Ben Shapiro Puts America on 'The Right Side of History'

The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great, by Ben Shapiro, Harper Collins, March 19, 2019 (277 pages, $27.99, Hardcover)

Why are things in America so good, and why are we throwing it all away?  Those are the two questions that Ben Shapiro, the staccato-laced intellectual pugilist, seeks to answer in his new book, The Right Side of History.  That things are actually amazingly good, at least materially, in the U.S. is demonstrated via statistics of which few Americans are aware.  For example, in 1900, ten percent of all infants in the country died before their first birthday, and one out every one hundred mothers died in childbirth.  Today, both infant mortality and death in childbirth are rare.  I might add that the average lifespan for American women increased from around 46 years in 1900 to over 80 today.  Beyond longevity, material prosperity has reached almost Messianic levels.

On the downside, however, Americans are more hostile toward each other than at any time since the Civil War — primarily divided along ideological lines.  In addition, a growing percentage of the population finds itself without any significant meaning in life, an existential void that promotes rapidly increasing drug addiction and suicide rates.  Concurrent with this spiritual deficit are incessant attacks on America's traditional institutions in order to "fundamentally transform" the nation.  Thus, amid tremendous prosperity and freedom, we now see 24/7 vilification of the nation's racist, sexist,  genocidal history conjoined with attempts to squelch any speech that challenges leftist demands for "social justice."  In short, powerful media, academic, and political forces are in the process of destroying the very Constitutional principles and cultural institutions that made America great. 

So what, exactly, made America great?  Shapiro says, correctly, in my view, the union of "Jerusalem and Athens," by which he means the nation's historically mediated incorporation of the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition alongside the reason-based natural law tradition exemplified in Plato and Aristotle.  The creative tension between these two poles produced in America, and less clearly in Europe, societies that embraced both individual freedom and communal goals, both transcendent purpose and the employment of reason to achieve morally sanctioned objectives.  In America, a broad devotion to basic moral and religious principles provided a foundation for the individual "pursuit of happiness" within various religious and community groups.

The philosophical and historical journey that led to this outcome constitutes the bulk of Shapiro's book, material that may be a heavy lift for folks with little or no background in intellectual history.  That's not to say the author dwells on minor or abstruse philosophical points — only that his brisk and insightful overview of important philosophical developments during the last 2,500 years necessarily presupposes a degree of familiarity on the reader's part.  On the plus side, Shapiro's  overview is narrowly focused on the issues he needs to illuminate: the embrace of faith and reason and the negative consequences of rejecting either or both of these two poles.

After more than a century of religious wars in Europe, a creative balance was tentatively achieved that included both the Greek rational tradition and the biblical heritage of Judaism and Christianity.  This fragile coalition was soon destroyed, most grotesquely in the French Revolution, whose rejection of faith and deification of human reason led to a bloodbath whose cruelty should be a clear demonstration of the depths of depravity to which human reason is liable when freed from any transcendent restraints.  (I recommend Ann Coulter's chapters in Demonic for an impressive summary of this revolutionary barbarism.)

In America, however, the world's first philosophically constructed Constitution was made the political foundation of a religiously diverse people overwhelmingly devoted to the broad moral and spiritual ideas derived from the Bible.  These ideas included the conviction that all people are created in God's image and are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights.  America's Lockean embrace of reason, faith, and limited government provided the dynamism that gave rise to the most productive and religiously conscientious culture (cf. Tocqueville) the world has ever known.  

Shapiro's final chapters depict the West's and America's descent into materialism, hedonism, and spiritual nihilism.  In Europe, the "death of God" proclaimed by Nietzsche and biologically sanctioned by Darwin created a vacuum that was filled by communism and fascism — ideologies that dismissed the individual and free inquiry for the sake of utopian futures.  In America Progressives also belittled the notion of individual liberty and a Constitution that limits government power, enthralled as they were with Hegelian concepts that touted collective goals.  Progressives thus gave birth to the eugenics movement promoted by Margaret Sanger, the dogma of a "living Constitution," and a government no longer constrained by constitutional boundaries.   

