Remember the politics of meaning? That was the theme of a speech given by Hillary Clinton in April 1993, when she was the first lady. “All of us face a crisis of meaning,” she said. “We need a new definition of civil society which answers the unanswerable questions posed by both the market forces and the governmental ones.” Conservatives (and some liberals) made merciless sport of that speech. No one in those end-of-history days was in the mood to listen.
Well, they are listening now. Competition, consumerism and globalization worked out much better for some people than others, and the others, who saw their incomes stagnate, their dignified livelihoods evaporate and their communities wither, decided not to go quietly into that good night. In response, some of the best minds on the right are rethinking Reaganism and grappling with the need to humanize neoliberalism.
Into this conversation steps Ben Shapiro with “The Right Side of History.” A conservative writer and speaker whose previous books include “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans” and “Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth,” Shapiro begins by saying that we live “in the best world that has ever existed.” Yet Americans are losing faith in their democracy and institutions. What changed? In a few introductory paragraphs, he dismisses economics, racial tensions and tribalism as inadequate answers. Instead, “we’ve spent the last two centuries carving ourselves off from the roots of our civilization.” Beginning with the Jewish Bible and ancient Greece, he argues that Western civilization succeeded because it balanced the anchoring moral foundations of its Judeo-Christian heritage with the revolutionary dynamism of Enlightenment liberalism. In the past couple of centuries, however, secularism has gone all-in on individualism and materialism. “Material human progress in the absence of spiritual fulfillment isn’t enough,” he writes. “People need meaning.” Mrs. Clinton, call your office.
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. Today and in the recent past, its many facets have been explored and debated by some of the right’s leading minds: David Brooks, Arthur C. Brooks, Patrick J. Deneen, Yuval Levin, Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak and the three most recent popes, to name just a few. Shapiro’s argument claims a distinguished pedigree.
Why, then, did I find his book so dispiriting? Partly because, instead of contending with great ideas, it deploys them as if they were toy soldiers or characters in a video game. The head spins as he trots past thinkers from Plato to Steven Pinker, frequently rendering tendentious judgments along the way. In one typical four-page passage, we carom past Marx, Clausewitz, Fichte and Hegel. Most of the name-checked play either the role of tradition-upholding good guys or relativistic, secular bad guys. Hume leads briskly to Darwin, then Nietzsche, then eugenics and fascism and existentialism and postmodernism and intersectionality, and here we are, kowtowing to the “knowing falsehood” of transgenderism.