June 20, 2012
Dennis Prager: Man of hard truths
A review of 'Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph'
As I was reading Dennis Prager’s new book, “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph,” I found myself increasingly frustrated. The words themselves didn’t bother me; rather, it was that silly contraption I was holding in my hands, what’s known as a Kindle.
I was getting a digital drip-by-drip of big and important ideas on a small and puny screen. Not the best way to encounter big ideas.
For serious reading, I need to have a nice big book in my hands, so I can feel the weight and breadth of the book’s message and can easily go back and forth between ideas and chapters.
Prager’s new book, which, thankfully, I did end up holding in my hands, is definitely serious reading. He makes this clear from the start: “I have written this book because I am convinced that there is a way to end most evil. And ending evil is the most important task humans can ever undertake.”
The headiness of the opening gives the book its edge. Everything that follows is connected to “the most important task humans can ever undertake.”
It’s also what makes the book both enlightening and depressing. Enlightening because important ideas are laid out clearly and thoughtfully, depressing because it’s far from clear that the goal of the book can be met.
At the book’s core is an ideological battle among three value systems: Leftism, Islamism and Americanism. As he hammers away to build his case, Prager is careful to include necessary caveats, such as the difficulty in identifying Leftists:
“Unlike those who hold Christian beliefs and call themselves Christians, or those who hold Muslim beliefs and call themselves Muslim, many people who hold Leftist values do not call themselves Leftist, and do not think of themselves as such.”
He also cites the difficulty in identifying Leftism itself: “Unlike traditional religions, Leftism has no official screed or scripture.”
Before taking on Islamism, he devotes a chapter to the issue of “evaluating religions,” where he bemoans the current obsession with protecting Islam from criticism: “At the present time in the Western world, people are free to morally assess and critique any ideology, and to morally assess, critique, or even mock any denomination of Christianity. But any moral assessment of Islam that is not entirely positive is unacceptable.”
The book is full of such preambles and qualifiers, as if Prager were setting the table before serving up his red meat. Indeed, once he gets preliminaries out of the way, he rarely holds back.
When taking on Leftism, the most potent (and depressing) section is when he makes a compelling case that the visions of the Left and Right are irreconcilable. For those who like to believe that “we all want pretty much the same thing, it’s just a question of how best to get there,” it’s not a happy read.
Here are a few examples, among many:
“The Left wants America to look as much like Western European countries as possible. The Left wants Europe’s quasi pacifism, cradle-to-grave social democracy, socioeconomic egalitarianism, and secularism in America. The Right shares none of those goals.”
“The Left wants America not only to have a secular government, but to be a secular society as well.”
“The Left wants Americans to identify as citizens of the world; it fears nationalism, especially of the American variety.”
“The Left therefore regards the notion of American exceptionalism as an expression of chauvinism and conceit.”
“The Left envisions an egalitarian society… [and] values equality of economic status above all other societal values — most important, above liberty.”
“The Left wants, as Barack Obama repeatedly stated when running for president, to ‘fundamentally transform’ America. Conservatives want America improved, not fundamentally transformed.”
That is why, Prager concludes, “[C]alls for a unity among Americans that transcends Left and Right are either naïve or disingenuous.”
This is sobering stuff. Being a Jewish immigrant from Morocco who idolized the singular and glorious idea of “America,” I find it painful to hear that there are such sharply competing visions for one great country.
Of course, it’s not as if we don’t see these competing visions through the ideological echo chambers of the media and the nasty partisan attacks in Washington. It’s just that Prager seems to take them more seriously — and explain them more thoroughly. Evidently, they represent a lot more than the normal divisions of a noisy democracy.
Prager is telling us that in these two irreconcilable visions of America, the very identity of an exceptional democracy is at stake — and, ultimately, its ability to end most of the evil in the world.
To his credit, Prager does not shy away from telling us hard truths, because it is a hard truth to claim that these two visions for America are irreconcilable. But he’s not out to make us feel good — the stakes are too high.
He’s relentless in how he documents and dissects what he sees as the abject failures of the Left, while also castigating its successful demonizing of the Right. If a conservative group ever wanted to give a seminar on “How the Left Is Diminishing America,” this book would suffice as the curriculum.
His candor is also in plain view when he takes on Islamism. First, he explains what he means by Islamist: “… holding the belief that not only should all mankind be converted to Islam — something a non-Islamist Muslim can wish for — but that all Muslim societies (and eventually the world) be governed by the Sharia.”
Prager’s major beef is violence in the name of Islam: “At the core of Islam’s acceptance and prescription of religious violence is jihad.” To define jihad, he quotes the “pre-eminent historian of Islam,” Princeton University professor Bernard Lewis: “In the large majority of cases in the Koran and the later hadith (actions or statements attributed to Muhammad’s doing or approving) jihad refers to holy war.”
He also quotes “the most respected Muslim writer who ever lived,” Ibn Khaldun: “In the Muslim community, the holy war is religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation) to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.”
