“Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky
Perhaps the best explanation for the Nostradamus-like talents of Fyodor Dostoevsky can be found in this telling quote from a personal letter he sent a friend upon embarking on a career as a writer. Old Fyodor was an astute student of the human condition, but his motivation did not stem simply from academic purposes or from the fact that he wanted something, like political power.
Dostoevsky, believe it or not, actually valued life and wanted to live it more fully. He sought to realize his own purpose and function, and then to share his findings. He believed that just because we can’t know everything about our existence and the ongoing tale of humanity does not mean we cannot know anything. Nearly all of us say we want to find answers; most prematurely resign from the hunt.
Fyodor never did. And as a result, his novels remain as relevant today as they were 150 years ago.
In the first half of this essay on the 20th century sociopolitical nightmares that Dostoevsky predicted in his novels, we identified three specific areas of the culture that the great Russian writer correctly foresaw would suffer under the rise of secularism and socialism: the institution of the family, the private religion of the people, and the value such a nation puts on human life.
Today we will take a peek under the hood of three more important areas of society that would ultimately sit under judgment of the prophetic pronouncements Dostoevsky made in his impressive body of work:
- Economics of Envy: The War on Private Property
- Idolizing the Intellectual: The War on Higher Education
- and Social Engineering: The War on the Individual
Few people in the last 200 years understood human nature and mankind’s fallen state quite like Dostoevsky. His uncanny abilities to dissect the pathology of a killer or the spiritual joy of a contented Russian peasant have inspired generations of writers, thinkers, and even psychologists for a century and a half.
But more than simply being an insightful novelist on the human condition, Dostoevsky turned out to be a truly prophetic voice in his predictions of the dangerous and deadly places where certain ideologies and philosophies popular at the time would lead his beloved Russia in particular, and the modern Western world in general.
In the course of a number of his books – The Devils (aka The Possessed) and The Brothers Karamazov, for example – he foretold of the coming socioeconomic and geopolitical nightmares that awaited 20th century societies that would adopt progressivism, nihilism, and socialism as their guiding principles. His words carry with them a deeper weight since Dostoevsky lived during his youth as a progressive ideologue eventually sentenced first to death and then, after a mock execution meant to “get his attention,” to four years of hard labor in Siberia.
He returned a deeply religious man and, after spending a few years in Europe investigating the teachings of leading Western intellectuals, a vehement anti-socialist.
In describing the underlying motivations of the young, radical, rabble-rousing character Peter Verkhovensky in The Devils, Dostoevsky said:
He’s a kind, well-meaning boy, and awfully sensitive…But let me tell you, the whole trouble stems from immaturity and sentimentality! It’s not the practical aspects of socialism that fascinate him, but its emotional appeal – its idealism –what we may call its mystical, religious aspect – its romanticism…and on top of that, he just parrots other people.
Only someone who has known the “other side” of the psychological lines, commiserating among those who wish to tear civilizations and their institutions down from within, can write with such creative specificity.
But again, Dostoevsky’s strength remains the predictive quality of his novels. He identified the strategies the Left would use in the 20th century and their final destinations. Three of these nightmare prophecies stand out: the war on the family, the replacement of old theistic religions for a new (thoroughly secular) one, and the extermination of millions of citizens on behalf of “the cause.”
Like peanut butter and jelly, like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager were meant to be together. Their on-air, on-stage chemistry works because it was meant to work. It’s supposed to work.
I am simply the one who made it all happen.
But unlike a coming together of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and a tall glass of cold milk, the union of the foul-mouthed atheist comedian Carolla and the erudite religious conservative Prager was not something as plain as the delicious smell wafting into the nose on your face. There was preparation and man-hours involved. There is a backstory.
Here it comes.
In 2005, while sitting on the roof of a house whose shutters I was painting to make some side cash during my senior year of college, I heard for the first time the commanding voice and demonstrable wisdom of Dennis Prager. In spite of the poor sound quality my small boombox offered, I heard the intellectual mentor for whom I’d been searching. Although the work I was doing at that exact moment was mundane and thoughtless, the monologue Prager unfurled had a zeal and depth that made one want to drop the paintbrush in order that he might go read an important book or start a charity or help an old lady cross the street.
Or, at the very least, do the best job of painting a shutter that one possibly could.
Like greater men such as Andrew Breitbart and David Mamet before me, I “found” Dennis in much the same way Gary Cooper in Sergeant York “found” religion.
To be fair to the Cooper-Breitbart-Mamet analogy, conservatism already coursed through my veins, but up to that point my political appetite had been fed primarily by the red meat served up daily on cable news shows and in Sean Hannity’s books. I believe in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, and so please understand that I mean no disrespect to any of the fine people who represent my values in the media, but it was then, finally, that I heard in Dennis’ presentation a voice of strength and breadth and insight that I had secretly craved.
A man of substance. A man of thoughtful inquiry. A man of big ideas.
This was my introduction to what I affectionately call “Prager Conservatism,” and from that point until today I haven’t gone more than a few days without listening to his nationally syndicated radio show or reading his discerning weekly columns. Eventually, after graduating from college, my friends and I began hosting “Prager Hour” nights twice a month where a bunch of guys in their 20s would come over, enjoy a cigar if they so chose, hear a pre-selected segment or two of The Dennis Prager Radio Show’s podcast, and engage in lively discussion and debate for a couple of hours. Dennis was Obi-wan to our band of Luke Skywalkers.
Thankfully none of us have had our hands chopped off with a light-saber by a scary man who claims to have sired us…yet!
If you claim to care about the state of American public education and don’t see the new Daniel Barnz film Won’t Back Down, please find the nearest child in your general vicinity and apologize to them for being a part of the problem.
Then go and find Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, and the ghost of Jack Lemmon to let them know that Hollywood has finally produced a new film that will replace The China Syndrome, the feel-good film of the ’70s that got nuclear energy banned. If we play our cards right, Won’t Back Down will become the movie that could become the one teachers and professors reference when discussing the positive impact pop culture can have on public policy. More on this in a minute.
There are two reasons behind my overwhelming endorsement of the movie which opened nation-wide last week.
The first is simple: It’s a really well-made, well-acted, well-crafted piece of cinema.
Writer/Director Barnz has assembled an excellent cast — Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Holly Hunter — and constructed a compelling story about the crisis in education. Set in the inner city of Pittsburgh, Won’t Back Down chronicles two mothers’ (Gyllenhaal and Davis) seemingly Sisyphean task of taking on the teachers’ unions.
Gyllenhaal’s feisty character is Jamie Fitzpatrick, a single mom who works multiple jobs to provide for her young daughter, a 2nd grade student at John Adams Elementary who suffers from dyslexia. Davis deftly portrays Nona Alberts, a world-weary teacher at the same school who wallows in a toxic mixture of disgust and mounting guilt over a broken system and her own second-best effort in the classroom.
Neither woman is perfect, but both desperately want the quintessential American dream for their kids: a dynamic education that will lead to better lives than their own.
Holly Hunter plays a conflicted union boss who serves as the on-screen voice of the average American who sees and hears about the failures of public education, but isn’t quite sure how to remedy it.
While the film is a tad bit predictable in its “David vs. Goliath” template, Won’t Back Down breathes new life into the under-dog story audiences appreciate. Barnz’ storytelling abilities grab and hold your attention for the entire 121 minutes, and if the subject matter weren’t so “controversial” in the progressively hallowed hills of Hollywood, someone from the project would have a serious shot at an Oscar nod.