The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great
This book is about two mysteries.
The first mystery: Why are things so good?
The second mystery: Why are we blowing it?
Human beings spent tens of thousands of years living in dire poverty, under subsistence conditions, in constant threat of physical danger both from nature and from other human beings. For nearly all of human history, life has been nasty, brutish, and short. In 1900, some 10 percent of all infants died before reaching their first birthday in the United States; in other countries, the number was far higher. Approximately one in every one hundred mothers could expect to die in childbirth.
Yet we now live in an era in which mothers can expect to survive pregnancy and childbirth (the mortality rate among pregnant women has dropped 99 percent).1 Babies can be expected to survive infancy and then live another eight decades; we live in an era in which the vast majority of the American population lives in climate-controlled spaces with plenty of food, a car, and at least one television. We can speak with each other across thousands of miles instantaneously, find and collate information with the touch of a few keys, send money seamlessly whirring around the globe, and buy products manufactured in dozens of different places for cents on the dollar without leaving our homes.
Then there are our freedoms. We can expect that a baby born in the United States will never be enslaved, murdered, or tortured; an adult in the United States can go about his or her daily business with the expectation that she will not be arrested for espousing an unpopular viewpoint or worshipping the wrong god or no god at all. There are no restrictions barring particular races or genders from particular jobs, no governmental rules designed to privilege one particular biological or religious in-group at the expense of any other out-group. We can live with whom we choose, have as many or as few children as we want, and open any business we see fit. We can expect to die richer than we were born.
We don’t live in a perfect world, but we do live in the best world that has ever existed. So, the first mystery is this: How did all of this happen? What changed?
Then there’s the second, more important question: Why are we throwing it away?
We are killing ourselves at the highest rates in decades. Rates of depression have skyrocketed. Drug overdoses are now responsible for more deaths than car crashes. Marriage rates have declined, as have childbearing rates. We’re spending more money on luxuries, and enjoying everything less. Conspiracies have replaced reason and subjective perceptions have replaced objective observation. Facts have been buried to make way for feelings; a society of essential oils and self-esteem has replaced a society of logic.
We’re more divided than at any time in the recent past. The exit polls show that on the day of the 2016 election, just 43 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Hillary Clinton; 38 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Donald Trump. Only 36 percent of voters thought Hillary was honest and trustworthy; 33 percent of voters thought Trump was. Fully 53 percent of Americans said they would feel concerned or scared if Clinton won; 57 percent of Americans felt that way if Trump won. Never have two more unpopular candidates run against each other.2
They still both earned millions of votes in support. Not just that—people who were uncomfortable with their candidate vitriolically attacked anyone who voted for the other; they broke off friendships with those who voted differently. In July 2017, Pew Research found that 47 percent of self-described liberal Democrats said they’d have a tough time staying friends with those who voted for Trump; 13 percent of conservatives said the same, but it’s difficult to say whether that number might have been reversed if Trump had lost. It’s also worth noting that fully 47 percent of Clinton voters said they didn’t have a single close friend who voted for Trump. A more telling statistic: 68 percent of Democrats said it was “stressful and frustrating” to talk to political opponents; 52 percent of Republicans agreed.3
Something deeper than political differences is going on here. Virtually all of our trust in key institutions has vanished. Gallup polls show that our average trust in fourteen key institutions is just 32 percent. Just 27 percent of Americans trust banks; just 20 percent of Americans trust newspapers; just 41 percent of Americans say they trust organized religion; that number is 19 percent for the federal government overall, and 39 percent for the health care system.4 Only 30 percent of Americans trust the public schools, 18 percent trust big business, and 9 percent trust Congress.5 We still trust our police, but those numbers have dropped over the past decade, particularly among Democrats.6 The only thing we still seem to trust is the military—which makes sense, since it provides for our common defense.7
We don’t trust each other, either. As of 2015, just 52 percent of Americans said they trusted all or most of their neighbors; just 31 percent of blacks and 27 percent of Hispanics say they can trust their neighbors. Just 46 percent of Americans say they spend an evening with neighbors even once per month, compared to 61 percent of Americans who did in 1974.8 Another 2016 survey showed that just 31 percent of Americans thought “most people can be trusted.”