The only hope, Prager says, is for Islam to evolve into a non-theocratic religion, which would essentially entail “individualizing” Islam — living an observant, even Sharia-based life — without seeking to establish an Islamic state that would impose Sharia law on anyone. He says there are some moderate Muslim voices today advocating that ideal, but they’re being drowned out by the more traditional voices.
In any event, by the time Prager is done documenting the sorry record of societies dominated by Sharia law, it’s not a pretty sight.
In some ways, the section on Islamism is like a turkey shoot: It’s hard to imagine even the most politically correct Leftist wanting to live under Sharia law. But even there, he blames Leftism for the suffocating phenomenon of Islamaphobia, which he calls “one of the most intimidating of all the politically correct epithets developed in the past generation.” The term Islamaphobic, he writes, “has one purpose — to suppress any criticism, no matter how responsible, of Islam.”
As dark and somber as he can be when he takes on Islamism or Leftism, Prager is equally upbeat and passionate when he champions humanity’s “best hope,” what he calls the American Trinity.
This trinity represents the three primary values of America, which are inscribed on our coins: “Liberty,” “In God We Trust,” and “E Pluribus Unum.”
“No other society or nation has identified those three values as its core values,” he writes, arguing that they constitute the “best system ever devised to govern a society.”
He speaks of Liberty (the “essence of the American idea”) as rooted in the individual and not the government, listing one of the freedoms as “Freedom from the state — the ability of individuals to be as free as practically possible from governmental interference in their lives.”
Prager has a gift for summarizing his arguments in pithy and logical ways, as when he speaks of the role of government: “The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen; and the smaller the government, the more the individual is needed.”
He acknowledges that “there are times when people simply cannot take care of themselves and must rely on others … [a]nd the rest of us are morally obligated to support them.”
That said, he argues that the more people rely on government, the more they develop a sense of entitlement; and the more one feels entitled, “the less one believes they have to work for anything.”
In classic fashion, he adds a moral note: Feeling entitled diminishes one’s sense of gratitude, which he says is “of supreme importance because gratitude is the most important human quality.”
The section on “In God We Trust” is probably the most controversial in the book because so many of us assume that “separation of church and state” means that God and religion should play no role in the public sphere. But Prager argues that God is the true source of liberty and morality and that America was founded to be a God-based country, albeit with a nonsectarian government.
Like everywhere else in the book, Prager brings out opposing arguments and addresses each one. He has his work cut out for him in this section. As he says: “It is difficult to overstate the depth of the differences between the Judeo-Christian view of the world and that of its opponents on the Left.” The section on God is perhaps the most fascinating in the book, the one where Prager is at his most passionate.
By the time he gets to the third value of the Trinity — “E Pluribus Unum” (“From Many, One”) — Prager’s patriotic genes are in full bloom. He reminds us that in virtually every society in history, the national or group identity was correlated with its ethnic or racial identity, but that in the American model, “There is no racial or ethnic component to being American … the individual matters most … the only group that matters is the American.”
Today, however, Prager laments that “[i]t is the Left that seeks to supplant E Pluribus Unum with multiculturalism, which is preoccupied with race, ethnicity and national origins and opposes the notion of one American identity.”
Here, I think Prager may be underestimating the emotional hold of the historic fight for human rights — black rights, women’s rights, gay rights, handicapped rights, etc. — that still resonates in the Left’s attachment to other rights, like that of ethnic groups to express their identities. One can disagree with the present-day incarnation of that social impulse, but it’s important to validate its authentic roots.
So, the question today is: “From Many, yes, but One what?”
If you ask Prager, the answer is clearly “one American” who subscribes to the value system he articulates so thoroughly in his book. It doesn’t matter to Prager if the cultural or demographic trends may be going against him; it only adds to his sense of urgency about “the most important task humans can ever undertake.”
It’s telling that in articulating his message, and in his writing in general, Prager shows no signs of the trendy style favored by many writers today: no sarcasm or snark. This probably won’t endear him to the Jon Stewart/Bill Maher crowd, but it reinforces his sincerity. His tone is as earnest as his message.
It’s that same earnestness that makes him articulate so well the many obstacles that stand in the way of the “triumph” of the American Trinity. He may see his book as a boost to his cherished goal, but it’s in equal part a reminder of how far he is from reaching it.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the notion that there’s no common ground between the visions of the Left and the Right. That may well be true, but it’s also in some ways a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reality is that if Prager wants to improve the chances that his side will “triumph,” he needs to entice more people to his side, especially wavering “Leftists.”
There are a whole bunch of undecided and non-ideological Americans out there who, rightfully or not, are turned off by divisive labels and talk of “irreconcilable visions.” That group needs to be handled delicately. In the great ideological battle for the future of America, they may well represent the margin of victory.
Maybe what we need now is an equally earnest and passionate response from the Left that might begin a debate on this very subject of common ground.
As a starting point, I’m sure that many smart and articulate people on the Left will take issue with Prager taking ownership of the label “American” to describe his value system.
To those people, I throw out this challenge, in all earnestness: Write a book called “How Leftist American Values Can Help the World Triumph.”
I promise I won’t read it on a Kindle.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.