The Right Side of History
The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great is a 2019 book by American conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro. Shapiro was inspired to write the book after an incident at California State University, Los Angeles in which a speech he was giving was disrupted by protestors.
|March 19, 2019|
In the book, Shapiro argues that Western civilization is experiencing a crisis and an imminent downfall. He asserts that by abandoning Judeo-Christian values and the Greek-born faculty of reason, modern society is hastening this demise, that hedonism and rampant materialism has made humankind susceptible to failure, and that the only the way to reverse this decline is to return to the values and faculties that helped create the West.
The book became the #1 non-fiction book on both Amazon and The New York Times Best Seller list within one week of its release. Reception of the book's coverage of philosophy and history, as well as the arguments presented within it, was mixed.
Shapiro was scheduled to give a speech at California State University, Los Angeles for Young America's Foundation's campus group on February 25, 2016, titled "When Diversity Becomes a Problem". Some students and faculty members objected to Shapiro's presence on campus. At the time, Shapiro was an editor for the far-right news website Breitbart News. In response, university president William Covino cancelled the speech. In a statement, Covino cited his intention for "him to appear as part of a group of speakers with differing viewpoints on diversity". Covino further stated: "Such an event will better represent our university's dedication to the free exchange of ideas and the value of considering multiple viewpoints." However, when Shapiro announced his intention to show up anyway, Covino reversed his decision.
On the day of Shapiro's speech, student protestors formed human chains to prevent access by attendees to the theater hall where Shapiro would be speaking. As Shapiro was preparing to start his speech, several rioters assaulted those attempting to enter the theater hall. Soon after the speech began, a protestor pulled a fire alarm. Nevertheless, Shapiro continued his speech throughout the continuous disruption, which was further exacerbated by protestors loudly banging against the outer doors of the theater hall. After the speech concluded, he was quickly escorted off campus via a police motorcade. According to Shapiro, the reason behind the protests was that a professor had told her students that Shapiro was a white supremacist.
In the aftermath of the incident, the conservative Christian non-profit organization Alliance Defending Freedom filed suit in Los Angeles federal court against CSULA on behalf of Shapiro and the campus chapter of Young Americans for Freedom.
Shapiro regarded this incident as one of two catalysts for him to write the book. The other factor was Shapiro becoming the top recipient of anti-Semitic tweets directed at journalists from August 2015 through July 2016. According to the Anti-Defamation League, out of approximately 19,253 anti-Semitic tweets directed at journalists during this time period, Shapiro was the target of 7,400 of those tweets, or approximately 38% of the tweets. Shapiro wrote: "I went through most of my adult life involved in public political conversations with others without threat of violence or racist slurs. Now, I required hundreds of police officers to protect me, and my Twitter feed was flooded with images straight from the pages of Der Stürmer. Something, obviously, had changed." Shapiro attributed these two incidents, as well as various other observations regarding social downturns and declines across the United States and the Western world to society rejecting Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law: "We are in the process of abandoning Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, favoring moral subjectivism and the rule of passion. And we are watching our civilization collapse into age-old tribalism, individualistic hedonism and moral subjectivism."
Shapiro introduces the topic of the book by contrasting the rising quality of life in Western societies with statistics highlighting a societal decline across the West such as increasing levels of polarization, depression, divorce rates, and drug overdose deaths among others. He further references an incident in February 2016, when he gave a speech at California State University, Los Angeles, resulting in a violent confrontation between protestors and those attending Shapiro's event. He points to a loss of Judeo-Christian values and the Greek-based capacity for reasoning throughout the Western world as the chief culprit behind such events and declines.
He further analyzes the sense of discord and disunity amongst those of different political parties and beliefs, and proposes that such a rift was developed due to a drift from the understanding of applied ethics that served as a fundamental building block of Western society. He stresses a need to balance individualism with an ubiquitous sense of respect and empathy– virtues that Shapiro argues can most effectively be attained through an understanding both Biblical ethics and Aristotelian ethics.
As he details the spread and influence of Judaism upon the ancient peoples of the Southern Levant, he argues that the introduction of Biblical ethics to the Israelites was first catalyst for the roots of Western civilization to develop. As Christianity adopted Mosaic interpretations of law and morality, the moral guidelines and beliefs exclusive to Judaism became intrinsically inseparable from those of Christianity; hence leading to the Judeo-Christian interpretation of morality. Shapiro regards the second catalyst to be Aristotelian ethics, the basis of which is that one should aspire to become good, not merely to know. He further postulates that upon these two schools of thought coming into contact with one another, they merged into the very basis and foundation for the growth and expansion of Western civilization. According to Shapiro, the two fundamental birthplaces of modern Western society are Jerusalem and Athens- the epicenters of Judeo-Christian faith and Aristotelian reasoning respectively.
