View from
The Left

Has Ben Shapiro Outgrown Being a Polemicist?

(Matt Vailliencourt/Daily)

“But there are times in every polemicist’s career when he must take a genuine stab at intellectual respectability, put away sloganeering and manic hyperbole and see not through the dark lens of partisanship, but grasp the complex world as it truly is.”

Introduction

Before getting into the meat of this review, I must admit to never paying much attention to Ben Shapiro until quite recently. He struck me as the latest in a long line of conservative pundits going back to William F. Buckley to launch a career as a polemicist by criticizing academia for its alleged and real left and liberal biases. Was he more articulate than some? Sure. But he was also prone to his share of hyperbole and philosophical vagaries. The subjects of his early books, with cute titles like Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans and How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them, seemed closer to Anne Coulter or pre-Trump Glenn Beck than Russell Kirk.

But there are times in every polemicist’s career when he must take a genuine stab at intellectual respectability, put away sloganeering and manic hyperbole and see not through the dark lens of partisanship, but grasp the complex world as it truly is. Shapiro’s The Right Side of History is a major effort in that direction, 200-plus pages analyzing the history of Western thought to answer two fundamental questions: Why are things so good? And why are we blowing it?

As Shapiro opines, never before in history has a civilization enjoyed such benefits as ours in the 21st century, and yet there is a widespread sense that society is getting worse—and the ties that bind us are eroding. Shapiro’s central thesis is that the fundamental pillars of Western civilization are faith in Biblical revelation and an emphasis on Greek reason and natural law. Following the German émigré Leo Strauss’s seminal thesis, Shapiro regards the twin influences of Jerusalem and Athens as responsible for the moral and material prosperity of the West. Unfortunately, we are forgetting and even eroding these pillars under the influence of the modernist thinking of various leftist groups. These left-wing efforts have resulted in the “end of progress,” including spurring the emergence of the “so-called” alt-right. As Shapiro puts it:

“So, has the vision of the cultural Left provided fulfillment? It’s provided solipsism for sure. But it’s also provide polarization. It’s not merely that intersectionality has carved off individuals into racial groups, then pitted them against one another. Racial solidarity among members of the intersectional coalition has also driven reverse racial solidarity from the so-called alt-right—a group of racists who have sought to promote white pride.…The cultural Left’s view of reality has driven anger and hatred—polls show that Americans are more divided than ever. That sense that the world is spinning out of control only feeds into intersectionality’s attack on agency. Individuals’ capacity has been abandoned in this worldview—individuals, after all, are mere creations of the systems into which they have been born. Collective purpose, too, has gone by the wayside—after all, it’s the system keeping you down.”

These are flamboyant accusations to lay at the feet of intersectionality and other left-wing concepts, and it would take a pretty rigorous and convincing book to sell them beyond the already converted. Unfortunately, Shapiro, despite a promising start, ultimately can’t help but fall into rhetorical excess, misrepresentation, and over-simplification. This blunts the impact of his overall argument and renders it a middling text at best, even next to more solid conservative critiques of modernity offered by contemporary figures like Patrick Deneen and Yoram Hazony.

The Crooked Timber of History

The Right Side of History begins with an introduction outlining the four elements necessary to “generate the moral purpose that provides the foundation for happiness.” These are individual moral purpose, individual capacity to pursue that moral purpose, communal moral purpose, and communal capacity to pursue that purpose. For Shapiro, these elements are “crucial”; the only foundation for a successful civilization lies in a careful balance of these four elements. He then goes on to seek to demonstrate why Western civilization developed to balance properly these elements through the providential synthesis of Biblical revelation and Greek reason.

The following three chapters of Shapiro’s book concern how this synthesis came to be. They are also the most convincing. He begins with a lengthy analysis of the emergence of the Judeo-Christian tradition, beginning with the revelation at Sinai in approximately 1313 B.C. and carrying forward to the emergence of Christianity out of the Jewish tradition. There are some errors here and there; for instance, Shapiro ignores debate about whether it was likely Zoroastrianism and not Judaism which first developed monotheism. But, generally, Shapiro makes the solid point that the belief in a singular God which imbued human life and history with purpose was seminally important in the emergence of Western civilization.

