I do not remember the first time I stumbled across Ben Shapiro online, but it occurred a number of years ago while he was still working at Breitbart News. I recall reacting with fascination. Who was this confident, articulate and yarmulke-clad person?
Over the past few years, I have followed his career. I have frequently listened to his radio show, occasionally read his articles and, every now and then, I have caught him on cable news. When I heard that Shapiro was writing a book that organized many aspects of his worldview, I wanted to check it out. So, I took The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great out of the library and read it over a weekend. Here is what I discovered.
My first surprise occurred when I first picked up the book. It is short. Even with its small margins and large font, it barely crosses the 200 page threshold, excluding notes and bibliography. This is a shame, because his aim of providing a survey of Western philosophy and religion to prove his point was too ambitious for such a small volume.
Shapiro’s main purpose in the book is to explain how to create what he describes on page nine as a “successful civilization.” According to him, doing so requires the proper balance of four ideas: “individual moral purpose, individual capacity to pursue that purpose, communal moral purpose, and communal capacity to pursue that purpose.” So far, so good. All of these seem like worthwhile objectives to me as well. To achieve the proper balance of these four things, Shapiro suggests that we combine the moral clarity of biblical revelation and the tradition of inquiry and reason first achieved as he says in ancient Athens. He is probably going to lose some people there, but this still seems like a reasonable argument to me. Then, he makes his final leap that consumes most of the book. He believes that the American version of Western civilization, more so than other civilizations, can offer a blueprint for future success. This can best be summarized by this passage on page 94: “The philosophy of the founders [of America], made material in the creation of the United States and in the continuing quest to fulfill their ideals, has been the greatest blessing for mankind in human history. The United States has freed billions of people; it has enriched billions of people; it has opened minds and hearts. But that founding philosophy – the crown jewel of the West – has not prevailed. It has instead been gradually decaying.”
The rest of his book puts forth this binary view of philosophy. Shapiro believes that there are good ideas that have led to everything good that has happened to America and bad ideas that are responsible for everything bad in America. The first half of his books focuses on the former, the second half on the latter.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of American history would know that Shapiro’s rose-colored view of what America has accomplished is problematic. For starters just look up the history of the Cherokee, the Sioux, the Navajo, the Native nations in California, the 4 million slaves before the Civil War, all of the victims of lynching, the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and every Vietnamese person still struggling with Agent Orange induced cancer. But, I will leave this specific critique for another time. Instead, I want to focus on a different issue in this book, specifically that Ben Shapiro does not understand how the study and writing of history works. Let me highlight three methodological problems that explain how Shapiro goes wrong. He oversimplifies, he cherry-picks, and he overemphasizes the importance of the origin of ideas.
For the first methodological problem, take a look at the most obviously incorrect sentence in the book. In his description of trends in the Middle Ages, Shapiro writes this: “While many historians tout the power of Islamic civilization during this time period – the Islamic civilization did thrive on the Arabian Peninsula particularly – when Islamic civilization came up against Western civilization at the Battle of Tours, Islamic forces were soundly defeated.” There is so much wrong with this one sentence. To start, the battle of Tours was not a battle between Western and Islamic civilizations. Rather, it was a battle between the Franks and Muslims coming from Spain.
It is complicated to say that the Franks were truly “Western” at this time. They had started to embrace Catholicism 200 years earlier, but they were also among the groups that benefited from the fall of the Roman Empire, the paragon of the West. Were they Western when they conquered Rome? Were they Western in the mid 700’s at the Battle of Tours? When did this shift happen? Moreover, to say that these Spanish Muslims represented all of Islamic civilization is ridiculous. They represented the northwestern frontier of Islamic expansion at this time and were quite removed from its heartland.
But even if you want to concede that this was his epic battle between the West and Islam, the Battle of Tours was not the first time these forces met. Islamic forces conquered Spain and North Africa. Both of these places were part of the Roman Empire. Both of them were conquered by Germanic tribes like the Franks. If the Franks who won the Battle of Tours were Western, then the Visigoths of Spain were Western and the Vandals/Byzantines of North Africa were Western too. In other words, the first times Islamic forces met Western forces, Islam permanently turned North Africa Muslim, and controlled at least part of Spain for the next 700 years.
