In-Depth: Dave Rubin’s Idea Revolution

In-Depth: Dave Rubin’s Idea Revolution
Image Source: Ron Radom
“But more, much more than this, I did it my way” — Frank Sinatra

 In a refrigerator-cold studio that was once a garage, Dave Rubin talks about starting over again. Things keep changing, he says. Political changes, career changes — changing cities, changing friends. And now, four days into the new year, on a sunny Thursday morning at his home studio in Los Angeles, he finds himself on the cusp of a sociopolitical movement so new it doesn’t have a name.

“No matter how far I get,” he says, “whatever level of success, I still feel like I’m at the beginning, because the world is changing so fast right now.”

Leaning sideways in his trademark red chair, Rubin speaks with a soft conviction, dressed casual. A grey t-shirt, sweatpants and neon-bright running shoes. I sit in the sea-green chair across from him, fidgeting. The studio feels smaller than it looks on-screen, like a room cut in half, like being boxed in.

The last couple months, Rubin has felt the pressure of rapid, circulative change. The way a pitcher in the major leagues feels, at the top and obsessed with staying there — the terror of being replaced, the threat of vanishing always just overhead, an ache in his shoulder. Only, Rubin’s fate depends on technology. He’s always got to move forward. Constant innovation. Nagged by thoughts about whatever comes next. Ninety percent of the time it’s great, or else he wouldn’t do it. But the stakes run high enough that the remaining 10 percent occasionally surfaces in his dreams.

Every day, Rubin’s audience grows: At the time of this writing, The Rubin Report has over 651,000 YouTube subscribers and climbing. Twitter, iTunes. More often, people recognize him in public. Puppet-account trolls whine about him on Reddit. More bloggers and journalists, more editorializing that borders on libel. His phone blinks with constant notifications. The invitations and requests keep flooding in. Conventions, talks, speeches, conferences.

Occasionally, Rubin nods as he talks, leaning into certain words. He rarely breaks eye contact. To his left, a black sign reads THE RUBIN REPORT, above a 20-shelved bookcase. Eight books crowd into a corner shelf. As Rubin talks about a life full of changes, I look at the titles: Waking Up, The Case for Mars, Heavens on Earth.

The bookcase is full of mementos — representations of Rubin’s life: a toy of his hero Clyde Drexler going in for a lay-up, a bust of Abe Lincoln, an 8mm film reel, a Star Wars doll depicted as Rubin, a vase full of wine corks from all the bottles Rubin and his now-husband David Janet opened in their first apartment.

On another of the bookcase’s shelves, a tin slanting with paintbrushes, each heavily used, smattered with color. The paintbrushes belonged to Rubin’s late grandmother. “When she passed away,” David Janet told me in an e-mail, “we got to go through her apartment and pick a few things out that we wanted to use on-set.”

More than just husband, David Janet is Rubin’s manager, producer, gatekeeper, publicist, editor. The necessary counterwieght to Rubin’s frantic schedule and curious mind and meteoric rise.

Since 2016, the Rubin Report has been fan-funded, so Rubin and David Janet rely on the show’s success. Rubin calls his choice to leave network the “great escape,” but still worries that the platforms he relies on, the platforms that made him — YouTube, Facebook, Twitter — could collapse and ruin everything.

Which is another reason he feels like he’s at the beginning.

“The constant morphing of the industry, where YouTube on any given month can be good or it can be bad and it’s just impossible to tell.”

Last night, Rubin began another season of the Rubin Report by debating Star Wars with his guest, Ben Shapiro. Almost immediately, YouTube demonetized the episode, deeming it unsuitable for ads.

His face relaxes into a smile, an awareness of irony. “The thing is, Twitter made me — from silly posts about Star Wars, I got fans. YouTube has been amazing. I want these things to work better. People say, ‘File some sort of lawsuit, class action, they’re a monopoly.’ Then the libertarian side of me never thinks that the government cracking down on business is the right answer.”

Overall, he’s hopeful. He believes in capitalism. As long as we are a capitalist society, someone will create a new platform. For the past few years, he’s described himself as a “classical liberal.” He’s spent hours defining and clarifying. His mantra: “Defending my classical liberal values has become a conservative position.”

