April 18, 2012
A man and a book
Next Tuesday, the culmination of one man’s life and thought will be published.
I am that man. And the book is “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins).
As this is my first book in 12 years, I hope readers will allow me this personal column to explain why I wrote it.
When I was about 11 years old, my family was watching the popular TV documentary show “The Twentieth Century,” narrated by Walter Cronkite. That evening’s subject was Nazism, and when Hitler appeared I asked my parents who he was. “He was a very bad man,” they said. “He killed 6 million Jews.”
That was my first encounter with massive evil, and I was never again to be the same person. I became obsessed with good and evil — specifically why people engage in evil, and how to fight them.
That obsession has never left me. The only change that occurred did so later, in high school, when I broadened my preoccupation to include why people do good and how to make good people. (I knew from Judaism — and had sensed instinctively — that people are not naturally good.)
That hatred of evil led me, as early as my late teenage years, to hate communism as well as Nazism. And because the Nazis had been vanquished years before I was born, I studied and tried to fight communism. I engaged in the former by doing my graduate work in Communist Affairs at the Russian Institute at Columbia University’s School of International Affairs. And I began the fighting part when I was 21: The Israeli government sent me to the Soviet Union to bring Jewish items to Soviet Jews, to learn as much as I could about their situation, and, most important, to bring out names of Jews who wanted to leave and go to Israel.
This preoccupation with good and evil also led me to fall in love with Judaism. I have always regarded Judaism as, more than anything else, preoccupied with goodness. As the Tanakh tells us, “Those who love God must hate evil.” Judaism, almost alone among religions, believes that all of humanity is judged solely by its behavior rather than by its faith.
As it happened, I never found loving God easy (precisely because of how much evil and unjust suffering there is), but hating evil came quite naturally.
That hatred of evil explains nearly every position I take. Perhaps my biggest difference with the left is over this issue. Whereas I believe we humans should be preoccupied with combatting evil (and I believe God, the Bible and Judaism want that as well), the left, from its inception until this moment, has been preoccupied with combatting something else: material inequality.
I have never regarded material inequality — unless arrived at immorally, as it is in much of the Third World — as evil. Regarding people’s material status, two things should disturb us: a lack of opportunity to improve one’s material well-being and a poverty that is so bad that it deprives people of all dignity and hope. Neither condition has been prevalent in American life in my lifetime. On the contrary, America has been the greatest opportunity-giving society ever created.
More than that, I came to realize that I was living in the very country that had best figured out how to make a better world. But it was not until midlife that I came to understand the specific values that lay at the basis of this magnificent American achievement.
Emptying my pockets before going to sleep one night, I looked at the coins in my pocket and saw what I have come to call “The American Trinity”: “Liberty,” “In God We Trust” and “E Pluribus Unum” (“From Many, One”).
No other country has proclaimed these three values as its primary values.
“Liberty” means the individual must be as free as possible. And this is only possible with a government that is as small as possible. Because the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.
“In God We Trust” means that a good society is only possible when the great majority of its citizens feel morally accountable to a morally demanding and morally judging God. If men are to be free, they must control themselves. And if a moral religion doesn’t control them, the state will end up doing so. That is largely why as America and Europe have become more and more secular, the state has become more and more powerful.
“E Pluribus Unum” means that whatever one’s race or ethnicity, everyone who becomes a citizen of America is to be regarded first and foremost as a fellow American. This explains why America assimilates people of every background more rapidly and successfully than any other country in the world.
These magnificent American values are applicable to virtually every society in the world. They are, I now understand, the solution to the problem of good and evil that has preoccupied me since childhood.
But Americans cannot export values they do not themselves know or believe in. And that is why I have devoted so many years to writing “Still the Best Hope.” Because Abraham Lincoln was right when he said that America is the “last best hope on earth.” It was true in 1862. It is true today.
Dennis Prager’s book “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” will be released by HarperCollins on April 24. He will be discussing the book on “Hannity” on Fox News that evening. For more information about related appearances, including one May 1 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library, visit this column at jewishjournal.com