NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he name Ben Shapiro may not be the first that comes to mind when you think of a mollifying, uniting figure. But he really does make a sincere effort to find common ground between two hostile sides when he suggests that religion as well as reason fueled Western human advancement. Or, as he might put it, we are all children of both Athens and Jerusalem.
Shapiro’s latest book, How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps, has just been published, which reminded me I hadn’t yet finished his previous one, The Right Side of History, which appeared in paperback earlier this year. Yes, Ben is writing books faster than I can read them, and I am duly ashamed. I have a feeling that Ben could write a book faster than I could drive to the nearest Barnes & Noble, if he weren’t busy with other things.
And what a marvel he is at those other things: the podcast format and he fit together as beautifully as an old married couple. Fans of The Ben Shapiro Show will have noted that his Walter Winchell machine-gun style enables him to race through an outlandish amount of rhetorical points per hour, and for a young audience impatient with the pokey, pre-digital style of those of us with outmoded legacy brains, Shapiro’s wind-sprints through politics must be irresistible. I shudder to think what his podcast sounds like when you activate the 1.5x or even 2x speed feature; I suspect that if I tried that, my head would explode the way an inner tube does when you pump too much air into it.
I mention all this because The Right Side of History swells with the spirit of Shapiro’s podcasts: It’s fast, it’s smart, it’s engaging, it goes down like a gulp. I call it a public service, particularly for young readers who may not wish to, for example, spend a month on a 500-page book on the Enlightenment. If you’re curious about the history of ideas, from the Greeks to Google, but are willing to allocate only a couple of sittings to the task, Ben’s your man. In 218 well-spaced pages he does a smashing good job covering intellectual history’s bullet points and probably leaves you better off than the average college instructor would in a full semester. It would be ideal if readers walk away from this book craving more detail on the subjects he teaches as succinctly (if not as tunefully) as a Schoolhouse Rock segment, but even if this were the only work of intellectual history the average Western twentysomething ever mastered, I’d feel pretty sanguine about that.
Shapiro’s mission is to convince us that religion and reason are equally important foundations of the West today, and that this is manifest in how we crave both understanding of our world and a moral purpose to guide our steps. We cultivate our souls and we cultivate our minds. Shapiro cautions against the false idol that is politics: Barack Obama would “fix our souls,” Michelle Obama once vowed, and Donald Trump averred, “I will give you everything. I will give you what you’ve been looking for, for 50 years. I’m the only one.” Homo politicus is everywhere these days; does he seem happy? To me he seems perpetually bitter and frustrated, and that’s him on a good day; when he’s really cranky he hits the streets to shout at strangers or hurl imprecations at the system, and concludes his work day by burning down an auto-parts store. If this is moral purpose, it sure looks a lot like inchoate rage.
The pillars marked Athens and Jerusalem are really just an excuse for Shapiro to give us a pithy and even-handed rundown of everything everyone has ever thought. Again: In 218 pages. I say bravo. The views of Karl Marx get a fair summary of four pages; Woodrow Wilson, Shapiro manages to dispatch in two paragraphs. Shapiro does a fine job, in the early going, of explaining how those supposedly implacable foes science and religion have been closer friends throughout history than today’s secularists would have us believe. “Virtually all literacy sprang from monasteries,” he notes, and the medieval Church was so secure in its preeminence that it backed Scholasticism, which was in effect an effort to unlock more of God’s secrets by discovering more of His natural creations. Long-forgotten Aristotle came back in vogue as Thomas Aquinas merged Aristotelianism and Christianity.
Shapiro seeks common ground, which is why, late in the book, he reserves some of his most passionate words (and a whopping four pages) on a rebuttal of the views of Steven Pinker, who strikes him as unfairly dismissive of the faithful in his book Enlightenment Now, which labels religion a dangerous enemy to reason. “Pinker wants to pluck the fruit of the Enlightenment without stepping in the manure,” Shapiro writes, in a typically droll turn of phrase. Shapiro finds Pinker’s definition of the good life lacking substance, being too materialist. Maybe so, but I would take exception to Shapiro’s view that life is meaningless without a sense of the divine. “There can be no individual or communal moral purpose without a foundation of Divine meaning,” he writes. George Will is a nonbeliever; does his life lack purpose? Suffice it to say that a sense of being in harmony with the Divine provides some good people, but not all, with purpose.
Shapiro can hardly be faulted if he can’t provide the answer to life, the universe, and everything (as Douglas Adams once did; that answer was 42). But he does note, in a charming aside, that his father taught him that life doesn’t move in six directions. No, there are only two: backwards and forwards. Are we moving toward something, or away from it? Your answer may differ depending on whether you think “we” means humanity, the United States, or merely your family. Shapiro’s instinct is one I share: Do the best you can by your family, instill in them what you see as enduring values, and you will likely find satisfaction, perhaps even contentment, maybe even happiness.