A lot of his guests have urged him: “Just say you’re libertarian, it’s less confusing.”

What he seems to have realized is that the terms don’t actually matter — the meanings of words change, sometimes completely. Amid all the changes, Rubin has found stability in the parts of himself that never change.

In the hallway of Rubin’s house hangs a 6’x7’painting of the Millennium Falcon cockpit as it’s catapulting into light speed. Looking at it gives your stomach a slight churn, pulls you into motion. It puts you in the pilot seat, staring at a blur of stars about to turn into streaks of white, aiming into a void. The world is changing so fast right now.

*

Rubin sees mainstream media crumble a little more each day, the news anchors are getting more desperate and less dignified. Our institutions are crumbling, so are the sports world, the entertainment industry, the universities.

“Let them crumble,” he says. “They deserve to crumble.”

Watching it, Rubin feels hopeful, sees opportunity in the wreckage, opportunity for new voices. “What we need more than anything else is an informed populace. I believe people want to be informed.” He speaks in quick, fully-formed bursts like only a New Yorker can, describing the movement he’s inextricably become part of.

“We’re these 20 or 30 people who are all successful on their own, which is beautiful, but we’re also like Boba Fett, we’re all bounty hunters and not some sort of unit.”

Rubin adds a newscaster’s decrescendo to the end of his longer answers.

“There’s a reason that people are coming to people like me — coming to people like Ben Shapiro and all these other people that I’m talking to.”

Guests on the Rubin Report vary in nearly every possible way: Ethnicity, demeanor, nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and — most perplexing of all — political belief. Among them are atheists, Christians, Muslims and ex-Muslims, Orthodox Jews and cultural Catholics, Unitarians and Buddhists and a Jungian Existential-Christian. There are comedians, gamers, professors, journalists, actors, students, biologists, politicians — a YouTube rapper, a bitcoin investor, a software engineer fired by Google, a cartoon artist whose cartoons you know, a neuroscientist who triggered Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher.

They’ve come together despite their uncountable differences, forming an unlikely collective held together by one thing: Intellectual honesty.

“We’re trying to bring back some level of discourse. We’re sitting down with people we disagree with.” He swivels in his chair a bit, looks around the studio. “I want this room that we’re in right now to be a place of, ‘Let’s fix some of this stuff. Let’s make some sense.’”

In an era of goldfish-level attention spans, Rubin hosts a talk show featuring two or three people, seated in chairs, who discuss politics or society or religion for about an hour, often longer. It’s his solution to a societal trend he considers harmful to free speech.

“Everyone’s just completely bananas,” he says. “At each other’s throats, hating each other, families are being torn apart over politics. People are dumping friends, it’s happened to me many times.”

The studio’s sound-proof hush adds an intensity. Airplane cabin pressure on your ears. No cellphones or computers, only ideas and words and the occasional bit of laughter.

(Image Source: Ron Radom)
(Image Source: Ron Radom)

“At the end of the day, people disagree,” Rubin says. “We live in a society of 350 million people, if you want to live in a place where we all agree on everything, guess what, you go to North Korea. It ain’t that great.”

One episode of the Rubin Report evinces this approach: Author, radio-show host, and non-practicing attorney Larry Elder.

“When [Rubin and I] met, he told me he was a liberal and I told him that I’m going to tell him things he’d never heard before, and he’s going to have to rethink his assumptions,” Elder told me. “A lot of people on the left have never heard, in my opinion, common-sensical rebuttals to many of their standard positions. So, he listened respectfully, and I could tell he had an epiphany regarding race.”

In the two years since that episode, Rubin has undergone many other changes.

Just before Christmas, he was a guest speaker at the conservative non-profit Turning Point USA’s college conference. Other speakers included Donald Trump Jr., Dennis Prager, Dinesh D’Souza, Ben Shapiro — an odd lineup to include a gay classical liberal. He looked at a sea of young conservative faces, who appeared eager to hear what he had to say.

“I went up there, and I said look, ‘You guys know I’m gay-married, I’m pro-choice.’ I mentioned some of my other liberal credentials. But I said, ‘You guys are actually my allies. You guys are fighting for the individual.’”

He got a standing ovation.

“I would gladly give that same speech to any young progressive or Democrat organization, but I get literally zero invites from them, so I can’t just show up and demand to speak.”

