President Calvin Coolidge reflects on the significance and meaning of the Fourth of July.
Scruton, Ferguson, and Shapiro: Who Defended the West Best?
When conservatives write books about the West, it is usually because they believe it to be under threat.
The threat, in their view, always comes from somewhere specific: a nefarious political ideology, say, or a hostile Eastern nation, or an unwillingness on the part of Westerners to stand up for their own values, or some combination thereof.
Conservatives who write about the West, moreover, tend to offer a critique of whatever is threatening the West at the same time as they provide a defense of the West itself. The West comes to be partly defined as different from (and in some ways superior to) the enemy that endangers it.
Roger Scruton: Defending the West from Islam
In 2002, Roger Scruton published The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, and as the book’s subtitle indicates, Scruton is primarily concerned with protecting the West from the threat of radical Islam. He attempts to draw a sharp distinction between Western and Islamic political systems.
Western polities, Scruton argues, function on the basis of a “territorial jurisdiction”—that is, a system of secular law imposed equally on every subject in a given territory. In the West, those territories have taken the form of nation-states: large communities bound together by culture, history, and law. Western law applies to every citizen of the nation, and the coercion of the law is legitimate, according to Western political theory, because citizens consent to be ruled by it.
Westerners’ obedience to the secular law—and their loyalty to their fellow compatriots—allows for disputes to be settled peacefully within the political community. According to Scruton, Western theories of law and political legitimacy have enabled the rise of much of what we cherish today, including democracy, religious toleration, and all the other “benefits . . . of citizenship and [of] government answerable to the people.”
Scruton goes on to argue that Islamic law is based on a fundamentally different source of legitimacy, namely God. In Islam, he writes, “laws can warrant our obedience only if they are divinely sanctioned; this means that their validity is established only if they can be derived from the sharia—the revealed will of God.”
Islam never developed a secular concept of law that applies to all those who live within a given territory, and consequently it never developed a theoretical justification for why people should grant their loyalty to a nation-state, obey its laws, and observe the rights of their fellow citizens (especially when those citizens are members of other faiths).
Niall Ferguson: Defending the West from China
Just as Scruton sought to defend the principles of the West from the threat of radical Islam, so Niall Ferguson, writing in 2009, sought to vindicate the values and history of the West against a rising China.
“What we are living through now,” he argues in Civilization: The West and the Rest, “is the end of 500 years of Western predominance. This time the Eastern challenger is for real, both economically and geopolitically. It is too early for the Chinese to proclaim ‘We are the masters now.’ But they are clearly no longer the apprentices.” His concern with China’s rise—and with the West’s decline relative to it—is felt throughout the book.
Like Scruton, Ferguson holds that Western innovations are responsible for much of what we value in the modern world, from economic prosperity to representative democracy. This conviction explains why he worries about the end of Western hegemony: in his estimation, China’s authoritarian challenge to the liberal West represents a threat to what has been accomplished during the era of Western dominance.
The arguments in Scruton’s and Ferguson’s books are too rich and complex to be adequately summarized in a few paragraphs, and my aim here is not to endorse them, but only to draw out some of the features they share in common. In particular, both thinkers were moved to write because they wanted to help the West confront its rivals. Their books functioned simultaneously as vindications of the West and as warnings against that which threatened it.
Ben Shapiro: Defending the West from the Left
The same is true of Ben Shapiro’s 2018 book, The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great. Here again we see a familiar pattern, wherein the West is partly defined in opposition to some object of criticism. In Scruton, that object of criticism is radical Islam; in Ferguson, it is China; and in Shapiro, it is the entire tradition of the left, from the French revolutionaries in the eighteenth century to the proponents of intersectional feminism today.
Ben Shapiro’s book creates a dichotomy between the West and the left: to accept the one, in his telling, is to reject the other. So how does he define the two?
Shapiro contends that the West is a product of Athens and Jerusalem; in other words, it is a product of the universal moral principles of the Hebrew Bible combined with the rationality of ancient Greek philosophy.
Westerners, he explains, “believe freedom is built on the twin notions that God created every human in His image, and that human beings are capable of investigating and exploring God’s world.” These two “diamonds of spiritual genius built our civilization” and are responsible for nearly every good thing that has occurred in human history.
Jerusalem and Athens built science. [They] built human rights. They built prosperity, peace, and artistic beauty. Jerusalem and Athens built America, ended slavery, defeated the Nazis and Communists, lifted billions from poverty, and gave billions spiritual purpose. [They] were the foundations of the Magna Carta and the Treaty of Westphalia; they were the foundations of the Declaration of Independence, the . . . Emancipation Proclamation, and Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
If moral progress comes about when societies adopt Western principles, moral catastrophes occur when they abandon them. “Civilizations that rejected Jerusalem and Athens,” Shapiro argues, “have collapsed into the dust. The USSR rejected [Jerusalem and Athens] . . . and they starved and slaughtered tens of millions of human beings. The Nazis rejected [them], 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.”
Although Shapiro includes the Nazis in his list of anti-Western culprits, the rest of the book demonstrates that he is mostly interested in going after the left. (He even appears to interpret Nazism as closer to the left than to the right. “Nazism,” he writes, “lay a lot closer to Marxism than capitalism did.”) Indeed, Shapiro lays a long series of historical crimes at the feet of the left. “The worst sins of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” he writes, “sprang from various combinations of romantic nationalism, collectivist redistributionism, and supposedly scientific governance.” Then follows a litany of atrocities: the depredations of Lenin’s secret police, mass murder under Stalin (Shapiro later comments that “until the USSR’s fall, many on the mainstream left believed it to represent a viable ideology”), genocide under Hitler, poverty during the Great Depression (which “FDR and his cadre of geniuses lengthened . . . by nearly a decade”), the evils of eugenics policies (which were led by American progressives), and so on.
