I like Dave Rubin. For a while, I considered him to be representative of a phenomenon that I hope keeps picking up steam: the detachment of left-leaning moderates from a radical left obsessed with a silly game of point-scoring against the right powered by a virulent and cynical use of identity politics. That’s how I came to know him, and appreciate him, given that I have, in the past two years or so, gone through that transition as well. Now, though I still agree with Rubin on many things, I’m beginning to question whether the transition he’s going through is the one I initially diagnosed.
For those who don’t know Rubin, he got his first real taste of spotlight as a member of “The Young Turks,” a popular online TV show that features political analysis from a perspective that’s further to the left than virtually anything one can see on mainstream American television. He left the show and the group, however, when he could not reconcile his disagreements with TYT figurehead Cenk Uygur, who went down the radical road I described above. This became painfully obvious when Uygur insisted upon misrepresenting the views of neuroscientist/philosopher Sam Harris, whose criticism of religion in general but more specifically of Islam caused outrage in certain left-wing circles. (Those who saw Ben Affleck’s rambling, incoherent attack on Harris when they were both on Bill Maher’s show “Real Time” can attest to this. Also, if you have more patience than I do, you can watch this conversation between Uygur and Harris, of which the Youtube title is complete wishful thinking, and read or listen to accounts of the aftermath as proof of Uygur’s complete bad faith.)
All this to say that Rubin, like many, was brought to question his allegiance to the left following this episode, and many others in which so-called right-wing speakers were de-platformed and/or attacked on university campuses in the U.S. The left, he figured, was putting feelings ahead of reason, group think over individual responsibility, and cared far too little about free speech. Up to this point, he and I are agreed.
He has since set up “The Rubin Report,” a political news talk show that features in-depth one-on-one conversations about hot political topics. The show, funded by donations from its viewers, is doing rather well for itself and continues to grow in popularity. Rubin’s guests have mostly been people he feels the left has attempted to silence in a variety of ways: Harris has been on the show a few times; Rubin has also welcomed former Islamist-turned-Islam-reformer Maajid Nawaz (who remains better know in his native Britain than in North America), not to mention the likes of former Google employee James Damore, controversial University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson, Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lindsey Shepherd (who has face the most unfair of backlashes for her alleged transphobia as a result of her merely showing a video of Peterson in one of her classes) and several others.
I, like many people who support policies usually associated with the left, was delighted by the presence of people like Rubin who would stand up for free speech in the face of a radical left whose censorius instinct and totalitarian tendencies make it tend to treat free expression as an inconvenience. I believe that even the most despicable opinions should indeed be heard because I also believe our ability to think critically is our intellectual immune system. Both have to be strengthened by exposure to “harmful” agents, not by sheltering from them. Good faith and intellectual honesty both require that we confront the best version of ideas with which we disagree rather than straw men or caricatures of them. Rubin is insistent on this to the point of being repetitive, but I understand why he feels the need to emphasize these points.
Consider the treatment Jordan Peterson gets from many on the left. In Canada, we’ve known about him for a while, ever since he most controversially refused to use “non-gendered” pronouns that were cooked up by members of the LGBTQ community. As for the rest of the world, however, he has garnered a strong following thanks to his Youtube lectures and he became something of a folk hero to many people outside the hard left for his rather skillful display in an interview during which Channel 4’s Cathy Newman repeatedly tried to ambush him by misrepresenting his views. Since then, Peterson has garnered attention as a “hero of the alt-right.” I wish surprise and shock could be in the cards for me, but they’re not. One of the things about this identity politics-fueled radical left has done serially is to use keywords like “alt-right,” or “fascist,” or all the words that end in -phobe (most notably Islamophobe, of course) in order to discredit people whose ideas it wishes to sidestep (obviously the radical right tends to do the same). It doesn’t take a genius to take potshots at Sean Hannity, or Ann Coulter, or Bill O’Reilly, or virtually anyone in the Trump administration, including the president himself. However, besting an intellectual heavyweight like Peterson in an actual argument is a mighty rough task, as Cathy Newman found out the hard way, because he is obviously highly intelligent, but also because his every opinion is fact-based and he avoids ideology like the plague. That’s when the name-calling and the radioactive buzzwords come in handy.
The same is true about Sam Harris. It’s OK to disagree with him on the benevolent/harmful nature of religion (Peterson does), but the misrepresentation of people’s views, especially in the cynical manner that tends to be the signature of the radical left these days, is a tendency that we must all fight with our complete intellectual and verbal might. Rubin has joined that fight and devotes much of his attention and energy to it.