Instead, he gets requests from Libertarian, Republican and Conservative groups.

He smiles, “Lots of places with the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ seem to like me. People who are for diversity of thought, actually are okay with hearing some opinions that they don’t like. I quite literally see none of that on the left.”

Halfway through the room, the wood floor stops abruptly, into a forest of cameras, microphones, stage lights, wires. Rubin is still fresh from last night’s show, the first after a couple weeks of downtime, back with a beard and a tan.

Over time, Rubin’s view of the left-right dynamic has evolved.

“I think the media has portrayed conservatives as these cold heartless people, who want poor people to die and let half the population starve and all this. They’ve done that so effectively, because they’ve owned the narrative for so long.” He sees it in celebrities with so-called Trump Derangement Syndrome: “Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman — these people who’re supposed to be funny, Patton Oswalt, who’ve become these hysterical lunatics, it’s because everything they believe, they’re watching the narrative crumble, and they’ve bought into it.”

The fight Rubin finds himself inextricably flung into has all the markings of a Star Wars movie, where a scattershot band of rebels wages war with a daunting, selfsame army clad in Nazi-esque regalia. The rebels come from all over, they hold varying beliefs, connected by the unstoppable urge to overthrow an oppressive force.

When he describes it, you can feel the sudden turns and unplanned nosedives of a pilot’s chase scene: “As the Overton window keeps shifting, the most simple, honest discussions where we talk about free speech and classical liberalism and libertarianism and all that, will start seeming more and more fringe. Unless we start winning this battle.”

*

Early on, Rubin had dreams of becoming a professional basketball player. Later, he dreamt of being a legendary stand-up like his idol George Carlin. He devoted himself to the craft. “The successes of it, the failures of it, all the odd jobs of it, standing out on street corners in Times Square for hours a night just to get stage time.” He hustled a name for himself, got good onstage. The VHS tapes are around here somewhere.

“Every standup will tell you that there’s nothing like standup,” Rubin says. “Nothing is as magical as that feeling.”

As his life has become fuller, Rubin has felt less need for the approval he sought as a young comedian. It’s a defining moment for anyone: the realization that all those years of training and dreaming and hustling and failure then success followed by failure then disappointment, over and over, the ache to be good, the hurt of failure, the joy of getting better, that whole roundabout of trying to climb to the top, only to realize that, even when you get to where you’d always dreamt of going, there’s always something else to do.

Rubin had a podcast back before people cared about podcasts, and suddenly podcasts were valuable and his show topped iTunes charts, eventually picked up by SiriusXM.

Things changed again. Rubin and then-boyfriend David Janet rented a car, packed it with their things as a rainstorm battered New York City at midnight, then escaped. Can you imagine the moment the car started rolling forward, raindrops becoming lines on the window? They drove across the country, with their Pitbull/Basenji mix Emma in the backseat.

“It was one of the best trips of our lives,” David Janet told me.

They drove across America, arriving to an unusually cold Los Angeles at 2:00a.m., the giant palm trees looking down like ghosts through February. All dark, all hidden. They slept on sheets on the cold floor of their furniture-less apartment, Emma beside them as they shivered.

In L.A., Rubin joined the Young Turks, a far-left progressive YouTube network with three million subscribers. It was literally the first of its kind. Soon he had his own show on the network.

Then, overnight, the world changed.

Rubin was watching Real Time with Bill Maher. One of the guests was the soft-spoken neuroscientist and author Sam Harris, the other was Ben Affleck: You know the rest.

“It was over-the-top virtue signaling,” Rubin says, “it was him showing the world what a good guy he is, defending these people, even though Sam actually didn’t attack people, he talked about ideas.”

Charlie Hebdo attacks happened a few months later.

Rubin saw the way his colleagues were talking about Sam Harris, about Charlie Hebdo, about Islam. He still worked at the Young Turks, but says “lies, distortions and smearing were something I suddenly saw everywhere in their progressive world.”

Rubin took umbrage with the way Cenk Uygur, creator and host of the Young Turks, acted toward Sam Harris. If the Ben Affleck debacle turned Rubin against the left, Uygur’s treatment of Sam Harris filled him with the conviction to leave the Young Turks. In other words, Rubin quit his job, risked his career, on a principle, because of something his boss said.