These evils all occurred as a result of the left’s rejection of Jerusalem and Athens, and Shapiro reads the contemporary left as being driven by a similar desire to demolish everything the West stands for. In the 1970s, he claims, the New Left “cast out the specter of the roots of Western civilization,” and intersectional feminists today seek to continue that work of destruction, attacking science, reason, critical thinking, capitalism, and much else besides.
Shapiro’s conclusion makes explicit his view that the West and the left are utterly incompatible. The only alternative to the vision of the left, he argues, is a “return to the Judeo-Christian values and Greek reason that undergirded America’s founding.”
For him, the ideology of the West—which he interprets as nearly synonymous with American conservatism—is the only viable political philosophy.
Do’s and Dont’s
Shapiro’s book is the weakest of the three under consideration, for it commits the fatal flaw of not taking what it criticizes seriously. The problem, of course, is that to be an effective critic you must first be deeply familiar with what you oppose.
Roger Scruton does an excellent job of modeling this ideal: whatever else one thinks of The West and the Rest, there can be no doubt that Scruton made a concerted effort to learn all he could about Islamic history and philosophy. Despite making heavy criticisms of Islamic culture, he never hesitates to point out the things he appreciates about it. He refers to Arabic as “that most enchanted of languages”; he says that Muhammad possessed a “penetrating genius matched by few religious leaders before or since”; he praises Islamic education on the grounds that it “teaches piety, consideration, and respect for age . . . [and] it presents the student at every point with certainties rather than doubt, and consolation rather than anxiety.”
At no point does Shapiro make a comparable effort to read leftist thinkers so closely or charitably, in the spirit of sincerely trying to understand their argument or of finding something valuable in what they have to say.
For example, Shapiro argues that the “actual goal” of intersectional feminism is “to bully those who aren’t members of intersectional groups.” You do not have to support intersectionality to recognize that such a characterization is very unfair. In “Mapping the Margins,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, a key intersectional theorist, rails against the “routine violence” that shapes the daily lives of women and then tries to think of possible solutions. Her work more generally posits that marginalized people suffer from oppression and violence (e.g., rape and police brutality), and it sets out to understand why this is so. Whatever objections one could raise to her theories, her main concern is not to bully white men.
Another major flaw in Shapiro’s book comes in his rendering of history. Indeed his view of history is tribal almost by definition: it proposes that all good things were done by us (the West), and all bad things were done by them (the left). One should always be skeptical of any theory that reduces the enormous complexity of history to a simple morality play.
Apart from its tribalism, though, Shapiro’s vision of history relies on a thoroughly unconvincing theory of historical causality. It is simply not the case that accepting the Western tradition will automatically make you do good things, or that all bad things can be attributed to a rejection of the West.
How, for example, would Shapiro explain the crimes committed by Spanish conquistadors in the New World? Such men were steeped in the Western tradition, and yet they committed atrocities. Unfortunately, Shapiro does not discuss colonial crimes at all. Nor does he mention the crimes committed by U.S.-backed military regimes during the Cold War, such as those in Central America during the 1980s. Perhaps that is because such evils do not fit neatly into the dichotomy that undergirds the whole of his book.
Shapiro’s attempt to define all of history’s evil regimes as somehow anti-Western is not helpful. The claim that Venezuela is poor because it “rejects Judeo-Christian values and Greek natural law” would come as a surprise to most Venezuelans, since Venezuela is a very Catholic country. Anti-Western sentiment is also hardly the reason behind Venezuela’s collapse.
Moreover, it is rather odd to say that Marxist regimes such as the USSR are not part of the Western tradition: after all, they drew their inspiration from one of the most influential thinkers in European history. Marx himself was deeply immersed in the sources of the Western canon: if you look through the footnotes of Capital, you will find all sorts of references to figures like Dante, Adam Smith, and various ancient Greek and Roman thinkers.
Intellectually, then, the revolutionary left in Europe is as much the progeny of the Western canon as the conservative right. (As Niall Ferguson puts it: “There is surely a case for saying that the Soviet Union was as much a product of Western civilization as the United States. Its core ideology had much the same Victorian provenance as nationalism, anti-slavery and women’s suffrage—it was born and bred in the old circular Reading Room of the British Library.”)
Because Shapiro seeks to define the West against the left, and because he is more interested in deriding the left than in seriously engaging with it, he can ultimately offer little insight about either.
As Scruton and Ferguson show, there are intelligent ways to talk about the West, just as there are tenable ways to critically engage the left. Saying that everything about the former is good and everything about the latter is bad is not one of them.
About the Author
Christian Alejandro Gonzalez is a political science student at Columbia University and a Research Assistant at Heterodox Academy. His work has appeared in National Review, the American Conservative, Quillette, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @xchrisgonz.
Free College Student's Guide to History
Are you studying the right things? Find out with this free student's guide to the study of history.
Download it today, completely free.
Our Politics Will Improve When We Turn Off Our Phones
Our inability to stay focused and to silence distractions have political consequences. We can do better.