Speaking at the University of Tennessee on Wednesday night, Daily Wire Editor-in-Chief Ben Shapiro, who has been targeted by groups as far-left as Antifa as well as white supremacists, who envision themselves on the hard-right, addressed the chasm between the Right and the Left in America that threatens to tear the country apart.
Shapiro made clear his fealty to the conservative philosophy that permeated the perspectives of the Founders of the United States as he offered a philosophic odyssey back to the principles on which America was built and must return to in order to survive. In the process, he explored the basic issues of life, including questions such as, “What exactly is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of being a person? What is the meaning of existing in a society together? What are we striving for?”
Shapiro's speech revolved around the root of the Founders’ conception of America: the pursuit of happiness, and how best to achieve it, as he illuminated the four basic concepts undergirding that pursuit and explained how the Left, whether here in America or abroad, sought to destroy them.
After a standing ovation after he was introduced, Shapiro commenced:
Thank you so much. It’s nice to be in a place with no riots. (laughter) I only saw about a dozen police officers, not 400, so that was exciting. I did promise the police officers who are not here on overtime that we would try to keep to the time limit so they could go home. First, of course, I want to thank Young America’s Foundation for sponsoring the event and the local chapter of YAF for doing a wonderful job getting the word out; and if there are people on the other side, people of the Left, because I’d like to give you a round of applause for coming, because I appreciate it. So thank you. (applause)
He joked, “I want to do that because I’m going to mock you, because that’s just the way this goes. That’s part of the story.”
Holding up a pamphlet he was given, Shapiro continued, “I was handed this pamphlet from the Young Democratic Socialists, all about how capitalism really hasn’t done anything for us. I can tell you one thing capitalism would do for you; it would get you some better graphic design.” (laughter)
I do like some of the facts that are in here, things like, “Have you ever wondered why there are five times as many empty houses as there are homeless people in the United States?” I’ve never really wondered that, because the people who are building those empty houses are hoping to sell those empty houses, presumably. If you want to see places that are are full, there are prison camps in North Korea. As far as the homeless problem in the United States, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that homelessness is highly linked, unfortunately, to mental illness. So if we’re going to talk about the homeless problem, it has far less to do with the availability of housing and far more to do with the fact that we have not done enough in terms of caring for the mentally ill.
Then it says, “Have you ever wondered why we waste over 133 billion pounds of food, 30 to 40% of the food supply each year, when people still go hungry? ” I actually had not wondered that ever since I was five and my mother said to me, “If you don’t eat that food someone in China will starve,” and I figured, “That is not true.” (laughter) “If I don’t eat this food, then that person in China will have just as little food as that person would have had otherwise, unless you can freeze-dry this sucker and send it over there.” And speaking of food shortages, has anybody ever wondered why it is that everyone in Ukraine, from 1930 to 1933 had none of it? It has more to do with socialism than with capitalism.
“Have you ever wondered why just eight men own as much wealth as the other half of the world?” I haven’t really wondered that either, since capitalism has raised literally half the globe from abject poverty since 1980, and it turns out that those people who are enormously wealthy have generated more wealth for more people than have virtually anyone else on the planet.
It says, “Have I ever wondered why college students are saddled with the burdens of debt so they can become qualified?” I have, and I also wonder why you would spend money to come to a college so you could learn nothing and put out garbage like this. That seems like a waste of money. (laughter and applause)
My favorite part of this pamphlet is actually this particular page right here, where it says: “Did you know” and then there’s a picture of Albert Einstein, and a picture of Martin Luther King and a picture of Helen Keller, it says “Did you know that Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller were socialists?” I figure they did that because it wouldn’t look as good if it said, “Did you know that Stalin, Mao, Hugo Chavez and Castro were socialists.” (laughter and applause)
It turns out that being a socialist in America, which has not embraced socialism, is a really nice thing; you can become famous, you can become rich, you can become well-known without ever having to implement any of your ideas, so that’s convenient.
After asserting that he was giving a new speech that wouldn’t deal with issues he had addressed before, Shapiro launched into his philosophic journey:
I want to talk about a little bit of deeper philosophy today. I want to do something different, because I figure a lot of people in the room have probably seen some of my other speeches; this is the first run; this is a test run for a new sort of speech that I want to give tonight. And that is: I want to talk about some of the deeper philosophical roots of why we are so split in the country.
One of the things that has really become clear to me, personally, is how split we are. When I have to go on a campus and people have to spend $600,000 just so that I can talk; when we are having knock-down, drag-out fights over really nothings in terms of politics; the differentiation between the Republican Party on DACA and the Democratic Party on DACA is pretty much nil at this point, and yet we’re having knock-down, drag-out fights over this.
