But don’t panic; as bad as it is, Shapiro has a fix. To restore meaning to American life, all we really have to do is remember, in appropriate measure, two big things the ancients already figured out. From Athens, we got the supremacy of reason over passion. And from Jerusalem, we got God’s wisdom to satisfy a soul aching for deeper answers that reason alone can’t supply.
In a tacit tribute to political philosopher Leo Strauss, Shapiro argues that it took a tender balance between these two pillars to lift the West to its lofty place. And to show the long span of history that got us here, he surveys a head-spinning succession of movements and philosophies, from Plato and Aristotle to his own debates with atheist philosopher Sam Harris. He credits certain thinkers who get the Athens-Jerusalem balance right and help further Western greatness, among them, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Edmund Burke and, implicitly, himself. And he indicts those who got it wrong for contributing to history’s failures, the French Revolution and Nazism — and to the campus left, whose opposition to Shapiro’s views has helped propel his fame.
Shapiro, author of “Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth” (2004) and “Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future” (2005), is a conservative polemicist with a powerful new media presence and a Harvard law degree. An online audience of millions looks to his YouTube channel and Twitter feed for an unrelenting stream of counterarguments to combat the cultural dominance of the left.
Shapiro covers a lot of ground in fewer than 220 pages of text. However, as he lays out his historical survey, his case weakens when he nears the present day. He manages, in a single sweeping passage, to blame Karl Marx and New Left theorist Herbert Marcuse for a variety of modern social ills: pediatrician Benjamin Spock’s once-revolutionary precepts on child care, the insidious self-esteem of the Me Generation and the influence of Barney the purple dinosaur who, in Shapiro’s view, was wrong to have told so many ordinary children that they were special. These complaints come in a chapter called “The Return to Paganism,” which opens with Shapiro recounting his appearance on a cable talk show panel on transgender people. On the air, Shapiro conveyed his view that “a society that refuses to acknowledge the biological differences between men and women is engaging in knowing falsehood.” His remarks ignited the ire of fellow panelist Zoey Tur, who is transgender. After exchanging some rough words, Shapiro incited Tur by asking, “What are your genetics, sir?” A fracas ensued.
Shapiro’s audience is predominantly millennial men. As his author bio notes, he is “the nation’s most requested campus speaker.” Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew, was editor at large for Breitbart News until his public split from the far-right website in 2016. Since then, he has sharpened his brand as a “principled gladiator,” in the words of conservative journalist David French, to counter what he has called the racist and anti-Semitic slant of the alt-right. His message, which is a reductive gloss of intellectual history synthesized for easy digestion, seems primarily aimed at equipping his readers to lecture their friends and talk over their teachers.
Throughout much of the latter third of this slim book, Shapiro battles with Harvard professor Steven Pinker over his embrace of Enlightenment philosophy. Pinker’s promotion of an Enlightenment framework of moral reason, in Shapiro’s view, misguidedly discounts God. As Shapiro sees it, Pinker espouses a religious belief, without meaning to, when he claims you can reason your way to the Golden Rule. “His statement that reason tells you all other human beings are human,” Shapiro writes, “and therefore you have a responsibility to treat them as you would treat yourself is effectively a religious appeal, not a reasoned argument.” Enlightenment revivalists such as Pinker and Harris, both of whom reject a religious moral framework in favor of a reasoned one, are wasting precious time they could be investing in the two-pillared program for a return to meaning, Shapiro contends.
But the pages Shapiro spends on his ideological opponents would be better used by a narrative proof of his main point — which isn’t just the Straussian balancing act between Athens and Jerusalem that frames the book’s arguments. But, more basically, the book claims that “people need meaning,” as Shapiro puts it —more than they need reasoned argument. Here I happen to agree. But Shapiro’s book, I’m afraid, would not have convinced me, if I weren’t already in that camp.
He praises a few great men for having found the ideal balance between Athens and Jerusalem over the centuries. Dostoyevsky gets high marks. Shapiro turns to Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov” and plucks out the poem “Grand Inquisitor.” In the book, the brainiest of the brothers recites the poem as a repudiation of organized religion. In the telling, Jesus touches down in Seville, Spain, at the time of the Inquisition but he’s detained and rejected by the church’s top potentate, who has a message for him. The masses, the inquisitor says, have plunged away from meaning toward materialism, and they need an authoritarian church to keep them in line more than they need a refresher on Christian morality. For Shapiro’s purposes, the tale’s take on humanity describes the godless destiny the West has chosen for itself, under the influence of the “dark side of the Enlightenment.” Readers who’ve come to Shapiro for answers might be better served by the whole of the novel. “The Brothers Karamazov” makes a much meatier argument for religious morality than this one sinister passage. Plus, it’s a pretty wild murder mystery. And its best characters are a hard-partying gambler and his girlfriend, a prostitute who has more moral sense than all the Karamazovs put together: Kind of like the quest for moral meaning, it’s complicated.
Mostly, though, Shapiro disapproves of anyone — existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, socialist novelist Sinclair Lewis, feminist journalist and activist Gloria Steinem — who has challenged the dual supremacy of religious morality and pure reason. Twentieth-century rebels kicked over both pillars and let society tumble away into revolution and countercultural excess, of which Shapiro also disapproves. He argues that despite the destructive rebellious left, Cold War capitalism was on track to “produce a more cultured America — and a more tolerant America.” And that’s where we’d be today, he believes, if the counterculture hadn’t come along and turned the youth against the conformists who begat them. “Only acts of rebellion could destroy the system within,” Shapiro writes, paraphrasing free-love philosopher Marcuse, and sounding not unlike John Lithgow as the preacher in “Footloose.” “Rebellion in sex,” Shapiro continues. “Rebellion in art; rebellion in work; rebellion everywhere.”
A brief concluding chapter proposes a program to reverse Western civilization’s centuries-long slide from meaning and centers on an effort to teach children, as the Shapiros do theirs, that our society is great and our debt to it is also great. He insists that children must be taught that everyone has a soul and that each of us must boldly make the most of life. We don’t know whether the kids are getting the message. But the Shapiro syllabus suggests another takeaway: Get meaning-starved youth good and steeped in great literature — and the meaning within it will be hard to miss. As an ideological refresher on what the West got right, Shapiro’s book gets the job done. But mostly it makes you want to assemble a reading list for college-age conservatives — a class of young men and women, but mostly men, whom P.J. O’Rourke once memorably called “larval Republicans.” Dostoyevsky might not be a bad place to start.
The Right Side of History
How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great
By Ben Shapiro
Broadside. 256 pp. $27.99