Those who think Dennis Prager took a decade to write one book will find themselves mistaken upon picking up Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph. The 30-year talk radio veteran and longtime syndicated columnist actually delivers a trilogy of books mapping out the big ideological fights of today with greater clarity than anyone else.
Don’t let the 440 pages intimidate. The three books within Still the Best Hope are:
- 220 pages defining Leftism as a religion, explaining why its adherents embrace their beliefs, the techniques used to manipulate people into joining the political cult, and the price the world paid during the 20th century enduring the movement’s quests to remake the world.
- 70 pages defining Islam and Islamism, the relation between the two, and their moral record.
- And 80 pages — a single chapter — laying out America and Its Unique Values, as symbolized by three terms struck on our coins: “Liberty,” “In God We Trust,” and “E Pluribus Unum.” These pillars of American exceptionalism stand in opposition to the political theologies of Leftism and Islamism which value Equality over Liberty, Idolatry over God, and group rights over universal human rights.
Taken alone, each section stands as a succinct summary, analysis, and polemic. Even those already well-versed in the subject matter will appreciate Prager’s innovative arguments, precise research, respectful manner, and inviting prose voice. It’s a portable distillation of everything that makes The Dennis Prager Show so engaging each day.
Also making the leap from Prager’s radio program is an emphasis on a subject many would rather avoid: the effect political ideas have on the lives and personalities of those who embrace them.
Leftist ideas are not just wrong because they bankrupt governments but because the people who advocate for them suffer in their personal lives. One example Prager provides is how the messages young women hear about sex at college can lead them down paths they’ll later regret.
In grappling with the intellectual and cultural battles between Leftism, Islamism, and Americanism, it’s often easy to forget that real flesh and blood bodies try to put these theories into practice. Observe the connection between Barack Obama’s mother marrying two foreign-born men and her career as an anthropologist immersed in third-world cultural study and advocacy. Then consider the unhappiness that came as a result: both marriages ending in divorce and a young Barack Obama left to live a rudderless life leaping from one questionable father figure to another.
This piece of the pie should be considered when thinking about the challenge PJ Media’s CEO Roger L. Simon posed on May 9, when he lamented the frequency in which political blogging becomes little more than preaching to the choir:
What we really want is a way to get our message out to the other side so that they actually read and consider it.
The tragedy of democracy in our times is that this may no longer be possible. People do not want to be disturbed by opposing views. They don’t even want to think about them. Too much — life, careers, family, friends — is at stake. Why upend it for anything so mundane as the future of our country?
There are two competing components of Roger’s appeal: Yes, we want progressives to consider conservative ideas. But we also have the practical world in mind. We need to formulate arguments so people will wake up now, realize the dangerous economic and terrorist threats exacerbated by the Obama administration, and vote for Mitt Romney this fall.
Is that too much to ask for? Reading Still the Best Hope and its encyclopedic collection of arguments, some might be tempted to think Prager has crafted the ultimate tool for converting leftists to the Right. And just in time for the election too! They’d be wrong.
There are other, more effective ways to spread American values and set the country back on the right course other than through a single-minded focus on the Left vs. Right model. Here are 7 Reasons Why The Right Should Not Seek to Convert The Left. In laying out these points I’m going to: A) Show what happened when I presented some Prager-style arguments to a leftist. B) Propose strategies for how American values should be promoted today. C) Stress the importance of connecting the ideas of Still the Best Hope with the themes Prager developed in his previous books and I hope he pursues for his next. D) Present a buffet of ideas in a multimedia format combining text, image, and some of my favorite videos from Prager University.
For my first point, I’ll address the path to victory this fall before dealing with the bigger question of the problem with evangelizing conservatism in the remaining 6 points.
7. There are More Than Enough Apolitical People Out There Whose Minds Remain Unconquered by the Left.
With the yelling debates on the cable shows it’s easy to stumble into the belief that America is a “deeply divided” country. When looking at the numbers, though, actually only a small percentage of Americans participate in the Left vs. Right battle. There are plenty of other untapped pools of persuadable voters apart from those preset to oppose us.
Four facts about American political participation to keep in mind:
- Only about half of Americans vote for president.