And a lot of it has to do with the idea that we just ascribe bad motives to one another, so I want to get a couple of things out of the way, so we can talk about what’s really separating us.
Can I have a quick show of hands: Who, here, in this room, who’s conservative, thinks black people are genetically inferior? Okay, for those who can’t see on camera, that is zero hands.
Who here, in this room, who is conservative, thinks that women are inherently less qualified for job positions? Okay, no hands go up.
Who here, in this room, believes that poor people are inherently evil and deserve to suffer? No hands.
So now we can get all of those motives out of the way, because those motives have now been ascribed repeatedly to everybody on my side of the aisle. These motives are constantly ascribed to people on my side of the aisle. We’re racist, sexist, bigot homophobes; we hate gay people, and we hate black people, and we hate women, and none of this is true.
So here’s the question: Why are we having these battles where we ascribe these sorts of motives to one another? And I think that it goes to something a little bit deeper than just your every-day politics; I think something really devastating has happened to the West; it’s come to America over the last few decades, but over the West over the last couple of hundred years, and that is we no longer in this country, and in the West at large, have a common vision of meaning. We no longer believe in share a society. Because we don’t share a vision of what the country ought to be.
So let’s go back to serious basics: What exactly is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of being a person? What is the meaning of existing in a society together? What are we striving for? What are we trying to do together, because if we can’t agree on that, it’s going to be very difficult for us to agree on things as simple as ascribing decent motives to one another.
So let’s start at the root, not the Howard Zinn version of America where all the Founders were evil, trying to protect their own private property; that’s ahistorical and untrue.
Let’s start from the actual root of what America is all about, and that, of course, is the idea of the pursuit of happiness. But Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the founders, when they said pursuit of happiness, they didn’t mean the right to get your rocks off and smoke pot in your dorm room. What they meant was actually rather specific: they thought about happiness and the pursuit of happiness in terms of an Aristotelean notion of fulfilling your goal in life, which is to pursue being a more virtuous human being. This is what makes you happy. What makes you happier is the pursuit of virtue. You have a free society so that you can use your free will to pursue becoming a better person in accordance with your mission, a mission that we can figure out simply by thinking about it. This is the Aristotelean natural rights notion that animated so many of the Founders.
American society, the West in general, but America is the apotheosis of this, is based on two fundamental roots: Athens and Jerusalem. The Judeo-Christian value system and the Athenian notion that right reason is what is going to endow you with a life of happiness and meaning. Judeo-Christian values teach us that we have individual meaning; it teaches us we are made in the image of God; we are all individually valuable. This is what equality means in the conservative perspective, in the Founding perspective.
Not that we are all equally able; not that we are all equally capable of performing certain activities. I’m never going to play football; I’m never going to be a Vol; it’s never going to happen. But that does not mean that I’m not equal to Peyton Manning in God’s sense. The fact is that according to the Bible, the key provision of all of Western thought lies in Genesis 1: 26, the idea that we, each of us, and every one of us, is made in the image of God. That is the first fundamental basis of Western civilization.
The second fundamental basis of Western civilization comes from Athens. It comes from Greek thought, which suggests that the best way to act virtuously is to use reason instead of feeling. That one of our jobs is to help train our feelings to move in accordance with our reason. If we’re not reasoning, we’re not using logic; we’re not using facts; then we’re doing something wrong.
Animals have feelings. Babies have feelings. You, as an adult human being, you have reason.
The Founders believed both of these things; they believed that happiness lay in the weaving of both of these things, that you have a job on this earth, and that is to, in the Judeo-Christian system, follow God by acknowledging the value of other human beings, and in the Athenian value system, by becoming a better person through introspection, and in self-training.
The Founders believed both of these things; George Washington summed it up well; he said: “The consideration that human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected, will always continue to prompt me to promote the progress of the former, by inculcating the practice of the latter.”
So it wasn’t just that the Founders shared a goal; they also had a plan for getting there.
There are basically four things that you need in order to pursue happiness in the way that the Founders wanted us all to pursue happiness, and felt that all human beings should pursue happiness.
The first one is individual purpose. We all have to have a purpose for living. If you don’t have a purpose you’re going to be depressed; you’re going to lead a sad life. Individual purpose is heavily connected with living.
Second, individual capacity. You have to believe that you are in control of your destiny. Not society; not your genetics; you. You, as a free, independent human being, have the capacity to make your life better.
Third, you have to have a communal purpose. We’re social beings; we exist with each other. And we have to feel like we’re all part of the same fight. We have to feel like we’re all fighting together for something better.
