« Great Minds Think Alike, or one does anyway. | Main | Spinoza and Scripture »

Should I take Dennis Prager seriously?

OK, first of all, Your Humble Blogger really should have better things to do than read bizarre columns by radio talk-show hosts. As it happens, Dennis Prager is on the list of right-leaning columns I have Eleana Benador send to me so that I can keep up with the Richard Perles and the Frank Gaffneys of the world. I expected them to provide blog-fodder, and to some extent they have, but in addition, it's a frequent reminder that there do in fact exist powerful people who disagree with me, not just on emphasis and implementation issues, but on basic and fundamental aspects of our country. It's good to keep an eye on them.

But Dennis Prager appears to be living in some sort of world I don't see or understand (insert El Lay jokes here, if you must). A few days ago, in "The legal system is now our enemy", he said "Everything related to law has been corrupted," and said that "a trial lawyer [Senator John Edwards] is seeking the Democratic Party's nomination for president ... And if [the thought of him winning] doesn't frighten enough Americans, we will cease being a free country." Now when I was 20, I said that if Poppy Bush were elected in 1988, we might not have elections in 1992. Fine, I was 20, and it was in private conversation, and furthermore I deny ever having said it. But Dennis Prager is "one of America's most respected thinkers," according to his website. Are we supposed to seriously believe that if John Edwards is elected, America will be enslaved? By whom? How? Or is he just kidding?

Of course, a couple of weeks ago, he wrote that "if you want to acquire wisdom or to become a mature adult, the university is usually an impediment." Shortly after that he wrote, "The objectification of the female body that is natural to the heterosexual male (as is the objectification of the male body to the homosexual male) is so devoid of emotional or intellectual meaning as to be unfathomable to women." And I can't even face pulling the quotes where he shows not only that he thinks entirely in moral black-and-white, but thinks that it is important to think in moral black-and-white, and that any doubt or humility whatsoever is the step off the cliff of righteousness into the abyss of immorality.

I know he is not the only one who writes like this; I know he is probably not the worst. My question, and I seriously don't know the answer, is who finds this sort of crap persuasive? Don't tell me morons; there aren't that many people in the world who are actually incapable of understanding that this is crap, due to some sort of physical or chemical handicap, and I suspect few of those are capable of reading (or listening to) and being persuaded by this crap. If there are people persuaded by it (and I can't help thinking that in fact he is just a clown, and it's like listening to the Car Talk Boys, lots of people do it, but hardly anybody takes their advice), I want to know why. Is the universe they perceive that different from mine, and if so, why is that? Are the basic assumptions I think we share not actually shared? What's going on?

Redintegro Iraq,


I don't know anything about Dennis Praeger. That said, I have also to say that the selection of statements of his that V. has provided do not lead me to infer that his statements are not to be taken as representative of his worldview, but as rhetoric designed to stir the fervor of the working-class whites, especially men, which is the group upon whom the Republican party's electoral advantage depends.

The grounds for this inference:
1) The attack on Edwards. Maybe he's been pounding Kerry and Dean in other posts, but almost all the Republican attack-work I've seen has been directed at the charismatic Southerner in the race. Who would have thought the Republicans would view him as more of a threat than a Northeastern liberal?? So I view this as an attack on Edwards, framed as a disgust with the legal system. The sweet efficiency of this attack is that it also helps to foster the view that the courts are the prisoners of a despotic Left, rallying the troops around the President's efforts to make them the prisoners of the despotic Right. This is well-honed attack politics; I have a hard time seeing that we should assume Praeger believes any of it very deeply. if he does believe it, someone else who doesn't is feeding the ideas to him, because they aren't original at all. He speaks with the voice of the Ruling Right.

