Let the Best Ideas Win?
Free-Speech True Believer Dave Rubin, the Top Talker of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web,’ Doesn’t Want to Talk About His Own Ideas
He calls himself a liberal but saves his own slaggings for the left, while saying little about threats to free speech from the right.
Dave Rubin is having a moment. He’s getting name-checked in The New York Times, speaking at college campuses across the country, serving as the opening act for author/clinical psychologist/self-help guru Jordan Peterson on a sold-out tour of theaters, and watching the audience for his YouTube-based talk show The Rubin Report grow by the day.
I first heard about Rubin from a friend who thought I would appreciate the erstwhile comedian and self-styled classical liberal’s talk show, particularly for its focus on free speech, civil conversations with iconoclastic thinkers from across the political spectrum, and its rejection of identity politics. Having spent years writing and reporting about the many trans-partisan and international threats to free expression, despising the culture of shouting down or physically attacking political opponents, loathing communist apologia, suffering from no illusions about the threat posed by radical political Islam, and identifying politically as an independent civil libertarian—I would indeed seem to be the target audience.
Rubin is both lauded and criticized for his non-confrontational at-all-costs interviewing style, with fans appreciating his willingness to have an open dialogue with everyone from fringe characters associated with the alt-right to distinguished academics to disaffected progressives to ex-Muslims, allowing for a more thorough airing of their beliefs beyond controversial soundbites. Rubin’s oft-repeated principle to “judge people as individuals, and not as a collective” and reject identity politics would seem to align with The Rubin Report’s stated billing as “a talk show about big ideas and free speech.”
Critics, and even some former guests, have countered that Rubin’s mission is belied by the fact that he directs essentially all of his socio-political criticisms toward a very broadly-defined left, offers virtually no condemnations of President Trump or the right writ large for analogous authoritarian and censorious transgressions, has positively platformed and appeared with bigots, ultra-nationalist identitarians, and hoax conspiracy theorists—and by what some see as a disingenuous positioning of himself as a critic of the left from the left.
A Political Awakening
While not as widely recognized as traditional TV talk shows, The Rubin Report—which boasts 150 million views as of this writing—resides squarely in a community of right-leaning political YouTube channels which have usurped the old guard of talk radio and Fox News by providing a gatekeeper-free alternative. Should there be a young person in your family expressing a newfound disgust with cultural Marxism, the regressive left, and soy, there’s a good chance he or she spends a good amount of time consuming political chatter on YouTube.
In this new media ecosystem The Rubin Report stands out as consistently polished and professionally produced, particularly compared to other heavyweights of the genre which feature nothing but a wall map or a blank white wall as set design. With shots of smiling guests serving as clickable title cards and each episode consisting of a monologue called “the Direct Message,” an interview titled “the Sit Down” or on occasion a “Panel” of opposing voices moderated by the host—The Rubin Report looks like real TV, and boasts an audience rivaling many cable news programs.
In five years, The Rubin Report has evolved from a low-key lefty panel show on The Young Turks network to an independently-funded channel of its own, with over 700,000 subscribers and fan support through Patreon totaling more than $30,000 per month. The stature of the show’s guest list has grown from its humble beginnings to now boast such mainstream political figures as Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) and Atlantic senior editor and former Bush speechwriter David Frum, celebrity comics like Roseanne Barr, Bob Saget, and Michael Ian Black, and noted intellectuals including Steven Pinker, Laura Kipnis, and Thomas Sowell.
Rubin has said in interviews that his break with The Young Turks stemmed from a political awakening that modern-day progressivism had descended into a morass of unthinking intersectionality and “oppression Olympics.” After receiving a smiling send-off from The Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur, The Rubin Report moved to the RYOT network in 2015, then briefly to Larry King’s Ora TV, before going fully independent in 2016.
The Rubin Report has since aspired to be the hub of an “idea revolution,” marked by long free-wheeling discussions that eschew “gotcha” questions. A profile in The Spectator praised the show’s lack of “booby traps and barely disguised agendas,” while The Knife described it as a venue of “critical thinking and honorable discourse… where opposing arguments can coexist and thrive,” adding that the show provides “thorough exploration of viewpoints that are outside of the main perspectives and biases commonly heard in traditional media.”
Rubin has frequently attributed his inclination to have friendly conversations with anyone—even the supposedly untouchably toxic—as inspired by the man he calls a “mentor,” legendary talk show host Larry King, who in his six decades-long career has conducted thousands of nonconfrontational interviews with everyone from celebrities and world leaders to racists like Louis Farrakhan and David Duke.
