Free Speech Under Threat

1216coverBen Shapiro is a conservative political analyst and nationally syndicated columnist, who co-founded the media-watchdog-group TruthRevolt, and formerly served as editor-at-large of Breitbart News. Jlife had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Shapiro to talk about combating anti-Israel activism on college campuses and concerns about the criminalization of free speech.

I’d like to start at the very beginning if you don’t mind. Were you born an Orthodox Jew? If not, how did you come to embrace the denomination? I wasn’t. My parents became baal teshuva when I was about 11 years old. They were always committed to traditional Jewish thought, but didn’t know much about Orthodoxy until I was a kid; when I went to Jewish day school, we made the final move toward modern Orthodoxy.

How did you become involved in Israel advocacy? My first real move into Israel advocacy came when I went to UCLA. One of the first days on campus, I read the student newspaper, and there was an article comparing Ariel Sharon to Adolf Eichmann. I walked into the newspaper office and asked if I could write a rebuttal. I haven’t stopped fighting for honest reporting on Israel since.

During the time you spent at UCLA and Harvard, did you find the respective campus climates regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict to be particularly toxic? Was it more so at one campus than the other? It was much more toxic at UCLA than Harvard, although I was at the law school at Harvard, and so I didn’t have as much of an on-the-ground look at the undergraduate community. At UCLA, part of that [toxic climate] was due to the fact that a Peace Now activist – who reveled in lamenting Israel’s supposed evils alongside pro-Palestinian Arab groups including the radical Muslim Student Association – ran UCLA Hillel.

In 2013, you founded TruthRevolt. What was your vision for this media watchdog organization? Our goal was to achieve “mutually assured destruction” with the left. Groups like Media Matters have targeted conservatives for destruction over controversial comments; they’ve gone after advertisers and attempted to get conservatives kicked off the air. I don’t like that tactic, but the left will keep using it until the right holds them to the same standard. That’s what TruthRevolt was designed to do – and we succeeded while I was there, forcing Alec Baldwin and Martin Bashir off MSNBC, helping to get Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty reinstated, and so on.

You became an editor-at-large for the premier news and opinion website for the alt-right, Breitbart News, in 2012. Can you talk about what led to your resignation in 2016? I’ve spoken a fair bit about this, but essentially Breitbart’s move toward [Donald] Trump culminated in their decision to throw one of their own reporters, Michelle Fields, under the bus in order to remain in Trump’s good graces. Any media organization that sacrifices its own employees to please a politician isn’t a media organization; it’s a propaganda outlet.

There’s been a lot of political haymaking out of President-elect Donald Trump’s appointment of your former colleague at Breitbart, Steve Bannon, to be his administration’s Chief Strategist. Was there ever a moment, perhaps in private conversation, where you thought Bannon expressed opinions that could be considered anti-Semitic? No, I don’t think Bannon is an anti-Semite or a racist. I think he’s an aggressive self-promoter who’s willing to pander to the basest elements of the alt-right.

Bill Maher recently attributed a portion of the “finger-pointing” regarding the Democrats’ failure in this electoral cycle to their unwillingness to adequately address the American public’s fear of radical Islamism. Do you agree that this played a significant role? Yes. Overall, this entire election was a rejection of the left’s political correctness. This is why a lot of people turned out to vote for Trump. Everything from Hillary Clinton accusing everybody in America who is White of [having] an implicit bias, to the President of the United States refusing to say, “radical Islam.”

The Jewish Journal recently published a “letter of dissent” against the election of Donald Trump signed by 200 Jewish historians. Is this one of those “canary in the coalmine” moments, when people ought to wake up and take notice? I think that there are certain dangers in the Trump Presidency that haven’t existed for prior Republicans. Namely the cultural relationship with the alt-right, or at least the willingness to pander to the alt-right. But as far as these Jewish intellectuals signing a letter against Trump, I don’t remember them sending any letter to Obama, and he was the most anti-Israel President in the history of the United States. My guess is that these people are not just historians, they are probably also on the political-left. I didn’t vote for Trump or Hillary… Here’s the thing, I don’t know anything about the letter of dissent. If they wrote it because they claim that Trump puts the country on a trajectory that they don’t like, well, [for me] so does Hillary. So they have to explain what exactly they mean. Do they mean, “Trump is Hitler?” Do they mean he’s “Hitler-like?” What exactly do they mean? I think he’s a demagogue too. I’d have to read the letter to get more specific. At the very least, I think it’s deeply hypocritical for a lot of Jewish intellectuals, who were totally unconcerned about Barack Obama’s willingness to pander to left wing, anti-Israel groups like J Street.