Lately, however, Rubin has seemed captivated by an analogous yet different phenomenon: the transition in political allegiance from the left to the right. Peter Hitchens, younger brother of the late, great Christopher Hitchens and one of my favourite English intellectuals, has himself gone through this transition long ago. I disagree with Hitchens (Peter) on a staggering number of things, but I have tremendous respect for his independence of mind despite the fact that it has led him to very different conclusions than mine (or those of his late brother, for that matter). We started to see Rubin’s interest in this when he started inviting people like Never-Trump Republican David Frum, but he has since moved on to other cases, most notably that of Candace Owens. Owens, many will recall, has seen her already-growing fame explode when Kanye West infamously claimed to “love the way she thinks.” What was going through Kanye’s mind is not relevant here. What matters is Owens, and her actual positions.
I’ve watched Rubin’s conversation with Owens. As I watched, something became clear to me: Owens is a powerful and potent adversary for the left. Many radical leftists would likely go so far as to refer to her as an enemy. Despite whatever criticisms anyone may have of her, she is pretty, charming, charismatic and intelligent. She does, however, have her fair share of intellectual blind spots, most notably in her esteem of Donald Trump. I understand that Rubin is a trained political scientist, not a journalist. I also understand that he might feel uneasy about asking his guests hard questions. But too many times during that interview, I was puzzled by Rubin’s silence and/or nodding in agreement. One must be clear: Donald Trump tells lies, actual verifiable lies. To put it another way, he constantly says things that are either provably false or untrue by any sensible criterion (“Nobody respects women more than me. Nobody.” I wasn’t, and still am not, quite sure how to respond to a statement so absurd). Thus, if you’re a Trump supporter, you either believe the lies or you think his lying doesn’t matter. I can’t see Rubin fitting in either of these categories.
So where the hell was the Dave Rubin who was seemingly agreeing with Frum as he was taking the absolute piss out of Trump? Why was that guy not calling out Owens for defending some of Trump’s more indefensible statements? In the interview, she claimed to be in the process of discovery with regards to her intellectual and political self. So would it not have been helpful to her to challenge her when she was on thin intellectual ice as she was defending the President?
And then, there’s Ben Shapiro. When I listen to Shapiro in discussions with Rubin, Peterson or Sam Harris, or when he absolutely dismantles Piers Morgan on live TV in a debate about gun control, I find him to be among the more intelligent conservatives of our time. Then, however, he tweets things like this: “Israelis like to build. Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage. This is not a difficult issue.” Sarcasm? Provocation? Maybe. Shapiro is an orthodox Jew, so I’m neither surprised nor offended to see him take Israel’s side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the smart guy who kept calm and exposed Morgan’s virtue-signalling ineptitude and the twat who tweeted this plainly bigoted crap seem like two different people. How do you not call out Shapiro on that when you have him on the show?
I’m in no danger of becoming a fiscal or a moral conservative, but I have distanced myself from the radical left, of which I once considered myself a part, in the following respect: whether it’s intellectually or politically, I believe identity politics are a dead end. I can certainly understand why people might feel the need for them. However, if we want people of different race, religion, sexual orientation et al. to be equal before and under the law, and if we want to achieve real equality for all, emphasizing our differences to the point of creating social cleavages is, to put it simply and mildly, counterproductive. I don’t believe in engineering equality of outcome, but I do believe in equality of opportunity, and I do realize we have not achieved it yet. However, this does not justify us misrepresenting the views of those who disagree with us on how to get there in order to shut them down or branding them as undesirables. In this respect, the radical leftists who have moved to silence people with whom they disagree have shown their true colours, i.e. their totalitarian tendencies. Just like Rubin, I vow to fight their totalitarian efforts wherever I see them rear their ugly heads. I’m just not sure the radical left’s identity politics has had the same effect on Rubin as it has had on me and many others who support him. Watching good people being victims of smear tactics has caused me to detest ideology, especially in its more tribal form which is encouraged by identity politics. As for Rubin, has the radical left’s excesses caused him to reject ideology or just to embrace a different one?
It goes without saying that it would be fine for Rubin to become a conservative. And if this is not what’s happening to him, taking in the right’s better ideas and combining them with the left’s better ideas seems to be the best way to fight for freedom, respect, and open-mindedness. However, if Rubin’s going to take in the good ideas from the right, and give those good ideas exposure, he must avoid giving the same charitable treatment to the bad ones as well. And, as people of the moderate left, committed though we may be to defend free expression, so must we.