Dickens Responds to Ben Shapiro

Shapiro Owned.

Ben Shapiro’s incantation — Facts don’t care about your feelings — is used to summon the specter of enlightenment empiricism against primordial emotional goo, and it should probably remind anyone reasonably educated of that famous fact fetishist Thomas Gradgrind.

Dickens opens Hard Times (1854) with Gradgrind’s most famous lines: “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.” Gradgrind proceeds to require his students to only describe a horse by its facts, which, to a 19th century Brit well-acquainted with horses, would have demonstrated how far a “nothing but Facts” description of a horse is from a real horse. Gradgrind is also the subject of one of Dicken’s most dramatic character arcs, transforming from Victorian Darth Vader into something almost human when he realizes that humanity cannot be contained in facts. His young daughter, Louisa, teaches him that lesson.[1]

Shapiro taking his facts for a walk.

Facts as Fetish

This Gradgrindian “nothing but Facts” limped through the bitterness of industrial mechanization, across the killing fields of World Wars, straight into the 1950s and transformed into an attempted actuation of Victorian fetishes — a combination of baseball and progressive pseudo-fixes to Victorian capitalism, which enabled a moral veneer to shine the previously muck-raked turpitude of multi-national corporations.[2] And thus the myth of progress would rise from the corpses of boys in watery trenches to flourish in antiseptic corporate offices and reclined psychologists’ chairs.

The Victorians believed that taxonomic control would lead to total control of nature (now that God was dead) and that comprehensive understanding of past and present would lead to control of the future. Assorted frauds — Freud, Jung, Marx, Dewey — are the spawns of such thinking. The fuel on the social fire was the Victorian fetish of the individual, which singed the ties that bound, and the Victorians attempted a replacement with synthetic bonds (baseball — and spectator sports in general — for example, or Marxism’s “workers of the world”).

The Gradgrindians took to their padded office chairs in the 1950s armed with their horse facts and called themselves engineers. The most famous engineer — of the management sort — was Robert McNamara, whose fact-alchemy transmuted the unhorse into the Edsel and the Vietnam war. Factually, the Edsel and Vietnam were wildly successful plans. As was World War I.

The most substantive maneuver of the 1950s was the mass delusion regarding the control and manipulation of nature, which reached its apogee in the supposed understanding and control of the deepest recesses of the mind. Lithium, chlorpromazine (thorazine), Miltown (meprobamate), the usual array of amphetamines, and many other potent drugs flooded Western brains in the 1950s on the premise that ills of all and any sort could be cured with a sufficient application of facts. In 1956, Aldous Huxley predicted that an adequate application of facts to chemicals would result in drugs “capable of changing the quality of human consciousness.” And so, confident that, once gakked up on drug cocktails, the mentally ill could live in society, we then released them into the wilds and closed the sanatoriums. And that’s how we got homelessness and serial killers (also known as “the 1970s”).

The cultural themes of the 1960s and 1970s — dystopian urban decay, existential crisis, crumbling families, vices of all sorts — were sometimes mistaken for normal and not the result of the swarms of Gradgrinds synthesizing hell on earth from their facts. Cynicism etched in nihilism became the du jour couture. MASH (the 1968 novel and 1970 movie) specialized in the blood-drenched cynicism and vice-soaked nihilism of the era — laughing and profiting from the malaise while offering no solution. And MASH’s famous theme song (that you probably could hum), is “Suicide is Painless.” It hit #1 in the U.K. Predictably, the decade that began with “Suicide is Painless” ended with 1978’s Pretty Baby, which included full frontal nudity of Brooke Shields. She was 12.[3] The husk of the mysteries of humanness was abandoned at the edge of teen culture, relegated to disposable yet profitable idiocies.

The recoil of the 1980s was channeled through teen comedy, rom-coms, synth-pop, and Ronald Reagan. Eventually the esteemed Gradgrinds discovered drug interaction so the freely flowing potent cocktails were somewhat tamed, amphetamines were repacked as ADD drugs, and Congress passed the 1994 crime bill. Improved forensics in the 1980s and DNA analysis in the 1990s resulted in apprehending serial killers before they killed too many people. Irony tinged the cynicism of the 1970s as the new couture du jour, and the cognitive delusions of the 1950s culminated with Nirvana’s 1991 “Lithium.”

Louisas for Naught

The rise of the Gradgrinds would be just another wayward Icarian tangent in human history if it weren’t accompanied by fall of the Louisas. The institutions that housed and navigated the mysteries of life — why a horse in fact is not a horse in full — were suffocated under the jackboot of data and theory and held hostage to the demands of progress. The church recoiled, the humanities surrendered, virtue atrophied from decades of unuse. The fetish of data fed the addiction of universities to transform into “research universities” — for all meaning now lay in the data mined from research and certainly not in character or virtue, as it did in previous centuries. Doing the right thing lost to efficient capital allocation and shareholder returns and the presentations of consultants who descended like locusts onto defenseless managers whose humanity was quarantined to a Sunday afternoon with their children.