The book addresses the fundamental ideological struggles between Greek thought and Jewish values, and how with the emergence of Christianity both schools of thought reconciled, paving the road for the creation of modern Western civilization. As Christianity spread, Shapiro argues, these two thought systems were spread with it. The spread of these values was further aided by the emergence of Scholasticism in the eleventh century. He posits that the revolutionary intellectual advances achieved during the Enlightenment were correlated with the religious and moral convictions of some of its greatest minds, such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. Shapiro also argues that the philosophy behind the United States Declaration of Independence was the manifestation of Judeo-Christian values and the Greek gift of reason. He affirms that the inherent greatness of Western civilization can be directly attributed to the success and influence of the Declaration of Independence.
Concerning the division and faults of the modern United States, Shapiro claims that the rejection of Judeo-Christian values in favor of solely Greek Teleology, and the rejection of virtue in favor of moral relativism are the chief culprits behind the degraded modern condition of Western civilization. He argues that the horrors of World War II, the Holocaust, and the killings of those living under Communist rule are all consequences of discarding morality and virtue as defined by Judeo-Christian ethics. He further argues that a major effect of World War II on the Western world was the loss of optimism; specifically a lack of vision for the future of humanity. With a collective sense of purpose and hope having disintegrated, Shapiro posits that the West has turned to hedonism and materialism in place of Judeo-Christian values and Greek reason.
In closing his book, Shapiro stresses that it is paramount to teach the next generation of children to cherish their existence and the world they live in, that they must recognize and respect the value of their humanity, and that they must be willing to stand up and defend their way of life.
The book became the top seller on Amazon's catalogue of non-fiction books within one day of its release on March 19, 2019. The book reached #1 on the The New York Times Best Seller list for non-fiction books by March 27.
Reaction from critics ranged from praise for Shapiro's analysis of philosophical concepts and the history surrounding them, to skepticism and criticism of Shapiro's reliance on Judeo-Christian doctrine and the scholarly validity of his arguments. Jonathan Rauch, writing for the The New York Times, praised Shapiro's critique of individualism: "Shapiro’s spiritual challenge to secularism is not new. In fact, it is venerable. As the liberal tradition’s most astute contemporary defender, Peter Berkowitz, often points out, the charge that liberal individualism is self-destructively materialistic is itself an important strand of the liberal tradition." In the same article however, Rauch criticized Shapiro's coverage of thinkers and ideologies from different time periods within a few pages.
Tracy Lee Simmons of the National Review lauded Shapiro's approach to the subject matter of the book, writing: "This book provides an excursion into the intellectual history of the West, from Mt. Sinai to the latest barbarity in Slate, usefully retold for those who know the story and accessibly digested for those who don’t." He also praised Shapiro's arguments that the Age of Enlightenment was spurred by a religious and intellectual desire to explore the nature of the world surrounding humankind: "Indeed, Shapiro credits the intellectual ferment of the Middle Ages with eventually ushering in the scientific revolution from the 16th to the 18th centuries."
John R. Coyne Jr. of The Washington Times praised Shapiro's coverage of Western thought and his analysis of contemporary issues: "In this strongly written survey of Western thought and cogent statement of democratic principle, Mr. Shapiro provides an analysis of our current crisis, its causes and potential cures, advocating a return to the basic values upon which our civilization was built."
Sean Illing of Vox debated Shapiro in response to various points and claims made in the book. During the debate, Illing pointed out the history of slavery, segregation, racial violence, and the resulting civil rights movement in the United States, and how such struggles and atrocities were spurred under the banner of Christianity; which Shapiro posited in the book as a guiding force for Western civilization: "Who is the 'we' in this American story? Because from the perspective of black and brown Americans, and of poor people generally, this reads like nostalgia for a target audience. The violence, the oppression, the long history of slavery and segregation, the bitter fights for labor rights — all of this was hard and contentious, and it all happened under the banner of Christianity". In addition, Illing criticized Shapiro's coverage and presentation of philosophy: "To me, the book reads like philosophical catnip for your audience. They were primed to accept it before they read it, and they'll feel even more passionate about it after. But you didn't make an effort to challenge them in any way or wrestle with the critiques you very narrowly skim through".
- Primetime Propaganda, a 2011 book by Shapiro
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