The controversial commentator talks to The Economist about Western values, disappointment with Trump and moral clickbait
Editor's note: This article has been changed. A previous version mistakenly described Mr Shapiro as an "alt-right sage" and "a pop idol of the alt right". In fact, he has been strongly critical of the alt-right movement. We apologise.
EVERYTHING ABOUT Ben Shapiro is polished. His answers are smooth. His appearance is neat. His academic pedigree is impeccable. He blasted into the public sphere at the tender age of 20 with his first book, “Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth”, that made him a hero to many young conservatives.
After a stint at Breitbart, the veritable headquarters of right-wing media, he created his own outlet, The Daily Wire, catering to hyperventilating conservatives. At 35, his seventh book was published this month, “The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great” (Broadside Books). In it, he argues that the dismissal of Judeo-Christian values and the Greek tradition of reason leads to subjectivism and individualism that is behind the West’s social and political malaise.
His views are classically religious-conservative. He suggests that transgender people suffer a “mental disorder”; he opposes same-sex couples raising children; he has said (and sort of retracted) that “Arabs like to bomb crap and live in open sewage.”
Mr Shapiro not only courts controversy, he relies on it. It serves as an opening salvo to be heard above the din in digital media. Once the spotlight is on, he fights his way out with nuance and intellect. “If I can use the methodologies of gaining eyeballs to get people to look into deeper content, then I’m going to do that,” he tells The Economist.
Mr Shapiro discusses Western values, freedom of speech, why he is only “sometimes Trump” and the criticism that he is Islamophobic, in an interview with Anne McElvoy for The Economist Asks podcast and our Open Future initiative. The podcast is available below. It is followed by condensed portions of the interview.
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The Economist: In your latest book you spend a lot of time talking about what’s going wrong in society. What do you think has been eroded?
Ben Shapiro: What is eroding is the fundamental principles upon which the civilisation is based. The idea that each of us are individuals made in the image of God; that we each have individual value; that we can use reason to have discussions with one another, which is the fundamental underlying assumption for free speech and for democracy; the idea that as individuals we have rights that are independent of the government providing those rights.
All of those values are being eroded because, first of all, we got rid of some of the assumptions, or at least we’ve fought some of the religious underpinnings of the West. And then in turn, we’ve fought back against the notion of reason itself. And we’re reverting to a sort of tribalism we see in our politics that's getting quite ugly.
The Economist: It’s a faith-based argument, fundamentally. But if we look at that argument— whether it’s the Judeo bit or the Christian bit —many people simply interpret those ideas differently. They have done throughout history; they do so the more in pluralist societies. So you’re on slightly shifting ground aren't you from the get-go?
Mr Shapiro: Well, not really. The argument that I make is that there are certain fundamental principles that have always been held and have not always been fulfilled in Judeo-Christian values. And those are in tension with—and rubbing up against but mutually buttressing, counterintuitively—the ideas of reason. The whole point of the book is not that everybody needs to go back to church alone. It’s that we all need to use the ideas that were also brought to us by the Greeks, and balance those, and use them in tension, with the ideas that were brought to us by Judeo-Christian ideals.
I’m not claiming that a sort of theocracy is the purpose of life. My point is that there are certain religious fundamental principles that were created by Judeo-Christian value-systems. And that those struggled with, and occasionally gain dominance over—in unfortunate ways—reason itself. And then reason gained dominance over religion, and that had similarly unfortunate effects.
I say in the conclusion to the book that civilisations that discard Judeo-Christian values end up in really dark places. And civilisations that discard reason end up in similarly dark places. I think that the mistake of secular humanism is to believe, like the French Revolution believed, that you “strangle the last king with the entrails of the last priest,” and that what arises is some sort of glorious utopia. I don’t think that that’s correct. I think that you have to understand where it is that we have come from, so that we can actually take what is good from what we’ve had and maintain that and cherish that.
The Economist: A lot of things that made the West great in terms of wealth and subsequent power can’t always be easily defined as moral in the sense that you’ve laid out. We have empires built in large part, for instance, on slavery.
