January 15th, 2019 was the night I got wasted on a livestream downing shots of Patron. It was also the time I accidentally disclosed my private, personal, email address to the general public. But, most important, it was the night I deleted my Patreon account.—Dave Rubin, Don’t Burn this Country
In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes that the question of God fills him with dread. For the minds of humankind “thirst for more than they can contain” about what is of ultimate concern, and this drives them to despair. A millennium and a half later, Dave Rubin opens his own confessions with a ponderous joke about another type of hole—the butt hole—thereby awakening in his readers a new kind of existential despair:
We are all born into this world with a deep hole. No, not that hole. No, not that one either! Come on people, this is a family friendly book … kinda. I’m talking about the elusive, tenuous, God-shaped hole. Most ignore it, many drown it with drugs and alcohol and video games, some fill it with knowledge, and the rest of us mere mortals fill it with the archaic belief of something known as ‘God.’
Dave Rubin’s Don’t Burn This Country: Surviving and Thriving in our Woke Dystopia is the follow up to his earlier Don’t Burn This Book (which I review here). It is a work so dull that it almost achieves the paradoxical aesthetic of profound superficiality. Presenting itself as a book on virtually everything, it winds up saying nothing of interest. Its approach to ideological contradictions—as long as they are right-wing contradictions—isn’t to take sides or attempt to overcome them, but to affirm that both sides of the contradiction are true, and cheerfully move on. In this, he ironically confirms the intuitions of the great conservative philosopher Roger Scruton when he praises the “natural instinct in unthinking people—who, tolerant of the burdens that life lays on them, and unwilling to lodge blame where they seek no remedy, seek fulfilment in the world as it is—to accept and endorse through their actions the institutions and practices into which they are born” as the ideal civic mindset for his politics.
To the extent that Don’t Burn This Country can be said to be about anything it is an expression of anxiety about a coming dystopian future for the United States. The precursors of this, according to Rubin, are creeping collectivism, ultra-woke media and tech companies, rising socialist and anti-capitalist movements, and—worst of all—the decline of the once mighty Star Wars franchise. Rubin spends vastly more time deconstructing the precise problems with the latter than he does critically unpacking the arguments of any of the figures with whom he disagrees: an entire two pages. His response to Joe Biden, Michel Foucault, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others is a series of bad jokes about dementia and tantric references to 1984. The fact that George Orwell—not to mention other heroes referred to in the book, such as Einstein—were proud socialists who opposed many of the viewpoints Rubin espouses never registers in the Rubinverse.
The analysis in Rubin’s book—rather like that of one of Ben Shapiro’s recent tomes—is miles wide and inches deep. Even when defending Rubin’s most substantive positions, it rarely advances anything that looks recognizably like an argument, and when an argument does appear one doesn’t have to be a Derridean to realize how quickly it deconstructs itself. In one chapter, for example—perhaps in response to the frequent accusation that Rubin spends a lot of time slamming collectivism, while endorsing collectivist ideals of flag and nation, he claims that there is a
difference between a community and a collective. A community is made up of unique individuals all looking out primarily for themselves while at the same time contributing to the greater good by helping the world around them. In other words: a community is the Jedi Council, a collective is the Stormtroopers.
One feature of real community, he claims, is that people in it adhere to the Biblical dictum to love thy neighbour—though he goes on to say that this entails a hierarchy of love priorities: first one should love oneself and then move on to “family, to local community, then to country, and last to the world.” But the parable of the good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke from which the injunction to love thy neighbour is taken completely rejects this ordering. When asked, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus claims that it is anyone who requires mercy or compassion, regardless of their race or background. Indeed, the story of the good Samaritan has entered our moral lexicon because—despite the animosity between Samaritans and the people of Judea—the good Samaritan saw past ethnic differences to view the person by the roadside as someone who needed his care. Indeed he was morally praiseworthy precisely for placing aside his immediate attachments and performing his duty to another. (So much for putting family, community and country first.) Rubin himself doesn’t seem to take the communitarian ethos all that seriously. He admits to having thrown a party with “100 people to eat pizza and drink wine” when Covid was spreading rapidly and restrictions were still in place. This is not exactly the Christian ideal of putting aside the things of this world for the sake of another.
In other sections of the book, Rubin praises the free market, often invoking Ayn Rand, Peter Thiel and a host of other ultra-capitalist apologists. But of course, Rubin also takes some digs at the alleged progressivism of Big Tech, and the frequent alliances between corporate America and the US government. This results in some of the most confused writing on political economy in recent memory—and in a world that contains Charlie Kirk that is saying something.
