Salon interview: How to have an argument with Ben Shapiro

A debate about debate — and childhood hunger and the Judeo-Christian God — with conservative superstar Ben Shapiro

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published March 23, 2019 1:05PM (EDT)

Ben Shapiro (Getty/Mark Ralston)
Ben Shapiro (Getty/Mark Ralston)

In his new book "The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West," Ben Shapiro argues that reason is essential to the advancement of human progress. The 35-year-old conservative commentator has positioned himself as something of a latter-day William F. Buckley Jr. -- an intellectual superstar in a quadrant of politics that seems increasingly resistant to facts or rational inquiry. Shapiro has denounced white supremacists and the alt-right, and distanced himself from President Trump (much as Buckley denounced the John Birch Society and other right-wing extremists of his day), while frequently calling upon the venerable classical and biblical Western thinkers.

Shapiro has also frequently discussed occasions when he has been threatened or faced what he describes as efforts to silence him, especially on college campuses. In a society with a healthy culture of free speech, of course, Shapiro would be able to argue his points as fearlessly as he wants, without the specter of violence or being otherwise persecuted.

Whether Shapiro himself actually models the open dialogue he claims to advocate, however, is a different question. In his book, he writes:

Reason, in fact, is insulting. Reason suggests that one person can know better than another, that one person's perspective can be more correct than someone else's. Reason is intolerant. Reason demands standards.

To be clear, he intends to undermine the perceived arguments of his "politically correct" adversaries, which he summarizes this way: "Better to destroy reason than to abide by its dictates."

These are satisfying things to say when you're preaching to the choir -- we all believe reason is on our side, and often insist that our opponents are being entirely unreasonable. In my occasionally contentious conversation with Shapiro, though, he appeared to reject contrary evidence out of hand -- as when he denied the existence of rampant child hunger caused by systemic poverty and economic injustice -- and insisted he was being treated disrespectfully when I interjected to challenge his views.

It will be pretty obvious whether or not Shapiro's book is meant for you. Liberals and conservatives alike have their firebrands and their thinkers; Shapiro presents himself as a sort of firebrand's thinker. If you're the kind of conservative who believes you are literally conserving the best ideas and values of Western civilization — and if you seek to rally behind a strong, branded personality — you'll probably like Shapiro's book, and perhaps Shapiro himself. Others are likely to find both Shapiro's ideas and his persona objectionable, for a whole range of reasons.

After our interview was concluded, Shapiro's representative repeatedly asked Salon for a copy of the audio recording. It's a highly unusual request, something that neither I nor my editor could remember happening previously across many years and hundreds of interviews. We did not supply one, but we have endeavored to edit this transcript for maximum clarity, and to represent Shapiro's views as fairly as possible.

In your book, you argue that "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." There are many compassionate people who are also atheists, including myself, and there are many religious people out there who reject compassion and use their faith as an excuse for harming other people. Do you think it is possible not to believe in a Judeo-Christian God and still be a good person, or to believe in God and be a bad one?

Of course, of course. It is possible to do all of those things. Yes, it is certainly possible that religious people can be bad people, and that secular people can be good people, and nothing I argue in the book says otherwise. What I am arguing is that the foundations of our civilization, the foundations of human rights, are rooted in a Judeo-Christian notion that human beings have innate value, and that that premise cannot be reasoned to simply through pure use of faculties.

If you were just to be in a vacuum and then come up with a system of values, there's nothing that mandates you come up with the idea that human beings are each created with innate individual values and rights. In fact, for the vast majority of human history, people reasoned to precisely the opposite conclusion.

If you read the ancient Greeks, they obviously justified all sorts of oppression and tyranny, specifically along the lines of reason. So the contention that I'm making is that our civilization, both historically and intellectually, is built on a certain presupposition that is embedded in that verse from Genesis. You don't have to believe in God to believe that that verse in Genesis is true. You don't have to believe in Genesis to believe that verse in Genesis is true. But you do have to believe that each individual has human value if you actually believe in a system of freedom.

Would you say that the capacity for empathy, which knows no specific theology or philosophy, is the core of recognizing the innate value of each human being?

No, I don't think that's right, and the reason I don't think that's right is because empathy very often can be twisted to be empathy for an in-group, or empathy toward people who are like you, but not toward people who are the other. We see this all the time. I mean, this is the story of virtually every oppression in the history of the world. It's people who believe that they're empathetic. It's pretty easy for human beings to self-justify empathy toward people they like, and then treat oppression of people that they don't like as a form of empathy toward people that they do.

I agree that you should not limit empathy to an in-group or to certain types of people, but one could be entirely unfamiliar with Judeo-Christian theology and still develop a capacity for a universalist approach toward empathy.

