Dennis Prager is a popular and respected conservative radio talk show host, broadcasting since 1982 and nationally syndicated since 1999.
In his fifth book, Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph (Broadside Books) Prager maintains that the world must decide between American values and two oppositional alternatives: Islamism and European-style democratic socialism.
The reasons for America’s greatness lie in what he calls the American Trinity, imprinted on US coins: E Pluribus Unum, In God We Trust, and Liberty.
Q: A critic might say that the American Trinity, as you call it, is an oversimplification of American values.
A: I think that somebody who says that is trying to avoid defining American values for himself. At what number is it not an oversimplification? Is five okay? Eleven? What number would be okay?
The notion that there is no basic value system is far more incoherent or invalid than the notion that there are essential values. Every religion can tell you it has basic values. You ask a Christian, most Christians would say love God and love your neighbor. Is that the entirety of Christianity? No one in his right mind would say it is.
For Judaism, perhaps the most famous story in the second holiest book of Judaism, the Talmud, is about the non-Jew who goes over to two of the greatest Rabbis and asks them to summarize all of Judaism while standing on one leg. One of the Rabbis (Shammai) bats him away; he says it’s not possible. That would be the equivalent to the person who charged me with oversimplification. But the other Rabbi, considered the greatest Rabbi of the Talmud (Hillel), and the one that normative Judaism follows — whose response normative Judaism in fact reveres and accepts — says, in effect, no problem, and summarizes it as love your fellow. He says the rest is commentary, now go and study.
So it’s clear that every system has to have a way of summarizing its essence. Clarity demands the ability to simplify, but not to make simplistic.
Q: Does the left have an American trinity? What would it be?
A: I don’t try to put words in their mouths. A leftist would have to answer it, but it seems to me, if you were to ask them, they would say fairness, compassion, equality. Just off the top of my head, those are three terms that they would most probably offer; those are the three descriptions they articulate most often.
Q: Same sex marriage, abortion – why do conservatives focus on these, if they want government staying out of peoples’ lives?
A: No American conservative has ever argued that the government should never be involved in peoples’ lives. That is anarchy and we don’t argue for that. With regard to same-sex marriage, every society in history has defined marriage. Those who want same-sex marriage are just as big advocates of the government being involved in defining marriage as the right is. They just have a different definition. But they don’t allow brothers and sisters to marry, they don’t allow polygamy, which has a far longer history than same-sex marriage has in the history of the world. Everybody has always believed that society defines marriage.
And as regards abortion, the issue is not government involvement. The issue is, does the human fetus have any rights?
Q: Moving to foreign policy, Obama agreed to surge the troops in Afghanistan, contrary to what many believed to be a liberal position. When would a conservative adopt a liberal position?
A: There are surely times when a conservative and a liberal would agree. We would agree on how moral it is to discriminate on the basis of race. There’s absolutely no light between those two positions. It becomes a little more complex when you talk about law as opposed to morality. Because a conservative, or at least a libertarian conservative, might say it’s despicable to discriminate, but liberty trumps despicability. And so that’s where you have an honest and difficult difference. So for example as a Jew, I would say that anybody who had a country club that did not want to admit Jews, was a vile individual. Because America does not have a history of Nazism, I could not easily say that I would want the law to be that he could not do that. I would hope that decent non-Jews would boycott that country club, but I think my love of liberty is so great that if I have to suffer on occasion as a result of it, I still opt for it. So if you want to make a country club and ban me, because I’m too tall, or because I’m Jewish, or because I’m white, or because I’m not a vegetarian, whatever other reason you come up with, I think you should be allowed to. I believe in moral persuasion more than I do legal coercion.
Q: Is there any issue on which you lean towards liberalism?
A: I still think of myself as a classical liberal, even a John F. Kennedy liberal. Modern liberalism is almost indistinguishable from leftism, and I don’t find that I agree with the left on almost anything, and I can’t think off the top of my head where the size of government, taxation, foreign policy, or capital punishment, I would agree with the left.
Q: Why does the left have faith in the UN? Recently the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food just came to Canada, of all places. According to World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization, two thirds of the world’s hungry live in seven countries: Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan. And the initiative was sponsored by Iran, North Korea, China, Zimbabwe and Cuba.
A: One is hungrier than the next. The key word to the answer is found in your question – faith. To the left, as I point out in my book in the largest single section, leftism is a religion. It may be, for most of its adherents, a secular religion, but it’s a religion nonetheless. And so they have faith, they have faith in the United Nations. I guess this would be a little controversial, but those of us who believe in God, and I do, and believe in a good God and a just God, as I do, we do, even though the world is filled with horrible injustice. It always has been, and moments of divine interference are very few and far between, and yet we still believe in a good God. The left still believes in the United Nations, still believes in a world where profit motive will be, essentially, eliminated, and people will still produce a great deal. So despite all the evidence, leftists still believe in the United Nations.