The deterioration of faith in America and the West also gave rise to a rationalism that views humans as animals, or even bits of matter, with no moral purpose.  Attempts to create one's own personal morality within this godless universe, as with the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre,  have proven to be absurd, since morality is essentially a social concept and implies some penalty, either in this world or the next, for transgressions.  As if all these developments weren't bad enough, today's cultural Marxists are intent on bringing about a new society by overturning all existing institutions in the name of various victim groups.  Those institutions include the family, traditional religion, and any organization that can be viewed as supporting the white male capitalist establishment.  This phalanx of true believers pledges allegiance neither to reason nor to faith in God, but only to its own fantasies.  Thus, people can change their "gender" at will and others must agree that X and Y chromosomes mean nothing — or be punished for transphobic hate crimes.  Goodbye individual freedom, goodbye rationality, goodbye anything like the God of the Bible. 

After offering detailed examples of America's cultural and spiritual decline, Shapiro provides scant advice for rectifying the situation.  It's certainly good to instill in one's children an appreciation of the immense historical accomplishments of our country — accomplishments rigorously avoided by leftist academics.  It is also wise to convey to them your conviction that their lives are "guided by a higher meaning" and that "we are all brothers and sisters."  But providing a familial remedy for a cultural disaster seems a counsel of despair.  In addition to pedagogical advice, some thoughts about the "academic and media" sources of disintegration would be in order, a few of which I offer in the closing chapter ("What Went Wrong") of my own book, Moral Illiteracy.

No doubt, the young Shapiro will provide more extensive suggestions in the future for countering and reversing the destructive forces leading us toward a culture that neither fears God nor reveres reason.  For now, his work illuminating the historical and philosophical origins of America's greatness and the sources of its impending doom is well worth perusing.

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?" is available on Kindle.

Head image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great, by Ben Shapiro, Harper Collins, March 19, 2019 (277 pages, $27.99, Hardcover)

Why are things in America so good, and why are we throwing it all away?  Those are the two questions that Ben Shapiro, the staccato-laced intellectual pugilist, seeks to answer in his new book, The Right Side of History.  That things are actually amazingly good, at least materially, in the U.S. is demonstrated via statistics of which few Americans are aware.  For example, in 1900, ten percent of all infants in the country died before their first birthday, and one out every one hundred mothers died in childbirth.  Today, both infant mortality and death in childbirth are rare.  I might add that the average lifespan for American women increased from around 46 years in 1900 to over 80 today.  Beyond longevity, material prosperity has reached almost Messianic levels.

On the downside, however, Americans are more hostile toward each other than at any time since the Civil War — primarily divided along ideological lines.  In addition, a growing percentage of the population finds itself without any significant meaning in life, an existential void that promotes rapidly increasing drug addiction and suicide rates.  Concurrent with this spiritual deficit are incessant attacks on America's traditional institutions in order to "fundamentally transform" the nation.  Thus, amid tremendous prosperity and freedom, we now see 24/7 vilification of the nation's racist, sexist,  genocidal history conjoined with attempts to squelch any speech that challenges leftist demands for "social justice."  In short, powerful media, academic, and political forces are in the process of destroying the very Constitutional principles and cultural institutions that made America great. 

So what, exactly, made America great?  Shapiro says, correctly, in my view, the union of "Jerusalem and Athens," by which he means the nation's historically mediated incorporation of the Judeo-Christian biblical tradition alongside the reason-based natural law tradition exemplified in Plato and Aristotle.  The creative tension between these two poles produced in America, and less clearly in Europe, societies that embraced both individual freedom and communal goals, both transcendent purpose and the employment of reason to achieve morally sanctioned objectives.  In America, a broad devotion to basic moral and religious principles provided a foundation for the individual "pursuit of happiness" within various religious and community groups.

