Ben Shapiro is the kind of person who talks about opening the door to civil, genuine conversation, then slams it on your foot and taunts you if you say “ouch.” He arrived last night at my campus, the University of Tennessee, as part of a well-funded, cross-country campus speaking tour that has included Berkeley, DePaul, University of Missouri, and the University of Utah. Many of the attendees here in Knoxville were not students but members of the community, the audience was overwhelmingly male, and the story this morning was a dearth of protesters, which had propelled him to the spotlight in Berkeley. Evidently, Knoxville’s home-grown good sense prevailed, and most decided not to give him any more attention. Shapiro claims he stands for free speech and, occasionally, for civility, though one has to dig through an enormous pile of insults to get to that tiny pearl. He’s attacked everything from Sesame Street to English majors, but his favorite targets are Black Lives Matter, everyone left of center, and that amorphous category, snowflakes.
His speaking tour is sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation, a big-budget conservative youth organization that uses its outside money to coordinate and pay speakers who come to campus, ostensibly at the invitation of their campus YAF chapters. The organization is more top-down than its preferred, heroic, resistance narrative of “small campus conservative group takes on the liberal goliath” and standing up against the “self-perpetuating aristocracy” that is the public university. The YAF holds over $71 million in assets. Thanks to a $10 million gift from the DeVos family, the national organization recently bought the Ronald Reagan ranch, and a 2016 $16 million bequest has turbo-charged their national speaker initiatives. The YAF is also closely affiliated with the State Policy Network, a web of conservative think tanks awash in Koch brothers money and the organizational power behind the ALEC initiatives to get ultra-conservative template legislation into state legislatures. Real outsiders. Alumni of the YAF include Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller and Ann Coulter, while current speakers range from the anti-Islamic Robert Spencer to the questionably credentialed Ted Nugent.
Shapiro’s alleged message is the vulnerability of free speech in higher education and the need for more conservative voices. As a former Breitbart editor-at-large, a radio talk show host, curator of his own right-wing opinion site The Daily Wire and a well-paid provocateur who tours and takes part in a set of slickly produced short videos on subjects like “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” “Why I left the left,” “Build the Wall,” and “The War on Boys” from “Prager University” he’s just not being heard. And in case you were wondering, Prager “University” is a tax-exempt digital media group that grants no degrees and was founded by his fellow conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager. The oppression of conservative voices is the bread and butter that justifies the pained cries of the YAF’s roster of aggrieved speakers, in spite of their demonstrable presence on all airwaves and even the YAF’s very own funded national journalism center, which was praised by Sean Hannity for raising up a new generation of conservative journalists in the mold of Shapiro.
Though Shapiro claims to be preaching the gospel of free speech, he spent all his time at Berkeley last month drawing a picture of a violent left, in turns jackbooted and incapacitated by perceived microaggressions, who are out to get him and repeal the first and second amendments. He then hurled a stream of insults at this political Picasso of a weak/militant socialist/fascist, anarchist/organized herd of terrifying snowflakes, then closed with a plea for civility. His wail was at once all over the place and consistently aimed at an amalgamated “left”: the left are morons, pieces of garbage, victims, communists, dolts, weaklings, pansies, snowflakes who can’t handle disagreement, campus thugs when they disagree with him, violent anarchists who should all be arrested if they even hinted at violence (in the name of American freedom), crippled by their own sense of victimhood, and the reason we are in this dark moment of division.
It’s exhausting to attempt to delineate this most paradoxical straw man, “the left” in general, but he grows quite sensitive when others assume he supports Trump, agrees with Milo, is friends with Coulter, or don’t realize that he’s attacked by white supremacist trolls for being Jewish. “The left” (an imaginary political slumber party that Antifa, feminists, labor unions, Hillary Clinton, Black Lives Matter, anarchists, and all queer and trans people have every weekend at George Soros’ house) just lumps him in with all the others. How unfair!
It’s also a little disappointing to discover that there is no “there” there to Shapiro’s rant. There’s no elaboration of his idea of “good ideology” or virtue, which he claims we need; there’s no example of a failure to disagree; there’s no example of what it would mean to “say no to campus thuggery” and “liberal tears” except his extended lament that the left is so, so mean, those “leftist crybabies;” and there is certainly no example of modeling the civility he claims we have lost. You can see for yourself if you are willing to wade through his recent address at Berkeley. And, even though he explicitly says that drinking the tears of liberals is “not enough,” the text of his speech on The Daily Wire is at that point punctuated for a pop-up ad from his company that promises subscribers a “free” tumbler that says, you guessed it, “Liberal Tears,” suitable for sipping through your next civil conversation.
His title for the talk at UTK was “The Facts Don’t Care About Your Feelings,” the same lecture he gave at Marquette and a leitmotif in many of his canned statements. But it is also a piece of advice he might do well to take. His own “facts” seem to have been overwhelmed by his angry, hurt affect, leaving him vulnerable to a more substantive inquiry. Let’s begin with his definition of fascism. He claims it is “the phenomenon whereby people believe that they have the capacity to ram their beliefs down your throat at the point of a gun or say the point of a baton or by throwing Molotov cocktails” and ultimately “more of a tactic than it is an ideology.” Every dictionary definition I can find emphasizes dictatorial leadership, the exaltation of nation and race, a centralized, autocratic government, and the forcible suppression of opposition. His invocation of “the left” as fascist is a bit upside-down, in that no matter how terrified you might be of the left, there is no way to argue that their hallmark is centralized organization, much less fervent nationalism or fealty to some strong man leader.
Shapiro also claims that “nobody rich is making you poor,” a tough one to substantiate in an age of global outsourcing, in which CEOs and CFOs earn multi-million dollar bonuses for returning “shareholder value” by cutting labor costs (aka good jobs). Shapiro also claims that the upper middle class grew, almost tripling in size from 1974 to 2014, which is a bit difficult to swallow when every credible income analysis shows income inequality steadily increasing in that same period. He declared confidently at Berkeley that he “would bet you money that the people in this room haven’t acted in a racist manner.” The crowd roared, but neither their self-congratulatory cheers or his bold declaration make it true. In a related claim, he says if you fail in this country, it’s probably your own fault, breezing past the fact that medical bills are the #1 cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. and that the practice of redlining as federal policy undermined the ability of black families to buy homes and transfer wealth to subsequent generations. Shapiro protests that he didn’t create or participate in Jim Crow so everything is fine now and anyone who doesn’t like the way the deck was shuffled is a loser. And by the way, we need more civility.
Here’s the rub: Shapiro, once in a while, says something reasonable. He says we are too divided as a country, that people should stand together against racism, even (and this one surprised me) that raising awareness about sexual harassment and assault might be helpful. But for every reasonable sound byte, there are ten insults, stereotypes, and unsubstantiated claims that undermine his pretensions to civility. He preys on the image of the taxingly politically correct young activist bent on offense, and most people have met one, but then uses that figure to denounce higher education, Sesame Street, a lost sense of national community, queer people, BLM, Harvey Weinstein, and anything else he can throw in the pot. It’s as though he used to work for Breitbart. Shapiro wants everyone else to take responsibility for themselves, as individuals, so he doesn’t have to feel bad when he’s reminded that some people don’t experience a level playing field or a world without prejudice. Shapiro thrives, like Milo, on stirring up protests with outrageous, dehumanizing claims about entire groups of people, then claiming he is the virtuous victim of some conspiracy to silence free speech. What a precious snowflake. Well, it turns out snowflakes don’t last too long in the south. Fare thee well, Ben Shapiro, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.