Mr Shapiro: Of course that’s true. It’s also true that slavery is a universal human institution until its abolition essentially by the Judeo-Christian West.
The Economist: Yeah, but it took quite a while, didn’t it?
Mr Shapiro: Of course it took quite a while. And that of course it’s a great moral evil. The argument I’m making is not that civilisation was suddenly brought into being at one moment in time and then progress stopped. The argument of the book is that there are these principles that are in constant turmoil with each other, and that the interplay between these principles creates the West. And that to ignore some of those principles, to read some of those principles out of history, to assume that those principles can be destroyed at will, and that we can maintain the upper levels of a building whose foundations we’ve just done away with—I think that’s a mistake.
The Economist: You talk about this new social fabric. What is the solution? What would the new social fabric look like? How would we know if we had begun to recreate it in the way that you think would be beneficial?
Mr Shapiro: We have to have a common definition of what liberty constitutes, what choice constitutes, and we also have to rebuild a lot of the social institutions that have collapsed. Now, historically those have been churches—just realistically speaking, the place where most people found their common cause and common meaning was in churches. But social science research says they don’t only have to be churches. They can be social clubs. They can be bowling leagues; other ways of reaching out to each other.
But the more durable those ways are of reaching out to each other, the more we can, at the same time, maintain our individuality, and also see the common humanity in the other. It is the sort of point that Robert Putnam makes in “Bowling Alone”. The Harvard sociologist, he makes the point that diversity itself is not necessarily a strengthening factor in a society, but when there is a society that has a common purpose, then the diversity definitely helps the society.
One of the things we’ve seen in the West is—as multiculturalism has come to the fore—the attempt to shatter the common purpose, and then maintain that diversity, and expect that all you’ll get is benefit, I think is a bit foolhardy.
The Economist: You have a big following. You’re laying out a stall here. You’re taking on some ideas that you’ve embraced over the years, and what you’ve written now. Why should we listen to you? What is different about your perspective or authority?
Mr Shapiro: All the stuff that I think we generally agree is good in the West: freedom, liberalism, democracy, human rights. An extraordinarily prosperous economy—we live at the most prosperous free time in the history of humanity. How did those things come about?
Because the question isn’t “What bad things did Western civilization do” alone. I mean, we should obviously look at this stuff; that stuff is important. But I think it’s important to note that the great difference that has happened in the world is the West.
If you believe that the West has had a generalised beneficial and salutary impact on the world, particularly over the last few centuries, we’re going to have to look at the values that inspired that, because that is something that’s different.
The Economist: But we also have to look at the challenges within it. […] Isn’t the conversation about privilege, about prosperity, about the gains of prosperity and who shares them? Isn't that just a very old religious message, which is that we ought to look after those weaker than ourselves, and to keep thinking about it proactively. Therefore, what the West stands for must keep looking at itself and must keep changing.
Mr Shapiro: I certainly agree that the basic notion of fairness itself is sort of embedded in the human mind—a notion of fairness that I largely believe is incorrect, which is the fairness of outcome. With that said, there is nothing in basic religious theology that suggests that just because somebody is successful and somebody else is not successful, that some sort of cosmic injustice has been done.
In secular countries, what we’ve seen is the attempt to supplant a religious-based social fabric with a governmental fabric. The idea being that we all agree that we have to take care of our neighbors. As a religious person, I want to care for my neighbor; it’s a biblical injunction. That’s not the same thing as suggesting that an overarching government has the power to confiscate wealth from some and give it to others.
The Economist: Well, the disagreement over that points sits right at the heart of the political debate in America. You lament the fact that it’s become so acrimonious. You’ve said, “Politics has become a blood sport.” So, what can be done about that?
Mr Shapiro: I think that the first thing that can be done is to recognise that we actually do in the West share a lot more in common than separates us. I think that we have to agree on some fundamental principles: the idea of freedom of speech; the idea that speech is not violence; the notion that we can convince each other with argumentation; that reason actually matters. If we agree on all of those things, and then we are willing to grant the other side of the debate the credibility to make its arguments, then we are likely to have a less acrimonious debate.