As for our democracy, fewer and fewer people like it. An October 2016 poll showed that 40 percent of Americans said they had “lost faith in American democracy,” with another 6 percent stating that they never had faith to begin with. No wonder only 31 percent of those polled said they would “definitely” accept the results of the election if their candidate lost. And 80 percent of Americans said America was more divided today than ever—ever.9 Just a reminder: we’ve had a full-scale civil war in this country, as well as Jim Crow and the domestic terrorism of the 1960s.
Brutal division has infused every aspect of our social fabric: we can’t watch a football game together without debating the merits of protesting during the National Anthem or watch a television show without falling into debates over representation of women or go to church without arguing over our vote. We fight harder and more viciously over smaller and smaller matters—the more frivolous the topic, the harsher the battles.
What in the world happened?
There are some trendy answers.
Some blame our current political and social disintegration on heightened economic divides. Many commentators and politicians argue that income inequality has generated unprecedented conflict in American life. They say that too many Americans feel left behind by the new, globalized economy, and that either mild protectionism or redistributionism will heal those ills. They argue that the 1 percent have outpaced the 99 percent, that urbanites have outpaced rural Americans, that white-collar jobs have outpaced blue-collar jobs.
Such economic reductionism seems misplaced. The upper middle class in the United States grew from 12 percent of Americans in 1979 to 30 percent as of 2014.10 Income mobility hasn’t changed significantly in the United States since the 1970s.11 America has seen far worse economic times—as of this writing, we’re living at 4 percent unemployment, with record stock market gains. The Great Depression didn’t tear us apart the way we’re torn apart today—and our economy has indeed grown steadily since 2009. Economic change has been a constant force in American life, with a long-term upward trend for all demographics. The difference is our social divide, not our wallets.
How about race? In this view, our political conflicts are a proxy for deeper racial wounds, which have reopened in recent years. This argument is made most passionately by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who suggested that Barack Obama was black America’s best and final hope (“a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities”12), and that Donald Trump’s presidency represents the revenge of white America. “To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power,” Coates recently wrote. “In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”13 Black Americans, Coates argued, “have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. . . . The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”14
The photo negative of Coates’s perspective comes courtesy of the racist alt-right movement, which accepts Coates’s characterization of American politics but sees things in reverse: an America overrun by identity politics of racial minorities. The alt-right loves Coates’s characterization of white America as all-powerful; as Richard Spencer told New York Times Magazine contributing writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”15 More than that, the alt-right also sees the world in terms of a race war—one they hope one day to finally win.
However, racial divides can’t explain our current crisis. Racial conflagrationists have always existed in the United States. This is still the country that endured slavery and Jim Crow. Have things really gotten worse since then in terms of race?
In truth, we’re more racially equal than ever before in our history—more equal than any other society in human history. In 1958, just 4 percent of Americans approved of black-white intermarriage; as of 2013, that statistic was 87 percent.16 In that year, 72 percent of white Americans thought race relations were good, and so did 66 percent of black Americans; that statistic had remained relatively stable from 2001 through 2013. And yet our racial battles are now bloody and brutal, with renewed tribalism raging on all sides; by July 2016, just 53 percent of Americans said race relations were good, while 46 percent said they were bad.17 Something is indeed falling apart, but it’s hard to attribute that collapse to a resurgence of racist sentiment.
A third popular argument explaining our national disintegration suggests technology as the culprit. Social media, we hear, is dividing us more than ever. We are hunkering down in our bubbles, speaking only to those who agree with us. We only follow those we like on social media; we’re engaging in social situations less and less frequently. If we all sit in our living rooms and avoid one another, interacting only to prop up our preconceived notions, we’re less likely to see those who disagree as brothers and sisters. Mostafa El-Bermawy of Wired.com suggests, “From your Facebook feed to your Google Search, as your experience online grows increasingly personalized, the internet’s islands keep getting more segregated and sound proofed. . . . Without realizing it, we develop tunnel vision.”18
This is an attractive theory. But according to researchers, there’s not much evidence to support it. According to economics professors at Stanford and Brown, political polarization is taking place more for “demographic groups least likely to use the internet and social media.”19 Polarization seems to cross demographic boundaries, without reference to level of technological use.20
Finally, there’s the most basic argument of all: for whatever reason, human nature has kicked back in. We’re naturally tribal, naturally possessive, naturally angry. For a while, we suppressed those instincts; we called that the “Enlightenment.” Jonah Goldberg, in his masterful Suicide of the West, calls that overthrow of human instinct “The Miracle.”21 Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now, makes a similar case: he says that the Enlightenment changed everything—that it brought about science and humanism, reason and progress. Enlightenment thinking substituted rationality for irrationality, and the effect was the creation of the modern world.22 Goldberg, arguing that Enlightenment ideals are unnatural, says that our current dissolution looks like a reversion to our tribal, reactionary nature. Pinker agrees.