The text then moves on to discussing the contributions of Greek reason and is similarly convincing. Shapiro observes that the Greek thinkers believed that a “designer” deity has ascribed a telos to human life which could be apprehended through reason. They discovered the proper form of political life by maintaining that the telos of human kind was to become virtuous, which necessitated a form of government free of tyranny and the violation of virtue. As with his analysis of the Biblical tradition, a fair bit is sanded over here. Little attention is paid to the Greeks’ elitist belief in the inhumanity of the “barbarians” or Aristotelian doctrines about “natural slaves.” These gaps will become problematic later in his interpretation of the defects of modernism relative to classical thought.

Chapter Four then nicely brings the two traditions together in an erudite treatment of the scholastic tradition, albeit with some politically correct moments. In one amusingly telling moment, Shapiro tries to make the case that Christian leaders in the eighth century were “crusading” against enslavement—except when they sought to enslave Muslim war captives. However, Shapiro’s analysis is generally a readable, though slight, contribution to an honorable tradition of contemporary political theory in the vein of Strauss and Macintyre.

The more serious problems with the book come in its latter two thirds, which deal with the emergence of modernism. As will become obvious later on, Shapiro regards modernity as a regression from the glories of antiquity through Medieval scholasticism. He has a few kind words to say about early modern and some Enlightenment thinkers, such as Locke and Adam Smith. However, he is notably selective in which of their doctrines he admires—praising their support for capitalism and private property while ignoring their deepening epistemic skepticism and nominalism, without ever examining how the latter might have contributed to the former.

Immanuel Kant is almost comically misinterpreted as founding moral logic in the “human heart.” This would have amused the Prussian philosopher, who continuously stressed that duty must be done whether it makes one happy or not.

This is, of course, a major oversight, since it is precisely Smith’s growing belief that in the implausibility of classical and religious explanations for human behavior that motivated him to stress moderated self-interest as the new root for social organization. Shapiro also praises the founding of America while brushing over its major tensions, suggesting for instance that men like Jefferson and Madison knew that slavery was a great evil. There is little acknowledgement that their failure to act on this realization destabilized the American polity and led to violent civil war and centuries of racial oppression. One is baffled at how all this is given a politically correct whitewash here, but 21st century intersectionality is to blame for racial polarization and even the rise of the alt-right.

Unfortunately, things only get worse as the book goes on. Shapiro has an admirably sophisticated understanding of religious and classical thought, and his passion for those traditions shines through in the book. This care does not extend to his treatment of later thinkers, many of whom are crudely dismissed and even blatantly misrepresented. Shapiro caricatures Spinoza, author of the Ethics, as “disparaging the very notion of ‘good or bad.’” This is not at all true; Spinoza’s crime was to redefine good and bad in a manner Shapiro doesn’t care for and to argue for the salience of this redefinition over the course of hundreds of pages. Immanuel Kant is almost comically misinterpreted as founding moral logic in the “human heart.” This would have amused the Prussian philosopher, who continuously stressed that duty must be done whether it makes one happy or not. Indeed, an act undertaken purely because it brought happiness to the human heart could never be considered truly moral.

There is the blatantly simplistic misreading of Karl Marx—seemingly a must for contemporary conservative polemicists—where Shapiro claimed that for Marx ,“the value of a product could be measured by its ‘socially necessary labor time,’” which, of course, ignores the immense dialectical complexities traced out even in the first chapter of Capital between exchange value and use value. Max Weber, who chimed in in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that modernity would be an “iron cage” of rule by bureaucratic “specialists without spirit, sensualists without soul,” is accused of “reverence” for bureaucracy. Poor Sigmund Freud’s ideas aren’t even summarized, just subjected to the withering argument that he was a “charlatan” and then ignored after half a page. And the hits go on.

It is not that modernity should be insulated from criticism—many political theorists and philosophers have made astute criticisms of it—but Shapiro’s interpretation of modernity’s major figures is so skewed that it shows a lack of respect for the richness of the Western tradition he claims to revere. Shapiro’s history of modern philosophy is a politically correct fudge which mutates from tragedy to comedy when he discusses how all this contributed to the rise of the “modern American left.” He insists that modern leftists are effectively neo-pagans in their insistence that there are no “objective moral standards, progression in history” or free choice. This is insulting to pagan thinkers—including the Greeks, one might add—whose views were actually quite varied and is head-scratching as a label for the contemporary Left. Shapiro’s reading of this is shocking in its crudeness. The thinkers in the Frankfurt school apparently supported unbridled “Dionysian paganism,” supporting easy sex and cultural rebellion. Little attention is paid to Adorno and Horkheimer’s relentless critiques of hedonistic culture and their insistence that capitalism was establishing a society in which all barriers to the pursuit of instrumental desire were being overthrown.

