Current Affairs

The West According to Ben Shapiro

The falsified history of a man who proudly refuses to do his homework…

In the first chapter of Ben Shapiro’s The Right Side of History, he writes about his wife asking him, during a particularly stressful time in both of their professional lives, if he is happy, and answering that yes, of course he is. He then muses on when he is most happy:

“Formulated like that, the question became easy: on Sabbath. Every week, I drop everything for twenty-five hours. As an Orthodox Jew, I celebrate the Sabbath, which means that my phone and television are off-limits. No work. No computer. No news. No politics. A full day, plus an hour, to spend with my wife and children and parents, with my community. The outside world disappears. It’s the high point of my life. There is no greater happiness than sitting with my wife, watching the kids play with (and occasionally fight with) each other, a book open on my lap.”

I like this answer a great deal: it reveals a person who has some idea of what the most important things in life are, of what keeps us human. I would very much like to believe that Shapiro is giving an honest answer, and I wish he had not written a book that made me ask whether this touching moment was not just one more cheap rhetorical prop.

The Right Side of History sets out to explain Western civilization’s unique intellectual and political contributions to humanity and the ways in which Western thought can show us how to find happiness.  (Note: I do not believe that “Western civilization” is a useful way to organize our thinking and conversation, and I have written about why I believe it ultimately harmful. My use of “the West” in this review is an attempt to discuss the work on its own terms.) Shapiro defines his terms from the outset: “Happiness is moral purpose.” He also defines what he sees as the two pillars of Western thought: the reverence for a transcendent God originating in Jewish tradition, and the use of human reason whose origin he traces to Greece. The pairing of Athens and Jerusalem is an old one, dating back to the Christian theologian Tertullian in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. But where Tertullian asked: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” and sought to keep religious devotion free of the elaborate speculations that characterized Greek philosophy, Shapiro considers these traditions ultimately complementary to one another, despite acknowledging their tension. I think that he dramatically overstates his case: indeed, he passes over the profound tensions within the two religious and philosophical traditions, imparting to each a degree of certainty that they do not claim, and ultimately conveying a picture far less interesting and satisfying than these rich traditions deserve.

Shapiro begins his survey with the Jewish religious tradition, and here he stands on firm intellectual ground: he obviously knows the Biblical and Talmudic material well, and this is reflected in his discussion of the substantive meanings of extended passages of text. Do not expect this to continue.

Even this section, however, is marred by Shapiro’s constant equivocation on “progress.” He considers the idea of God to be necessary for an idea of historical progress: without a singular God, “there could be no vision of a progression in history, an inexorable movement toward a better time or Messianic era.” This would be an ideal point at which to bring out the fraught relationship between religious messianism and historical progress: his own Jewish intellectual tradition has developed some of the most insightful and sophisticated thinking on this deeply difficult question. Gershom Scholem, the 20th century’s great scholar of Jewish mysticism, sums up this tension in his essay “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism”:

“The Bible and the apocalyptic writers know of no progress in history leading to the redemption. The redemption is not the product of immanent developments such as we find in modern Western reinterpretations of Messianism…It is rather transcendence breaking in upon history, an intrusion in which history itself perishes, transformed in its ruin because it is struck by a beam of light shining into it from an outside source.”

And further:

“[The apocalypticists’] optimism, their hope, is not directed to what history will bring forth, but to that which will arise in its ruin, free at last and undisguised.”

The tension, then, is between human beings living in history and anticipating the coming of the Messianic age on the one hand, and on the other, the Messianic moment as a breaking of history, a moment that cannot be “anticipated” in a normal sense because it lies totally outside of what we think of as “history.” This very same tension is also explored in one of the great plays of the 20th century, Angels in America, by the American Jewish playwright Tony Kushner.

But Shapiro elects not to explore any of this rich history, because his book is written for an audience whose worldview has been shaped mostly by American Protestant Christianity. In order to appeal to them, he resorts, as have so many right-wing pundits, to talking about something called “Judeo-Christian belief.” This elision of the differences between Christianity and Judaism is normally deployed by Christians, not Jews, and I was at first interested to see what sorts of intellectual maneuvers this might involve. In fact, as discussed later, it involves nothing more for Shapiro than the age-old trick of speaking very confidently about things he knows nothing about. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in not having done the reading.