But this answer doesn’t explain why, precisely, modernity ever should have burst forth in the first place—if human nature cuts against the liberalism and capitalism and humanism and science, then what caused them to bloom? More important, this answer doesn’t explain why we’re tearing down these powerful forces now, as opposed to any time in the past two centuries.
I believe these two questions are intimately related. This book argues that Western civilization, including our modern notions of values and reason and science, was built on deep foundations. And this book argues that we’re tossing away what’s best about our civilization because we’ve forgotten that those foundations even exist.
So, where did this book come from? It came from my sense—widely reflected, I think—that we’re tearing each other apart. That realization hit me on a precise date: February 25, 2016.
Late in 2015, I’d started a speaking tour on college campuses, heading first to the University of Missouri. That campus exploded into the national news after Black Lives Matter protests against the administration; the football team vowed not to take the field for a scheduled game, despite the administration’s overzealous response to vague reports of isolated racist incidents, some of which were completely unsubstantiated. Student protesters declared a hunger strike, formed an encampment, and refused access to journalists. One professor, Melissa Click, infamously asked for someone to physically manhandle a student reporter seeking to cover the event.
I gave a speech to students on campus, viewed half a million times online within a week; I posited that all people of good heart wanted to fight racism, but that vague charges of institutional racism and white privilege obscured individual evil—and slandered the country more broadly. I attended the speech without security. Everything went well despite an attempt to pull the fire alarm, and students lined up for a broad-based question-and-answer session, too.
Just three months later came the rude awakening.
I was scheduled to give a speech to the Young America’s Foundation group at California State University at Los Angeles. Two weeks in advance of the speech, we began hearing rumblings about protests; the week before the speech, the president of the university announced that the event had been canceled outright. I refused to accede to that clear breach of First Amendment rights—my taxpayer dollars had gone to the California State University system, after all—and I announced that I would show up anyway.
My business partner, Jeremy Boreing, insisted I bring a security team, but I was pretty skeptical. After all, I’d never needed security for any event. This wasn’t Fallujah. This was a major college campus in the middle of my home city.
Just to be safe, Jeremy hired security anyway.
Thank God I listened.
On the day of the scheduled event, our security team began hearing rumors that violence was in the offing. An hour before the event, the president of the university announced that he would back down, and that police would protect the speech.
As we approached the campus, we could see helicopters swirling overhead.
We pulled into a parking lot behind the auditorium, and dozens of armed, uniformed police quickly formed a cordon and rushed me through the back door. I was puzzled more than anything else.
The security precautions didn’t end there. Backstage were another dozen cops.
Hundreds of student protesters had filled the hallway outside the auditorium, and they had blocked off all the entrances. A few rioters were physically assaulting students who wanted to enter; the police set up a back-door route but could only sneak students in two at a time. I put my ear to the auditorium door; it sounded like a zombie apocalypse outside. Members of the police department said that the administration had told them to stand down and allow the protesters to do whatever they pleased.
The police offered us a choice: we could wait for two hours while they filled the room, or we could go ahead with the speech.
We decided to go ahead, despite the mostly empty auditorium, and despite the near riot happening just outside the door.
As the speech progressed, students pulled the fire alarm; the lights went out and the alarm began beeping loudly. Students continued pounding the doors outside. I spoke through the discord, announcing that the disrupters wouldn’t stop us from exercising our free speech rights.
