The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great
By Ben Shapiro
Broadside Books, 2019
The optimist says, “The world needs more optimism.” The pessimist says, “The world needs more realism.” The realist says, “The world needs more balance.” It’s only the demagogue who says, “The world needs more me.” We naturally think of demagogues in their adult forms, having already achieved full-alligator length and leathery toughness, spreading their arms wide to cheering crowds of rubes and saying, “I alone can fix it.” But it’s important to remember that adult demagogues start off as baby demagogues, and these resemble baby alligators: slick and shiny instead of leathery, wide-eyed and innocent-seeming.
Daily Wire leader and top conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro is slick and shiny. He has black hair, a cherubic hairless face, and a high piping voice that occasionally still cracks with adolescent fervor even though he’s in his mid-thirties. He’s a happily married observant Jew, has two children, and is charming and funny. And despite a fairly chummy trafficking of audiences and a fairly clammy echoing of ideological talking-points, he emphatically denies that he is a member of or fellow traveler with the alt-right. He’s presentable; he gives off an air of being legitimately controversial instead of illegitimately so; he still gets invited to speak on college campuses. He has not been deplatformed on social media. He’s a living, breathing reminder of how popular baby alligators have always been as pets, before it seems quite fair to flush them into the New York City sewer system.
His spurning of the alt-right doesn’t stop him from imitating them, and in his new book The Right Side of History, his first and biggest alt-right gesture is certainly something he would describe instead as conservative, libertarian, or even just commonsensical: he posits a Golden Age, and it’s squarely located in the rearview mirror.
Weirdly, his Golden Age is some gauzy hybrid of something he calls “Judeo-Christian values” and something he calls “Greek teleology.” They’re conveniently shorthanded throughout the book as “Jerusalem” and “Athens.” The idea he lays out in the book’s earnest, leaden prose is that Western society has lost its sense of purpose, and that it can regain this sense of purpose by restoring its embrace of Judeo-Christian values and Greek rationality … that the perfect solution to the West’s problems, in other words, lies not in striving for a common brighter future but in going back roughly 2000 years to the ancient past. Since Ben Shapiro has never gone a single day of his entire adult life without Wifi and air conditioning, this seems like a bizarre idea - until you realize that hop-scotching back 2000 years is absolutely necessary if you’re going to do what Shapiro yearns to do above all things: retroactively cancel the Enlightenment. Glowing fitfully through the fog of his book’s windy pronouncements and half-digested undergrad history nuggets is Shapiro’s dead-set conviction that the Enlightenment, with its spirit of scientific inquiry, its prizing of repeatable, testable observations, and its groping toward intellectual freedom, is right where humanity’s train went off its tracks:
The death of Judeo-Christian values and Greek telos didn’t mean the liberation of reason from superstition. For some key philosophers, it meant the destruction of reason itself. That may seem counterintuitive - after all, philosophers had tossed out the Bible and Aristotle in the name of reason. But the Enlightenment did not merely involve utilizing reason to question Judeo-Christian values and telos. It involved turning reason in on itself, examining the human mind. It meant obliterating mankind as the jewel of the cosmos, bringing him low, returning him to the animals rather than allowing him to aspire to join the divine.
The destruction of reason itself … tossed out the Bible and Aristotle in the name of reason … mankind as the jewel of the cosmos … In passage after passage like this, The Right Side of History slips right through the floorboards of controversy and falls into simple gibberish. Shapiro has an idea of what the Enlightenment is, and it’s entirely bad - because its thinkers classified man as an animal, as a part of the natural order. It doesn’t matter to Shapiro that such a classification is demonstrable fact; his feelings don’t care about facts. To him, as he writes over and over again, mankind is “created” by God, and everybody would be much better off if they just remembered that.
Well, maybe not everybody. After all, in Jerusalem and Athens only adult white married male property owners had any say in anything. Everybody else had to settle for being worked, enslaved, or married (sometimes all three). In Shapiro’s conception, the West in general and America in particular could begin to fill the “meaning-shaped hole” at its center if it turned back to an arrangement much like the one he himself has: religious (monotheism only, please), science-denying, married, and male. The demagogue says, “The world needs more me.”
This would be sordidly amusing in its own way if the rest of The Right Side of History weren’t so often either sloppy or deceitful or both. Shapiro persists in claiming that “Judeo-Christian values” and “Greek reason” (it almost goes without saying that neither of these ridiculous concepts is ever defined in the book) “undergirded America’s founding,” and many of his case-in-point examples are riddled with rhetorical sleight-of-hand. He prizes his image as a kind of tough-cop intellectual ombudsman pointing out flaws all across the American ideological spectrum, but those examples invariably give away the game:
To take a minor example, in September 2017, Republicans and Democrats clubbed each other savagely over the exact same policy: President Obama had issued an executive amnesty for certain children of illegal immigrants, the so-called DREAMers; President Trump had revoked that amnesty, but called on Congress to pass a legislative version that would protect the DREAMers. Democrats called Republicans cruel, inhumane; one congressman called Trump “Pontius Pilate.” Meanwhile, Republicans called Democrats lawless and irresponsible.
Over the exact same policy.
As Shapiro himself must know perfectly well, this description - that issuing a clemency and revoking one are the exact same policy - is savagely false. Obama acted with mercy in the face of an obstructionist Congress; Trump acted with vindictive racism instead of passing legislation, and his own Attorney General admitted it was done in order to make punitive examples of helpless people, including many children. To draw any kind of equivalence between an act designed to help children and an act that’s resulted in children being traumatized, raped, and left to die is abhorrent.
This abhorrence runs through almost every page of The Right Side of History. In it, Shapiro pines for the good old days when the worship of a God was the primary act of society and the primary definition of its white, male, married householders. In that world, schools would certainly be places of worship, behaviors not sanctioned in 3000-year-old Near Eastern incunabula would be gently but firmly outlawed, and “we” would finally be able to fill that “meaning-shaped hole” in our hearts: children would fill it with their parents, wives would fill it with their husbands, and men would fill it with their interpretation of the Judeo-Christian God. The Right Side of History doesn’t add the two words that have always, always concluded such an arrangement: “or else.” But that’s only because this is still a baby alligator. Give it three or four more books.
And in the meantime, thank God for the Enlightenment.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.