“That is the correct way, in my opinion, to approach it,” King tells The Daily Beast in an email, adding that he never argued with guests and always wanted “the audience to determine what they think of the person being interviewed.” King says he considers Rubin “smart and passionate” about politics, but that their styles diverge because Rubin is more “open to giving his opinions on things than I am.”
And that is the key difference between Rubin’s technique and his mentor’s. While King dispassionately asked questions and sat back, Rubin frequently opines throughout lengthy conversations—most often in diatribes against social justice warriors, the “crumbling” mainstream media, and the regressive left—while presenting a point of view his guest is inclined to agree with, often without even asking a question at all.
The Intellectual Dark Web
The Rubin Report is considered the talk show home of the “intellectual dark web”—a term coined by mathematician and Thiel Capital managing director Eric Weinstein to describe a loosely-defined movement of critical thinkers with varying political allegiances united by an opposition to politically correct groupthink, unafraid to discuss what they say are forbidden topics. Commonly accepted charter members of the IDW include neuroscientist Sam Harris, Daily Wire editor and podcaster Ben Shapiro, former Evergreen State University professors Heather Haying and Bret Weinstein (Eric’s brother), and of course Jordan Peterson—currently a global phenomenon thanks to his wildly popular YouTube lectures and best-selling book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
American Enterprise Institute scholar and self-described conservative Democrat feminist Christina Hoff Sommers—a Rubin Report guest and Intellectual Dark Webber herself—tells The Daily Beast that because the show is “long enough that you get a sense of [the guests’] interests and their ideas” a viewer can come away with a different perspective on certain people who have been “badly mischaracterized.”
Harris concurs, telling The Daily Beast that Rubin hosts “an unusually wide range of guests” and “allows the conversation to breathe,” both of which are missing from typical talk show fare. Harris adds that while his own style of interviewing calls for pushback on guests he disagrees with, he admires Rubin’s chosen style which necessitates “trust[ing] his audience to sort it out more than many other people would.”
Harris says he “still considers himself liberal on virtually every relevant point” and has indicated to Rubin that he doesn’t believe The Rubin Report devotes enough criticism of President Trump and what has become of the right in the Trump era. For his part, Rubin freely admitted in a Reddit AMA last year that he was disinterested in attacking Trump because “literally hundreds of outlets” already were, and that he believed “post modernism and the the [sic] Left are a much bigger danger to the future of western civilization.”
“What Dave may be experiencing is getting captured by his audience,” Harris explains, adding that the interactive nature of YouTube might influence Rubin to give his audience what it wants. Harris says, “YouTube has essentially been swallowed by the alt-right,” making criticism of Trump an invitation to blowback from the MAGA and Pepe crowd. Still, Harris agrees with Rubin that the current “moral panic” on the left over “controversial ideas and the reflexive effort to silence these ideas or to destroy the reputations of anyone who would discuss these ideas” is more troubling than any threats to free expression on the right.
Interviewer or Publicist
Rubin’s critics are less forgiving of the notion that challenging guests with deservedly disreputable reputations on their ideas would constitute an unfair “gotcha” line of inquiry.
A typical, but hardly unique example of such a Rubin Report guest is InfoWars editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson—another hugely popular political YouTuber—and his long history of promoting conspiracy theories including tinfoil-hat fare on chemtrails, fluoride, and Obama’s birth certificate, along with ruminations on whether the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting and 7/7 London bombings were government false flag operations.
Introducing Watson on an April 2016 appearance on The Rubin Report, the host dismissed his critics’ anger at providing Watson with another platform as “conspiracy theories about the conspiracy theory” and said that he preferred to “talk it out and see what happens,” before launching into praise of a Watson video critical of “the regressive left” and inquiring on how Watson came to work with Alex Jones—the InfoWars host arguably most notable for his many suggestions that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened. Though Rubin didn’t ask Watson to defend his history of propagating fake news, he did suggest that Watson was part of a “new growing [political] center."