Well, of course, that's actually true. I totally agree; you can do that. The question is not whether you can come up with a system of values that mirrors a Judeo-Christian approach, the question is where does our civilization come from. And to ignore the Judeo-Christian roots of our civilization is to ignore why our civilization is the way that it is. I think you can come up with a rationale for virtually any good thing or any bad thing. That's not really the question in the book. The question is what defines the civilization that has crafted the modern world.

My next question involves you discussing your experiences with anti-Semitism and how your family was victimized by anti-Semitism during the Holocaust. I am Jewish myself, and I have also experienced anti-Semitism, particularly from members of the alt-right, and am concerned about the rise of anti-Jewish prejudice. But I also believe it's important to distinguish between legitimate criticisms of Israel and actual hatred of Jews.

Do you feel the same way? How do you combat anti-Semitism from your own supporters, and address any overlap between anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bigotry?

OK, so there are about four questions in there, so let's try and parse them out. One: Can you be anti-Israel, as far as criticizing Israeli policy, without being an anti-Semite? Of course. I criticize an enormous amount of Israeli policy; I have historically. This is true for the vast majority of people on every side of the political aisle. Can you oppose the existence of the state of Israel, at a point where the state of Israel exists and the destruction of the state of Israel would mean the slaughter of millions of Jews, and still be seen as not anti-Semitic? I have a hard time seeing how.

As far as how to combat anti-Semitism, my view is that you have to call it out wherever you see it. You and I have gotten anti-Semitism from some of the same places, obviously. I mean, I've gotten enormous amounts of hatred from the alt-right, and while folks on the far left try to lump me in with the alt-right, that is the height of absurdity on every possible level. I mean, it's honestly one of the most reprehensible things that I've experienced personally, people trying to lump me in with people who have legitimately threatened to kill my children ... so that's always a party.

As far as the idea that my supporters are engaging in an outsized amount of anti-Semitism ... if anybody who follows me engages in anti-Semitism, then I don't consider them anybody who I want to be associated with, people I want listening to my show, people I want listening to my content, people who I want sympathizing with me. That's garbage.

As far as the crossover between anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bigotry, obviously I oppose both. I think both are evil. I don't think it is always the same set of people who engage in both. Right? I think that Ilhan Omar is happy to engage in anti-Semitism; I don't think she engages in anti-Muslim bigotry. And there are some people who engage in anti-Muslim bigotry who don't engage in anti-Semitism, so I don't necessarily ... I think you're gonna have to get a little more specific in your question.

The question was, do you see any overlap between anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bigotry? Many of the people who hate Jews also hate Muslims, and many people who hate one group do not hate the other, or actually belong to the other, so it becomes a complicated issue.

Right. So, that's true. I mean, as a definition, there are people who hate Muslims and hate Jews, there are people who only hate Jews, there are people who only hate Muslims. Yeah, I mean ... true. [Laughter.]

Turning to the college admissions scandal: You recently posted a tweet that was sympathetic to Lori Loughlin's daughter, Olivia Jade, who said that she didn't want to go to school. In the tweet you wrote, "Unpopular but correct take. Olivia is correct and non-STEM college education is a giant scam."

I would agree that college is overpriced, but if you're talking about the value of humanities education -- history, philosophy, art -- how can you pass on what is important about Western civilization if you don't value the humanities just as much as you value STEM fields?

Because I don't think that colleges actually deal with the issues of the classics or Western civilization anymore, having been a poli-sci grad at UCLA myself. What people think colleges do and what colleges do are two completely separate things. What colleges effectively do, at least in most of the non-STEM fields, is they are there for credentialing and they are there for social-fabric building, for an elite group of people who get in. That's effectively what colleges do. And what they promise they are going to do is teach about Western civilization, or teach about great ideas, on the one hand. Or they're going to teach you a skill set, on the other, that is going to increase your earning value.

If you're in the non-STEM field, the second is usually not true. People who go into a poli-sci program at UCLA, like I did, don't come out with measurably more skills than they went in with. Instead, it's essentially a sorting mechanism, so that people can look at your résumé, and then look at the credential, and say, "OK, this person's smarter than the person who went to local juco," for example.

And when it comes to the teaching of Western civilization, I mean -- I make the case in the book, and I've made the case elsewhere, that I think that the teaching of Western civilization inside our nation's major colleges has fallen away, and statistically this is true. I mean, the general educational requirements that you have at most major universities do not include a basic course in the history of Western civilization, for example. You can go through an entire four-year curriculum without ever having to deal with any of the great thinkers in Western civilized history, but you will probably get a good course in race relations in the United States.