- Just over a third of Americans vote in non-presidential elections.
- For the 2010 cycle, only 0.19% of the population donated $200 or more to a political candidate, party, or PAC. This group of donors accounted for 66.5% of the money received.
- In Septemer 2009 Pew polled on political participation in the previous 12 months. They selected 11 different political acts and found that 63% of Americans had engaged in at least one ranging in involvement from just signing a petition (32%) to attending an organized protest (4%.) Thus, the Pareto principle holds for politics too: “Taken together, 34% of all adults did one or two of the above activities this year, while an additional 16% took part in 3-4 activities. A highly-engaged 13% of Americans have taken part in five or more of these activities in the last year.”
- Only half of adults can name all three branches of government.
- Only 74% of Americans know that the United States declared independence from Great Britain.
- Only 54% can define “free enterprise.”
- Only 7% of Americans can name the first four presidents and only 30% know Thomas Jefferson was the third.
- 73% of Americans have no idea the United States fought communism during the Cold War.
Keep that last number in mind as I now explain six reasons for the futility of trying to shift others from Left to Right.
6. “You Cannot Reason Out What Was Not Reasoned In.” — often attributed to Jonathan Swift
Just because someone reads a book, it doesn’t mean they’re going to grasp what the author is saying.
From the dust jacket: “A Few Books Can Change The Way People Think. Still the Best Hope Is One of Them.”
But what if people don’t think? Or if they don’t even know how to think? What if they “think” with their heart or some other body part (like their skin or their genitals)? What good will Prager’s arguments be for them?
That’s the conundrum faced in trying to shift people from Left to Right through rational argument. When dealing with leftists, emotions sit on the throne. Often in dialogue they’ll say “I feel like you’re saying” and then spit back to you a garbled, straw-man version of what you actually said. You’ll regularly hear “I feel like” when they’re describing how they analyze some political issues. More rarely will you hear “I think.” This is a Freudian slip revealing that they’re not actually reasoning at all and are just ducking and weaving based on raw instinct.
A few weeks ago, like a smoker picking up a pack of cigarettes after a long hiatus, I returned to one of my bad habits: arguing with my old college friends about the political views that we no longer shared.
The Facebook friend whose name and image I’ve hidden with orange below is a graduate student who teaches math. During our undergraduate years we shared space on the college paper’s editorial page. When I graduated in 2006 he carried on the “Bush is a War Criminal,” “Republicans are Evil and Stupid” drum beat that I’d become known for in my 3 years as a weekly columnist.
Mr. Orange’s views have changed little since our college days. He never left the academic bubble, transitioning from undergrad to graduate school quickly. But I made the mistake of “going out into the real world.” The experiences of working two and a half years of “pay-the-bills” jobs was a chance to study capitalism and human nature up close in their natural habitats. Thus as I built up my freelance writing career part-time, I surrendered to one “conservative” understanding of life after another. When the opportunity presented itself to make the leap to full-time New Media troublemaker (an editorial position), it was for “right-wing” online publications. The ideas that I’d demonized and caricatured in college I’d now come to embrace.
So of course most of my progressive college pals defriended me. And I don’t blame them. Why would they want to hear my explanations for why I’d come to reject the views they still worshipped?
But to his credit, Mr. Orange has still stuck around, even though at times over the years our arguments have grown heated and personal. So when he posted one of the president’s propaganda images I saw an opportunity to give Prager’s arguments a test run and challenge my thesis. Is it really a waste of time to try and persuade leftists? I would try not to be too mean.
Little doubt where this was headed.
Yes, the color Pink is chosen intentionally to represent a friend of Mr. Orange. I had not encountered him before but soon he revealed himself as a history grad student working on his dissertation. He claimed to specialize in American slavery and it was not long into our conversation before he claimed mixed race parents but a black identity (as opposed to the bi-racial descriptor many with his background choose).
To demonstrate America’s racism, he presented this paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research that claims those with “black names” like Lakisha and Jamal have a harder time finding jobs because of racist whites. I knew just the book to pull out to answer this, the same one that had changed my mind years ago. Here’s the first of 10 Tips for How To Talk to a Marxist Who Thinks He’s a Liberal (If You Must)*.