As I finished, I turned to those in the audience—I was more than a bit amped up by this point—and asked if they wanted to go outside and mingle with the protesters. They responded in the affirmative—at which point my security team and the police pulled me backstage. “If you go outside,” one of the officers warned me, “we can protect you from the first guy who throws a punch, and the second guy, but not the third guy. Also, we won’t be able to protect all the students here if they walk out with you. You should leave the campus, and we’ll keep all the students inside until the crowd disperses.”
Duly chastened, I acquiesced to being escorted from campus. The moving cordon of police officers sneaked me out of the forum through back hallways and kitchens, ushered me into a tinted-window black van, and guided me from the campus with a police escort flashing their lights.
So, what went wrong?
I found out later that a professor on campus had been telling her students that I was a white supremacist, that I was akin to a Ku Klux Klan member, that I was a Nazi (I’m just wearing the yarmulke as deep cover, apparently). The students had believed their professors, and they had reacted accordingly. The value of speech had been overthrown in favor of a subjective rage that had nothing to do with facts.
This, of course, was just the beginning. At the University of Wisconsin, my speech was nearly shut down by protesters who flooded the front of the stage. At Penn State, protesters gathered outside my speech and pounded on the doors. At DePaul University, the administration threatened to arrest me if I came to campus and called out a Cook County sheriff to do the honors. At Berkeley, the administration called out hundreds of police officers to protect law-abiding citizens from the rage of violent rioters.
That wasn’t the end of the 2016 circus, however.
During the election cycle, I was highly critical of both candidates. As a conservative, I’d been a lifelong critic of Hillary Clinton. But I was also highly critical of Donald Trump. Thanks to my criticisms of Trump—and thanks to my very public break with Breitbart News, an outlet I believed had become a propaganda tool for the Trump campaign—I quickly found myself targeted by a new breed of radical. In late March, the execrable Milo Yiannopoulos penned a story at Breitbart openly praising the alt-right, including odes to racist cretins like Richard Spencer. Egging on his alt-right followers, cheering on their “jolly trollery,” Milo sent me a picture of a black baby on the day of my son’s birth that May—the point being that I was a “cuck.”
Over the course of the 2016 campaign, I would become the top recipient of anti-Semitism among Jewish journalists on the internet. By a huge margin. According to the Anti-Defamation League, approximately 19,253 anti-Semitic tweets were directed at journalists during the August 2015 through July 2016 period. I received 7,400 of those tweets, or 38 percent of the total.23
I went through most of my adult life involved in public political conversations with others without threat of violence or racist slur. Now, I required hundreds of police officers to protect me while speaking at a variety of campuses, and my Twitter feed was flooded with images straight from the pages of Der Stürmer.
Something, obviously, had changed.
Something has changed.
We’ve lost something.
This book is my attempt to determine what we’ve lost and how we can find it.
To find what we’ve lost, we’re going to need to retrace our steps. This book is filled with old ideas—ideas from people we may dimly remember from our days in high school and college and Sunday school, but whose central importance we’ve essentially forgotten.
Those ideas, I’ll argue, are crucial. We must learn them anew.
This doesn’t mean that I believe philosophers changed history on their own. I don’t think Adam Smith invented capitalism any more than Immanuel Kant invented morality. But these philosophers and thinkers offer a window into the most important ideas of their time. Tolstoy famously asks in War and Peace what moves history, and concludes that history is merely the progression of all of the various forces at play in the universe, channeled into action in a particular moment. There’s truth to that, of course. But ideas matter, and important ideas—as best articulated by great thinkers—represent the motivational road along which humanity journeys. We act because we believe.
In order to fix ourselves, then, we must reexamine what we believe.
We believe freedom is built upon the twin notions that God created every human in His image, and that human beings are capable of investigating and exploring God’s world. Those notions were born in Jerusalem and Athens, respectively.
Those twin notions—those diamonds of spiritual genius—built our civilization, and built us as individuals. If you believe that life is more than materialistic pleasures and pain avoidance, you are a product of Jerusalem and Athens. If you believe that the government has no right to intrude upon the exercise of your individual will, and that you are bound by moral duty to pursue virtue, you are a product of Jerusalem and Athens. If you believe that human beings are capable of bettering our world through use of our reason, and are bound by higher purpose to do so, you are a product of Jerusalem and Athens.
