beliefs incompatible with Western liberal societies, such as anti-gay beliefs. There is nothing logically wrong with this last argument, but it is clearly inconsistent with his own prescriptions elsewhere.
There are many other issues with the book, but a final one that I believe deserves specific attention is Rubin’s treatment of the issue of privilege, whether it be white, male, or otherwise. Rubin’s main contention is that the notion of privilege is ridiculous in Western liberal societies, such as the United States. In the book, he points to his conversation with conservative commentator Larry Elder as the moment he realized this. In his telling, when he interviewed Elder, a black man, he still believed white privilege was an issue. Elder pressed him to mention examples of privilege of systemic racism, which left Rubin speechless. Elder then proceeded to cite police shooting statistics from Chicago, which showed a higher rate of fatalities from the police for whites than blacks. To me, however, this just shows Rubin’s preference for presenting only one side of the argument. This anecdote almost exactly mirrors his interview with then-presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. In it, Williamson mentions systemic racism, which prompts Rubin to press her for an example. She proceeds to mention several. Rubin does not have any answers to her examples and simply asks about another issue. There is no mention of this interaction in the book.
However, this is not the main issue. The two main forms of discrimination Rubin attempts to falsify are systemic racism and sexism. The problem is he does this in ways that are mutually contradictory. In terms of racism, he looks mostly at police violence and police shootings. Other than the data mentioned by Elder, he mentions two scholarly articles. The first is “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force” by economist Roland Fryer, in which he finds, using data for the city of Houston, that blacks are 23.5% less likely than whites to be fatally shot by police. The second is “The Reverse Racism Effect” by Lois James, et al., which analyses police officers in a simulated situation and finds that they tend to be more hesitant to pull the trigger with blacks. One notable omission is that both of these studies present a much more nuanced view than Rubin does. Fryer’s analysis, for example, also finds that non-whites are much more likely to be victims of police brutality, and James’ paper argues that the findings are true despite the fact that many police officers harbor implicit racial biases.
Other academic studies using national data, however, have reached the opposite conclusions. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the National Medical Association (using state-level data for all states) found that both for armed and unarmed victims of police shootings, blacks are more likely to be shot than whites. However, to see the fundamental problem, it is useful to look at what Rubin says about sexism. Rubin argues that—if anything—men are more oppressed than women. As evidence, he points, among other things, to the fact that men are imprisoned at much higher rates than women and receive harsher sentences for the same offenses. Now, this is true, and even feminist scholars have pointed this out. But this is exactly the case in terms of blacks vs. whites. The latter receive lighter sentences and are imprisoned at much lower rates. Rubin spends an inordinate amount of time discussing black homicide rates for someone who also complains about the Left making everything about essential traits such as skin color. Presumably, this is to explain the disparity in sentencing: Blacks are imprisoned more because they commit more offenses. This is true, as Williamson points out, even for offenses such as drug consumption. But what really makes it ironic is that his argument on sexism undermines his argument on racism and vice versa. Compared to women, men also commit overwhelmingly more crime, which is reflected in prison statistics. But Rubin only uses crime rates to justify black incarceration rates, yet he remains silent on them for male rates. People can decide whether these examples constitute systemic oppression. What is not acceptable is to use mutually contradictory standards to argue different points.
As my Merion West colleague Matt McManus notes in his review of Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds, “[t]he anti-Social Justice Warrior (SJW) monograph written by an up-and-coming conservative commentator is practically a genre of literature at this point.” This is Rubin’s contribution to the genre, and his Intellectual Dark Web companions have praised him for it. Ben Shapiro, for example, wrote that “Dave Rubin’s willingness to have tough conversations with those with whom he disagrees has made him a political force—and a target. This book shows why.” Jordan Peterson also praised his “genuine curiosity and willingness to seriously consider opinions across the political spectrum.” Having read the book, I find this praise out of place. I see no evidence of curiosity or willingness to have tough conversations, especially with the other side of the political spectrum. As McManus argues in his review, some conservatives such as Peter Lawler have contributed thoughtfully to this genre. But the praise for Rubin coming from figures such as Peterson and Shapiro makes me wonder whether this genre has become an entirely self-serving activity for conservatives—or if they just have double standards for what counts as engagement with ideas from the Left. I genuinely welcome thoughtful discussion. This is something for which Rubin consistently argues. I tried to reflect this in the review, and so I hope those that disagree with me will take the criticism with the same mindset.
Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.