Get used to feeding ideas into the meatgrinder of the progressive mind and getting mutilated caricatures of what you’re saying fed back to you. That’s what they need to do in order to continue avoiding the next point.
*Apologies to Ann Coulter for borrowing her title.
5. Evil Is Something That Cannot Be Explained to Those Who Do Not Know What It Is. It Can Only Be Experienced.
Be happy for your “liberal” friends. They’ve been blessed not to comprehend evil yet. They’re still living in the Garden of Eden. Good for them. Maybe they’ll be lucky and never have to put their ideas to the test. Maybe they’ll never experience what Irving Kristol talked about, what it means for a liberal to be “mugged by reality.” Maybe they’ll never have to look a real evil person in the eye and experience the pain they can cause.
I never understood or appreciated talk radio until encountering Los Angeles traffic. Being stuck inching on the 405 or backed up because of construction on Sepulveda Boulevard isn’t that bad when a skilled host is there, perhaps interviewing a world class intellectual about his new book.
When PJ Media managing editor Aaron Hanscom and I carpool into the office (usually once a week for meetings), we try to time our commute so it overlaps with Prager’s broadcast here in Los Angeles (from 9 AM to noon). One of our favorite features on the show is when Prager takes calls from progressives who air their disagreements with his “offensive” views. As we hear Prager respond to an irate caller and ask precise questions, we’ll swap stories of times when we’ve been in similar discussions with friends and family members. We’ll compare the things we’ve said and the incredulous or angry responses we get back. Here’s an example of the kind of calls Prager takes on his show:
The discussions usually end with Aaron and me stumped as we try and think of things we could say to persuade those who have no interest in being persuaded.
Then one day while driving in to work it hit me. As we were talking and Prager played in the background, the traffic moving at a reasonable pace, I said something like: “You know maybe we should just be happy for them that life hasn’t given them a kick in the ass yet. Do we really want them having the kinds of experiences we had that changed us? Do we really want them to understand the fact that there’s more dangerous problems in the world threatening their well-being than ‘climate change’ and the right to have your contraception paid for by somebody else?”
Here’s another excerpt from my debate with the history grad student (the guy who’s going to be teaching your kids about America if he isn’t already):
4. Today the Conservative Movement Lies Fragmented, Infiltrated, Compromised, and Corrupted.
How can we fully rebut the Left’s smears of the Right when there’s usually an element of truth to every attack?
Something to note in Prager’s terminology: he chooses “Americanism” not “Rightism” or “Conservatism.” This is an important distinction and one he mentioned in his interview with PJTV.
Conservatives and those on the American political Right may articulate American values, but these two interrelated (and not synonymous) movements are not based in promoting them. “The Right” in any country refers to the side of the political spectrum that embraces a nationalist identity over an internationalist one. Thus, among the American Right there are numerous nationalist tendencies, and they don’t all agree about just what it means to be an American — just that it’s important for us to be one. Likewise among those in William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Conservative movement” there’s a general agreement about “standing athwart history yelling stop,” and the need to conserve American greatness. But there’s plenty of disagreement about what really needs to be conserved and how to do it.
In Chapter 3 Prager discusses “Why the Left Succeeds.” His third point: demonization of the Right. He notes the frequency with which leftists employ charges of racism, homophobia, and other smears.
Beyond the scope of the book, though, is the reality of a Conservative movement that tolerates a whole host of individuals and ideas in direct opposition to the American values Prager describes.
Ann Coulter in March:
“And just a more corporate problem is I think our party and particularly our movement, the conservative movement, does have more of a problem with con men and charlatans than the Democratic Party,” she said. “I mean, the incentives seem to be set up to allow people — as long as you have a band of a few million fanatical followers, you can make money. The Democrats have managed to figure out how not to do that.”
And who are the crackpots at the edges who live up to the Left’s demonizations about bigotry, cronyism, rigid ideology, and selfishness?