After this mixed but slightly promising start, Shapiro’s book begins a steep decline reflected in my own increasingly angry marginal annotations, which finally devolved into written representations of my own screams. He turns next to the other partner in this purported marriage between Jerusalem and Athens, at which point his substantive command of the material gives its notice and absconds with the cutlery.

Shapiro’s knowledge of Greek philosophy seems to consist of half-remembered snippets from his undergraduate years, marred further by the Procrustean mutilations and bald ignorance of several generations of right-wing opinion jockeys who made lucrative careers out of pretending to have read these books more than once. He blithely assumes, for example, that Plato’s Republic lays out his plan for organizing a society, when the text itself makes plain that this ideal city is nothing more than a device for examining the human soul to see how justice operates. When he does cite genuine authorities, namely the philosophers Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom, he misconstrues their arguments into tawdry libertarian pabulum: their serious and provocative reflections on the gulf between philosophy and politics pass through the alchemical fire of Shapiro’s ignorance and emerge as warnings about the danger of collective governance. He describes their work as “suggesting that Plato’s entire scheme was at least partially facetious, an attempt to prove the unworkability of full communitarian control.” His footnoted source for this, it bears mentioning, is not Strauss’s The City and Man or Bloom’s interpretive essay that introduces his famous translation of the Republic, but rather a 2013 article in First Things magazine, which is an excellent authority to cite if you would like to justify the forcible kidnapping of Jewish children, but is a less eminent authority when it comes to debates on Platonic irony.

Illustration by Ben Clarkson

Shapiro’s most infuriating contortion of antiquity is his habit of treating ancient political thought as an undifferentiated mass, even to the point of inventing such thought out of whole cloth. He frequently alludes to “Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics” when speaking about conceptions of the state, and in particular about the role of the state in cultivating a virtuous citizenry. There is a significant problem here, which is that Stoicism is among the most straightforwardly anti-political philosophical schools ever to exist. There is no Stoic political thought: Stoicism sees no role whatsoever for the state in cultivating virtue, because virtue consists in living according to reason, no matter one’s worldly position. Its most famous exponents were Epictetus, a slave, and Marcus Aurelius, an emperor of Rome, and it has recently become popular among Silicon Valley tech elites: its purely personal focus is key to its enduring popularity. Perhaps this conflation is mere ignorance on Shapiro’s part, but if you are going to make a particular set of theories foundational to your argument, it is usually helpful to know something about them.

After the Greeks, Shapiro moves on to Christianity, whose primary use in his book is as an ingredient in something called “Judeo-Christian values” or “Judeo-Christian belief,” a powerful amalgamation of Judaism and Christianity whose primary characteristic is its ability to be whatever is most convenient at the moment for Ben Shapiro. For example, he contends that “the Nazis rejected Judeo-Christian value-s and Greek natural law, and they shoved children into gas chambers.” I wonder how “Judeo-Christian values” managed to be entirely absent from the Nazi regime when most of the soldiers in both the army and the SS remained Christians throughout the war; at the same time, Shapiro wants us to believe that the ideology of the Declaration of Independence is “supplied by a Judeo-Christian tradition of meaning and value, and a Greek tradition of reason,” despite its author Thomas Jefferson’s having been a staunch Deist who denied the possibility of miracles. This is part of the miraculous flexibility of “Judeo-Christian values,” which can be present or absent as Shapiro wishes, without regard for the presence of actual Judaism or Christianity. Christianity in particular seems to be difficult for Shapiro to locate in history, possibly because he does not know what it is: if he did, his description of Christian doctrine would not include statements already condemned as heresy prior to the Council of Nicaea, such as characterizing Jesus as a “spiritual” and not a “material” savior, a position which was condemned by Irenaeus, Augustine, and other Fathers of the Church in their repudiations of Gnosticism. Shapiro is also not even slightly aware of the highly embodied and fleshly character of Christian spirituality throughout most of the world, in forms ranging from miracle-working icons in Russia and apparitions of the Virgin Mary in grilled cheese sandwiches to bleeding hosts and ever-liquefying saint’s blood. He neglects these things, I think, not out of well-meaning ignorance, but because he appears to have no interest in Christianity except as something that “spread the fundamental principles of Judaism,” according to his own judgment of what is fundamental.