Thus is the history of the Victorian hubris that facts are the primary substance of reality. Gradgrinds pontificate on Youtube, Louisa is relegated to the emotional instability of pop music, and somehow the West managed to survive what appears to have been a suicide attempt, which most children of the 70s will affirm was not painless. Solutions seem distant as we muddle through the seemingly irreconcilable differences between Enlightenment facts and human mysteries.

Of course, Ben Shapiro objects. He’s opposed to making ‘logical’ arguments with emotions, which is particularly objectionable when they contradict facts. We’re all post-Enlightenment empiricists, aren’t we? To use false facts to buttress emotive arguments is to lie. But to weigh authentic facts above authentic feelings is to elevate a tiny portion of reality to a position of supremacy. This rhetorical maneuver usually serves to support otherwise weak arguments.

For Ben Shapiro to require the supremacy of facts is to concede that one’s argument may be deficient elsewhere. But it gets worse for Ben.

“Facts don’t care about your feelings” is, of course, Enlightenment hubris, the incantation of a scientific-method fetishist. The cornerstone of the Enlightenment and the scientific method is an empathetic and reasonably objective interest in other — other people, other objects, data apart from idiosyncratic instances or personal foibles. One might be lured to add something about the scientific method involving the cold eye of reason observing the world as it is, except that no one who commits so much effort to learning about the other is coldly detached; rather, such an observer is objectively empathetic. Such are acts of true interest, not disinterest.

And if we follow objective empathy back before the Enlightenment, we discover the Christian concept of love. This is not the goo of Hallmark cards or romantic love (though the West invented that, too), but rather love that is an empathetic interest in and concern for the other (for Christians, this is God’s love).[4] This recognition of other (which is not self or extension of self) is what enables and elevates the objectivity and selfless concern that generates the facts that warms Ben Shapiro’s cockles. Facts are the observable detritus produced by empathetic interest in and concern for the other, but they are not the horse.

And so we find that there is no great divide between “facts” and “feelings,” and, in selfless concern for other, we find no great hierarchy of importance, no taxonomy of descriptors that contains the whole. This Christian formulation begins even earlier with the Greeks. If you tried to translate phrēn from the original Illiad, you’d find it means a part of the body: the midsection, or stomach, or gut. You’d also find that, depending on the context, it is the locus of feeling and thought. The Greek’s did not use the dichotomy of feeling/heart and thinking/head. Such dichotomies are Enlightenment inventions, hardened by the Victorians, and sold in intellectual candy stores today. We live in a world of pop-candy binarisms.

But if we search beyond the menacing naivete of binary thinking, we find that humans cannot be contained in facts. Civilization cannot be contained in facts. Culture cannot be contained in facts. The Greeks knew this; they even had a word for it. For them, thinking and feeling had the same source, and if one wanted a single definition for phrēn, it’s “the human spirit.”

The achievement of the Enlightenment (if there is one) is not the ability to factually describe a horse that no horseman would recognize but rather humanity’s courage to go to war for “the pursuit of happiness.” Do facts care about happiness? Was the United States founded on feelings? Does Ben Shapiro want a refund on the Revolution?

The suicidal malaise and cultural decay of the 1960s and 1970s didn’t materialize out of some deterministic ether; the decline was the result of a million decisions by engineers and managers and accountants and doctors — Gradgrinds all — determined to make a horse by the facts while ignoring the horse in full. Data-based decisions pumped brains with drugs, closed mid-western factories, and jettisoned the sextant used to navigate life’s mysteries.[5] And finally we end with cancel culture, the Victorian rage machine that labels and defines with taxonomic pseudo-precision while ignoring — or even rejoicing — at the Louisas trampled under hoof.

“Facts don’t care about your feelings” is a philosophy that shrinks the world until it fits into your hand. As Shakespeare wrote, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Ben Shapiro, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”[6] Maybe Ben Shapiro will find a Louisa to teach him of the more things.

[1] Gradgrind has two younger sons named Adam Smith and Malthus (after Thomas Malthus). Gradgrind’s pedagogical approach was to treat children as machines, which is Dickens rather directly mocking utilitarian nabob J.S. Mill, who sought to raise his own children as machines. Mill was the godfather of Bertrand Russell, which is handy if you’re constructing a genealogy of imbeciles.

[2] Many saw and were alarmed by this trend, notably Franco.

[3] One of Harvey Weinstein’s defenses for his rapey ways was something to the effect of “I grew up in the 70s and things were different.” Seems like a poor defense even though it’s true. Jimmy Page openly paraded around his 14-year-old American girlfriend (who, at that time, he’d been dating for a year.) (Re Pretty Baby, see https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078111/parentalguide?ref_=tt_stry_pg)

[4] Probably the best entry point to love as selfless concern is Oxford Fellow Wright. (https://www.wycliffe.ox.ac.uk/ntwright).

[5] Cultural pugilist Camille Paglia is fond of pointing out that some critical mass of great minds were destroyed by drugs in the 1960s and 70s.

[6] Hamlet (1.5.167–8). Shakespeare’s theme — there really only is one — is the navigation of the choppy waters between the medieval and the modern.



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