It is unsurprising Shapiro doesn’t acknowledge these arguments since his own anti-consumeristic moralism might, therefore, clash with his consistent support for capitalist markets; he might actually have to consider that the most powerful economic system the world has yet seen might play a role in the vulgarization of culture he detests. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality, which has become a useful analytical tool in analyzing barriers to agency among different groups, becomes a philosophical trope to suggest one can only ever be a victim determined by social circumstance. Martin Luther King Jr.’s critiques of capitalism are ignored to paint him as a proponent of American religiosity and optimism. Moreover, the result of all these misrepresented ideas has apparently been the erosion of Western greatness and the apparent dissolution of the social fabric. The long American history of racial intolerance, greater economic precarity resulting from neoliberal policies, the destabilization of identity resulting from globalization, and anger at the political marginalization of the average citizen in favor of the affluent are all apparently minor social processes next to university professors preaching contempt for Western civilization.

Conclusion: The Unbearable Lightness of Argument

These historical errors are fairly slight next to the most pressing problem with the book: its surprising lack of argumentation. For all of Shapiro’s distaste for modernism, his work is very much a product of that situation. Its primary argument for belief in Judeo-Christian revelation and Greek reason would be unrecognizable to Plato or Maimonides. There is no argument concerning why the Judeo-Christian God exists and no elaborate discussion on how the Greek mode of reasoning presents a more accurate vision of the world as it is than the modern one. Instead, there is an insistence that not believing in the Judeo-Christian God and ceasing to adhere to the Greek mode of reasoning has produced bad results, which looks a great deal like an argument for “pragmatism,” which Shapiro claims to disdain. Even if this were true, it would settle little. As Strauss himself pointed out in his book Natural Right and History:

A wish is not a fact. Even by proving that a certain view is indispensable for living well, one proves merely that the view in question is a salutary myth: one does not prove it to be true. Utility and truth are two entirely different things.”

Even if Shapiro had proven that modernism and its leftist variations made it more difficult to live well, it would not prove the underlying philosophical assumptions were true. If the moral claim that the non-existence of God made it impossible to believe human life and history had a purpose turned out to be true, that would not mean we could move from such a moral claim to an ontological one about whether God actually exists. If it turned out that the reasoning of the Greeks made it easier to be happy and virtuous, that would not independently show that the Greek view of reason reflected the real world more accurately. This is the fundamental problem in Shapiro’s outlook. His moral condemnation of modern philosophy condemns it for producing conclusions and affiliated consequences he does not like, without actually engaging with the arguments of those figures that their conclusions simply reflected how the world is.

Some of them were even deeply unhappy about this, including figures like Kant and Nietzsche, who were deeply concerned that the proofs they leveled against the existence of God might lead to moral and social tensions. In his Vocation lectures, Max Weber acknowledged that modernity destroyed the sacred belief systems which brought a kind of stability to earlier “traditional” societies. He, nonetheless, accepted that modern thinking had devastated the epistemological and ontological arguments supporting those sacred belief systems and the processes which developed out of that thinking were having dramatic consequences across the globe. This included the leveling and desacralizing impact of modern capitalization.

Weber was, therefore, faced with a choice between facing up to the occasionally bleak but exhilarating modern world or retreating to the Churches. This gives Weber’s work a tragic realism that is entirely lacking in Shapiro, who wants to blame everything he dislikes on expedient targets and caricatured villains. This ultimately makes The Right Side of History an unconvincing read, unlikely to reach anyone but the already converted. There is certainly room for solid conservative critiques of modernity, and some of the better ones reflect on problems—like secularization—which are frequently ignored by progressives. But they would need to be carried out in much better faith and with less partisan intention than Shapiro’s book.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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Anon
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Anon

Great article.

Anon
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Anon

Great writing!

Matt
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Matt

Thanks

Joel winters
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Joel winters

This page doesn’t say Opinion anywhere, hate it when articles don’t do that.

nick
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nick

The article was 90% opinion and 10% fact. Ben speaks facts, unlike this article.

Tae
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Tae

Interesting criticism of Ben. Try not to be too naive of the left. Doubt both sides and understand that some spotlight dems are extreme. That morality in politics isnt always held and valued

Lucas Smith
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Lucas Smith

Basically your only criticism is that ben is a partisan. That says more about you than him. What a terribly written article.