Finally, you need communal capacity. You have to feel like the community is actually moving us toward this communal purpose.
So as I say, we need individual purpose because without individual purpose life becomes meaningless. This is what Aristotle and the Bible provide, is this notion that you as an individual living on a desert island, you still have a purpose. Your purpose is to reason; your purpose is to worship God; your purpose is to become a better human being. You have an individual purpose apart from what other people want of you.
Now, in our society, we’ve sort of tossed this out in favor of this idea that individualism is about pursuit of pleasure, whatever floats your boat; whatever I define liberty as, whatever I want to do. And you can do all those things; that’s fine, but the idea that an entire society can be based on the pursuit of individual pleasure is just not true, which is, of course, why John Adams suggested that a constitutional free republic could only be based on a moral and religious people and no one else.
But it’s not enough just to have purpose; we have to believe that we can achieve that purpose. We have to believe that we can achieve our goals. If we don’t believe that, we tend to give up. We get depressed. We sit the battles out. Unfortunately on this one, too, there’s been a big fight against the notion of individual capacity. I’ll discuss that in a second.
In order for you to believe you have capacity you have to believe that you have the capacity for reason; you have to believe certain basic assumptions that you never think about. Like you are an actual individual human being, not just a cluster of cells that changes every day; you’re an individual human being who makes decisions on a day-to-day basis and then you’re responsible for those decisions using something called reason. These are all assumptions, as we’ll see in a second, that have been ripped out from under us.
Third, you need communal purpose. We all have to get together and decide what we want to do together. We are communities striving for a better world. This is why Jefferson talked about America as an empire of liberty; we have certain values we are seeking to promote together, and that’s why we build a country together, so we can promote those values among ourselves and to other people.
And finally, we need communal capacity; we need a balance between a community that believes in values and a community that allows us to exercise our free will to pursue those values. We don’t want a theocracy, where the government just forces you to do things, but we also don’t want an anarchic system where we have no social safety net whatsoever in terms of our support for one another and anything can be taken away from you at any time.
So, to recap very briefly: individual purpose, individual capacity, community purpose, community capacity. These are the four things you need to pursue happiness.
And the Left has torn each one of these four things down.
I don’t just mean the American Left; I mean the Marxist Left; the folks who promote democratic socialism have their roots in Marx. Marx opposed each of these notions, at least in the founding version of them. It goes back even further than Marx; if you go to people like David Hume, there are philosophers for 400 years who have been claiming that aspects of each of these four things have to be taken away.
First, individual purpose. The Left believes there is no individual purpose that is universal to all of us. We don’t all have the same individual purpose; as human beings we don’t have a better version of human beings we’re trying to turn into, there is no Aristotelean pursuit of virtue, there’s just whatever I want today. My individual purpose is whatever I want today, which basically leaves us alone in a Godless universe striving to lash out and make a way for ourselves. It’s sort of Jean-Paul Sartre existentialism.
The problem, is again, you build a society based on this and what you end up with is a very chaotic, confused lot of people. We don’t have anything in common because we’re all so solipsistic that we’re just narcissistic, focused on ourselves all the time. It’s very difficult to live in a society with one another; and we tend to attribute the best motives to ourselves and the worst motives to everybody else. We tend to think that my individual purpose is the best individual purpose but your individual purpose sucks, and so if they’re in conflict, it’s not because we don’t share an individual purpose, it’s because mine is right and yours is wrong, even if I can’t argue why mine is right or yours is wrong.
Second, individual capacity. This one the Left has really taken on; the idea that you are capable of making decisions. Every single aspect of this one has been taken on by the Left. First of all, the idea of scientific materialism rips away, it rips away at the very heart of identity. You as an individual human being, capable of acting in the world. If you’re a scientific determinist, then you tend to believe that all human activity is traceable to neurons firing in your brain or the environment around you. That’s what human beings are; we’re just a set of chemicals and neurons and biological functions; that’s all we are.
Well, then you can’t act in the universe, right? How are you supposed to better yourself? It’s an oxymoron; you can’t better yourself; you’re not even you; you’re just a thing, you’re a ball of meat floating around in this universe. You’re not important; you have no inherent value. There’s no such thing as reason, by the way; in this version; reason is just a social construct. Reason is just one set of neurons firing as opposed to a different set of neurons firing. Okay, so this neuron fires in your pre-frontal cortex, well, why is that any better than the neurons firing in your amygdala? What difference does it make? You do not have capacity to move.
