Salvo 04.28.2020 45 minutes

Don’t Burn This Book: An Interview with Dave Rubin

Dave Rubin_credit_ChrisPatey

The host of the Rubin Report talks about leaving the Left and forging his own path.

The loosely associated cadre of pundits, philosophers, and professors known as the Intellectual Dark Web is perhaps the most harmless group of sophisticates ever to be made contraband. From outside the perennially amped-up rhetorical Thunderdome that is our public discourse, it’s hard to see in Jordan Peterson or Bret Weinstein anything more than an amiable sort of tweedy erudition. The men and women of the IDW give lectures and make YouTube videos on topics ranging from mythology to politics, all with a charming sense of camaraderie and good humor.

But this is 2020, and merely to think out loud is to position oneself in a fraught political landscape riven by high-octane faction. Peterson gained his notoriety for criticizing legal enforcement of transgender pronouns, which nearly got him hounded out of his post at the University of Toronto. Weinstein did in fact have to leave his job at the Evergreen State College after refusing to gratify the whims of racial agitators. Largely by virtue of their own bemused unwillingness to shut up, these people have become more than public intellectuals. They are cultural icons who represent, to the delight of some and the consternation of others, an aspiration toward common sense and open-mindedness in an age which has furnished little of either.

Dave Rubin both exemplifies this aspiration and rallies others to it. As the winsome host of the Rubin Report, he interviews public and private figures of all sorts—musicians, authors, community organizers, transgender YouTubers—about their experience navigating the increasingly troubled waters of American life. His career as a standup comedian and media personality was radically transformed when he realized gradually, but with gathering unease, that he could no longer call himself a leftist. It was, by his own account, the most difficult and rewarding transition of his life—more harrowing by a good margin than coming out as gay.

The ensuing plaudits and backlash from this political rebellion form a narrative backbone for Dave’s new book, Don’t Burn This Book. Part confessional and part manifesto, it represents an effort to encourage others who find themselves appalled by a Democratic party which once represented them but now increasingly stands for nothing. More than that, though, Dave wants the book to offer a governing philosophy which might guide and unify such people as they learn to break free of the Left. Dave and I called each other from quarantine to tease out that philosophy a little further, and to discuss the process of writing Don’t Burn This Book.

Spencer Klavan: So this is your first book—what’s the writing process been like?

Dave Rubin: You know, I enjoyed the process, actually, much more than I anticipated. I didn’t think I was gonna dislike it, but I really liked the discipline that it forced me to have. Just getting up, having a cup of coffee, sitting in my “office”—which is just another bedroom in the house and also the Rubin Report green room, where the guests come to get makeup and relax before the show. And I would just sit down, my dog at my feet, with my computer and write from 8am until something like 2pm or so. And I’d often forget to eat—every now and again [my husband] David would slide, you know, some eggs into the room as if I was in maximum-security jail and he was sliding it through the window.

But I liked the process. Because you know, as someone who talks and listens for a living, a lot of it is sort of ephemeral. It’s on Twitter or a YouTube video, and then it just goes away because of the algorithm. Even if you do the most incredible, mind-blowing interview, usually they have about a 72-hour window where they’re really burning up. And a book is…I wanted it to feel timeless, like a culmination of the things that I’ve thought and lived through for the last couple years. I think I basically accomplished that, and hopefully left people with something to know how to fight the mob a little better, know how to fight against cancel culture a little bit better.

So I enjoyed it because I got to really work through the ideas. It’s one thing talk about some things, in short-form interviews or even long-form interviews, to talk about things for a couple minutes here and there. But to put it in a book and really think through well, does that sentence really make sense and what’s the next follow-up that has to come after that? I enjoyed the process in a way that I didn’t anticipate.

S.K. That’s actually a vaguely hopeful prognosis for the future of books and reading. And it does read like a manifesto, which I was wondering about: in your personal journey, what was it made you feel ready to put down your governing philosophy on paper, ready to have it out there set in stone?