- Antisemitic Paleo-Conservatives (Pat Buchanan)
- Admitted White Nationalist Racists who write well
- Anti-American and Antisemitic Anarcho-Capitalists and Paleo-Libertarians (Ron Paul’s cult reviving the ideas of the Old Right) who see nothing wrong with Iran going nuclear
- Conspiracy Theorists making a fast buck peddling Birtherism and other nonsense like the US merging with Canada and Mexico
- People who really do Hate Gay People and are just using opposition to gay marriage as cover for their bigotry
- Stealth Jihadists Subverting the GOP’s Commitment to a Foreign Policy of Peace through Strength (See the Center for Security Policy’s full dossier on Grover Norquist and his protege Suhail Khan here.)
- Theocrats (Exhibit A: Those who refuse to support Mitt Romney because he’s a Mormon.)
- Anti-Abortion Fanatics (Not the same as sane, pro-life activism that aims to change hearts through love and reason rather than shock and judgment.)
- Narcissists who want to Turn Themselves into a Brand so they can transform their political connections into Greek cruises and large credit accounts at Tiffany’s.
- Corporatists who peddle influence.
All these groups and tendencies compete within “the Right” and “the Conservative movement” for money, power, and converts. And their roots go too deep to be upended.
3. Embracing American Values Does Not Require One to Join “the Right” or to Convert to Some Ideology Called “Conservatism.”
We don’t like to say it much in the conservative blogosphere but it’s true: you can still be a Democrat and live American values. The number of Blue Dog Democrats may be dwindling and Joe Lieberman may be an independent, but the patriotic, non-Marxists do still have a sizable presence even though right now the Soros-funded Alinskyites run the show.
In advocating for American values we’re really not asking for much. I can tolerate a pretty wide range of thought from my progressive friends. But everyone should be able to recognize that the Nation of Islam is a racist, antisemitic cult — and therefore has no place in our civic life. We have to at least be able to agree on the boundaries of discourse before we can make progress on much else.
Conversations about the self-evident unconstitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate are a long way away from where we actually need to start today. This is how low the moral bar needs to be set: having to explain why murdering political opponents disqualifies an organization from a place of respect in the culture.
Roger again, thinking about approaches for reaching through to the other side:
One tactic might be to take a more psychoanalytic/emotional rather than a logical/ideological tack. Look for areas where there is unconscious agreement. In some Hollywood movies, as my colleague Lionel Chetwynd recently pointed out, the film’s message is conservative even though its creators believe it to be liberal. (Lionel was speaking of The Hunger Games in which the masses are ruled by oppressive know-it-all elites who seem much like progressives taken to the next level.)
This approach argues for abandoning buzz words (conservative, liberal, progressive, libertarian) and focusing on issues. Hollywood filmmakers aren’t the only ones who espouse conservative ideas when they don’t identify them with the “c” word.
But even if this is a good idea, it’s not easy to execute and does not necessarily translate into votes. And votes are what are necessary for change in this epoch.
It’s not easy to come up with new ways to frame American values apart from the Left/Right, Liberals/Conservatives models. So maybe the answer isn’t to go forward with a new map, but to take the oldest one and apply it to today in a new way.
2. Left Vs. Right Is not the Fight That Has Gripped Humanity Since Ancient Times.
To see the direction America’s defenders need to go we should look backwards at Prager’s previous books and forward to the one I hope he writes next.
One map is rarely adequate for anything but the simplest tasks. While Still the Best Hope provides an important service in mapping out the intellectual contest between Leftism, Islamism and their war to destroy Americanism, there’s a problem if one relies solely on it. By focusing exclusively on thinking about the fight as Americanism vs. Leftism and Islamism, we don’t realize other threats. We focus only on the enemy as something apart from us. As something “out there.” We rationalize ignoring threats within our own movement and we neglect defeating our own internal demons.
And so for this point and the next I’ll connect Still the Best Hopes with three other streams of Prager’s thought, and argue for understanding them in an integrated fashion. In addition to his analysis of political ideology and values, Prager also offers engaging thinking on three other subjects: Judaism, the differences between male and female sexuality, and the way to lead a happy life.
As much as I appreciate Still The Best Hope, if I had to pick one Prager book to air-drop copies of all around the world then it would be Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism, which he co-wrote with his best friend Joseph Telushkin. (See also their first book, Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.)