Now that's important! I mean, I'm happy that people are studying race relations in the United States, but I think that you do have to look at the context of the civilization as a whole, and that means actually studying some of these great ideas. How many students actually read Aristotle, Plato? Or have any familiarity with the most important document in the history of humanity, which happens to be the Bible? It's the most read document in the history of humanity. How many actually get any sort of intellectual treatment of any of these things while they're at college? And how many of them are instead reading Maya Angelou?

That's not a case against Maya Angelou. That's a case in favor of reading all these classics, of having a humanities background that actually looks at the civilization more closely.

Well, Olivia Jade, for what it's worth, made it very clear in her videos that she didn't value education one way or another. She went to school to party and to participate in game day activities.

That's the point that I'm making about her comments. And it's half-joking, obviously, because I don't agree that Olivia Jade is a model of education. [Laughter.] The general point I am making is that when she says she's not in college to get an education, this is true for the vast majority of students who are in humanities in colleges across the country. They are not there to "get an education." They are there for credentialing, and they are there to join in the creation of a social fabric that is going to be useful to them later.

That's my view of colleges. I don't think that people are going there because they desperately want to study. There are a few people who are going to college who desperately want to study philosophy and the history of Western civilization. I really wish there were more people who wanted to do that. I don't think that's the majority of people who are going to college. Campuses these days, that's not what they expect to get. And if they are seeing college as Olivia Jade does, then they are actually getting what they bargained for. But I think their parents are not actually seeing college clearly for what it has become.

I want to segue to a recent speech you delivered at the University of Michigan, in which you said, "I don't believe in free school lunches." According to the Detroit Free Press, you said that you would starve to feed your own children, and if parents can't feed their children, there should be a discussion about whether the kids ought to be taken away from that family. Doesn't that argument lack compassion for parents who work full-time jobs, but cannot control how much they are paid in order to support themselves and their families?

No, I don't see how that lacks compassion in any way. If you are unable to feed your child, and you cannot find a social fabric to help you take care of that child, your child should not be with you. You're living in the freest, most prosperous country in the history of the world. It is not all that expensive to pay for a child's lunch.

See, if we live a society where people can work for a full-time ...

School lunch programs are a giant fail, by the way. For purposes of context, the original question I was asked was about how to make school lunches healthier. Michelle Obama tried that; it failed. School lunch programs are not what ... they're free meals. If you think that school lunch programs are all that is separating children from misery, then I fail to see how that is even remotely logical.

I'm going to quote Franklin Roosevelt's 1944 State of the Union address where he said, "We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. 'Necessitous men are not free men.'" If we live in a society where people try to work full-time and are still unable to support their families, does that not contradict your assertion that we live in the freest, most prosperous nation in the world?

I do not accept your premise that we live in a society where people literally cannot afford to feed their children, [where] their children will starve without a free school lunch.

Do you reject the proposition that hunger is a problem, or that systemic poverty is a problem in this country?

No, not systemic poverty; I'm rejecting the idea that childhood starvation is a problem in the United States, yes.

All right, well let's broaden it for a moment to systemic poverty. Let's broaden it to people who can't afford to send their children to college...

Let's not, let's stick with the original -- hold on, let's stick to the original point. Now you're shifting the premise of the question. Your original question is, if I oppose free school lunches, then somehow I oppose children. And my contention is ...

That was not the premise of my question; the premise of my question was that there's systemic poverty in this country ...

If you want to shift the question now, you can shift the question.

I'm broadening the scope of the question to touch upon a deeper issue, which is your conception of freedom. What I am saying is if we live in a society where systemic poverty is an issue, where people cannot afford medicine, adequate education, housing and yes, sometimes food, among other things, that contradicts what you're saying, that we live in the freest, most prosperous nation in the world. And there are millions of people for whom that is their experience.

What I would say is, let's look at your personal experience and let's see how we can solve that on a personal level. But the idea that compassion is automatically reducible to how much you are spending on a government program is a fallacy and false.

Why is it a fallacy? Why can we not provide programs that assist people who are living with this type of poverty? What is so dangerous?

Who is we? What is the program? How effective is the program? What is it designed to do? [Crosstalk.]

Well, let's take free school lunches as an example of such a program. What is the danger of free school lunches?

OK. The problem with free school lunch is that it is not effective in delivering the nutritional value that children need, number one. Number two: It is relieving the responsibility from parents to actually feed their children. Three: it is not actually the only meal of the day.

But many of these parents can't afford to feed their children.

Four: It is apparent for parents, the responsibility -- when you remove ... Hold on. Let me finish my answer. Do you want to have a conversation? Or an interview?

I do.

You actually need to let your subjects finish their answers. If you want to have a debate, then we can schedule a debate in front of a crowd.

Absolutely. I would more than welcome that opportunity.

Frankly, I'm legitimately a little bit bewildered as to what the purpose of this conversation is, if all you really want to do is just argue with me the way a college student would at one of my debates. This is foolishness. You don't actually want to hear the answer. You just want to make the case for a Bernie Sanders salary redistribution. That's fine. If you want to do that, you have space at the plate. Go for it.