Rubin took his show to Larry King’s online digital network, Ora TV. In an e-mail interview, King lauded Rubin for his approach to journalism. He sees Rubin as part of “the new mainstream, taking on the old stream,” becoming the new standard.

“The sky is the limit for Dave Rubin.”

I glance over at the bookcase again and think about it. Rubin is Clyde Drexler in ’95, suspended in air with the buzzer-beater in his hands, about to win or lose.

(Image Source: Ron Radom)
(Image Source: Ron Radom)

Everything in its right place

Ben Shapiro kisses the mezuzah as he strolls through the doorway, then finds a seat in the green room. David Janet rushes in, holding a lapel microphone, and greets Shapiro, says Jordan Peterson will be here any minute.

Rubin, Shapiro and Peterson: If these three men were NFL players, their rookie cards would be worth a fortune. They aren’t quite household names, but you get the sense they will be, and anyone who’s attuned to the new media landscape knows how consequential they are.

It’s been three weeks since my first interview with Rubin, three weeks of nonstop activity, and right now, 11:15a.m. on Jan. 31st, 2018, there’s less than an hour till the show goes live.

“Are you excited,” David Janet asks, looking around to all of us. “It’s like the Super Bowl of modern politics.”

Shapiro, yarmulke blending into his hair, smiles gently, with a politeness and ease and general nonchalance that might surprise anyone familiar with his on-air combativeness and inscrutability, his reputation as a “provocative gladiator.” The mere mention of Shapiro’s name in a college classroom has, at least once, sent professors into a rage. When he visits UC Berkeley, people riot.

Suddenly, the door swings open and Peterson glides in, already talking and nodding, followed by his wife and a journalist.

Like Rubin and Shapiro, Peterson has recently skyrocketed to worldwide renown and infamy, both of which intensify and grow by the moment. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos came out two weeks ago and currently tops the Amazon book charts (they’ve run out of copies). He’s on a world tour of internet-breaking interviews and sold-out keynote speeches, which are almost always met with protests.

Tall like a scarecrow, Peterson breezes past a paper-plate signed by Stevie Nicks, barely more than a blur. Immediately, the house is frantic, whirring around Peterson as he chats, about Harvard and distribution and personalities and travel, at ease with an audience. Words fly out of his mouth like $100 fireworks. Sitting in the padded director’s chair facing the mirror, he blinks as the make-up artist applies powder.

He’s hoarse.

Mid-sentence, he yanks each napkin from the neck of his black suit. Part of his tie is caught up in his collar, feeding into the “absent-minded professor” stereotype.

Shapiro and Rubin are waiting in the studio. After a few minutes, Peterson paces in, glass of water in hand. The three of them are relaxed as the cameras hum to life. Powdered faces, chatting casually over acid-jazz. There’s a jovial energy everywhere as the countdown begins. A frenzy stampedes the entire house.

In the green room, I’m stuffed into a loveseat with the journalist and Jordan Peterson’s wife, Tammy Roberts. We’re facing a smart TV bolted to the wall like a mirror. The room feels calm in the natural light. You can hear sparrows and warblers singing from perches, in gardens, on fences.

Tammy, bare feet on the table, exudes an undeterred calm. Her soft voice, her black clothing and jewelry, the meander of her laugh. The journalist points his gray digital recorder at her the entire time. He keeps it gripped into his left hand like a Buck Knife, dull from overuse.

*

The air conditioner is off because it makes too much noise. So the studio starts out cold, gets warmer and warmer, under the sun-like heat of those stage lights. The entire house gets warmer by the moment. Outside, the smog is so thick you wouldn’t be able to see downtown from the Griffith Observatory — other days you can see the Pacific Ocean.

After a moment, the video feed swims to life on the TV screen. The show is live on YouTube. Rubin jokes that today’s episode is so controversial it will likely crash the internet, or worse.

Talking to Tammy, the journalist over-annunciates each syllable, emphasizing any verbs that denote violence: “Fight Club mayhem will finally become real. Are you familiar with Fight Club? Fight Club—Fight Club is this kind of, is this sort of proto-‘this-moment’, this kind of proto-‘alt-right’, about a bunch of men who decide to attack bank servers, and take down society, and destroy the authority of men.”