Jeff Browning
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Jeff Browning

WTF is Merion West?!?

Sounds like someone trying to make a name for themselves by lamely criticizing one of the great intellectuals of our time.

Romeo
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Romeo

My thoughts exactly, they’re trying to cash in on his name. I hope Kanye never sees what they’re attempting.

Trump2020
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Trump2020

Easy for you to write down all these things. But I bet if you were to debate these things with Ben that you would find out very quickly you are on the losing end. True intellectual people (those of us with common sense) can see right through what the left is trying to do to this country. That is destroy U.S.A. and destroy the moral fabric of society. Leftism should be classified as a mental disorder. The looney bin is the only place for you people.

Trump2020
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Trump2020

Easy for you to write down all these things. But I bet if you were to debate these things with Ben that you would find out very quickly you are on the losing end. True intellectual people (those of us with common sense) can see right through what the left is trying to do to this country. That is to destroy U.S.A. from within (just like the Russians talked about in the late 70’s) and destroy the moral fabric of society. Leftism should be classified as a mental disorder. The looney bin is the only place for you people.

Lane Greer
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Lane Greer

Lol. This is pseudo intellectual word salad that it’s author believes is evidence he is Shapiro’s intellectual equal. Exhibit A: “If the moral claim that the non-existence of God made it impossible to believe human life and history had a purpose turned out to be true, that would not mean we could move from such a moral claim to an ontological one about whether God actually exists.” So let me get this straight. Literally the only thing you’re saying there is that whether or not God exists has no bearing on the moral dilemma regarding existential purpose so therefore the… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

In fact I said it may have a great deal of bearing on how we conceive of existential and moral purpose, but we cannot reason from such promises to conclusions about what does one does not exist.

Tom Campbell
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Tom Campbell

Leftists amaze me. Mr. McManus,the only thing that you have done with this article is proove the theories and philosophies of Mr. Shapiro. You go straight for judeo Christian faith as having nothing to do with morality and the western philosophies. The greeks ability to reason truths is something well lost by the left. The Greek and Roman empires both started their decline socially when the belief in God and reasonable thought was ignored and dismissed as no longer the central to their belief system, look what what happened to them. Try as you may liberalism, socialism, atheism, Marxism and… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

I’m not sure where I said they have “nothing to do with morality and Western philosophy.” In fact I praised Shapiro’s reading of Greek and religious figures. My problem was his interpretation of modernist writers, and the aforementioned conflation of moral and ontological claims.

Charles Jones
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Charles Jones

Ben good guy and a realist people are content be lazy and winery these days reality teach them differently get off buts work hard then they will know life really works

Mike
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Mike

Lol “I don’t know much about Ben shapiro” the RiP him then entire article real smart

John
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John

This is the problem. Critics of Shapiro always attempt to label him, either as alt-right or, as in this article, a polemicist. Arguing on the side of logic isn’t controversial. Shapiro is a reactionist. The true controversy is on the side you seem to think is normal. These outlandish ideas from the far left about gender, intersectionality, socialism, and the like are the actual sources of controversy. Trying to rope society back into reality doesn’t make one a polemicist.

Dan
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Dan

I’m about 1/4 way thru the book and just read where Aristotle had objections to Plato’s social stratification… The article says it’s Aristotle. The book also already quite literally addresses the objection this article writer had about it….

I get the feeling that the book will also be more realistic and generous to the other names dropped than this article was, (particularly God.)

Matt
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Matt

If you read the essay carefully, my objection was to him not dealing with Aristotles own well known support for hierarchical institutions. In this case his arguments concerning the naturalness of slavery.

Jon
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Jon

God, what an insufferable person the author is. You used the opening section of the article to gloat about how little you know about Be Shapiro, a figure with significant cultural impact. And then you belittle him to seem above him. What a horrible way to start what is supposed to be a discussion of his ideas, all of which you get totally wrong. The only thing you accomplish in this piece is proving Ben’s points right.

Matt
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Matt

You opened this comment by belittling me and went on to not engage with any of my points. What does that say about you then?

Gotcha B!
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Gotcha B!

Doesn’t feel very good, does it, Mr. Matt? Neenner, neenner!

Matt
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Matt

Well I actually bothered to change my opinion and read through his book, and a number of other pieces hes written. I doubt many of these commentators would extend me the same courtesy.

Gilbert
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Gilbert

I read your first sentence. How is it that you wrote an article about something you know little about? Are all your articles about something you know little about?