I've had many interviews, and sometimes during those interviews, I need to interject in order to clarify the question or make sure that the answer is directly addressing the question that I'm asking.

I am directly addressing the question, but ...

But I have been very respectful to you.

... you wouldn't even let me finish my sentences.

I allowed you to go on that little diatribe just now, and I didn't interject, and I'm giving you time right now to respond.

That wasn't a diatribe, my friend. That was me listing off direct answers to your question, and you're refusing to allow me to finish.

I'm not ...

Obviously -- look, look, look. Your agenda here is to paint me as un-compassionate because I don't support government programs of the type that you are suggesting, and I have answered you. I don't think that those programs are, No. 1, effective, or No. 2, incentivize proper behavior from parents, and No. 3, actually answer the needs of children who may be living, under your suggestion, in such poverty that their parents can't even afford to buy them a meal.

OK, so that is my answer, and if you don't like that answer, that's fine. But this has become, essentially, you just talking over whatever I try to say, so I'm not sure what the purpose of this is, or how this is productive.

I certainly did not intend any disrespect. I was merely trying to make sure that the question I was asking was being directly confronted in your response. Do I have time for one more question?

You do.

OK. In your University of Michigan speech, you say that "when government is activated to invade the rights of other people, even for the purported good of the many, that's when government is a bully. That's what we are seeing increasingly these days, the call for socialism, in essence, is a call to invade the rights of others on behalf of yourself or on behalf of the greater good."

But governments do need to take an active role in certain capacities: preventing violent crime, protecting public safety from irresponsible behavior like drunk driving, providing services like infrastructure and public schools. For everything that the government does that is active, there will be people who claim that their rights have been violated. Where do you draw the line between proper government activity and improper government activity?

OK, so if you'd watched the entire speech, you'd recognize that the entire first half of the speech was dedicated to entirely this proposition. Where is government activity proper? And my suggestion is that on a Lockean basis, government activity is proper to preserve life, liberty and property.

There's not a majoritarian issue. There is a question of the protection of fundamental rights, and I talk about the difference between negative and positive rights. It is the liberal view that the government is there to provide you with certain goods and services as part of your rights package. I talk about why I reject that, because there's no limiting principle to it. Once you have suggested that you require certain things from other people in order for your rights to be provided for, that is a form of tyranny because you are now leveraging yourself over the services of other people to provide something for you that you have no "right to."

The difference between negative and positive rights is a fundamental distinction, obviously, in Western philosophy. It's a big distinction, in my view, between the right and the left.

I would reiterate my earlier point that if a person is suffering through systemic poverty, they don't have any of the other rights that you just listed, and therefore the government preventing them from living in poverty -- especially when that's due to economic structures they cannot control -- is an assertion of the same rights that John Locke asserted.

OK, and I would recommend that if we are going to talk about "systemic poverty," that we look at the actual systems about which we are talking, because I may, in fact, agree with you that there are oppressive systems that are invading the actual rights of people. But if your suggestion is that poverty itself is an invasion of rights, I disagree.

I'm going to close with a question about the way you've been treated on college campuses. We have just heatedly disagreed, as I think you would agree, yet I believe it's important for people from all points of view to engage in debate. That's why I've interviewed Tucker Carlson, it's why I've interviewed Austin Petersen, it's why I've interviewed Trish Regan and Andrew Napolitano. While we disagree, I have not called you names or tried to vilify you. I have said that I think you are wrong, and you seem to think I'm wrong, which you have every right to do. How do we have respectful debates as a society? How do we make sure that our culture isn't just people talking at each other and trying to silence each other?

As you can see, I'm actually in favor of people clarifying their positions, and so I think that the first principle has to be that you don't get to use the methodologies of government, or institutions, to shut down the ability of other people to speak freely, obviously. Heated disagreements are fine. They're very often good; sometimes they're productive.

So that's the first thing we have to recognize, that the value of freedom of speech is actually sort of a newfound thing in Western civilization, particularly the idea that the individual rights that you have extend to the expression of your opinion, and that recognizing each other as valuable individuals requires at least treating people with a baseline level of civility when you're having a conversation with them.

If you want the conversation to be productive, then it requires you to actually sit down and agree on the terms of the debate, to actually define your terms as opposed to using vague terminology, to recognize that the topic that you're speaking about is the one that is actually at issue, as opposed to a broader topic, or if they want to shift the topic.

That's how to have a productive debate, but to have at least a civil debate, we have to acknowledge that attempting to shut each other down or treat speech as violent is a dangerous thing. To treat an attack on the political position as an attack on identity is a dangerous tactic.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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