Many conservative figures who stood up to President-elect Trump throughout the campaign have faced a hateful backlash of, what seems to be, unprecedented and historic measure from his supporters, many of whom, I can only assume are Breitbart loyalists. Have you ever felt your freedom of speech limited by a fear for the safety of yourself or loved ones? No, I think that it takes a lot to push me off my freedom of speech. Does it make life significantly less pleasant? Sure.

On that note, you were recently barred entry from DePaul University when you attempted to attend a seminar where you were initially billed to speak, is that correct? Several months back, another speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, who is sort of an alt-right popularizer, spoke there and a bunch of students stormed the stage and took it over. At the time, DePaul University’s security didn’t stop it and allowed it to just go ahead. Afterwards they declared that Yiannopoulos couldn’t come to campus and they added me to the list of banned speakers. They said the reason they were banning me was because there had been riots against me at Cal State Los Angeles and Penn State. They said that “because of safety concerns,” they couldn’t allow me on campus. The Young America’s Foundation chapter on campus invited me anyway. They wanted to have Christina Hoff Sommers, a Third-Wave Feminist Professor, introduce me. When the university found out that I was coming to speak at the lecture, and not just Sommers, they cancelled the entire event. They refused to allow me to come as a guest or even as a member of Sommers’ personal team. The university said if I showed up on campus I’d be arrested.

President-elect Trump has said that he wants to “open up the libel laws” in this country, presumably to allow for stricter censorship of the media. Additionally he has shown a willingness to “buck protocol” regarding press corps-access in the early stages of his transition. Are you at all concerned about freedom of the press under a Trump Administration? Yes, of course. It’s also worth nothing that I was concerned about freedom of speech under a potential Hillary Clinton Administration, who I think was interested in the broader leftist mission of criminalizing free speech. Obama has been, according to virtually all observers, the least accessible President to the press in modern history and I think Trump will continue that legacy.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Shapiro. No problem, be well.

Perry Fein is a writer and contributing editor for Jlife.

Born in 1984, in Burbank, California, Benjamin Shapiro was raised by two “Reagan Republicans.” As such, the kitchen table was often home to intelligent conversation about politics and philosophy. With parents that encouraged healthy political debate, Shapiro quickly developed into a thoughtful young man with a penchant for reasoned thinking.

At the age of 16, while most teens are bugging their parents for driving lessons, Shapiro actually started his college career at UCLA. Here he honed his political chops by repeatedly challenging liberal professors and faculty.  In fact, he was the only counter-protester at an Affirmative Action Rally that drew over 1,500 people on campus.

UCLA is also well known as a liberal campus, and as a staunch conservative, Shapiro took every opportunity to challenge the status quo. From addressing the conflict in the Middle East to exposing a supposed liberal bias of the professoriate on college campuses, Shapiro’s no-holds-barred approach always drew a hailstorm of attention. He graduated in 2004 with a B.A. in Political Science.

However, he was making waves on the political commentary landscape long before he even graduated. When he was 17, he was hired as the youngest nationally syndicated columnist in the U.S. His columns are printed nationwide in major newspapers and websites, including the Conservative Chronicle, WorldNetDaily.com, Townhall.com, Frontpagemag.com and the Riverside Press-Enterprise. His columns have also appeared in the Jewish World Review, the Orlando Sentinel, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, RealClearPolitics.com, and he has been quoted on the O’Reilly Factor, in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Press, and in The American Conservative magazine, to name just a few.

In 2001, after graduating cum laude from Harvard Law School, Shapiro briefly practiced law at the Los Angeles office of Goodwin Procter LLP but now does independent legal consulting for major media clients.

Shapiro is also a regular guest on dozens of radio shows around the United States and Canada. Shapiro’s dance card has remained full in this regard, appearing quite frequently on nightly news programs to comment on the “circus” of the U.S. political elections. He has authored six books, including the national bestseller, “How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them: 11 Rules for Winning the Argument, (2014).”

In 2008, Shapiro married Mor Toledano, an Israeli citizen of Jewish-Moroccan descent. He and his wife practice Orthodox Judaism, and together they have a daughter (born in 2014) and a son (born in 2016).

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