D.R. Yeah you know it’s kind of funny, because I got the deal almost two years ago. And the publishing process is just a very, very slow process. So even right now, as we’re in the middle of coronavirus, the books are published and they’re at the warehouse and they’re ready to roll, and I had a big talk with the people at Penguin Random House—because they’re delaying a lot of books and they wanted to know if I wanted to delay it. But I was like, no, I want these ideas out already. In many ways, these are the things that I was thinking about for so many years, that I want to move beyond them now.

And that’s why I wrote it the way I did. Because originally, as I mention at the beginning of the book, I was going to write the “why I left the Left” book. But that’s not really what this is. Because I didn’t want to be defined by what I’m against: I want to be defined by what I’m for. So even though I tell some of my story about leaving the Left, and help people understand what will happen to them when they leave the Left, that’s not really what it’s about. What it really is about is: These are the principles I believe in. This is why I think that classical liberalism is the best lens through which we can create a functioning, free society.

But a lot of it sort of evolved as I wrote it. And one of the things I think that most authors find, which was definitely a bit of a struggle for me, was my editor would say “Dave, you know, you’re writing this now, and you might find that chapter 1 is actually going to be chapter 8, and chapter 6 is going to be chapter 4.” And we did move one or two things around to change the arc, and things like that. But you know, I also opened up about personal stuff that I haven’t talked about before, and tried to give people a little more of a window into who I am.

Because I didn’t want to write just a wonky politics book. People know me in a different way because YouTube has allowed us to do that. And I think that’s an interesting thing—it’s like, you don’t know anyone on CNN. Nobody has any clue what Anderson Cooper is really like. You don’t know what Wolf Blitzer is really like. You don’t know what Jake Tapper is like…he’s a little bit better than the other guys in that he’ll post a meme every now and then and you’re like alright, he has a sense of humor. But in many ways you don’t even view these people like full humans.

And the nature of YouTube, the nature of interviewing, of livestreams and of being on Twitter, is that the people that do this—we give a lot of ourselves. And so I wanted to give enough of that, and enough of the political thought, that it would feel like something that a complete human could put forward.

S.K. It’s interesting the way those two elements are woven together. You have these very personal, self-revelatory moments—the description of your nervous breakdown, for example—interspersed throughout reflections on the political state of discourse in America, and so on.

D.R. Well, I think politics needs the personal. That’s what I wanted to show people—you know, when I tell this story about being at the hairstylist’s [at the beginning of my breakdown], and suddenly she’s showing me in the mirror that I’ve lost these huge chunks of hair, and over the course of months, I probably lost up to if not more than 50% of it. And I was using these spray-on hair solutions and fibres, and all of this awful stuff. And then as I talk about in the book, the medication was far worse than that: my body was bloated, and broken out, and sweaty, and it was just a nightmare.

But that was a reaction to getting hate simply for saying what I believed, and suddenly finding that the people I thought were my allies—all the lefties—the second you take a position counter to them you’re a racist, a bigot, a Nazi and all the rest of it. And it’s one thing to hear that from anonymous Twitter trolls—that’s not fun. But when you start hearing it from people you know—potentially family members, friends—it can cause physical reactions, or it can cause depression, or a series of other things. And by the way I know that a lot of people who have put themselves out there publicly have dealt with other versions of this. So I felt it was important to say that.

It’s also not something I’ve really talked about before. I mentioned it once on Joe Rogan, and I think I mentioned it once in a livestream. Because I didn’t want it to be a pity party. But I think it’s important to show people that you will survive things, and when you survive, you will come out better for it.

S.K. You end that section with a call for people who are hiding their conservative beliefs to stand up, say what you believe, grit your teeth and you’re going to get through it. Obviously that was something that was incredibly difficult for you given where you came from. But there are some people I know for whom it would cost even more, who are sure that if they speak up they’ll lose their livelihoods—in the public school system in California, for example. Do you have anything to say to those folks who might say, “easy for you to say, but it’s my job we’re talking about here”?