This one silly sentence speaks to a critical error in Shapiro’s historical judgment. He oversimplifies. In this case, he oversimplified the importance of this battle regarding the clash between the West and Islam while neglecting the other battles that do not favor his argument. This is an unforgivable sin of history writing and he does it frequently throughout the book. Here is an additional example:
On page 57 he claims that “The birth of Christianity represented the first serious attempt to merge Jewish thought and Greek thought. The Christian admixture was far more Jewish than Greek in its vision of God and of man’s quest in the world, but it was also far more Greek than Jewish in its universality.” To say that Christianity was some sort of Jewish religion/ Greek Philosophy hybrid is simply false. He points out that the Christians utilized the Greek idea of logos and sought universality as signs of their Greek inspiration, but that is like saying humans and dogs are the same because they both breathe oxygen and have eyes. They do, but that is ignoring all they things that make them different. I imagine Aristotle would have found laughable the notion of a monotheistic Trinity, and I am pretty sure Plato would have spurned the empowering of uneducated slaves and women that occured in the earliest years of the faith.
Shapiro oversimplifies for one of two reasons, either he lacks a full grasp of the history that he is working with or he is so focused on his own argument that he neglects any facts or perspectives that do not work for him. Either way, his oversimplifying abounds throughout the book, harming the efficacy of his general arguments.
The second significant methodological problem is found in every chapter of the book and can be summed up with the following sentence: “Someone once said something.” There is a perfect example of this on page 13.
We are social creatures, not merely individuals. That means we seek contact, and we want to feel like part of something larger than ourselves. This is why we seek friends and communities in which we participate. Seneca states, “no one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility.” Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor, for if they fall, one will lift up his fellow, but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up.”
While both of these are nice passages, if you deleted them, the book would be no different. Shapiro seems to think that if you name drop a famous person and include a snippet of their writing, it somehow strengthens his credibility. That we as the reader should trust that he is using the passage correctly even though he offers little or no context for many of his quotations. Sometimes, as with the passage above, this just leads to sloppy writing, other times it results in a far more grievous error: cherry-picking.
Here is a little example that really stood out. On page 196, when listing examples of how culture has declined in the recent past he writes, “Where children had once learned from Pinocchio to ‘always let your conscience be your guide,’ now they are taught by Frozen, ‘no right, no wrong, no rules for me / I’m free! / Let it go!’” Now, I feel a little odd publicly calling out an adult for how he understands a children’s movie, but here goes. While “ Let It Go” is certainly the most famous song from Frozen and I am sure many children sing it without understanding its context, the song actually takes place in the middle of the movie and half-way through Elsa’s (the singer’s) character arc.
After a lifetime of repressing who she is, Elsa escapes her reality and momentarily revels in the freedom this provides her. This is when she sings this song. However, this celebration of her freedom proves unsustainable and leads to her hurting her own sister. The movie concludes after Elsa returns home, learns to control her powers through love, and reclaims her responsibilities as ruler. “Let It Go,” is not the message of the movie; discovering how to responsibly live as yourself while embracing your family is. Of course, this whole line of argument is a little ridiculous because it is questionable if children even appreciate the nuances of the plot or understand the lyrics of the song. So how can a lyric in a kid’s movie, especially one that he clearly does not understand, prove Shapiro’s point of the deterioration of American culture?
Unfortunately, his cherry-picking does not end with children’s movies. He egregiously does this throughout the book. He spends only 18 of his large margined, large fonted pages explaining his take of Jewish tradition from the Bible through the Talmud in his whirlwind third chapter. There, he brings up some interesting but simplistic ideas on how Biblical monotheism differs from ancient polytheism, but then he goes wrong again by cherry-picking. He pays special attention to Deuteronomy 30:15-20, wherein, after laying out all of the punishments the Children of Israel will receive if they neglect their duties, God implores them to “choose life, so that you and your children may live.” While these are indeed dramatic verses in the Bible, to call it the “Most Important Verse in Human History,” as he does on page 31, is a long shot. For starters, Shapiro explains this passage as stressing how the Bible gives us a choice in how we live, but it is hard to say that God is giving the Jews much of a choice if he just told them all the terrible things he will do to them if they do not comply with his covenant.
Moreover, while this idea of God making a covenant with the Children of Israel plays out repeatedly in the Bible, it’s kind of a vague mantra to live by. The Bible is a large book with many distinct parts and styles. After all, a sizable portion of it addresses how to deal with the different types of inflammations on your skin, clothing, and house. The Bible dedicates many words to treating people nicely but It also discusses all of the circumstances in which you offer a sacrifice and how to do it. And that is not even dealing with the narrative portions of the Bible, like when it describes how God asked Abraham to throw his oldest son out of his tent into the wilderness and a little later God tells the same Abraham to kill his other son.
