I wrote a review of Ben Shapiro’s book, “The Right Side of History,” for the summer 2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. Below is the first third of the review. Read the rest here.
As Notre-Dame cathedral was burning, conservative columnist Ben Shapiro made what should have been a rather bland and unobjectionable remark on Twitter. He said: “Absolutely heartbreaking. A magnificent monument to Western civilization collapsing.”
Catholics could have quibbled that Notre-Dame is actually a monument to the Blessed Virgin Mary and her son Jesus Christ, or at least that it is only secondarily a monument to Western civilization. But it was liberals who objected to Shapiro’s use of that phrase, “Western civilization,” and later, his invocation of “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Online critics immediately pointed to all the terrible things French Catholics did to Jews in the Middle Ages, as if to argue against the very notion of a unified Judeo-Christian heritage, or to suggest that Western civilization is nothing so much as a series of crimes against oppressed and marginalized peoples.
Despite its absurdity, the exchange was a perfect manifestation of what’s gone wrong in Western civilization: liberals becoming outraged at the suggestion that Notre-Dame—even as it was engulfed in flames—is anything but a symbol of oppression, and especially outraged that Shapiro, an orthodox Jew, would have the chutzpah to say otherwise. (Next we’ll no doubt be hearing about how the Louvre is a monument to income inequality and the Eiffel Tower is an oppressive symbol of toxic masculinity.)
It would be easy to laugh at this sort of thing if those who espoused it weren’t so serious—and if there weren’t so many of them. Sadly, this narrative of the West as an oppressive, racist, misogynistic, violent civilization that must be dismantled and disowned has come to dominate not just the academy but vast swaths of the cultural landscape, from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to professional sports. Shapiro has been thinking about how it has come to this, and a month before the Notre-Dame fire he published The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great—a title that almost seems designed to provoke outrage on the Left.
But Shapiro’s aim isn’t to outrage, it is to educate, and we are obviously in dire need of some remedial education. Not that long ago there would have been no need for a book like this. Had it been published even a generation ago, a 200-page summary of the roots of Western civilization and the calamities that befell it in the 20th century probably would have seemed rather redundant. At best, it would have been useful perhaps as a text book for a high school Western Civ class, or maybe as an extended bibliography for a Great Books reading course. As far as books about culture, history, and politics go, it would hardly have been noticed.
Instead, Shapiro’s book was an immediate bestseller, debuting at number one in nonfiction on the New York Times’s bestseller list and hitting number one on Amazon the day after it was released. Its success says less about the merits of the book (though it is a fine book) than it does about the state of our culture and, specifically, the state of education.
Shapiro, a frequent speaker on college campuses where he is both adored and reviled, no doubt knew his primary audience for The Right Side of History would be young people who have just enough knowledge of history to know that they’ve been shortchanged, if not completely misled, by their schools. He acknowledges as much early on, noting, “As of 2010, not a single top university required students to take a course in Western Civilization; only sixteen even offered such a course.”
For more, visit the Claremont Review of Books.