D.R. Oh, well, I get so many of those emails you wouldn’t believe. I get them from California teachers—I get them from plumbers. That’s the thing. This social justice mind virus—and that’s what it is, it is a mind virus. Because it’s very easy to catch—you don’t have to think too hard about it—and it’s very hard to get rid of. And this thing has infected almost all of our institutions. It’s infected the media, it’s infected our political institutions, it’s infected corporations, it’s infected almost everything.

And so I get a ton of emails from people like that, and what I’ve realized is, here’s what everybody’s worried about: if I’m a teacher, or I’m a nurse, or I’m a university department head, and suddenly they tell me I have to care about diversity and inclusion, so my next hire has to be a Latinx trans disabled lesbian or something, and if I stand up then I’m gonna get fired—people  have to decide when they want to put their lives and livelihoods on the line. And I really understand that.

And by the way that’s why one of the things I’ve tried to do with my show is, when I’ve seen people stand up against the mob—Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Lindsay Shepherd, James Damore—the list goes on and on—I want to help them amplify their voice. Because when you amplify their voice, it starts giving other people some bravery. And we have a bravery deficit. It’s not really everyone’s fault. It’s sort of everyone’s fault and no one’s fault at the same time. And the thing is, if everyone started speaking up more—they can’t take us all out.

And I think what we would learn is that the cancel culture mob really is a paper tiger. It gets its power from our acquiescence. From our fear and silence. So I want more people to stand up.  But I sympathize, and I completely understand the people who, you know, you’ve got three kids, you’re a 55-year-old man and you have some thought that’s anti-woke, and you’re afraid if you bring it up you might lose your job in your company. Or you might not get that promotion. I sympathize with that. But at the same time I think it’s your duty as a human being to fight for what you believe in. And that’s why what they’re doing is so dangerous. Because they use the mob, and they use cancel culture, and they use fear, so that good people won’t say what they think.

And that’s the interesting thing. Because people who have terrible ideas—and really backwards ideas—those people scream all day long. And there’s no punishment for that. You can call people white supremacist all day long, you can call people Nazis all day long—I mean calling people Nazis, talk about cultural appropriation. And these are the people who care about cultural appropriation. I don’t, but you’re abusing history when you call people Nazis just because you disagree with them.

So I sympathize with the people who are quiet about it. But that’s why those of us who are in this have to model braver behavior. And that’s why a guy like Tucker Carlson—whom I happen to like very much and I go on his show often, though I have some disagreements with him—there’s a reason they’re always trying to take him out. Why does Media Matters focus on him every day, and the Daily Beast, and HuffPo, and Vox? They’re trying to take him out not just because they’re scared of Tucker, but they think oh, if we can get Tucker—just think how many other people will go silent once we get him. So we need to defend these people when we can, even if we don’t agree with everything they say.

S.K. Agreed. You described radical progressivism as a mind virus, and in your book you give details about what it was like for you to have that same mindset. It strikes me as similar to descriptions of Soviet Russia—this situation where practically nobody believes the philosophy, but everyone’s following it and destroying himself in the process. The dogma has a kind of life of its own. You’ve been there—can you say a little bit more about the psychology of that? Why is a philosophy which hurts everybody, including those who believe it, so appealing?

D.R. I think there’s a couple layers to that. I mean, the most obvious one is that most of the social justice stuff, most of the Oppression Olympics stuff, most of the woke stuff—the idea that we should be grouping people collectively, you’re gay so you should think this, you’re black so you should think this, you’re white so you’re the evilest of all things—most of it proliferates because it’s just lazy thinking.

If you could take the craziest, most far-Left, loony social justice warrior out there, and really sit them down and say, to them do you—let’s call her a 22-year-old antifa, white middle class blue-haired pansexual, the whole thing—and say to her do you want to be judged by your immutable characteristics? Or do you want to be judged by your thoughts? I mean, think about it. They constantly are railing against white people. Well, most of the social justice warriors are white people. So of course when they’re saying oh white people are evil, Christians are evil, of course they wouldn’t really say they’re evil, their parents are evil, their grandparents are evil. So most of it is just lazy thinking. Most of it just sounds sort of good until you think about it for a minute.

So an easy one is 15-dollar minimum wage. Now, as a general rule I don’t think the government has any right to tell a business what they have to pay their employees. I get tons of emails, every week, from professional people that want to work for me for free. And we don’t even do unpaid internships, by the way, but that’s my choice. So when they come out and they say “15-dollar minimum wage!” First off, these are the same people who say that they’re against big business and they’re for small business. Except if you tell small businesses that they have to pay a 15-dollar minimum you’re gonna kill a lot of small businesses. So they don’t think about it in that regard.

But the other thing they don’t think about is, when they just pick a number, saying 15-dollar minimum wage—you’re just picking a number. So what happens is Bernie says it, and then what happens? A few months later Rashida Tlaib says 20-dollar minimum wage. And it’s like, Oh, well I guess she’s right, too, because you just made up a number, so why shouldn’t she make up a bigger number? And then she can just turn to the guy who says 15 and say oh you’re a bigot, you’re a racist, you hate poor people and that must mean you hate black people. Even though there are more poor white people than there are poor black people.

So, what I have found is that you have to get them past an initial set of factory-setting ideas. Republicans bad, Democrats good. Conservatives hate women. Republicans love war, Democrats love peace. Democrats are for poor people, Republicans are for business. You have to break them out of those factory settings. But that stuff is handed to them by the education system, it’s handed to them by the culture and the rest of it. Which is why the Oscars can’t even have a host anymore, because they’ve become so woke that they’re afraid of jokes. And all the funny stuff that’s happening online is mostly happening, I would say, in the center-Right conservative libertarian space. I mean, there’s nothing funny coming out of the Left anymore, because this is the world that they’ve created.

So getting people to really think about it from their own personal perspective: Oh, all white people are bad? Are you bad? Are you bad because of the color of your skin? It’s absolutely crazy.

S.K. I want to ask you one more question about your journey away from the Left, and then we’ll get into your own more affirmative philosophy.

What you say sounds absolutely true to me. When I think about old friends from college or elsewhere who are full-bore invested in woke philosophy, the kind of lazy thinking you’re describing, the thing that strikes me is that they just seem miserable. They seem personally unhappy, and in a way that is obviously connected to their philosophy, though they’re often not self-aware enough to grok that that’s what’s going on.

Reading this book, I noticed that you describe two moments of great unhappiness—the unhappiness of being trapped in a leftist philosophy you didn’t agree with, but also the misery that came from leaving the Left and being excoriated. Was one of those experiences different or more worthwhile than the other? Is there something more worthwhile that comes from the misery of leaving the Left as compared with the misery of being on the Left?

D.R. It’s interesting. One of the things I talk about in the book about is, I know what it’s like to be closeted. I was closeted over my sexuality. And you can be closeted about a million different things: you can be closeted about your sexuality, you can be closeted about a disease you have or a family member that you don’t want people to know about. We all walk around with these secrets, and the more that you hide these things—especially if they’re innately who you are—the more that they destroy everything around you. You’ll start lying accidentally, almost, because it’s hard enough to live one life, much less two lives.

So I know that when I started coming out to my friends and family, my personal policy was: if I come out to somebody and I just tell them, this is how I feel, this is who I am, and I feel better afterward, well then this can’t be bad. And what I consistently found is that that is what happens. And truly, you know, I had a couple bumps in the road—a couple people were shocked or upset that I didn’t tell them earlier, and that kind of thing. But I never had anyone turn on me, I never had anyone disown me, or anything like that. Now, leaving the Left—once I did that video, “Why I Left the Left” for PragerU, then it was official. Before that I had been talking about all my frustrations with the Left, but I had been saying it from the perspective of a lefty. But I can no longer with a straight face say I’m part of the Left, and I don’t think any classical liberal can honestly say they’re part of the Left. And that’s why I consistently try to clean up the word “liberal” from “leftist.” Which, in an American context, may be a losing game ultimately. But I want people to at least understand why “liberal” and “Left” aren’t the same thing.

But then I left the Left—which I had never even said in that PragerU video. I didn’t know they were going to title it “Why I Left the Left” until I saw the video on YouTube that morning. And at first I was kind of annoyed, because I thought, “I never said I left the Left, and this puts me in a kind of tough spot.” But I quickly realized, the way it was resonating, “oh—this actually is OK. And I’ll survive this.”

But basically what I would say is that, when you leave the Left it is in many ways way harder than coming out of the closet in virtually any other area of life. Because suddenly, people who know you will tell you you’re a bigot, and tell you you’re a racist, and a Nazi, and things like that. I mean, people you know and love, who maybe are in your family, will say insane things about you.

And no matter what you say—“no no no!  I just happen to think Thomas Sowell is actually right about limited government and low taxes,” or you know, “I do occasionally watch that crazy fast-talking Ben Shapiro and I agree with some of his points,” or “I watch PragerU videos and I find them thought-provoking.” Or whatever it is. They will still say those awful things to you, and the reason that they do it is because, as I said earlier, they’re not really thinking through the issues.

So what they really fear is somebody waking up to it. Because then—and I see this all the time right now—on the Right, there’s such a constant healthy debate about rights, about freedom, and all that. You may remember a couple months ago there was this big debate that I think Matt Walsh started about porn. And so libertarians took the more “yeah, we have to let people watch porn” position, and Matt took the more conservative approach, “we have to ban it.” And there’s a rich place to discuss that: what’s good for society, versus what’s good for individual freedom. But everybody was debating it, and I didn’t see people really trying to destroy each other. But on the Left if you take one position counter to what they want, they want to destroy you.

And really the simplest way that I can think about it is, look: I’m gay married—I’m married to a man—I’m pro-choice, begrudgingly, but I know that that’s gonna piss off a lot of conservatives, I’m for some level of public education, I’m against the death penalty—a bunch of things that the Right should be angry at. But all I ever get from people on the Right is oh, let’s keep talking about it, or let’s agree to disagree, or you seem like a good person and I don’t have to agree with you on everything.

Whereas, from the leftist perspective, those are things that they should love me for. But all I ever get from the Left is hate. So it does show a difference in the mindset, and the reason is because of those factory settings, where you don’t have to think about the issues. Democrat good, Republican bad. And once you start letting people see through that—they don’t want you to walk.

So they hate me more than they hate, say, a traditional conservative, because I walked and I’m still standing. They hate Candace Owens because you can’t just let a black person walk away from the Democrats and be free. You gotta really try to take her out. Anyone that walks, you gotta really make them pay a price, because you gotta instill fear in everybody else that’s still asleep.

S.K. So, this speaks to something really interesting. It’s true that the project of disambiguating leftism from liberalism in America is becoming difficult and perhaps ultimately futile. It’s also, interestingly, becoming increasingly difficult to say what conservatism is, and who’s on the Right, and what the Right is.

You’re somebody who stands in an interesting position in that respect. The disagreements that you describe between yourself and say, Shapiro—you had that famous interaction with him about whether he would come to your anniversary party, and so on—the disagreements between you and him are significant. The social disagreements about sexuality, at least, are deep foundation-level disagreements.

What is it exactly, then, that ties the new Right together? As guys like you start leaving the Left, or people like Douglas Murray, the new right-wingers or new conservatives…what’s the unifying principle here?

D.R. Well, it’s a great question, and it’s what I really want to focus on over the next couple years. As the Left purges all their free thinkers, the Right will actually expand and create the widest tent in the history of politics.

Now, I should preface that by saying that generally speaking, the Right-and-Left thing is becoming increasingly difficult to understand. So I would say mostly it’s, you’re either an authoritarian, and you believe in central planning, you believe in federal power, or you’re a libertarian—I don’t mean you’re a card-carrying member of the Libertarian Party, but you basically believe that the government should have very little to do. And then within that there are different frameworks for both of those.

So I think what’s tying people on the Right together right now is pretty obvious. And it also shows the weakness of the Left right now. What’s tying people on the Right together is that they basically believe in individual rights. From an American perspective, people on the Right believe in the U.S. Constitution, meaning you believe that all people should have equal rights, period. You don’t care about people’s gender, you don’t care about people’s sexuality, or where they came from, as long as they’re a legal citizen. You believe that we should have equal laws for all people, and you believe in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. That’s a foundational principle that was born, in many ways, in the U.S. Constitution. And we didn’t have it perfectly: we expanded those freedoms, we freed the slaves, we gave women the right to vote, etc. etc. But the basic truth that people on the Right believe in individual rights—that is the first thing.

Now, on the Left, it’s like, what do they believe in? They don’t really believe in the Constitution, they don’t really believe in freedom or liberty, they believe in the government. And that’s not a thing to believe in! But that hearkens back to the conversation about the 15-dollar minimum wage that Bernie says, and then Rashida says 20—it’s because your basic principle of how you come to believe in anything is based on how you feel about anything. So on any given day, anyone can be the Nazi, anyone can be the bigot. And if someone disagrees with you, it’s not that they’re disagreeing with your principle, so it must be that they’re disagreeing with you as a human being, which makes them a bigot.  That is a huge, huge difference.

So when I see the debate on the Right—on anything, but the porn thing is an interesting one. The conservatives believe that porn is this deeply corrupt force in society that will corrupt minds and corrupt young people, and ultimately hurt the family which will hurt society over generations. I think that’s an interesting argument and I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to that. I personally fall more on the libertarian side: I don’t want the state to really legislate morality, but I do believe in the importance of family and the rest of it. But you can see that you can have that argument on the Right and still remain allies.

S.K. So, the great porn wars of 2019-2020—those were in some ways kind of the sequel to the Ahmari-French debates. One of the things that interested me was that actually, one of the things on the table was liberty: what amount of freedom is good, or right, or enough, and what amount needs to be restrained.

Now, in your book you’ve got this third chapter in which you lay out classical liberalism as your governing philosophy: you sloganize it as “live and let live,” but then you work it out in more complex ways on a number of different issues. But what’s the relationship between individualism—which you’ve just described as a kind of governing philosophy on the Right—and liberty? How important is liberty as a guiding ideal for the new Right?

D.R. This is why this conversation is so important. You’re asking exactly the right questions, which sort of proves my premise in the first place. Having the debate where you want people to be able to consume whatever they want—so in this case we’re talking about the porn thing, but we could also talk about it in the case of marijuana, or other drugs, as I do in the book. But then also understanding that, if you believe a government has to exist—and I do believe it does—you can have that great debate over individual choice.

And I’m sure that there are studies about what porn does to the family, and to women, and that show that if you’re in porn you probably came from a broken family, and so on. Now, I can hear all those arguments. My personal starting point: I believe that liberty, and freedom of choice, is the most important thing. So this is where I would err on the more libertarian side of this, whereas a traditional conservative would err toward “well, we have to defend the family at all costs, and that might mean infringing on people’s personal rights.”

This is where, and I’ve discussed this with many conservatives, I would love for the conservatives not to change their tradition, but to continue to carve out a little space for some secular conservatism. And I think that space exists. Heather Mac Donald is probably the best secular conservative thinker: she’s been an atheist, was always an atheist, never grew up in any sort of religious tradition, and believes in conservatism as a guiding principle.  I would love to see more of that. I think one of the things that trips conservatives up is they got so crossed up with some of the religious Right that they started legislating what’s going on in people’s bedrooms.

And by the way, this is where Shapiro and I obviously have a fundamental disagreement about gay marriage. He is allowed to have his religious belief, in his case from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. But you know, I also spoke at Liberty University, in front of 14,000 people—it’s the largest Evangelical college in the United States—and they loved me. And I talked about what our differences are, and it was no problem. But the Left will always make it seem like these evil Christians are the absolute worst.

And if you want to just show the hypocrisy of what they’re saying: there is quite literally not one mosque in the United States that would hold a gay wedding. No leftist would ever force a Muslim baker to bake a gay wedding cake, because it’s the easiest thing to do to go after Christians and white people.

But to specifically answer your question: that push and pull between what is good foundationally, what is good so that we can expand freedom into the next generation, versus how do we make sure that we don’t stop people from doing what they want to do, what is in human nature to do? I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the government to legislate human nature. But again, I think from the classical liberal perspective you can put some guardrails around it. Which is why I’m for legalizing marijuana, and I would be for legalizing certain types of psychedelics, but I’m not for legalizing crack. Because you need some guardrails.

That’s why some of the chapters, specifically the one on abortion, I end by saying well, now everybody’s gonna hate me. Because I think if you’re having an honest conversation about some of these things, the pure ideologues, they’re gonna hate you no matter what you do unless you bow to them.

S.K. All of this is fascinating to me. One of the most interesting passages in John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is when he says that if someone’s about to walk off a bridge, but he doesn’t know that the bridge is broken and he’ll fall and die, you can pull him back and arrest his freedom because he doesn’t really intend to do what he’s about to do, namely fall to his death.

And so this is my concern: a lot of the great articulations of classical liberalism hit up against these intuitive, but often unstated, alternate goods that get held in tension with liberty. And I wondered about that also in your book: could you put some more specific language on what the other principles are that one balances against liberty, even if we accept that you’re trying to maximize it?

D.R. For me, I think you’re mostly holding liberty against human nature. If I was just living in my Shangri-La, I would want everyone to basically do whatever they want with very little limitation. And my hope would be that in allowing people to be free, they would realize that you shouldn’t pollute the river in town because that’s also where you get your water from. And that you should respect your neighbor’s property because you want him to respect your property. So I always want to err on the side of maximum freedom.

But at the same time we do understand that humans are, as I said earlier, very imperfect creatures. We can do all sorts of things that are not only destructive to ourselves, but destructive to society. So the drug one, I guess, is the best way to frame this. It’s very easy, in my view, to make the case for legalized marijuana. And certainly at a state level I think you let the states do what they want and then you suddenly see: we legalized marijuana in Colorado and did crime increase? No, actually tax revenue increased, and now they can use that money for whatever they want to do and it’s good.

And so in terms of personal liberty you can make that argument very easily, on top of the fact that nobody gets stoned and commits crime, whereas there’s a zillion things that people get drunk and do including domestic violence, and murders, and drunk driving and the rest of it. So I never really understand the people that are for legal alcohol but against legal marijuana.

But here’s where you have to watch for that person walking of the bridge. I’ve done a lot of drugs in my day—I don’t do them anymore, but I did do things that are illegal. I’m not really proud of it or ashamed of it: it was part of life. But we all know—even the people that want to legalize everything—would you want to let a heroin addict into your community? Would you want a crack den next door to your house? And we all know that the answer to these questions is absolutely not. Of course you wouldn’t.

So even though I want people to be as free as they want, I do think that the light touch of government has to give people guidelines. Then from there we can discuss well, what do you do if people break those laws? And I wouldn’t want to punish people that are just using drugs. I would want to try to help them—that is a place where I think the state could have some value. But I think probably at that point if you were going to go that far you should punish people that are distributing them. I would make that criminal.

But the line on exactly where—let’s say marijuana’s legal, and psychedelic mushrooms are legal, organic things that come from the earth with no manipulation, but should designer drugs and heroin and all sorts of other stuff like meth be legal? We can all have that debate: what should be legal, what shouldn’t? That’s a healthy debate to have. But this is one of those things where you’ll hear “oh, just legalize all the drugs!” And it’s like, you know, you don’t really want that. You don’t. Because the places that have legalized more things or punished people less for things are the places where they spread everywhere.

But that’s the basic project, especially in America. We live in a country of 325 million people from every walk of life, from every ethnic background, from every corner of the world—we have an experiment running, a nonstop experiment for over 200 years. And we have to constantly be trying to make sure that what we’re always doing is expanding freedom while not knocking the wheels off the car. Without taking away our ability to navigate the road.

S.K. Now, secular conservatism. I am inclined to agree with you that there’s got to be a place for secular conservatives on the team. But it also troubles me, as it does others, that a number of the founders—Adams, for example—suggested that the Constitution they designed could only work for a religious people. And a lot of times I wonder whether any of our principles make sense without the “endowed by the Creator” part.

In the book you say you’re on your own, evolving spiritual journey. Could you give us an update on that journey? And can there be such a thing as a secular America?

D.R. Well look, the founders wanted a secular country in that they wanted a separation between church and state. But they also talked about God-given rights. And I do believe that freedom is a God-given right, meaning that it is your right as a human being. The government should be there to protect your rights, not give you your rights. The U.S. government did not make me free: it’s protecting that I’m free, and it can take away my freedom if abused.

But I believe for a society to function, we have to believe in some truths that are outside of ourselves. Otherwise we’ll just destroy everything that the previous generation fought for. And by the way, that’s why there’s so much energy behind the progressive socialists. They’re basically all non-believers in any sort of traditional sense, so they just all believe anything. And when you believe anything you create this giant hole, and then what can fill the hole? Well, it’s government. So if we could just control enough people we could do what we want…. It’s a very Thanos view of the universe: you gotta kill a lot of people, half the universe, to get ultimately what you want.

Look: the founders were believers, and they were skeptics at the same time. They were believers, and they were skeptics of power, so they wanted us to be free of religious coercion, while understanding that our God-given rights are what actually make us human. It’s what separates us from the animals: the ability to think and reason, those things are God-given. And then we’ve got to create a system that protects that.

So later in the book, when I talk about how Jordan Peterson influenced me: I’ve really come around on this. There have to be some empirical truths beyond us. I view that as a very utilitarian argument, and I think that’s actually okay. So for example, when Jordan and Sam Harris got into their big debates, there’s basically sort of the Enlightenment argument, which is that Enlightenment values—open inquiry, freedom of speech, all these things—that’s enough to keep a civilization flourishing. Then there’s the Jordan argument which is that actually, there are eternal truths told to us through stories—in his argument biblical stories—that we need, because the purely secular Enlightenment values can’t stand the test of time.

Well, I just find that to be a much more compelling argument, and the proof is in the pudding: the Left is collapsing around a bunch of postmodernist nonsense, where nothing is really true, and science isn’t true, and if there’s too many white scientists then that’s problematic. And that’s of course the reverse of what the quest for truth is. And in a weird way you can’t fault the people that fall into that trap, because once they’ve accepted that there’s no truth outside of them, well then anything’s on the board, anything can be played with.

So I do believe—and I say this as a mostly secular person—that we need a truth outside of ourselves, we need a morality outside of ourselves. And we can all pick and choose how to behave within that. But if you think that the government is the be-all-end-all, then you will always be racing to control more people. And that’s actually the complete reverse of everything I believe in.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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