At some points, Rubin adopts a somewhat pragmatic position, arguing, that after the Gilded Age, many recognised the political necessity of regulating capital to check its influence. The implication seems to be that this might be permissible if we want to check the influence of woke culture—though not if we want to provide a public good like healthcare. Why? Rubin doesn’t say. At other times, he becomes a free market idealist, insisting that something like the corporate bailouts of the Great Recession could “never happen under laissez-faire capitalism.” Here he seems to ignore Adam Smith’s observation in The Wealth of Nations that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Finally, he sometimes adopts the pseudo-Nietzschean line that economically progressive policies would create dependency and are predicated on ressentiment. But the anecdote to this effect that he provides doesn’t really prove that:
[My sister] … had planned to live in New York City with her husband and two kids until the day she died. She lived in a forty-floor-high rise on the Upper West Side and paid $5000 a month for a converted one bedroom … Half her building was rent controlled, so while some, like my sister, paid $5000 for her little shoe box, others paid a mere $400 for the exact same apartment. Take it from a former New Yorker: to hear that a friend managed to land a rent-controlled apartment in some desirable neighborhood was the equivalent of Charlie getting the golden ticket and inheriting the whole damn factory while you’re getting juiced in the Juicing Room after a bad chewing gum trip. Oompa Loompa doompadee duped.
He argues that these kinds of welfarist measures don’t help the poor—an argument based solely on his complaint that “middle class residents” are becoming disillusioned as “public space is given to the homeless and the drug addicts, and welfare checks are pumped out that promote dependency over responsibility.” This seems like an example of what Wendy Brown has described as petit bourgeois ressentiment, directed not from the bottom up but from the top down. Rather than advocating affordable housing for all, Rubin expresses resentment towards those who have received it and demands that these benefits be withdrawn from the needy for the sake of the better off who find the measures unfair. These examples show that the left hardly has a monopoly on resentment-driven politics.
My point here isn’t that Rubin is a hypocrite—an accusation that could be applied to many public figures. It is to highlight the arbitrary nature of his political and moral convictions, which mechanically follow whatever affectations or prejudices dominate the American right—no matter how contradictory. In the case of Covid, his communitarian positions are readily dropped in favour of scepticism, none of it backed up by any hard data or scientific analyses. In the face of the deaths of almost a million Americans from the virus—more deaths than were caused by all the wars and terrorist attacks since the 1860s put together—he points out that Adolph Hitler was also a germaphobe and makes offhand references to Hannah Arendt’s characterisation of Nazis like Eichmann as sheeplike followers driven by “pressure to conform.”
But, in fact, Eichmann’s primary sin in Arendt’s eyes wasn’t conformity, but thoughtlessness—his willingness to abandon the Enlightenment injunction to think for oneself in favour of the faux reality offered by Nazism. This is extremely important, since no Enlightenment thinker would ever say that thinking for yourself simply means refusing to acknowledge the scientific consensus on Covid if it doesn’t align with your own personal and political preferences. The opposite of conformity isn’t contrarianism—especially not popular contrarianism, which itself involves a high degree of conformity—but rational analysis, based on the best available evidence. Complaining about how Nancy Pelosi was allowed to get a haircut doesn’t quite cut it in the face of data-driven accounts of how restrictions, coupled with income supplements, do help reduce the impact and spread of Covid.
Rubin’s book unconsciously reflects some abiding dialectical tensions within our Enlightenment heritage. On the one hand, the liberal Enlightenment helped establish a culture and public sphere that were relentlessly critical of established authorities—particularly those associated with religion and aristocratic traditionalism. On the other, it put forward reason—especially the forms of reason endorsed by the natural sciences—as a new epistemic authority that warranted our acquiescence. Conservatives from Edmund Burke to Yoram Hazony have been uncomfortable with both prongs of Enlightenment thought—though that hasn’t kept them from making rhetorical appeals to them at times. Rubin’s book is very much in this vein, albeit he operates at a far lower level. At points, he takes pride in asserting—usually without appealing to any facts or logical argumentation whatsoever—that conservatives are simply more driven by facticity and logic than their progressive counterparts. At others, Rubin bucks the consensus of the “mainstream outlets,” academics and scientists and proudly calls on the reader to “embrace your inner black sheep” and “take pride in not being a mere sheep.” In this respect, as with the writings of some of his friends (as I’ve discussed elsewhere), Rubin’s book is far more interesting as a postmodern conservative aesthetic artefact than as an independent work. One shouldn’t burn Rubin’s books—even though he would appreciate the attention. Instead, spare yourself four hours and simply don’t read them. There are better ways to spend your time—like watching paint dry.