The difference however is, UN creates policy, whereas belief in God is belief in God. It might be irrational to believe in God, despite all the world’s evil. It’s irrational to believe in the United Nations, despite its decades of failure, moral failure — it causes policy decisions, on a real-time basis. My non-rationality is confined to religiosity, whereas for the left, their non-rationality is this-world based, and therefore much more dangerous.
Q: They would say that at least their motive is pure and they are trying.
A: Yes, motives are key to the left. That’s why, no matter how much good the free market has done, they don’t like it much because it’s based on “greed.” Because profit motive is an incentive all the good it has done is dismissed, because of its allegedly base motives. Whereas in the case of the UN, motives are what count and not it’s a dismal failure. So whether you succeed or not doesn’t matter to the left. It’s what the left perceives to be your motives.
Q: You’re obviously a prominent Jewish voice. Many conservatives tend to ask why Jews tilt leftward. Why do they?
A: When Jews left Judaism, they didn’t stop being religious. They simply swapped God-based Judaism for Godless secular humanism and leftism. For left-wing Jews, Judaism is their ethnicity; leftism is their religion. Judaism does want Jews to make the world better. That’s the whole point of God choosing a people, to be a light unto the nations, and bring commandments to the world, and so on. So the left-wing Jew has retained the desire to make a better world, but has dropped God-based Judaism and ethical monotheism as the vehicles to do so, and has substituted leftism. That’s why, as one example, Judaism does not believe that people are basically good and never did, but most liberal and left Jews do.
Jews flocked to Marxism starting the late 19th century, becoming very leftwing. Russian Jews and other Jews thought nothing could be worse than the Czar. So if the Bolsheviks overthrew the Czar they had to be good. This was reinforced by Nazism, so that since the Nazis were nationalists – clearly racial nationalists – only nationalism threatened the Jews. So internationalism, they think, would ensure no more Auschwitzes.
Q: If the Torah were published for the first time today, what title would you give it?
A: Humanity’s Recipe for Goodness.
Q: What can Americans or those who believe in American values, do to promote American values?
A: Read my book. And then spread its ideas. You talk to your neighbors, your children, with these values. You have teachers teach them, so they teach character development instead of Al Gore’s global warming thesis to elementary students. Imagine if everyone who taught on the university level or high school level took a pill and woke up tomorrow as an ethical monotheist. Imagine the effect it would have on society.
Q: If there’s one trait that annoys you most about people, what is it?
A: Driving slow in the left lane. It’s not entirely comical. The reason that people drive slowly in the left lane are really the reasons for much of humanity’s problems. Number one, it’s a profound selfishness. They don’t care how their driving affects traffic. They like the lane. “It’s good for me, to hell with everybody else.” It represents a great lack of self awareness, indispensable to decency, to goodness, to character. The self-aware person knows how they are acting and how they are affecting others. The non-self aware person, also known as the narcissist, never considers how their behavior affects others. So it’s symbolic of very great moral problems.
Some people isolate their non-awareness to the road, but where it’s more than the road, it’s a major moral problem.
Q: People manifest their anger in the car, and their loss of self-control too.
A: As the Hebrew saying goes, you can judge a person by his behaviour in three matters: [in Hebrew] kiso, kaaso, and koso: His pocket, his cup and his anger – how a person acts in monetary matters, when he drinks and his emotions.
Q: The Hebrew Trinity of behavior?
A: Yeah, if you will. I’m a Trinity fan. The West is governed by Trinity.
The Christians have the father, son and the Holy Spirit. Jews have God, Torah and Israel. The leftist has race, gender and class. And the American is Liberty, In God We Trust and E Pluribus Unum.
Q: People often come up to you after your lectures and say they’re offended by something or other you’ve said. You’ve maintained that a person has a choice whether to be offended. You also say that words are “things” that can be thrown at people, they can hurt.
A: They’re not mutually exclusive. We do choose whether to be offended. For example, a pro-choice person who might hear a pro-life speaker might say they are offended. What they really should say is that they differ. They’ve chosen to be offended. If someone flips me off from another car, I choose whether or not to let that hurt me. There are times, however, when one says something hurtful to their spouse, my God, of course they’re going to be hurt. To a certain extent, we should allow who we allow to hurt us. My wife can hurt me, but a caller to my show can’t. It’s very important to remember.
Q: What modern psychology can tell us, is that, with enough testing, it can be determined some criminals cannot tell right from wrong. You’ve studied good and evil — do you think there are people who are innately, predisposed, hard-wired to do bad? In which case, are they devoid of free will?
A: Yes. I hate to admit it, but yes. I don’t have to wrestle with not hurting people. I don’t have a desire to do so. I don’t get any credit, I think, for not being mean. I don’t have a mean streak. On the other hand, I’m innately lazy. Every productive thing I do, I should be given some sort of medal. I work so hard to fight that trait. Some people have to fight their mean side. Those people, if they do, they’re better than others. The vast majority of men have to fight their desire to have extramarital sex. But most women don’t. So all things being equal, with a relatively decent marriage, men have to fight the urge to have sex with other women. You’ve got to give people credit for what they wrestle with. There are people who definitively have a proclivity for doing bad things.