2) The attack on university education and complex moral stances. This is where I see him catering to the working-class audience, because this stance fits more closely with the values of those who haven't been to college, esp. not to an elite college, where appreciation for moral complexity is probably the most basic precept of instruction in the humanities and the social sciences. Those who haven't been to college don't adopt this view and tend, therefore, to have a more rigid, deeply felt moral stance. Praeger is re-affirming that these sorts of beliefs are right, that people who don't share these beliefs, who've been to college and claim to have a more knowledgeable view of the world, are not to be trusted, and that if you doubt that they are not to be trusted, such doubt is the first step toward moral collapse. Again, this is very effectively crafted moral rhetoric designed to reinforce working-class listeners' suspicions of any policy emanating from the educated, liberal Left. It's effective because those who share its premises are not well positioned to see its limitations and its cynicism. I say this not to denigrate the _judgment_ of working class Americans. I tend to think that the educated go too far, and in quite self-serving ways, with moral relativism. But the _knowledge base_ of Praeger's appreciative audience is limited, and, rather than educating his audience so that they can extend their judgment wisely to matters of national policy, he plays upon their limits to confirm their prejudices.

I take what he says very seriously, not because I think he is serious, but because I think what he's doing expresses clearly the elite Right's strategy for keeping the support of a class that it is robbing, and that strategy has been working pretty well.

To combat it, the Left needs a bit more genuine moral fibre and lot more plain-spoken honesty.

Done in by double negatives -- the first paragraph in the post above is awful. It should say that I don't think he believes what he's saying, but I take it seriously because it is an effective, if breathtakingly cynical, moral strategy for securing the allegiance of working-class Americans.

Sorry for any confusion!

I guess where I get appalled is that I can't imagine anyone with decent judgment, no matter how limited their knowledge base, taking this guy seriously. His written stuff, anyway, is on the face of it absurd, and more than that is repellent and risible.

On the other hand, perhaps I, also, have too great an appreciation for complexity. My immediate reaction to anybody saying "It's simple!" is to laugh in his face (or her face). Nothing is simple, everything is complicated.

How to live in the face of a complicated universe is the key. I suppose that one way is to become morally paralysed by the complexity, which some but by no means all intellectuals do, and that is certainly bad. A different way is to deny that it is complicated, and perhaps that's what people find persuasive (or reassuring) about Preger's stuff. A third way, the best way in my opinion, is to look at all the patterns and stories and rituals and institutions we use to navigate our way through the complexity, and choose the ones which serve us best.

That seems obvious to me. Is that what we need to start with?

Redintegro Iraq,

"who finds this sort of crap persuasive?"

I don't know about persuasive, but I've heard similar opinions expressed by many of my relatives (both by genes and by marriage). I think it's not that they find Prager-types persuasive, but they find it reassuring to have someone out there who is ... louder than they are, thus speaking their views for them, and more frequently and sometimes articulately than they can. The clarity, or perhaps oversimplification, of "I'm right/you're wrong" seems to attract them, either from basic religious-training bias (not towards those thoughts but towards that binary thinking).

I'm not comforted by this, mind you.

V -- in terms of the relationship between knowledge and judgment, consider people's attitudes towards art, especially modern art. How many people, when exposed to it, react by saying, essentially, "that's crap!" If no one has taught them how to see what the art is doing, they can't see it. If no one has taught them how to interpret it, they can't make any sense of it. For people who have not received a good education and who are not brilliant, the larger world looks a lot like modern art, and people who pontificate about how complex and meaningful it is may be a) fools, b) liars, or see c) much more knowledgeable. Since assenting to c) requires accepting one's own ignorance, it takes some courage and wisdom to do so.

Consider further that many peopole have been taught that the right thing to do is what your parents, your Church, and the Bible tells you, and that any other thing is of the Devil, and their having the judgment ot entertain option C is even more remote.

Then you have unprincipled folks like Praeger who pander to these attitudes, telling them that of course modern art is crap and anyone who thinks otherwise has lost their common sense, and it's pretty likely that a lot of folks who don't understand modern art will take satisfaction from his proclamations.

Hmmm. Fair enough; the modern art analogy hadn't come to my mind before. I suppose the first step, then, really is to convince people that the world is, in fact, complex.

Now we just need a bumper-sticker slogan to persuade to people how complicated the world is. How about "Unbelievably complicated shit happens!" or "It ain't that simple, stupid!" or "stable self-contained systems of reasoning cannot be perfect!"

Or "Remember, thou art mortal!" or "A man who has humility will have acquired in the last reaches of his beliefs the saving doubt of his own certainty!" or "When the fight begins within himself, a man's worth something!"

I suppose they won't work.

Redintegro Iraq,

Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.