The Goodwill Ambassador of the Intellectual Dark Web

A quick Google search for “Intellectual Dark Web”, the term for a loose affiliation of dissident academics and public figures coined by mathematician Eric Weinstein and brought into the mainstream by Bari Weiss in a New York Times article reliably yields a torrent of angry leftist hit-pieces behind which seems to lurk some combination of rage, disdain and panic. Evidently, the guardians of hermetic orthodoxies don’t like it when the resistance against them begins to sound far too reasonable to simply label it as tacit Nazism. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from trying.

Given that the group to which the IDW refers is anything but homogenous (its heterogeneity being largely the basis of both its appeal and legitimacy), it is inevitable that some targets will be easier than others. I have noticed that many of the shrillest attempts to discredit it tend to focus on the comedian, interviewer and host of the Rubin Report, Dave Rubin.

Although I am personally fond of Rubin, it’s not hard to see why. Among such clear-headed and meticulous thinkers as Sam Harris and Weinstein brothers Eric and Bret, it is easy to cast Rubin as the dumb frivolous frat-boy of the bunch. His manner is amicable and informal, he lacks the extensive academic credentials of many other Darker Webbers, and he tends to focus more on the kind of conversations you would have over a beer than intricate intellectual discourse. Worst of all, he tends to have these fireside-esque chats with people that make blue-dyed activist arm-hair stand on end. That last quip notwithstanding, as much fun as it is to trigger those types, there is some legitimate concern to explore here.

The first port of call for any anti-Rubin tirade tends to be that he has spoken to some questionable figures who, whether or not they can be referred to as Alt-Right exactly, certainly swim in some similarly murky waters. Mike Cernovich is an easy example, the rather sleazy alt-right shill and propagator of the “Pizza-Gate” conspiracy theory. Much as I dislike Cernovich, I don’t really regard this as much of a knock-down on Rubin. He interviewed him once, two years ago when he was a relative unknown because he wanted to hear from Trump supporters. Nor do I think that repeating the talismanic name of Milo Yiannopoulos holds much water in this case. Rubin interviewed him twice, also two years ago when the nature of the alt-right was unclear (so Yiannopoulos could credibly claim some association with it without making common cause with explicitly racist figures such as Richard Spencer). This also pre-dated Yiannopoulos’ public deterioration into a sort of garish provocative court jester and his perspective, however you may disagree with it, was relevant to the public conversation at the time.

In two recent videos The Young Turks co-anchor, Ana Kasparian, very disingenuously railed against Rubin for his intellectual laziness in failing to push back against his more controversial guests. Rubin himself has always been open about his interview style, which is to have an open conversation in which the guest’s views, however disagreeable, are allowed to be aired to the judgement of the audience. Furthermore, this rings rather hollow coming from a network whose content is largely composed of left-wing talking heads engaging in confirmation bias.

Rubin himself has always been open about his interview style, which is to have an open conversation.

That being the case this is one area where it may be justified to linger for a moment on the content of the criticism. I am fond of Rubin but his agreeableness is not always to my taste. While I believe he was perfectly justified in allowing Yiannopoulos and even, theoretically, Cernovich, a platform to air their views, he has probably made some missteps in allowing some of their more outrageous utterances to go unchallenged. But this is a matter of personal taste which I do not believe justifies an ad hominem character assassination of the kind The Young Turks make a habit of engaging in. Given that their previous targets have involved figures as lucid and reasonable as Sam Harris, I’m disinclined to take their frothing self-righteous rage particularly seriously.

Another criticism, or rather, accusation, laid against Rubin by The Young Turks is that he a bad faith actor entirely motivated by profit, as evidenced by his affiliations with Prager University and Learn Liberty (the latter they claim is little more than a Koch brothers shill). I can’t prove a negative here but such unfalsifiable claims leave the burden of proof on the accuser. The truth I suspect is somewhat more nuanced, Rubin is happy to accept funding, particularly in the case of those with whom he makes a degree of common cause; both Prager University and Learn Liberty encompass some combination of libertarianism, classic liberalism, pro-capitalism and modern conservatism, all positions with which Rubin is sympathetic. Once again, aside from the empty and unfalsifiable content of these accusations, there is a grain of hypocrisy given TYT’s partnership with Al-Jazeera, the mouthpiece of the Qatari state whose other ventures include the funding of multiple Islamist terror groups.

The corollary criticism, to Rubin’s apparently unconscionable temerity to have a cordial conversation with people on the right is that he overemphasises his disagreements with the left. I don’t think much of this other than the fact that all commentators have varying areas of emphasis and Rubin, having come from (or rather, evacuated) the hard-line progressive left as a former Young Turks host himself, is well-placed to make such criticisms. In a recent video with fellow Dark-Webbers, Ben Shapiro and Eric Weinstein, he invited each speaker to own up to their “blind spots” (a level of critical self-reflection seldom seen among his rabid former employers). For his part Rubin suggested that he had perhaps spent too much energy going after progressives and would seek to broaden his focus. I don’t think this admission is necessary, though I do respect the level of introspection required to make it and it does give lie to the assumption that he is merely a right-wing shill with a hatred of progressives. If anything I attribute his focus to the fact that he started out his independent career as a refugee from the social justice left and, like any cult, even once you’re out you’re left with some scars. I think of this as a kind of “Post-Regressive Stress Disorder” which, unlike most afflictions, is very often based in quite rational concerns. It’s entirely understandable, given the propensity for intellectual dishonesty, mind-reading and ad hominem among identity-obsessed leftwing outlets like TYT and The Guardian  that a figure like Rubin who has turned his back on such movements and their tactics, would not only reserve much of his criticism for those very tactics, but would use his platform to promote the kind of cordial non-confrontational discussion so sorely lacking among their proponents.

It is this facilitation of sometimes difficult but often indispensable conversations where I think Rubin shines. Although he himself is not an intellectual and never claimed to be, he has a knack for making connections and bringing very different people together. In this age of extreme political polarisation, there is precious little space to stand on the political spectrum that doesn’t get you placed on (or at least labelled as) one of its extremes, as demonstrated by the above attempt-at-an-article by The Guardian which accuses the IDW of being “the supposed thinking wing of the alt-right”. It has been near-impossible for a reasonable new centre to coalesce and Rubin has been instrumental in achieving this, a kind of IDW goodwill ambassador. Whatever you think of the Intellectual Dark Web (I happen to find the term a little melodramatic), in times of intense political tribalism, conversation between reasonable people who may disagree on fundamental issues but can at least agree on the importance of conversation itself, may be all we have left.


Have you enjoyed reading this article? Get more exclusive content straight to your inbox when you sign up to the Imagine Athena newsletter. Sign up here.

Robin has a background in the UK, South Africa, and the Middle-East. A keen follower of international current affairs, he holds a Masters degree in Global and Comparative Politics. He is a contributing editor to On Netflix Now. Follow him on Twitter @Robin_GJ