I think one of the things that has happened is that we have decided that, thanks to narratives of victimisation and privilege—some of which are rooted in real history, but I think draw bad conclusions—what we’ve decided instead is that we have to argue from identity, as opposed to arguing from the notion that we are all individual human beings that have the capacity for reason.
The Economist: It seems quite odd to hear people arguing for an end or smoothing over of division who, it seems to me, you quite like division. You like pitching into the argument, often in very strong terms, which some people find divisive and think simply amplifies that sort of “screaming chamber”. Are you a bit guilty of the very thing that you say you want to cure?
Mr Shapiro: You know, I’m sure I am. I am trying to work on it. You know, one of the things that…
The Economist: Give us the evidence that you are working on it! What are you working on?
Mr Shapiro: Well, I mean I think that the book is one attempt. But if you look at the fact that I have reached out to many folks on the left to have discussions. If you look at my actual college appearances and not just the two-minute clipped YouTube “Shapiro destroys” kind of stuff, but you actually look at the exchanges. These are very sober, rational, non-demonising discussions.
The Economist: And are you saying that you disown that kind of way of handling clips or of promoting that you rely on—I’m sure we’ll hear it after this show, as others: “Shapiro destroys McElvoy”! Or AOC. Or whoever it is…
Mr Shapiro: Let’s put it this way: Is that what I want from the debate? No. Is that a way of getting people to watch deeper content? Sure. I mean, we also have to acknowledge how the market works, and the market does work in a way to generate these sorts of views on those sorts of videos. We don’t make the vast majority of those. And when I have control of it I try to downplay that sort of stuff. I also make distinctions between various political factions.
But this sort of idea here is that we do live in a fraught political time, and if I can use the methodologies of gaining eyeballs to get people to look into deeper content, then I’m going to do that, as opposed to simply disengaging from the realities of the political world. Now with all of that said, I do think there is a large-scale difference between the kind of partisan bickering that we’re talking about and the actual tribal political warfare that we’re seeing.
The Economist: What is the responsibility of people with particularly influential presence on social-media platforms? To be fair to say that you are one of them: Do you have any moral responsibility to diminish divisions?
Mr Shapiro: Only where the divisions are bad faith divisions. What I do have a responsibility to do is say that these are discussions that we can have about issues. That I am not divided from Bernie Sanders by virtue of my background. That I’m not a member of a tribe that prevents us from having a conversation in the first place.
The sort of tribal politics that we are seeing, and that I think does in some ways escalate toward violence, is a politics where we say, “You cannot have a discussion with me because you have not had my experiences”. The intersectional politics of the United States is really dangerous and it’s not just on the left side of the aisle. It’s on the right side of the aisle, as well.
The Economist: You use quite out-there language. You’ve talked about debunking the “myth” of the tiny, radical Muslim minority in a video that was criticised quite widely as being Islamophobic. Do you sometimes stand back and say, “I might have gone too far?”
Mr Shapiro: I mean sure. I think any good person has to sit there and think—whenever something terrible happens, or even when something not terrible is happening—be self-critical and try to determine: Could I have done better here?
The particular video that you’re citing is a complete recitation of Pew Research Statistics. So that particular video being used as evidence that I’m Islamophobic, when I’m literally just reading poll results, I've always found to be kind of shocking.
I’ve always found shocking also the notion that if you criticise radical Islam, or if you criticise views that are radical, that this is somehow you justifying the murder of innocent people who are not radical, or justifying murder on the basis of views itself. That’s a jump that I don't see anyone rational making. But you know, there are a lot of rational people who want to connect speech with violence.
The Economist: Let’s come to a saying that you were very famous for: “Facts don’t care about your feelings”. But we might say in the last three years voters on left and right have rather abandoned technocratic politics or so-called evidence-based politics in favor of something else; something more urgent, more direct, something more populist. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that modern politics is about feelings, and feelings don’t care that much about facts.