And then the Marxist Left takes it even further; they say that society defines you. It says so right here in this special pamphlet that I saw, actually. (Picks up the pamphlet from before) It says right here in this special pamphlet when it says “Common myths about socialism: truth: social circumstances affect behaviors.” And the Marxist thought is that human beings become better because of the social circumstances in which they find themselves. That if we just change society around you, there is no thing as human nature, you are just going to be the after-effect of whatever nature and society create around you.
This is not likely to give you a feeling of verve about getting up in the morning. You’re basically getting kicked around like a soccer ball by the universe, enjoy. You are now Spinoza’s rock floating through space with the self-awareness to understand that you weren’t actually, you didn’t throw yourself, that you’ve just been thrown and you’re kind of floating around and that’s it.
Third, communal purpose. So the Left has substituted new communal purposes for the old communal purposes. So the old communal purpose was the idea that we as a society are going to make it easier for you to be virtuous by granting you the freedom to act in accordance with virtue but also setting certain social standards outside of government that inculcate virtue in individual citizens. This is the John Adams vision of what the community is supposed to do. Not theocracy and not anarchy, but a society that provides you the freedom to explore your own virtue while creating systems outside of government that help promote that. That was the idea of the communal purpose, and doing that as much as we can all over the world depending on the cost.
The Left has substituted Utopian communal purpose because Aristotle and the Bible no longer exist in this world, so instead of that what we get are these various Utopian schemes. You get communism: we’ll just redistribute all the property and then everything will be all better. You as an individual no longer matter because why should you; again, you’re a ball of meat so what difference does it make. If you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, then, well, Utopia is on the way. Social institutions that insist and exist based on these old values? They have to be torn out root and branch to make way for something new.
And the Left, in its desire to create these new communities, has created this intersectional hierarchy where we are no longer members of a common community with a common set of values, now we can be identified by our biological features, which is very exciting. You’re no longer a human being who’s an individual with thoughts and purposes; you are now a member of a community and only a member of a community. You’re a member of the black community; you’re a member of the white community; you’re a member of the Asian community. And what’s more, because the society is unfair, we can actually determine how valuable your perspective is based on which membership in which group you belong. This is intersectionality. As I’ve said before, there’s a hierarchy. So if you’re LGBT, you’re at the very top; your opinion matters most because you’ve been most victimized. Then comes black people, then comes Hispanics, then comes Asians, then comes women, then comes Jews, then comes white people. And we can determine how valuable your opinion is based on your biological membership or depending on what we’re talking about, non-biological membership in a particular group.
None of this is likely to lead you to any purpose that is worth following.
And finally, communal capacity. So again, the Left doesn’t believe that we ought to have a community that exists with both social standards and freedom. Instead, what we have to have is a community that forces you to do things. We need a community that forces you to do things; after all, it’s the only thing we have left in common. As Barack Obama said in 2012, government is the only thing we have left in common.
So, this is what the Left wants in the end: a world in which individual purpose is not connected to virtue; in which Judeo-Christian Western communal purpose is replaced with classism and tribalism; in which we are told that on our own we are nothing, and in which we are told that our only purpose is to be a cog in the machine of some communal purpose.
And this is what we’re fighting, and this is what we have to keep in mind, because America was built on precisely the opposite of these things. The reason that we are fighting with each other right now; the reason that everybody is angry at each other, so angry at each other, is because there is a purpose-shaped hole in our hearts that we are filling with anger. We all had purpose. Society was filled with people who had purpose; people who thought that they were bettering the world and bettering themselves, and focused mostly on bettering themselves and their family and their status in the world.
And that’s been taken away from us. We don’t have the capacity for that. We don’t have the purpose. We don’t have a country that’s built for that. We have a mean, nasty country that’s built on mean, nasty people with mean, nasty purposes. And we are still motivated to do something, so that motivation is now anger. And so we hate each other. We’re enraged with each other. And it doesn’t matter if what the other person is saying is evidence-based; we don’t even hold facts in common. All that we hold in common is our anger because we believe that the other person is trying to hurt us because the anger gives us meaning.
Anger is not what gives us meaning. Anger is not what gives us meaning.
Purpose, again, is what gives us meaning. Purpose is what creates the pursuit of happiness that we need. It is that purpose that we can restore. It’s not difficult; all we need is a little bit of self-education, a little bit of adherence to a few old-fashioned values, not all of them, some of them. A belief in yourself, that you have the capacity to succeed. A belief in your own reason, a belief in your own abilities and your own hard work. A belief in the American system that creates the freedom for you to rise up in the world and not to be buried under all of these myths about your valuelessness.
And if we follow back the path to our roots, if we follow the path back to why we matter as individuals, and why America was built the way that it was, we can have that freedom again, and we can love each other once again instead of hating each other and being at each others’ throats.