But “Judeo-Christian” plays another role in Shapiro’s story, less because of what it includes than what (and whom) it excludes. Shapiro’s history of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim animus is well-documented: I would refer readers to Nathan J. Robinson’s extensive profile of Shapiro for this magazine. (Highlights include Shapiro tweeting: “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.”) It is also not surprising that someone talking about Western civilization would attempt to exclude Muslims from the picture. Islam has long represented a menacing “other” against which Europeans and their descendants have defined themselves, from the Crusades, which form the founding mythology of this “opposition” between Europeans and Muslims, to Spengler’s The Decline of the West, which posited different “civilizations” of the world along ethno-religious lines, to contemporary alt-right memes about the 1683 Siege of Vienna, which decisively halted the westward expansion of the Ottoman Empire. Friends who work in theology and religious studies have confirmed to me that “Judeo-Christian” is not an accepted term in academic religious studies precisely because it is inaccurate: work on a shared tradition of monotheism and shared historico-religious figures generally demands the inclusion of Islam under the term “Abrahamic religions.” But The Right Side of History is a book about a very narrow and idiosyncratic vision of Western civilization held by someone who deeply despises Muslim and Arab people, and Shapiro’s delicate historical fantasy is far too precious to be subjected to vulgar demands for “professionalism” or “basic respect for standards.”

Just how idiosyncratic this vision is takes several chapters to unfold, and details would be both superfluous and exhausting. In brief, Shapiro sees the Enlightenment as a double-edged sword, in that it gave rise to individualism and explicitly elevated the pursuit of science, but also gave rise to atheism and widespread secularization. Rather than contend with the complex network of ideas and events that make up the Enlightenment, he opts to separate it into the “European Enlightenment” and the “American Enlightenment,” which are respectively interchangeable with “the bad Enlightenment” and “the good Enlightenment.” (Note: literally no reputable scholar of the the Enlightenment uses these terms in this way.)  Shapiro uses this distinction to write a hagiography of the American founding, characterizing it as “the greatest experiment in human progress and liberty ever devised by the mind of man” and “the best that men have done, and the best that men will do in setting a philosophic framework for human happiness.” This is the buried lede in Shapiro’s story: that Western civilization is valuable insofar as it gave rise to the United States, and that the United States, at its founding, was not only the greatest expression of Western values to date, but their greatest possible expression in any era.

This claim would require an alarming amount of evidence if a person were interested in seriously defending it, yet Shapiro does not bother citing even a fellow right-wing pundit to support himself here. Fortunately, Shapiro and those in his line of work, to borrow from A. E. Housman, “need not seriously consider what they say, because they are addressing an audience whose intelligence is despicable and whose hearts are won already; and they use pretexts which nobody would venture to put forward in any other case.” This is, in short, not a book written to defend the notion of America’s greatness, but rather to supply suitably infantile historical delusions to people unwilling to entertain the idea that America could ever be defined by anything else.

My quotation of Housman above may have been somewhat heavy-handed, but in my defense, I have shown Current Affairs readers the merest shadow of what I experienced in Shapiro’s ham-fisted abuse of his sources, his reader, and English prose. As I noted earlier, when he has command of the source material, as he does of Jewish religious texts, he is able to discuss substantial excerpts with reasonable care. When he does not have command of the material, as with virtually every other subject in this book, he resorts to mere snippets, cited in the most irritating possible style. Nearly every quotation is introduced with “As X writes” or a variation thereof, and each seems to be chosen not so much for its ability to illuminate a point as for the mere presence of authority in the weave of Shapiro’s argument. “As Harry Jaffa of the Claremont Institute wrote, ‘It is difficult to imagine a more forthright Aristotelianism in either Hooker or Aquinas,’” Shapiro quotes of John Locke, padding his source’s dubious claim with an institutional affiliation that looks fine on paper, until one remembers that the Claremont Institute was founded by four of Jaffa’s own students, is unaffiliated with Claremont-McKenna College despite having chosen a deliberately similar name, and seeks “to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life,” all of which, if disclosed, might lead attentive readers or precocious twelve-year-olds to question Jaffa’s credibility.

But the most serious sin of Shapiro’s book is not its loose regard for intellectual history. In chapter 9, “The Return to Paganism,” Shapiro traces what he frames as the dissolution of the American commitment to reason in the contemporary era. Symptomatic of this, he claims, is our willingness to give transgender people the basic courtesy of referring to them by the names and pronouns that they have chosen. This is one of his most frequent appeals to “logic,” which is a word that Shapiro uses to mean not “deriving a conclusion from premises with a valid chain of reasoning,” but rather “coming to the same conclusions as Ben Shapiro.” His sneering characterization of “unreasonable” people is one of the most telling passages in the entire book:

“Reason, in fact, is insulting. Reason suggests that one person can know better than another, that one person’s perspective can be more correct than someone else’s. Reason is intolerant. Reason demands standards. Better to destroy reason than abide by its dictates.”