Shapiro can believe that his verse is the most important verse in the Bible, but he has not done enough to convince anyone else that it is, nor does he show how the Bible as a whole is a worthy book to base a civilization on. He just takes it as a given. Since grounding our worldview in the Bible is critical for explaining half of his argument, you would think he would take more time in explaining how we should base our civilization upon its teachings. Otherwise it just seems that he is picking the parts of the Bible that he likes while neglecting the rest.
This is the problem with Shapiro’s cherry-picking. He uses the ideas of a lot writers and thinkers in his book in order to put forward his argument, but most of these people get a line here or a paragraph there and he almost never adequately acknowledges the nuances and complexities of these ideas or texts. This is highly problematic from a history writing perspective.
The final methodological mistake in this book is Shapiro’s overemphasizing the importance of the origins of ideas. By doing this, he ignores how ideas change and evolve. How they can mean different things to different people at different times. How two people can take the same ideas and do different things with it. While there are indeed bad ideas, the same good idea can be used for good or bad things.
On Page 181, Shapiro recalls a discussion he had with Sam Harris in which he discussed whether a good society could exist without a firm foundation in the western tradition, Shapiro said “the fundamental moral precepts that you took to be moral from the time you were a child arise from a Western Civilization predicated on Judeo-Christian [sic] notions of good and bad.” Why does it matter where these ideas came from? So much happened to these ideas from their inception until today. By focusing on their origin he neglects how every other generation between then and now has adapted or altered the idea due to their own unique situations. An ancient Israelite would not recognize anything about how Jews live today.
In another instance of this, Shapiro claims that a lot of the Enlightenment thinkers were devout Christians. This is indeed true for some of them. But, so what? Their ideas were not about Christianity. They were about government, or economics, or society. While it is indeed interesting to uncover the origin of ideas and perceive how their genesis fits in with the time period that they emerge, it does not have much bearing on the world we live in today. Here are three examples of mine that exemplify the limits of this.
First, birds are descended from dinosaurs. This is an objectively cool fact and I am sure that evolutionary biologists have a lot of fun with it, but it doesn’t matter for how we interact with birds today. Jeff Goldblum and Chris Pratt are no starring in movie where they are running away from birds. This is because over time, birds have changed and now (sadly?) they are very different from the giant dinosaurs of the past.
Next, there would be no State of Israel today if not for the communists and socialists on kibbutzim who built it. Does this mean Israel must be communist or socialist today because its founders were? Does it take away from what Israel has become because its founding was reliant on communists? I think not.
Finally, Algebra was invented by Muslims when they combined knowledge they gleaned from Greece and India. Does this mean every time we use Algebra we are doing something Muslim, or Greek, or Indian? No, it does not. We are just utilizing a system created by one group who learned things from others. Ideas are like that.
I dwell on this point because Shapiro makes a big deal of it. He frequently reminds us that John Locke was a Christian. He makes it clear that the Founding Fathers of America were well-versed in classical wisdom and the Bible. None of this really matters. Either their ideas worked or they didn’t. John Locke wrote a completely unworkable constitution for the colony of North Carolina. The Founding Fathers laid the groundwork for the perpetuation of slavery in America with the ⅗ compromise. Can we blame these things on their Christianity and classical knowledge as well? People are complex and what they do with ideas is complicated. By neglecting to appreciate this obvious fact, Shapiro’s simplistic historical originalism completely misses the historical mark every time.
When we combine these three methodological problems, the result is clear. To a historian, Ben Shapiro’s book is gibberish that utilizes incorrect methods to further his ideological purposes. This either happens because Shapiro has no idea how to engage with history on a sophisticated level, or he is putting his ideology first and the history second. It seems as though he knew what he wanted to say and then he looked for the history to prove it. While many a history writer has done this, Shapiro’s book is a particularly egregious example of it.
Here is something you need to know about me: I researched Evangelical Christian homeschool history curriculum for my senior thesis in college. I wrote my Master’s thesis on how many Christian Zionists use the past to justify their beliefs about the end of the world in the future. And to this day my ears perk up whenever I hear a politician or journalist evoke history as a justification for a certain policy or idea. For close to 15 years now, I have found fascinating the way in which people root their worldview in their understanding of the past. Through this, I have seen time again leaders of movements justify their ideas on a flawed understanding of history.
With my many years pondering this issue, I have learned that while the past can teach us how we got here, it says nothing regarding where we should go in the future. We learn from the past. We should not relive it or try to recapture it. There is no going back.
Shapiro is a thoughtful guy and I think he earnestly believes what he preaches. But, like with many things he discusses, he has let his feelings get in the way of the facts and his silly little book suffers for it.