The philosophical and historical journey that led to this outcome constitutes the bulk of Shapiro's book, material that may be a heavy lift for folks with little or no background in intellectual history.  That's not to say the author dwells on minor or abstruse philosophical points — only that his brisk and insightful overview of important philosophical developments during the last 2,500 years necessarily presupposes a degree of familiarity on the reader's part.  On the plus side, Shapiro's  overview is narrowly focused on the issues he needs to illuminate: the embrace of faith and reason and the negative consequences of rejecting either or both of these two poles.

After more than a century of religious wars in Europe, a creative balance was tentatively achieved that included both the Greek rational tradition and the biblical heritage of Judaism and Christianity.  This fragile coalition was soon destroyed, most grotesquely in the French Revolution, whose rejection of faith and deification of human reason led to a bloodbath whose cruelty should be a clear demonstration of the depths of depravity to which human reason is liable when freed from any transcendent restraints.  (I recommend Ann Coulter's chapters in Demonic for an impressive summary of this revolutionary barbarism.)

In America, however, the world's first philosophically constructed Constitution was made the political foundation of a religiously diverse people overwhelmingly devoted to the broad moral and spiritual ideas derived from the Bible.  These ideas included the conviction that all people are created in God's image and are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights.  America's Lockean embrace of reason, faith, and limited government provided the dynamism that gave rise to the most productive and religiously conscientious culture (cf. Tocqueville) the world has ever known.  

Shapiro's final chapters depict the West's and America's descent into materialism, hedonism, and spiritual nihilism.  In Europe, the "death of God" proclaimed by Nietzsche and biologically sanctioned by Darwin created a vacuum that was filled by communism and fascism — ideologies that dismissed the individual and free inquiry for the sake of utopian futures.  In America Progressives also belittled the notion of individual liberty and a Constitution that limits government power, enthralled as they were with Hegelian concepts that touted collective goals.  Progressives thus gave birth to the eugenics movement promoted by Margaret Sanger, the dogma of a "living Constitution," and a government no longer constrained by constitutional boundaries.   

The deterioration of faith in America and the West also gave rise to a rationalism that views humans as animals, or even bits of matter, with no moral purpose.  Attempts to create one's own personal morality within this godless universe, as with the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre,  have proven to be absurd, since morality is essentially a social concept and implies some penalty, either in this world or the next, for transgressions.  As if all these developments weren't bad enough, today's cultural Marxists are intent on bringing about a new society by overturning all existing institutions in the name of various victim groups.  Those institutions include the family, traditional religion, and any organization that can be viewed as supporting the white male capitalist establishment.  This phalanx of true believers pledges allegiance neither to reason nor to faith in God, but only to its own fantasies.  Thus, people can change their "gender" at will and others must agree that X and Y chromosomes mean nothing — or be punished for transphobic hate crimes.  Goodbye individual freedom, goodbye rationality, goodbye anything like the God of the Bible. 

After offering detailed examples of America's cultural and spiritual decline, Shapiro provides scant advice for rectifying the situation.  It's certainly good to instill in one's children an appreciation of the immense historical accomplishments of our country — accomplishments rigorously avoided by leftist academics.  It is also wise to convey to them your conviction that their lives are "guided by a higher meaning" and that "we are all brothers and sisters."  But providing a familial remedy for a cultural disaster seems a counsel of despair.  In addition to pedagogical advice, some thoughts about the "academic and media" sources of disintegration would be in order, a few of which I offer in the closing chapter ("What Went Wrong") of my own book, Moral Illiteracy.

No doubt, the young Shapiro will provide more extensive suggestions in the future for countering and reversing the destructive forces leading us toward a culture that neither fears God nor reveres reason.  For now, his work illuminating the historical and philosophical origins of America's greatness and the sources of its impending doom is well worth perusing.

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?" is available on Kindle.

Head image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.