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Ben Shapiro on the need for conservatives to stake a claim to American culture

The Post Millennial's Libby Emmons talks to Ben Shapiro about how conservatives can stake a claim to American culture before it's too late.

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Libby Emmons Brooklyn NY
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The conservative culture movement is still in its infancy. For decades, conservatives have allowed the left to run American culture, preferring to relegate their claim to the realm of tax policy or governance. Conservatives have ceded the education of America's youth to the left, given up the arts to leftist propagandists, capitulated on mass media, entertainment, and nearly every other avenue of communication other than politics. This has created a culture bereft of any grounding in virtue or reason.

The American public has paid a high price for the refusal of conservatives to engage in culture, or to offer an alternative view to the relativist ideas that are on such righteous display all around us.

Is there a way for conservatives to stake any kind of a claim in culture? If so, that means that conservative culture is the counterculture to the mainstream one that pervades nearly everything.

But without a background in culture, where do conservatives begin these efforts to counter the narrative? Political discourse is important, but it is not where things begin. Ideas bubble up in the arts, and by the time they hit the surface, they are already entrenched in society.

Conservatives are starting to get it, but the question is if it's too late. Is there any way to get a foothold in culture, and if so, how? These are some of the questions The Post Millennial spoke to Daily Wire host Ben Shapiro about after he gave a talk at the Young America's Foundation conference in Houston, Texas, this week.

Shapiro has a new book out, The Authoritarian Moment: How the Left Weaponized America's Institutions Against Dissent, which details the failure of the conservative movement to engage the imaginations of those who think similarly, and the failure of conservatives to make a case to America's youth.

Libby Emmons: Your book is about how the left are the true authoritarians because they demand conformity. How were they so successful in framing conservatives as authoritarians instead?

Ben Shapiro: I think there's a long history of this. If you go all the way back to the '50s, there was this push by the left to suggest that anybody who was anti-Marxist was actually authoritarian. This goes all the way back to Theodor Adorno, claiming that the authoritarian mind was replete with capitalism and fascism. These were branches in the same ugly route. Then you saw more iterations of this in the 1980s.

Because of the law and order rhetoric of people like Ronald Reagan, the idea was that if you crack down on crime, that was another aspect of authoritarianism. A lot of religious conservatives want to legislate morality, and therefore, they're authoritarians because they want to crack down on everybody's private life. The most modern iteration of this, obviously, is the rhetoric of President Trump, which often was beyond the pale. And so this was used as the excuse to suggest that Republicans are the actual authoritarians.

As I point out in the book, if you were to ask most Americans what they are more fearful of: President Trump saying things, or the federal government, under the auspices of Joe Biden doing things that invade your personal freedom, or your corporation telling you what to think and believe, or your social media, betters telling you what you can and cannot say, or your media informing you that you are, in fact, outside the realm of polite discourse, or the scientific institutions weaponizing on behalf of the idea that their politics is indeed just the science— I think most Americans would come up pretty easily with the answer to this particular question.

Emmons: The 75 million voiceless Americans who voted for Donald Trump were used to seeing their views reflected at the highest level of government. Now they're views are reflected absolutely nowhere, not in government, not in media, not in any of our institutions or our organizations. What do you think the recourse is for these people who are looking to be heard, were used to being heard and now feel entirely disenfranchised?

Shapiro: I think there are a couple of things that I've seen people doing and I think are quite good. One is starting, obviously, rival organizations. And so the Daily Wire is a rival to the establishment media, for example. The other thing is, you're seeing people start to mobilize inside these institutions by combining with others and creating force multipliers.

Whether you're talking about parents showing up at Loudoun County School Board Meetings and protesting critical race theory, or whether you're talking about people inside corporations getting together and saying, "Listen, we don't feel like going to an Ibram X. Kendi indoctrination session about how whiteness is a threat to our way of life." More and more people are starting to realize that they have to organize. And I think that's a quite good thing.

Emmons: You mentioned in your talk the other day that conservative students should use some of the tools that the left has provided and created. Are there any tools that are more native to conservative culture that they can use?

Shapiro: I think competition is native to conservative culture. So the notion that there is currently tremendous market inefficiency, as a corporation is like one side of the political aisle completely. I think that is leaving openings. And I think conservatives are taking advantage of those openings. Daily Wire is one of the companies doing that.