Mr Shapiro: Yeah, I think that’s a more accurate statement of where we are politically. I think what we’ve seen is a failure to acknowledge that we live in a shared reality, and that facts have to be the basis of any contention that we’re making. Instead, we are happy to draw emotionally manipulative narratives from isolated incidents, or alternatively to ignore broad trends of facts in favour of particular narratives. That obviously is dangerous stuff. I hope that I’m the kind of person—I try to be the kind of person—who can be convinced by evidence that I’m wrong.
But I at least try to be evidence-based in my politics. I hope that we can all be a little bit more evidence-based in our politics.
The Economist: What about President Trump? You’ve said you are “sometimes Trump”. What determines actually which days you’re feeling Trump-y and which days you feel a bit anti-Trump?
Mr Shapiro: It depends. If you do something dumb or horrible that day. I mean that’s really what it comes down to. When I say “Sometimes Trump,” what I mean is that he is the President of the United States, in this case. I would say I was “Sometimes Obama” meaning that if Obama did something that I liked—which was exceedingly rare—then I was a fan of it. It's the same thing.
So when President Trump says very foolish or counterproductive things, then that’s bad. When he nominates a Supreme Court justice who says that he will hew to the original meaning of the Constitution, then that's good. I’m not going to criticise him when I think he’s doing something right. I’m not going to ignore it when I think he’s doing something wrong.
The Economist: How is the 2020 American presidential election looking to you?
Mr Shapiro: If I had to give odds right now, I’d say that President Trump is an odds-on favorite to lose in 2020. I think that he only has about a 40% chance of winning.
The Economist: What’s changed; what's gone so wrong on the right in America, if this president upended all these liberal expectations only has a 40% chance of winning again?
Mr Shapiro: I think that it hasn’t gone better because in part, President Trump is President Trump. He’s a polarising figure. He didn’t take advantage of the opportunity of the presidency to grow his base. He didn’t take an opportunity to look like a more compassionate person, if [he] were capable of that. He didn’t educate the public on all of the things he's done right. He’s distracted the public with all of the things he’s done wrong.
If somebody could have smashed his phone the day he took office and he had not tweeted for the last two and a half years, then I think that his approval rating would be five to 10 points higher. But he’s a constant obstacle in his own way.
The Economist: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
Mr Shapiro: I don’t think Ocasio-Cortez has any national appeal. I think that she’s very appealing to the media. I think she’s very appealing to a small base of very radical left-wingers. But she does encompass exactly what the media are looking for, which is a person who is quite attractive in her presentation, who looks like she’s having fun—which is half the battle—with her Instagram stuff, and who is also deeply radical, and boils down complex arguments to bumper stickers, like ‘em or hate ‘em.
The Economist: Do you respect her?
Mr Shapiro: In what sense?
The Economist: Politically.
Mr Shapiro: No. I don’t respect her politics. I don’t respect her intellectual command of the issues. I respect that she’s been able to command enormous amounts of media attention. But no, I think that she’s a bad expositor of her own values.
The Economist: I can’t resist a last, quick-fire round if you'll just bear with me. Your dream date with a moral philosopher? And I'm going to allow you an “alive or dead”.
Mr Shapiro: Oh, OK, wow. On the religious side, you know I’m a religious Jew, so that means you’re almost obligated religiously to say “Moses”. But putting aside religious philosophers, the two that come to mind immediately—well, three—that come to mind immediately, are Aquinas, Maimonides, and Locke.
The Economist: That's quite a date. That’s a heavy night out, isn’t it?
Mr Shapiro: We’ll do some round-robin. Ten-minute dating. It’ll be a party.
The Economist: Shots with Locke! Nightmare date: the one that wouldn’t work out?
Mr Shapiro: Certainly a date with Marx would go very poorly. Number one because he was not fond of the Jews. And number two, he was wrong about pretty much everything.
The Economist: Last one. You talk about God: he, she or it?
Mr Shapiro: Well, I mean, “it” in the technical sense; “he” in the homologic sense.
The Economist: Noted.
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