Matt
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Matt

If you read it you’ll note I didnt pay much attention to him until recently. Partly inspired by others I’ve since read up quite a bit more, which is partly why I provides hyperlinks to other pieces of mine, or references.

Colin McLean
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Colin McLean

On point

Colin McLean
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Colin McLean

On point and observant

WindyGirl
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WindyGirl

Speaking of hyperbole…

Rick Jackson
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Rick Jackson

dear author clearly you think highly of yourself , if your so superior why not challenge Ben to a debate

Matt
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Matt

Ben Shapiro is far more prominent and influential than little old me. I’m sure he has plenty of other people to jab at. If he were willing I’d happily debate him.

Darick
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Darick

Ben is happy to talk and debate any and all college students. Even little old you can get down to a campus and test your theory.

Matt
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Matt

If he happens to come to the school where I teach, I’d happily debate him.

Kim Shane
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Kim Shane

Your bias is obvious and your article is rife with little digs at Shapiro. The left can’t stand it when anyone goes against their status quo.

Matt
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Matt

If my bias is obvious why not explain how and why I am wrong in my assessment, without simply making broad assertions. Moreover as I highlighted I have no problems with conservative critiques of modernity. In fact I linked to several right authors I admire.

Ben Cayetano
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Ben Cayetano

Don’t hold your breath, Matt, right wingers are quick with the invectives, but reasoned criticism is not their cup of tea. Ben Shapiro is obviously a very intelligent man and I enjoy watching him speak and reading his writings, sadly he compromises that intelligence by resorting to sloganeering and hyperbole. One question for Shapiro fans: why does Ben frequently point out that he and his wife were virgins when they married? It’s relevance escapes me.

Derek
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Derek

There have been a few reasons Ben points this out, and it is almost always proceeded by a question where it is fairly relevant. He uses it to bolster is insistance on the notion that the federal government has not done a good job over the past two decades when trying to step in and “fix” the social fabric on which our society is built- because the federal government had little to do with it in the past. Rather, it was the community organizations, such as churches and various youth development programs that have constantly come under scrutiny, and attack,… Read more »

Russell Hamilton
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Russell Hamilton

Pot, meet kettle…

postacommentary
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postacommentary

Big fan of Ben, but no opinion here.

Just wanted to compliment Matt on his diplomacy in addressing some of the comments. Something you and Ben have in common, respectful debate.

Matt
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Matt

Appreciate it

George
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George

This book review is better than most actual books. Thanks so much for the deeper perspective.

Avishai
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Avishai

Well written, although i must say I am not convinced by your criticism because some of it could be argued against you… You’ve assumed the triumph of the modern counter arguments against the epistemological and ontological arguments just as Shapiro has the existence of a creator. to be fair his point is independent of the truth of the argument because the books narrative is one that compares the consequences of the wide acceptance of different philosophies. the book doesn’t make a clear moral or utaliterian argument for or against G-d rather points from a moral argument over happiness the nessecity… Read more »

Rodger Schultz
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Rodger Schultz

What’s that word? O right, utter sophistry.

Dan
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Dan

The author gets lost in his own “flamboyant” rhetorics, and in his own ideological fervor. Ben Shapiro, in his many presentations and articles, makes a lucid argument regarding the advantages of capitalism vs socialism.

He also presents an articulate and cogent critic of the present state of leftist ideology and leftist sociology.

None of those 2, most important, aspects of Shapiro’s discourse were discussed in this article. We are left with a tsunami of words and quotes.

Matt
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Matt

Ok. But my review-and the book itself-never discussed the first issue. And as to the second I’ve pointed to some very specific ways he misrepresented points of left wing doctrine, and in all the criticisms I’ve received no one has yet tried to show that I’m wrong.

Modus Pownens
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Modus Pownens

As a man of the right who mainly only reads this site for the author’s critical analysis of the right, its ideas, and trends, as well as his views on Western thought, I’d like to apologize to Professor McManus for the bile and anti-intellectualism of my fellow conservatives here. The cult of personality and celibrite surrounding Shapiro is unnerving. He’s a useful prophylactic against the left, but he’s not particularly profound theoretical thinker. I’m not a scholar, plus, I haven’t read Shapiro’s book, but McManus’ criticisms seem about right. Pointing out that the collective belief in God is not an… Read more »

Modus Pownens
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Modus Pownens

There’s typos in the comment above as I was typing hastily on my phone, but I think my meaning is clear.