Why the Jews explains the uniqueness of antisemitism and its root. Why do we find the hatred of the Jews as such a universal? What is it about the Jews that unites the radical Left, the paleo-Right, orthodox Islam, cults like the NOI and the KKK, and fringe pseudo-Catholic fundamentalists like Mel Gibson?
They hate what the Jews brought into the world: ethical monotheism. If you read only one Prager article, make it his summary of ethical monotheism, a key portion of which I’m including below:
Monotheism means belief in “one God.” Before discussing the importance of the “mono,” or God’s oneness, we need a basic understanding of the nature of God.
The God of ethical monotheism is the God first revealed to the world in the Hebrew Bible. Through it, we can establish God’s four primary characteristics:
1. God is supranatural.
2. God is personal.
3. God is good.
4. God is holy.
Dropping any one of the first three attributes invalidates ethical monotheism (it is possible, though difficult, to ignore holiness and still lead an ethical life).
God is supranatural, meaning “above nature” (I do not use the more common term “supernatural” because it is less precise and conjures up irrationality). This is why Genesis, the Bible’s first book, opens with, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” in a world in which nearly all people worshipped nature, the Bible’s intention was to emphasize that nature is utterly subservient to God who made it. Obviously, therefore, God is not a part of nature, and nature is not God.
It is not possible for God to be part of nature for two reasons.
First, nature is finite and God is infinite. If God were within nature, He would be limited, and God, who is not physical, has no limits (I use the pronoun “He”” not because I believe God is a male, but because the neuter pronoun “It” depersonalizes God. You cannot talk to, relate to, love, or obey an “It.”).
Second, and more important, nature is amoral. Nature knows nothing of good and evil. In nature there is one rule—survival of the fittest. There is no right, only might. If a creature is weak, kill it. Only human beings could have moral rules such as, “If it is weak, protect it.” Only human beings can feel themselves ethically obligated to strangers.
Thus, nature worship is very dangerous. When people idolize nature, they can easily arrive at the ethics of Nazism. It was the law of nature that Adolf Hitler sought to emulate—the strong shall conquer the weak. Nazism and other ideologies that are hostile to ethical monotheism and venerate nature are very tempting. Nature allows you to act naturally, i.e., do only what you want you to do, without moral restraints; God does not. Nature lets you act naturally – and it is as natural to kill, rape, and enslave as it is to love.
In light of all this, it is alarming that many people today virtually venerate nature. It can only have terrible moral ramifications.
One of the vital elements in the ethical monotheist revolution was its repudiation of nature as god. The evolution of civilization and morality have depended in large part on desanctifying nature.
Civilizations that equated gods with nature—a characteristic of all primitive societies—or that worshipped nature did not evolve.
If nature is divine, and has a will of its own the only way for human beings to conquer disease or obtain sustenance is to placate it – through witchcraft, magic, voodoo, and/or human sacrifice.
One of ethical monotheism’s greatest battles today is against the increasing deification of nature, movements that are generally led (as were most radical ideologies) by well educated, secularized individuals.
When you’re a child first learning Bible stories in Sunday school, they can’t tell you the truth about what was actually going on in human societies in the Middle East 4000+ years ago. When you watch The 10 Commandments, the sequences where the Israelites start worshipping the golden calf just resemble a big, swinging party. They’re always vague about Sodom and Gomorrah. That’s because to depict what was actually happening in the world at the time you’d need a XXX-rating. And it just so happens that such films have been made today. One of the worst movies of all time, Caligula staring Malcolm McDowell as the mad emperor, depicts what happens when people engage in Idolatry. And it’s not sexy or erotic or fun. Instead you get wall-to-wall incest, torture, murder, and rape. Sex and violence are a unified force in the natural world. From the Praying Mantis biting her mate’s head off in the act to male lions cannibalizing the cubs of previous males — the natural world is a terrifying place. In worshipping animals or any aspect of nature, then human beings replicate that destructive impulse in their own lives.