These are not the words of someone committed to reason out of a passionate love for the truth, as Plato would wish, nor out of a commitment to human excellence, as Aristotle encourages. Reason, for Shapiro, seems to be nothing more than an instrument for domination, an arena for reassuring himself and others that he is better and worthier than they. This lies at the root of Shapiro’s incessant concern with transgender people: as a professed libertarian, he ought to let them refer to themselves however they like, but his petty cruelty is only satisfied when he can weaponize “reason” against a vulnerable minority’s desire to be left in peace.

It is fitting, then, that the villains of this piece are the 20th century’s most notable critics of reason-as-domination, the philosophers of the Frankfurt School. Shapiro introduces them as “a group of German intellectuals,” and at this point a knowledgeable reader will be alarmed. This is not a false characterization, but it skips over the fact that Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and their fellows were nearly all German Jews who were forced to flee Germany due to the Nuremberg Laws. This is not necessarily an objectionable omission in itself, although Shapiro’s habit of impugning the Jewish identities of his political opponents is well documented: he refers to Jewish supporters of the Democratic Party as “JINOs” (Jews In Name Only), and characterizes anti-Zionist Jews as “fake Jews.” This is contemptible in itself, but Shapiro goes further: in the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, “suspicious of the very categories of better, useful, appropriate, productive, and valuable, as those are understood in our present order,” Shapiro finds the origins of all of the academic and cultural bugbears of the right. “It is no coincidence,” he writes, “that various forms of university study dedicated to various alleged victim groups—black studies, Jewish studies, LGBT studies—all find a home under the ‘critical studies’ rubric.” In particular, he contends that with the publication of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, “the roots of sexual liberation, victim politics, and political correctness had been laid.” By focusing on “self-esteem,” the New Left, whom Shapiro describes as “advocates of the Frankfurt School,” “could overturn reliance on Judeo-Christian religion, Greek teleology, and capitalism.”

This is not a new idea. The accusation that the Frankfurt School is responsible for the degradation of American civilization is a well-worn canard of American paleoconservatism, bandied about as “cultural Marxism” by former presidential candidate and noted anti-Semite Pat Buchanan in his 2002 book The Death of the West. It is a more specific iteration of the much older allegation that foreign Jewish intellectuals poison America (or Europe, or the West in general) with dangerous ideas that weaken the social fabric and threaten to bring about social collapse. Contemporary conservatives often use “cultural Marxism” to refer to a broad range of conspiracy theories, though most of their accusations remain focused on academia and retain anti-Semitic overtones.

Shapiro has done the reverse of this by retaining all the specificity of the term’s original use while avoiding its name. I do not know what Shapiro intends by this, or why the editors at Broadside allowed it to remain, but the facts stand thus: Ben Shapiro has effaced the Jewish identities of a group of intellectuals persecuted for their Jewishness by the Nazis, and has subsequently tarred them with a flatly anti-Semitic accusation. In any book, this would be appalling; in a book by someone who has himself faced anti-Semitic attacks and who positions himself as someone unafraid to call out anti-Semitism on both the right and left, it is utterly beneath contempt. To top it off, Shapiro’s epilogue assures the reader that the West can be saved if we raise our children right. “What God asks of us, what our ancestors ask of us, and our civilization asks of us, is not only that we become defenders of valuable and eternal truths, but that we train our children to become defenders of those truths as well.” Lest anyone mistake his point: “If we wish for our civilization to survive…we must be willing to teach our children. The only way to protect their children is to make warriors of our own children.”

Shapiro is adamant that he is not a fascist. He is, however, fluent in and comfortable with the fascist rhetorical register of demographic crisis and civilizational warfare. He delights in treating despised minorities in the way that fascists do. The sole virtue of Shapiro’s book is that it does not even attempt to hide this, because its author has deluded himself into believing that he has nothing to hide. The picture that he paints in his first chapter, with his children playing and Shapiro reading contentedly with his wife in the living room, is entirely believable: his powers of self-deception are such that one can imagine he would be able to rationalize God’s own judgment against him as the fruit of a left-wing conspiracy. Moral certainty is perhaps the most dangerous of all attitudes: there has never been a righteous person who believed in their own righteousness, and all of the worst monsters believe themselves to be saints.

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