He’s following Peterson around for a month or so as part of a profile for a popular Men’s Fashion and Lifestyle Magazine that everyone knows. In-depth. 5,000 words. At least once, he’ll call Jordan Peterson an “evangelist.”

As the journalist talks, I look at the empty Coca-Cola cans on the table. Outside, a lawn mower heaves at wilted flowers, a helicopter passes overhead, a Toyota with bad brake-pads squeals at each stop sign.

Tammy tells us that she and Jordan met when she was eight and he was seven. Jordan has always been like this, she says, pointing to him on the screen, even as a young boy.

“He finished the entire year’s schoolwork the first few days of class.”

In elementary school, they played baseball together, played croquet, went skiing. Tammy always knew he’d be famous: A mystic, a friend of theirs, predicted it with tarot cards.

The journalist asks Tammy if she and Jordan had an “epistolary nature to their courtship.”

“What does ‘epistolary’ mean,” I ask.

Moving his hand in circles, he says, “Involving or pertaining to the activity of writing letters.”

I shrug, unsure what’s guiding my uneasiness. If I’m honest with myself, it’s probably an underdog complex. I’m disappointed. A left-leaning outlet is writing a profile on Jordan Peterson, supposed enemy of the left. I was meant to be here alone, on a unique mission: a feature writer from a right-leaning outlet writing about people who most media have snubbed and insulted. It was supposed to be innovative. Nobody expects it, assuming that creativity and art belong solely to the left, and that everybody else, especially conservatives, is culture-less and dumb. Here I am, cultural prospector, embedded in months of hard work, looking for that pinhole of light that will illuminate the landscape, when some sharper, chattier prospector shoves me aside. Suddenly, I shake back to reality when Tammy taps my leg, asks if I have children. “Watch this part,” she says, pointing to the TV.  Peterson is talking about how dominant rats interact with more cowardly rats. If the weaker rat never wins, he just stops altogether. He only has so many chances. The coincidence is brutal: Which rat am I?

“Is [Popular Men’s Lifestyle Magazine] really doing a profile on Jordan Peterson?” I ask the journalist.

All of a sudden, the television goes blank, a black whirl of circles, spiraling, then resets to another video. The live video feed has crashed.

*

Immediately, upheaval in the hallway, like the instant you realize you just broke your wrist. Power failure at the nuclear power plant.

Tammy steps outside to answer her phone. Nothing but quiet. I look at the journalist, mention the struggles of writing. When I pepper a few curse words into the conversation he grins, then rummages a packet of cashews from his pocket.

A few minutes later, the video feed is up again.

The small heat keeps thickening, like a boxed-in room with a space heater. We’ve cozied a mess into the green room, which is immaculate and sleek otherwise. A small bonsai tree, roots like a woman’s thighs. A PS4 and an original Nintendo, perched near a row of NES cartridges. An original copy of the first Star Wars soundtrack. A Lego Boba Fett waiting at some airport. A fan-made poster that features Rubin, David Janet and Amiria, one of the show’s producer, as characters from the arcade classic Contra, Rubin’s favorite.

The show is winding down. In the production booth, David Janet is popping Tums and holding his breath till the last moment, aware of each second. It’s early afternoon, and Peterson has to leave soon. On a break, he springs into the green room, pokes his head in, asks Tammy how much time they have.

Not much.

Thirty?

No.

Fifteen?

Fifteen. A photographer will be waiting downtown.

With a nod, Peterson yanks back, his tie in flight behind him.

The room is warm, hairdryer warm. As the show wraps up in the next room, we speak less. It’s strenuous just watching Rubin, Peterson and Shapiro. And imagine how they must feel, as the house gets warmer, philosophizing for two hours, a conversation that’s being broadcast to a million-odd people, a conversation about God, about how easy it’s become to offend people, under lamps, under the pressure of misspeaking because misspeaking could cost them their career, and the stream is live, so backlash would start instantly: one sloppy phrase, one misspeak, and a horde of internet militants come squealing.

“Too many people can’t laugh anymore,” I say to Tammy.

She nods, says comedians are the only people who are able to interview Peterson.