If the left insists on turning your decision about razors into a political decision, there will be a right-wing razor company. If the left insists on making sports about politics, there will be other sporting companies that start providing alternatives that people will want to engage with.

And that's a good thing. I think that is more native to conservatism because that's more individualistic. It's more capitalism and free-market based.

The sort of collective action stuff, you're right. It sort of started on the left. I prefer that we didn't have to do any of that stuff. I think that it typically makes the country worse. But the problem is that the only thing worse than using mutually assured destruction to prevent nuclear attack is unilateral disarmament. And then so far, conservatives have tried unilateral disarmament hasn't worked out too well.

Emmons: It really hasn't worked out too well. Daily Wire is actually creating some new entertainment options. What is a conservative countercultural movement? What is it that Daily Wire is staking its claim on here?

Shapiro: One, there are certain narratives that Hollywood just will not talk about any more narrative image. For example: the cops are good. These have now been banned over the course of the last year, or narratives in which people can have a multiplicity of views despite their race, which apparently moved down as well in Hollywood. Telling stories that people want to see without regard to politics is something that apparently is now looked askance upon by Hollywood.

Children's programming is a rich area since the left has decided that it's time to tell your five-year-old about transgenderism on Nickelodeon. And so that's going to be a rich vein of mine for us. But frankly, I mean, five, six years ago, my business partner and I, we talked about, could there be a conservative move into the entertainment space?

And we thought not because the feeling was, you know, there are a lot of alternatives for entertainment. Conservatives tend to watch the same sort of stuff as everybody else. There really isn't a separate market here.

And then the left over the past few years, has decided to basically cast out anybody who reflects a perspective that it's not hard left work. And that's creating all sorts of opportunities for us, and we're excited to jump in.

Emmons: I come from the theater. I came up in the theater. I can't do theater anymore. There's just absolutely no space for me to create theater to make art in that realm. I was very excited personally, just to see this new opening. How are you accessing the talent, the disenfranchised leftist artists who have been primarily silent. Are you reaching out to those people? Do you want to reach out to those people?

Shapiro: How could they get in touch with me? They can certainly email me, we've gotten a lot of emails from a lot of people along those lines. And also people who have reached out through some of the major agencies, frankly, they're people who still want to get their work done. We have a production partner in Dallas, Sonya, who's constantly fielding material is building scripts and talking with directors and actors. And we're constantly on the prowl for new material. If we see something good, we'll jump at it. The good news is that Hollywood is canceling all sorts of really interesting stuff right now. So that makes it possible for us to grab it.

Emmons: Yeah, that's really exciting. What is it about the left that is so attractive to young people? I asked this question of Governor Walker yesterday, here in Houston. And he was suggesting that it's not that leftist ideology is particularly attractive as that there are no other options available.

Shapiro: I think that there is something to the leftist utopianism that is very attractive. If you're living in a world where everybody is basically atomized, where religious conviction has been basically thrown out, where there is a utopian streak that is not solved by the presence of God in your life, and where you've been robbed of a collective purpose, leftism does provide a collective purpose. It is, in essence, collectivism. It's a feeling like you're making a difference in the world and that is a really attractive thing for young people.

The right typically says that the way you make a difference in the world is on an individual level, right? You build a family. You join a religious community. For young people who say, "I want to change the world, but I don't really want to change myself," leftism is a very attractive thing. It says, "The fate of the world rests on your shoulders, but it doesn't actually require you to do anything except yell about it." And that's a really nice deal, right? You get the yellow light, how the world needs to change to reflect your viewpoint. You get to go to rallies, and feel very righteous about yourself by calling on others to do something, but you never actually have to change your own behavior in a serious way because you're one of the good people.

Emmons: You mention religion. You mention God. The left has been consistently pushing for the removal of religion from public life, insisting that the reasons for that is that the outcomes would be better. What do you think of these outcomes-based approaches that don't actually look at the process that's being used to attain an outcome?

Shapiro: I think that basically the pitch to the people was: religion is judgmental, God is judgmental, your community is judgmental. If you want to do whatever you want to do and feel righteous while doing it, then the best possible way to do that is to discard religion.

And that's been true for all of human history. There's nothing new there. The pitch became a lot more, I would say, coherent, with the rise of the birth control pill in the 1960s, which obviously made a huge difference in disconnecting the chief driving force behind a lot of that, and the natural consequences, which used to be having babies. Once you disconnect that sort of stuff, then it becomes a lot easier to say, "Okay, well, we just got rid of all the sexual judgmentalism, then utopia would be upon us."