Jerusalem and Athens built science. The twin ideals of Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law reasoning built human rights. They built prosperity, peace, and artistic beauty. Jerusalem and Athens built America, ended slavery, defeated the Nazis and the Communists, lifted billions from poverty, and gave billions spiritual purpose. Jerusalem and Athens were the foundations of the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Westphalia; they were the foundations of the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
Civilizations that rejected Jerusalem and Athens, and the tension between them, have collapsed into dust. The USSR rejected Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, substituting the values of the collective and a new utopian vision of “social justice”—and they starved and slaughtered tens of millions of human beings. The Nazis rejected Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, and they shoved children into gas chambers. Venezuela rejects Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, and citizens of their oil-rich nation have been reduced to eating dogs.
In America, especially, with our unique history and success, we have long seen progress and prosperity as our birthright. The conflicts that tear apart other nations are not for us; we certainly don’t need to worry about revolution or collapse. We’re America. We’re different.
That sanguine view is utterly wrong. The fight against entropy is never over. Our way of life is never more than one generation away from the precipice. We have already begun to see a huge number of our citizens lose faith in free speech, in democracy, in economic freedom, in the idea of a shared morality or cause. That turn away from our values began when we lost faith in the path that brought us here in the first place.
We are in the process of abandoning Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law, favoring moral subjectivism and the rule of passion. And we are watching our civilization collapse into age-old tribalism, individualistic hedonism, and moral subjectivism. Make no mistake: we are still living off the prosperity of the world built by Jerusalem and Athens. We believe we can reject Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law and satisfy ourselves with intersectionality, or scientific materialism, or progressive politics, or authoritarian governance, or nationalistic solidarity. We can’t. We’ve spent the last two centuries carving ourselves off from the roots of our civilization. Our civilization could survive and thrive—for a time. Then it began to die, from the inside out. Our civilization is riddled with internal contradictions, communities bereft of values, and individuals bereft of meaning.
The economies of the West aren’t going to die overnight; stacking socialist programs atop capitalist infrastructures won’t immediately collapse the West. But we flatter ourselves to believe that we can abandon the values of the past and somehow survive indefinitely. Philosophically, the West has been running on fumes for generations. We are viewing birth rates plummet and government spending skyrocket across the West—and we are watching large swaths of immigrants unfamiliar with Western values imported to fill the gap, resulting in polarizing backlash. We are watching European politics devolve into a battle between far-left socialists who promise utopia and far-right nationalists who promise national restoration. Both are bound to fail. And though America lags behind, America is following the European path. The ties that bind us together are fraying.
Those ties were forged through fire and water, reason and prayer. The journey to modernity was a long road. That road wasn’t always pretty—often, it was violent. The tension between Jerusalem and Athens is real. But removing the tension by abandoning either Jerusalem or Athens collapses the bridge built between the two.
To strengthen our civilization, then, we must examine how the bridge was built. It took Western civilization three thousand years to get here—we can lose it all in one generation, unless we begin shoring up our foundations. We must stop chipping away, and we must start retrofitting. That task requires us to reexamine those foundations, brick by brick.
In this book, we’ll reexamine those foundations. We’ll be moving through thousands of years of philosophy and history, which means we’ll inevitably be giving great philosophers shorter shrift than they deserve, and simplifying issues for the sake of brevity. This book won’t tell you all you need to know about any of these ideas and philosophers—not even close. That means you should pursue further the specific ideas that interest you, with people more expert than I, in more detail (and for my part, I’ve tried to restrict my philosophical synopses to points upon which there seems to be general agreement). But this book does represent my attempt to dive into those ideas in the most user-friendly way in pursuit of wisdom about the essential questions of our civilization.
So, let us begin at the beginning.
Chapter 1: The Pursuit of Happiness
Chapter 2: From the Mountaintop
Chapter 3: From the Dust
Chapter 4: Coming Together
Chapter 5: Endowed by Their Creators
Chapter 6: Killing Purpose, Killing Capacity
Chapter 7: The Remaking of the World
Chapter 8: After the Fire
Chapter 9: The Return to Paganism
Conclusion: How to Build
About the Author
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