*

Immediately after the show finishes the air gets lighter. Ties loosen, buttons unclench, jackets slump over. Just as suddenly, the guests are gone, leaving Rubin, David Janet, Amiria and myself.

“It’s not usually this crazy,” David Janet says, after a deep breath, then chats with Rubin about the show.

Alone in the hallway, I look at a painting by David Janet’s sister, Caylin Rose Janet, titled “Chakra Body.” A startling arrangement of geometric shapes. At a glance, you’d assume it’s an abstract painting. It’s only when you look deeper that you see a person. From the chaos, a nude woman emerges. A few of Caylin’s paintings hang all around the house, including two on the set of the show. I had assumed they were all from different artists, because each of them follows its own set of rules.

The hallway nooks into a bright inlet, with a couch, two seats. Under the fireplace, a wire shelf cradles bottles of red wine — only red. I sit on the couch below the Millennium Falcon painting.

Rubin falls into the chair across from me, slouching a bit so he can rest his black leather zipper-down-the-side boots on the tree-trunk of table patched by Dwell magazines and neon-spine books. He looks at the Millennium Falcon painting, “She painted that in this house. It was one of the hardest things she’s ever done.”

In his royal-blue dress-shirt, his grey jeans, hair neatly gelled, Rubin is at resting pulse. The video crash, the bustle of people who’ve just left, the intensity of the discussion he’s just had, live, worldwide— none of it affects him.

He’s used to it, he says.

Maybe it’s all the Star Wars, but when you talk to him, you get the impression that he sees it, sees it all, sees us hurtling into the future, an unknown place, sees the mechanized struggle, the sheer pace of life, how quickly the networks and algorithms, all the invisibilia circling us, how violently, how casually, all the unseen machinations keep out-lasting us. Maybe that’s where his quick-paced tone comes from. Maybe it’s not strictly a Long Island tempo. Maybe it’s that he can feel himself hurtling forward and he knows what could happen next.

“I do my best to constantly tell my audience what is true as I see it to be,” he says. “To use that premise, that’s just the starting point, just being intellectually honest to start, and then go, ‘All right, where does the discussion take me?’”

(Image Source: Ron Radom)
(Image Source: Ron Radom)

Tonight, he’s introducing Jordan Peterson at the Orpheum Theatre, a plush ornament of an opera house downtown, with festooned balconies and embroidered seats. It’s sold out. No tickets or passes anywhere. In the meantime, he has plenty more work, always more work, more calls, more diplomacy, more excitement — and at some point, he needs food and a 20-minute nap if possible. He’s almost indifferent as he tells me that it’s nearly always this chaotic, this difficult to slow down. The basketball court is the one place he can get his brain to stop.

“I’m genuinely concerned about the way I see the world going. I’m trying to do a little course correction in my little way. Basketball is one of the few places that I can actually stop doing that. You need that. Everyone. There’s a reason people play video games, there’s a reason people play sports and play music and all the rest of it.”

Rubin has also started painting, he tells me. He and David Janet recently painted companion pieces, on 4’x4’ canvases. But before he can elaborate, he has to answer an e-mail, then another, then another.

I ask David Janet if I can see the paintings he and Rubin made. “Of course,” he says, then leads me past a tall glass case that runs along the wall, past too many things to look at.

He shows me the paintings, which hang side-by-side. He tells that he and Rubin agreed from the start that both paintings would be abstract, featuring greens, blues, whites, blacks.

The painting on the right contains a dizzying circular pattern, each ring dominated by a different color, starting with a circle too small to see, then a larger circle around it, then a larger, then a larger, and so on, like an endless tunnel. The person who painted it moved the brush hard and deliberate, caked the lines into an orderly chaos. Sectioned, neat. The way you feel when you’re between two places.

In the other painting, the colors blend and flow, and cloudy shapes meld like tree leaves floating down a creek. This painting has all the same colors as the other one, yet they’re lighter, almost pastel. Whoever painted it used gentle strokes to create a waterfall effect, down the river in an intertube. The shapelessness, something about the way each color vanishes into the next, unhindered, seems endless. The way you feel when your plane finally lands.

He turns to me, asks me to guess who painted which painting. I guess. He smiles, says most people guess the wrong one.

 

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