People would say that sort of stuff in the '20s. And then it would be like, "Well, yeah, except that everybody still has a baby." When disconnect those two functions, then you do end up with this idea that pure identity can be found in your sexual identity, that the thing that matters most is how you express yourself in terms of that.

I think that what has been shown over the past several generations is that really is empty, that the pitch, which was sexual freedom as a mode of identity, and chief mode of meaning really leaves people lacking. But that was the theory. And it couldn't have actually been tried before the birth control pill.

Now to be it's actually tried, it's been found wanting. But nobody can say it's been found wanting, because that would imply that all those terrible, horrible religious bigots from the 1950s and '60s, who said you ought to get married and settle down and have a family, as opposed to just playing around until you're 40—like the characters on Friends—that those people might have been right. The last thing anybody wants to say is that their parents or grandparents might have been correct.

Emmons: It's interesting what you say about religion. During this pandemic year, my son and I read the Bible together, and in the Old Testament, over and over again, it says "The Israelites turned away from God." And finally, my son was just like, "That never works out well for the Israelites, they should stop doing that."

Shapiro: One of the verses that always comes to mind with America is a verse from Deuteronomy, where Moses says the idea is that God gives you everything, that we live in this prosperous time and most free country in the history of the world. Then people forget that the way that we got here is by paying attention to these values, and then we discard those values and the natural consequence is that bad stuff follows.

Emmons: So do you think we have a shot at turning this thing around? Is there hope?

Shapiro: I think the left believes that they have reached a kind of utopian endpoint now, and they can ram through whatever they want. I think that they're about to find out the very hard way in 2022 and 2024 that politically, that's not the case.

It's either going to crystallize, it's going to come back together, or it's going to fall apart within the next five or ten years. Increasingly, it seems like falling apart looks mostly like states just kind of doing what they want to do. It doesn't look like full scale Civil War, it mostly just looks like Florida, and Texas, and Alabama, and Tennessee, and Missouri, basically saying to the federal government: "Listen, you do what you're gonna do, and we're gonna do what we're gonna do and, leave us alone."

And you're starting to see this happen with a population movement right there. This is a giant, big sort going on right now between red and blue states, red and purple states. The purple states are making tentative moves in one direction, and then suddenly, there'll be a flood that just takes that state directly out of the purple column, and heavily in the one column or the other.

This is in Ohio. You're seeing this in Florida. I think you've seen it in places like Indiana, all the states used to be purple. Now they are considered pretty solidly red.

And you're seeing it in the other direction with regard to states like Colorado and Virginia, which used to be considered purple and are pretty solidly blue. You hit sort of these tipping points. And people get the feeling once the momentum is moving in one way or another. And then everybody who's on the wrong side of momentum just clears out and goes somewhere else. That has some pretty interesting consequences.

Emmons: Yeah, I have to get out of New York. Personally, I live in Brooklyn, New York, and it's over.

Shapiro: You need to get out. It's terrible. And yes, and I know tons and tons of people are doing that and they're all moving down to Florida because Florida has a culture that is very akin to New York. There are a lot of New Yorkers down here, but also it is a lot more free. And Florida is increasingly red. It's a demonstration that the "big sort" is going to continue. I don't think the "big sort" is going too slow anytime soon.

Emmons: Have you encountered a lot of conservative students who are interested in making art?

Shapiro: The first thing that needs to happen is you actually need to do what the left did a long time ago, which means all the donors have to start realizing that it's not as important to donate to think tank white papers on politics as it is to donate to make theatre and art.

That stuff is hard for conservatives to wrap their heads around because conservatives for so long have abandoned the culture. But it is reality. The reality is that a huge percentage of the culture that people interact with, particularly nationally outside the movie and TV business, is because there's a major local donor in an area who gives a million bucks to a 501(c)(3) theatre group, that bankrolls three or four different theater productions for the year. If they're on the left, and all three of those three to four of those theater productions are pushing hard leftism.

Emmons: Yeah, that's exactly right. I mean, when Tony Kushner came out of NYU, pushed fully to Broadway, and to Hollywood. He was just fully backed at every instance.

Shapiro: That's right. It all starts with the 501(c)(3)s. The reason those people become "prominent" in the arts is that they're suddenly getting shot at big production jobs. We don't have a pipeline like that at all in the conservative movement.

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