There’s a problem with books from radio/podcast hosts: they usually contain nothing that the host hasn’t already talked about a dozen times. If you listen to the respective hosts’ shows a few times a month, there’s nothing to set books like Rush Limbaugh’s See, I Told You So, Glenn Beck’s An Inconvenient Book, or Sean Hannity’s Conservative Victory apart from their daily radio shows except for a new framing device. The talking points remain the same, but at least Beck once had a sense of humor.
Books like this can be useful when they outline a complete version of the author/host’s worldview or their diagnosis of the current situation that we can then critique. Ben Shapiro is cleverer and better educated than any other conservative radio host, so he recognizes this need to write a book that defends a thesis about the social/political world in a complete and concise way.
Naturally, this means that The Authoritarian Moment, Shapiro’s newest book, is formed from a selection of the previous year’s worth of the talking points from his podcast. The fact that there’s nothing new is the natural consequence of talking nonstop for three hours a day. The Authoritarian Moment shapes Shapiro’s ideas into an overall theory that a series of recent trends perpetuated by the new left constitute an authoritarian push to silence dissent. These trends are obvious to anyone who has observed American culture and politics recently: the crackdown on social media, the acquiesce of corporations to woke demands, the bastardization of science, and the takeover of the academy, among others. Shapiro attributes these trends to a few social and psychological factors, like “renormalization,” ultracrepidarianism, the transformation of openly partisan news into partisan news that claims to give the unbiased truth, and the conjunction of the revolutionary instinct with the utopian instinct.
“Trump might have authoritarian tendencies,” writes Shapiro, “but he did not wield authoritarian power.” There’s a problem of definitions in the book that Shapiro seems to be aware of but is not capable of solving. We generally have a understanding of authoritarianism that involves the use of violence, threat of violence, or the use of government power – which is an implicit threat of violence. But the old leftist game is to confuse speech with violence, voluntary acts with fascism, everyday influence with authoritarian power.
If we’re going to create a new meaning of authoritarianism, one that includes non violent, non-state actions, we need to clearly define the new meanings of the term authoritarianism in opposition to each other. What is the difference between authoritarian instincts and authoritarian power? It’s a tricky question, and Shapiro isn’t quite able to give a satisfactory answer. But this matters, because it will take rational arguments within a logically consistent framework gain back ground in the war of ideas.
Shapiro attributes the takeover of certain institutions, like academia, to “renormalization,” a process in which the loudest and most stubborn in an institution are able to shift the status quo by intimidating those who want to take the path of least resistance into going along with their insane new normal. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” as the saying goes.
This might explain why some members of administration cave to the radicals, but is renormalization really adequate to explain the total purge of the universities? How does renormalization work on notoriously intransigent groups like Burkeian conservatives, philosophical Pragmatists, and even classical economists? And why, for the entire twentieth century, were so many intelligent members of the academy intellectually unable to contend with the philosophical equivalent of snake oil-peddling quacks? Shapiro isn’t necessarily wrong here, but he’s trying to use a single theory to explain too much.
The Authoritarian Moment is a good guide/reminder of some of the insanities of the last couple of years, like the cancellations of James Bennett, Gena Carano, Barry Weiss, and the Covington students. Shapiro endeavors to connect these by a common thread. But he avoids going into the weeds to refute some of the core ideas behind this ideology. Critical theory epistemology underlies their “ethical” argument for silencing dissenters while Karl Popper’s idiotic “Paradox of Tolerance” in various forms underlies their practical argument. At some point, conservatives might have to stop talking about how crazy the people who advocate these ideas are and actually refute the core ideas themselves.
Every book like this has some kind of call-to-action in the short last chapter, suggesting how we might fight back against the evil that constitutes 95% of the Book. “They can’t cancel us if we don’t let them” is a good rallying cry, but it brings up a difficult problem. Do we let them cancel neo-Nazis? Would we cancel an anti-Semitic “Black Hebrew Israelite”? Where do we draw the line? Should those who suggest Nazis shouldn’t be canceled be canceled themselves? Should those who suggest that those who suggest that those who suggest that Nazis shouldn’t be canceled shouldn’t be canceled shouldn’t be canceled be canceled?
In his commentary elsewhere about the whimsical mandates of government entities regarding Covid-19 masks and lockdowns, Shapiro often speaks of the need of a “limiting principle.” What is the limiting principle in regards to what speech should get someone canceled? Can we draw the line at advocating violence? If that were the case, we could cancel people for advocating war in the Near East, enforcement of drug or firearms law, or BLM riots. If the standard for cancellation is only societal norms, then anyone with minority views outside the overton window should be canceled. The canceled can only complain that society’s norms have changed while looking in from the outside.
Maybe he’s suggesting that we should cancel no-one, and be tolerant and friendly with those who have evil beliefs. But if that’s what Shapiro is advocating, then he needs to actually say it. If not, what consistent principle protects conservatives but cancels actual real-life white supremacists? It a question that needs to be reckoned with if there is to be a cohesive resistance against the authoritarian left, and Shapiro leaves this important one unanswered.
Defy social media’s authority with our email list!
Top Image: Children line up in front of a mural in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Thomas Evans