The pseudonymous blogger, artist, and host of the Polite Conversations podcast who goes by the name Eiynah is as an ex-Muslim left-winger frequently critical of the anti-free speech left, who also regularly criticizes Rubin. In an interview with The Daily Beast Eiynah says she believes there is value to conducting civil interviews with seemingly untouchable figures, but by “setting up strawman questions” and “soft-balling” his guests, Rubin is essentially acting not as an interviewer but as a PR person. Referring to a comment Rubin made on his show that the mainstream media is so “terrible” and full of “bullshit” that it has created “a necessary space” for the factually challenged InfoWars, Eiynah says such an idea is “dangerous and ridiculous for someone who claims to value the truth.”
Sam Seder, the Majority Report host and a progressive critic of Rubin’s, has publicly lobbied to be invited on The Rubin Report—a challenge, in Seder’s telling, to see if Rubin will “walk the walk” on his support of diversity of thought and civil debate knowing Seder intends to question Rubin on his supposed liberal bona fides.
Rubin declined Seder’s request via Twitter after Seder’s producer posted a video calling Rubin “stupid.” Seder tells The Daily Beast that he quickly pulled the video, apologized, and has pledged to be a civil (if combative) guest—noting that he has hosted numerous libertarians and conservatives in debate on his own show—but Rubin has thus far ignored the entreaty. Obviously, no one has the right to be booked on anyone else’s show, but Seder argues that Rubin’s singular focus on “criticizing the left ostensibly from a position on the left” while mainstreaming some odious figures on the right proves The Rubin Report is not “an all-comers platform.”
Of the threats to free speech facing the country, Seder notes that the legislation being pursued nationally—sometimes already enacted on a state level—that essentially bans the anti-Israel Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement from expressing itself should be “setting off alarm bells” for “free speech absolutists." On the Rubin Report, a show nominally about “free speech” where no idea is too dangerous to engage, the topic is not broached.
The New Political Center
A February 2017 video hosted by the conservative PragerU YouTube channel titled “Why I Left the Left” stars Rubin, who looks directly into the camera and says: “Today’s progressivism has become a faux moral movement, hurling charges of racism, bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, and a slew of other meaningless buzzwords at anyone they disagree with,” adding that progressives only value diversity, but not “diversity of thought.” The video has been viewed well over 6 million times, PragerU’s biggest hit.
Rubin also makes regular speaking appearances with the conservative student group Turning Point USA (notable of late thanks to Kanye West’s tweet praising its communications director and “Red Pill Black” YouTuber Candace Owens) and has a professional association with the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies’ Learn Liberty program, which supplies The Rubin Report with IHS academics as guests and pays the production costs of such episodes.
IHS president Emily Chamlee-Wright says in an email that Learn Liberty was drawn to Rubin for his “humility and love of big ideas, his focus on the importance of free speech and open inquiry, and his humor and ability to draw out his guests (even when he disagreed),” adding that IHS “faculty benefit from reaching an even larger audience, further challenging and honing their ideas.” (Disclosure: I was once awarded a partial scholarship from IHS, which I ended up declining after choosing not to attend graduate school.)
Rubin’s political identity is amorphous. Though he chafes at being labelled “right wing,” Rubin conceded in an interview with Ben Shapiro where he likened progressivism to a “mental disorder” that his preferred label of “classic liberal” [sic] is essentially libertarian or conservative. His regularly deployed political maxim is that he remains a liberal because he married another man, opposes the death penalty, supports marijuana legalization and prison reform, conditionally supports reproductive rights, and also supports a social safety net and strong public schools.
Marijuana legalization is a pretty straightforward position, but by mostly eschewing details on economic issues and offering sometimes contradictory views on health care, it’s hard to know where Rubin actually stands on actual policies. It is perfectly natural—and in certain cases, admirable—to evolve on political positions and also lack passionate opinions on topics above one’s paygrade. But a great many libertarians and conservatives are capable of articulating their disagreements with President Trump and the right. Rubin, however, struggles to cede such ground.
In a July 2017 interview on the progressive David Pakman Show, Rubin vaguely criticized President Trump for issuing a “ton” of executive orders, noting that he was also critical of Presidents Bush and Obama for doing the same, but declined to critique any specific Trump policy. In a January 2018 interview with The Daily Nerv, a conservative college student-run website, Rubin said that other than “a bit of a religious tone with the right,” he couldn’t think of anything he would criticize on the right.
Professional right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos told Rubin in a March 2016 interview that the alt-right was correct in believing that the Jews run the banks and the media, to which the host replied “I don’t even know where to start with that, so just go,” before Yiannopolous continued to run interference for alt-right anti-Semitism, saying Jews are “vastly disproportionately represented in all of these professions. That’s just a fact. It’s not anti-Semitic to point out statistics.” Yiannopolous then argued that most online anti-Semitism was harmless “trolling” and a “direct response to the language policing, a direct response to people being told they can’t say things,” denied there was any legitimate white supremacist movement in the U.S., and added, “if there is a racial supremacist movement, it’s Black Lives Matter, and it’s very well funded.” Once Yiannopolous stopped to take a breath, Rubin said “I’m with you on a lot of this,” but offered no pushback.
In a 2016 livestream, Rubin said that while he rejects white supremacy and neo-Nazism, “the alt-right as a shitposting, fun, call out the bullshit, mock-the-power thing is amazing,” adding “there’s nothing funny coming out on the left now… They’re a bunch of preachy little bitches right now. The left is crumbling… you know where the funny stuff is coming? It’s coming out of the alt-right. That doesn’t mean I’m a Nazi.”
Libertarian journalist Cathy Young, a one-time Rubin Report guest, tells The Daily Beast in an email she has “nothing but good things to say” about her interaction with Rubin on the show and singled-out for praise his interview with James Damore—the former Google engineer fired for writing a controversial memo to colleagues arguing that the biological differences between men and women make the latter less suited to roles in the tech industry—who Young believes was “rather egregiously misrepresented in the mainstream media.”
Young said that while Rubin’s style often works well, his approach of “asking his guests sympathetic questions, almost never challenging them, and often reinforcing their answers with enthusiastic agreement” fails when interviewing people who are either unreasonable or dishonestly representing themselves—such as YouTuber and accused “cult” leader Stefan Molyneux, who Young describes as “a crank with a long record of misogyny and racism (the real kind, not just ‘politically incorrect opinions’) who masquerades as a rational ‘new centrist’ and whom Rubin has treated as an ally against ’social justice warriors.’”
Rubin might be correct in criticizing the left for moving the Overton Window to the point that any number of right-of-center figures are unjustly tarred as “far-right,” but he has suggested or stated that alt-light YouTubers such as Watson, Molyneux, and Pizzagate propagandist/rape apologist Mike Cernovich all fit in what he’s described as a new political center—a shift in the Overton Window that at the very least begs a more precise explanation of how Rubin would define the current political spectrum.
If identity politics is “the scourge of our time,” as Rubin has said, there would appear to be a disconnect in principle to having hosted uncritical interviews with Canadian YouTuber Lauren Southern—an alt-right fellow traveler and identitarian who argued on The Rubin Report that Richard Spencer’s white nationalism was unfairly characterized as white supremacy and that the Canadian Nazi party was “backed up and egged on” by a Jewish organization because they wanted “more, like, kind of hate crimes to point out”—and Tommy Robinson, the British ultra-nationalist activist who prior to appearing on The Rubin Report was known for saying “every single Muslim” had “got away with” the 7/7 bombings and tweeting “I’d personally send every adult male Muslim that has come into the EU over the past 12 months back tomorrow if I could. Fake refugees.”
Rubin later told British columnist Katie Hopkins that in his view Robinson’s politics were “extremely moderate.” As to Hopkins—who before appearing on the Rubin Report was noteworthy for likening migrants to cockroaches and “a plague of feral humans,” as well as calling for a “final solution” following an Islamist terror attack in Manchester—Rubin stated that there was nothing he had seen that would lead him to believe the charges of bigotry leveled against her were fair.
The absence of skeptical cross examination of identity-obsessed right-wing figures—while insinuating that their detractors are the actual identity politics-obsessed bigots—makes Rubin’s critics dubious of the suggestion that his interviewing style is designed to provide his most odious guests with enough rope to hang themselves (as the old saw goes).
Debate Everything, Let the Best Ideas Win
Rubin explained on his show in 2015, “there is nothing more important in a democracy than free speech and debate. We should debate everything…we should engage in ideas we are not comfortable with and let the best ideas win.”
At the start of an interview last year on The Alex Jones Show, Rubin boasted that he had not been presented with questions or topics ahead of time. Yet when this civil libertarian journalist made multiple requests for a recorded in-person, phone or Skype interview, Rubin declined, asking for emailed questions and then refusing to answer them.
Had Rubin obliged an actual interview, I would have liked to know if he had come to any new realizations about the awesome reach of new media, and how platforming and agreeing with certain people and their ideas can be reasonably construed as an endorsement. I wonder if he has come to understand that not merely talking to people with legitimately maligned ideas, but endorsing them as reasonable or centrist has consequences—both for the host and his audience.
Over a week after our email exchange and hours before this piece was to be published, Rubin posted a new Direct Message, responding to some of these very concerns which had been raised by Bari Weiss in her recent New York Times Magazine piece on the Intellectual Dark Web. In the video, Rubin again compares his interviews with controversial figures to those of Larry King, calling the idea that he endorses the things his guests say on his show “patently absurd and actually quite dangerous.”
Rubin addressed the “guff” he has received for his interviews with Molyneux and Cernovich, but said he was “absolutely proud of” his conduct as an interviewer. He also addressed his appearance on The Alex Jones Show, which he defended on the grounds that it allowed him to bring his “message of conversation and classical liberalism to Jones’ audience.” Finally, he pledged to “increase my efforts to shed light on ideas that [guests] have that I’m concerned are unsavory.”
As a new media entrepreneur known to drop his trademark civility when slagging “biased” mainstream journalists as “activists” and—in the insult parlance of right-wing YouTubers—soy drinkers, I would have liked to ask if he believed he had ever let his own biases get the best of him during an interview, as when he declared the anarcho-communist collective Antifa (a group of which I have been a vocal critic) was “creating the most illegal violence” in the United States. I might have asked if he was aware that for all of Antifa’s repulsive violence, left-wing political violence pales in comparison to its right-wing counterpart, the latter of which is responsible for 71 percent of political or religiously motivated killings in the U.S. over the past decade—a figure more than double the deaths attributed to Islamic and left-wing extremists combined.
If ideas are paramount, Rubin has a responsibility to his audience to seek the truth and explore difficult discussions which might make his own audience uncomfortable. If he treats one side of the political spectrum as an unthinking, authoritarian monolith—typically hosting left-of-center guests who spend much of their time on The Rubin Report criticizing the left—while giving a pass or pleading ignorance to the sins of the right, his audience is left with an incomplete and inaccurate view of where threats to free speech and civil liberties emanate.
By choosing to speak at Turning Point USA events, Rubin bestows his imprimatur on a group which has colluded with Republican state lawmakers in an attempt to have a public university instructor fired for protesting one of their student activists, which curates a “professor watchlist” to “expose and document” college professors who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” and whose executive director Charlie Kirk has called for teachers and even entire schools which offend his sensibilities to be dismissed and defunded.
If The Rubin Report is a show built on free speech and nonpartisan skepticism of government, surely there is room to discuss the Republican proposed-bills which would criminalize certain forms of protest, the state bans on discussing homosexuality in public schools, the right-wing attempts to ban “problematic” books from schools, or President Trump’s long-held hostility toward the First Amendment. After all, these are threats on free expression coming from the government—not college students, postmodernist professors or alt-right shitposters.
Rubin is not incorrect that a disquieting portion of the left in many academic, journalistic, and media institutions engage in a destructive and incoherent call-out culture while pre-emptively declaring an ever-growing number of ideas beyond the pale of discussion. But in failing to offer even cursory pushback on cynical internet hoax artists, avowed identitarians, and anti-immigrant YouTubers who use his show to peddle pseudo-science as evidence for declaring certain races to be genetically prone to criminality, The Rubin Report falls short of an “idea revolution,” and at its worst moments is essentially a re-packaging of reactionary disinformation in a shiny, smiling, high-definition talk show pageant.
Perhaps The Rubin Report intends to move on from the old gang of “centrist” alt-light YouTubers it hosted mere months ago, now that the Intellectual Dark Web’s notoriety grows by the day and Rubin’s gig as Jordan Peterson’s opening act has him performing his brand of crowd-work comedy to sold-out audiences.
Maybe Rubin’s view of where the “new political center” resides has evolved over the past year. Could be that Rubin intends to live up to his maxim that he’ll bridge the partisan divide and explore even the most radical ideas by deferentially entertaining the views of an economic Marxist or an intersectional feminist or a pro-Palestinian advocate or a Black Lives Matter activist or anyone who might be inclined to forcefully disagree with his oft-stated political beliefs.
A forthright and critical conversation with Rubin—a professional talker whose style and reach have at times, in my view, provided illiberalism with a space to take root and grow—intrigues me. But for now at least, I’m left to find Rubin’s big ideas on YouTube.