That’s what the Bible is really about, though we don’t like to talk about it because it’s so disgusting and scary: the ancient Israelites’ battle against nature-worshiping sex cults that practiced human sacrifice. I always wondered why idol-worship was so important as to be above things like murder and stealing in the 10 Commandments. Aren’t those much worse than someone just praying to a rock? Nope. The Commandments are just listed in the order that they’re broken. Idolatry — worshipping an image, worshipping a noun — comes before any other evil act. Within the ethical monotheist tradition, God is not a thing we can comprehend. God is transcendent — God is a verb. Thus to worship God is to worship a verb — to transform into understanding ourselves as a state of permanent change and growth, not a static, defined image.
The male tendency to become absorbed by images is something built into us by nature, Prager argues in this video from Prager University on the power of the visual to the male:
Every man has a choice to make not just intellectually but sexually between idolatry and ethical monotheism. What does the man do with the snake between his legs? It’s the same choice the ancient Israelites faced over and over again: The animal thrill of holy prostitution with Ishtar, Astarte, Aphrodite or any sex goddess (nouns) vs. living based around the transcendent experience of a lifelong commitment to love one person in marriage (verb).
Does a man live his life seducing a new woman each week? Or does he commit himself to his wife? Does he fritter away his sexual energy fulfilling his lusts, or does he develop some self-control to transform his passion into creating and supporting a large family? (It is this subject — which Prager addresses regularly on his radio show — I hope he explores more for his next book. See the essays in Think A Second Time for more of the arguments he’s already made.)
Do we let our animal natures control us or do we take responsibility for becoming mature adults? We see this question answered in the lives of those who have sought the presidency and the families they brought along with them:
The image of oneself as a persecuted minority is one form of idolatry challenging the American value of a Rule of Law which applies equally to all.
1. What Really Changes Leftist Hearts and Minds Is Not Words but Acts.
Just being a good person living a happy life will do more to shift your leftist friends than you can ever know. The way to be a good person is through imitating God. Note: one does not need to believe in God in order to imitate God. (Though as an agnostic theist I recommend both.) More important than what you think you are is what you are doing and how you are doing it. A person’s actions and their practical effects are more important than his intentions or beliefs in doing them. More important than believing in God is struggling with Him. You have to fight to rise up beyond your animal nature. That’s what “Israel” means — to wrestle with God. A very different way of finding happiness rather than through submission to an idol.
Prager’s previous book is Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual. In it and the video summary above, this insight from Abraham Lincoln sets the foundation:
People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.
There are more American trinities than just Liberty, E. Pluribus Unum, and In God We Trust. Another appears in our founding documents:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
The most persuasive case that someone on the Right can make to try and convert someone on the Left is this: you’re unhappy and you’re looking for answers. And right now it’s very tempting to blame other people for causing your unhappiness. But by doing that you’re only going to perpetuate how unhappy you are. Because when you decide to take responsibility for making yourself happy then it means you are no longer a slave to anyone or anything. Your own happiness is not dependent on anyone else. Idol-worship and image-worship is not necessary for happiness. You are capable of developing yourself into a successful, happy person. Just take responsibility for your life and in America you can begin to create the life you want.
This was an important understanding central to the Enlightenment thought that forged America. People wanted to take control of their own lives and not have a tyrannical government mandating how to worship. We have the capability and responsibility as individuals to gain control of our moods and our animal nature. By doing that we can be the masters of our own destiny, exploring whatever facet of human life we want. We can conquer our demons instead of being ruled by them. That’s the fight and it’s waged from the Bible to the ballot box to the family dinner table and inside each of our minds.
In imitating God-as-a-Verb, Genesis 1:3 takes on new meaning and can be understood in a secular fashion:
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
The battle is between idolatry and illumination. Between those who submit to the random irrationality of Nature and those who have felt the Sun strike their face outside of Plato’s cave and realized that all of us are capable of bringing more light into this world just through willing it into existence. When we speak to enlighten others who are down and we commit to being presences bringing happiness and warmth into this world, then gradually that is what we will become.
If you enjoyed this article, check out my previous In Depth blogging series exploring the ideas of Barack Obama’s mentor Derrick Bell, the founder of Critical Race Theory: